Grindhouse theater was a big underground movement in the 1970s. Cheaply made, extreme movies of graphic violence or exploitation were all the rage, but rarely was one such film remembered beyond the double feature run time. In 1974, using the grindhouse model, Tobe Hooper took the formula beyond the late show with Texas Chainsaw Massacre a modern horror classic that has had as lasting impact on the genre as a whole as any other film. In 2003 Marcus Nispel released a remake of the classic that was instantly dismissed as unnecessary and far inferior to the original. Was this criticism justified? I’ll give some of the verdict away when I state no, it wasn’t and in many ways the remake expands on the original’s concepts making a quite a good remake.
The Plot: The plot for both of these movies is iconic and simple. A group of teenagers on a desolate Texas highway pick up a hitchhiker who derails their trip, which is further derailed when they make a stop and run into a bunch of crazy locals and a chainsaw wielding madman known as “Leatherface.” The set up in both movies is simple enough to set up the future events and doesn’t really get in the way of the brutality later on. The differences are the hitchhiker picked up in the original is a psycho who later turns out to be one of the groups harassers and in the remake she is a victim of the crazed townsfolk who commits suicide in front of them, foreshadowing the despair the group will soon feel. Both set ups work in their environments and time periods without dragging the story down too much.
The Original – The original movie features the lead teens, Jerry his girlfriend Pam, Kirk, Sally, and Sally’s brother Franklin. The maniacs are the hitchhiker, the Old Man, the Grandfather, and Leatherface. The villains in this movie turn out to be cannibals, kidnapping people to cook and eat them. Their house is disturbing and just their interactions are unsettling, even before you know the depths of their depravity. The problem is, with the possible exception of the Old Man and Leatherface when he’s in kill-mode, I have a hard time thinking of a group of more annoying characters to appear in a single film. This is especially true for the hitchhiker, whose “unsettling” appearance really just grated endlessly on my nerves and Franklin. Franklin is the most unpleasant character this side of Joey the chocolate bar kid in Friday 13th: A New Beginning with the difference being how much Franklin appears in the film. His petulant attitude and aggravating persona is one of my biggest problems in the film. His brutal chainsaw death makes it almost worth dealing with.
The Remake – The characters aren’t altogether outstanding or memorable, but they aren’t nearly as overwhelmingly annoying as in the first film. They also feel slightly less like cartoon caricatures but certainly fit all the clichés. We have the troublemaker guy Morgan, the good guy who’s a bit of a renegade Kemper, the tough guy Andy, and panicky girl pepper, and the straight-laced (aka “final”) girl Erin. They have some nice, if unnecessary backstories among them, like the engagement between Erin and Kemper and the “getting pot” plot line (which the same director appears to be obsessed with as it also makes an even more central appearance in his Friday 13th remake) but they add to a bit of world building and depth. The villains are where this film really shines. The creepy towns folk aren’t anything as extreme as the cannibals in the first film, they’ve been brought a bit more “reality” by making them just cruel, disgusting, evil people. And it is in the remake villains we find the greatest character in both films, and no not Leatherface . We’re talking R. Lee Ermey as Sheriff Hoyt. His character is easily one of the best in modern horror history. Certainly since the new millennium. He’s cruel but funny, you hate him but can’t wait for him to get more screen time, and he’s quotable as hell. Ermey easily steals the show from everyone, including Leatherface. This is no mean feat considering this film features the extremely lovely Jessica Biel running around in the world’s greatest costume through a lot of water.
What Works and What Doesn’t:
The Original – What works best in the original is what they didn’t show. For a movie with such a terrifically gruesome title there is very little gore. The sites are desolate and the kills all implied. This is something modern horror would do well to get back to. Watching a massive man in a skin mask appear from nowhere, crack someone on their head and watch them spasm as he drags them off screen and slams a metal door is extremely effective. Even the chainsaw massacring isn’t graphic, showing things in silhouette, or slightly out of frame. What doesn’t work to me is stylistic taste… There is a ton of repetition in this film. For example: “Hit her Grandpa!”-Sally Screaming;-Grandpa drops the hammer. “Hit her Grandpa!”-Sally Screaming;-Grandpa drops the hammer. “Hit her Grandpa!”-Sally Screaming;-Grandpa drops the hammer. Scenes of people laughing or acting weird cut to close ups of victims screaming or gasping go on and on. Also there are several times the movie has somewhat of an “art house” feel where we slowly just look at sets or scenes. And it has the same problem I had with Dawn of the Dead where stalling is used to increase tension, as someone staggers around or reacts painfully slowly, which has the effect on me of frustration rather than tension building.
The Remake – The tone and environment of the remake are well done. It actually feels just as desolate but like a more “real” place. My mother, who was stationed in Texas, actually said driving around back country Texas roads you see all kinds of places like that and people who could fit in here. The characters also seem more real and the situation, where a hitchhiker commits suicide in their van after they pick her up, immediately heightens tension and gives the kids a reason to be stranded. Leatherface is actually much more intimidating this this film and the chase in the final quarter of the film is one of the best. Erin is also a much more resourceful and likable character than Sally, as she fights hard, tries to save friends, and makes sacrifices to get away while trying to stop the evil of her pursuers. The flaws are so cliché the fact that I’m pointing them out is cliché… Characters are dumb, and do lots of stupid things. Cars don’t start or fall apart. There are a number of cheap jump scares, including the classic possum-in-the-locker trick, and the kills aren’t as creative and a little more “torturey” than the effective implied violence of the original. I will say they do seem to “fit” the world so there doesn’t seem to be as much Saw-style exploitation.
The Verdict: I’m prepared for this and steeled myself for the backlash… I prefer the remake. The original reminds me of Star Wars. It’s a progenitor of things to come that people have a nostalgic attachment to pushing its value beyond its actual quality. Horror fans think they are supposed to like it, and it has a number of merits. But like I said in my Dawn of the Dead review “liking” a film is visceral. I find the original unpleasant to watch, not because of the content but because of its execution. Many filmmakers have praised its style for being “raw” but to me it feels “sloppy,” and while I understand this was a stylistic choice popular in the early to mid-70s it isn’t one I personally am a fan of. With the repetition, painfully unlikable characters, shrill sound design, slow pace, and dirty execution I find the original a better film to “study” than enjoy. It’s interesting to see a genesis of ideas and what came out of them but not one I’d sit and watch more than once. The remake took the great ideas of the original and made a fun modern horror movie. It’s tense, well-shot, well-acted, and adds new elements while staying true, never trying to one up the original and honoring it where it can. For those who hate the remake I say give it a watch with new eyes and enjoy it without prejudice. It’s a great horror movie and well-deserving of the Texas Chainsaw name.