To put it simply, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of horror’s shining moments. Combining a gritty, realistic setting with gruelling tension, it managed to convey unprecedented levels of terror without showing a huge amount of violence on-screen, a masterful achievement that proves particularly challenging in horror cinema. The film’s 2003 remake, directed by Marcus Nispel, never hits the heights of the original, but is still one of the stronger big-budget horror remakes that we’ve seen.
The most satisfying addition in this remake is the nuanced changes which Nispel makes: as mentioned, the previous four Texas Chainsaw films are notoriously low on on-screen violence, and this remake’s decision to include such brutality is welcomed. The terror of Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) is conveyed wonderfully thanks to the horrendous actions that audiences watch him commit, and it helps make this incarnation of Leatherface very threatening. In previous entries of the franchise – including the original – Leatherface was frightening, but never a visceral threat, mainly due to his lumbering movements and inaccuracy in attacking victims, but this different take, wherein he’s shown killing teens in a very bloody manner, is refreshing.
While Nispel opts to take Leatherface in a different direction, a lot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sticks to the path laid by Hooper’s original. Worth commending is the setting and design of the Texas landscape: the film is set in 1973, and everything from the costumes to vehicles are reminiscent of the era. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deserves credit for committing to its setting, something which other entries – including 2013’s underwhelming Texas Chainsaw – fail to accomplish. That said, some of the performances and characterisations are less complicit with the time period, with Eric Balfour’s Kemper especially feeling like he was plucked straight out of 2003.
On the whole, when the film deviates from the trajectory of the 1974 original, it suffers most. The cast of teens, led by Jessica Biel’s Erin, are nowhere near as likeable and fleshed-out as the originals, and this can be attributed to the bare-bones screenplay from Scott Kosar, which devotes little time to getting to know these characters and their interpersonal relationships. The standout performer is indisputably Full Metal Jacket‘s R. Lee Ermey as Sheriff Hoyt, portraying a truly hateful secondary antagonist, and proving to be one of this remake’s best new ideas. The backstory of the Hewitt family – this remake’s version of the group of cannibals – is very underwhelming, with the script telling us next to nothing about who they are and why they commit the actions they do. A knowledge of the original is certainly required to fully understand the motivations here, which is a shame. Also missing is the iconic ‘dinner table’ scene, which is something of a staple for Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. While the decision to deviate from the formula must be commended, its alternative – a bland and formulaic showdown in a shack next to the meat factory – is incredibly underwhelming.
While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre leans far too heavily on horror movie tropes that the original helped create, its attempts to try something new in a franchise that sticks too closely to its predetermined formula is worthy of praise, even if the execution is flawed. This remake is a different kind of scary to the original – it is atmospheric in a more dingy, dreadful sense, as opposed to the original, wherein the real-life grittiness made it such a compelling watch. Yet despite this, this remake contains potentially the most frightening and disturbing scene in the franchise: the final scene, where Leatherface – looking more menacing and devilish than ever before – murders two investigating officers. The film’s final shot – Leatherface, shrouded in darkness, with a demented grin on his masked face – certainly fits in with the terror of Hooper’s original.
Overall, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre follows the path of most horror remakes: solid, but far too formulaic and dull, and unable to live up to the original’s splendours. Its attempts to try something new aren’t always successful, but it mostly succeeds in translating a genre classic into a contemporary horror romp – but not necessarily a good one. It’s better and more inventive than most of the sequels, but of course, doesn’t even compare to Tobe Hooper’s breathtaking original.