One of my favorite aspects of the old Fangoria Weekend of Horror shows was that they always kicked off the convention with a slew of upcoming horror movie trailers. In the days long before you could simply watch these previews on the Internet, you’d have to plan accordingly, make sure you take an early enough train into the city so that you wouldn’t miss the trailer reel show which was always first on the itinerary for Fango cons. And I’ll never forget when the very first teaser trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake played in front of a packed audience. It was the one dubbed “the Michael Bay teaser” on the eventual DVD release, which was primarily a black screen and the sound of a girl hiding in a closet before we hear a chainsaw erupt to life and tear a hole in the door & in turn the movie screen. We get a quick 2 second glimpse of Leatherface and that’s it. When it was over, the entire audience booed.
This was 2002-2003 and you have to remember that not too many horror “classics” had been remade yet. The memory of the shot-for-shot Psycho remake was still fresh in every one’s mind and none of us wanted to see that happen to yet another one of our beloved horror classics! But ready or not, a remake of Chainsaw was coming and the fellow behind the blockbuster Bad Boys movies was responsible. Needless to say, horror fans myself included were extremely skeptical. But I think for a lot of us, we were pleasantly surprised by the final product when the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake finally opened in theaters in the fall of 2003. It was a different and unique enough story that only borrowing small elements from the original, and it didn’t shy away from the graphic violence or material that a title like that would imply. In other words, it turned out to be way better than most people were expecting.
Revisiting it now almost 10 years later, I don’t share the same optimism on the film as I did back during its initial release, but we’ll get to that in a bit. For now, the story… This version of Texas Chainsaw Massacre is set back in August of 1973 and opens with a group of young adults driving across Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. In fact, when we first meet them they’re all singing along to “Sweet Home Alabama”, a song that actually wouldn’t be written or released until Skynryd’s 2nd album in 1974, a full year after this movie takes place, but what the hay? Why should that matter?
Anyways, the group consists of Kemper (Eric Balfour), his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel), their friends Pepper (Erica Leerhsen) and Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) and Andy (Mike Vogel) whom they pick up on their way and who immediately hooks up with Pepper. (Or was it Pepper they picked up? Whatever…) They end up picking up a distraught hitchhiker by the side of the road (a nice deviation from the original) who much to their shock commits suicide in their van. The actual suicide is also one of the films stand out shots/sequences. Now stuck with the body of a dead girl in their van, not to mention a shitload of drugs for the concert, they can’t leave town until they find a Sheriff or some figure of authority to help them out.
Erin and Kemper walk up to the house nearby which belongs to the Hewitt family and they encounter the legless old curmudgeon Old Monty (Terrence Evans). Meanwhile, Sheriff Hoyt (played with extra sleaze by R. Lee Ermey) meets the remaining kids back at the van and intimidates the hell out of them, more or less accusing them of murdering the girl, but not before being extremely inappropriate and creepy with her body while wrapping up her corpse. The other member of the family back at the Hewitt house is Thomas Hewitt, aka Leatherface and once he makes his first appearance, all hell breaks loose and now the remaining group is just trying to survive the sadistic group of lunatics they’ve stumbled upon.
The movie is very effective in that it skews the expectations of those in the audience that are well versed in Tobe Hooper’s original film. For example, the hitchhiker scene is by far one of the best changes/additions in this version and not only gives the vastly underrated Lauren German a chance to steal the show (she’d also later lead the cast of Hostel II), but because her suicide gives the group a legitimate reason to be stuck in their predicament. I also like the look and tone of the film, even if today it feels sleeker than I remember. A good chunk of credit should go to cinematographer Daniel Pearl who was also the director of photography on the original film. Another nice nod to the original is using actor John Larroquette to once again do the opening (and closing) voice over narration, which he did for the first movie as well.
I’m mixed revisiting it now on my feelings towards this version of Leatherface and his cannibalistic family. (Although cannibalism is never once mentioned in this film.) These are the Hewitt’s, not the Sawyer’s as in the original franchise entries (possibly for legal reasons?), so it’s expected that the filmmakers do something radically different with this core group. Old Monty is interesting, as is the obese mother and of course there’s Sheriff Hoyt, but I tend to find all the characters even more repulsive and mean spirited now than I did upon initial viewing. Yes, of course the Sawyer’s were also sadistic and mean, but something about the over-the-top nature of the Hitchhiker, Drayton Sawyer or Chop-Top made their insanity almost likable. What I mean is, those characters were so freakin’ crazy, you couldn’t possibly believe they’d ever really exist in real life. And also, do you find yourself quoting anything that anyone in this movie said the way you did the Hitchhiker and Chop-Top? I’d feel dirty quoting any of these Hewitt’s from the remake.
Andrew Bryniarski lobbied hard for the role of Leatherface and while I appreciated his take on the character when I first saw it, I much rather prefer the Bubba Sawyer Leatherface to his. That’s not to say his isn’t good, he’s a terrifying and far angrier version of the character than we’ve ever seen. Plus, this Leatherface is far more fleshed out with a hinted at back story and clear cut motivation for being the way he is. We even get a glimpse of him without his mask, something that had never been done in the 4 previous Chainsaw films. I can understand that to a lot of younger horror fans, this is the Leatherface they first encountered and hence it’ll always be their favorite, but I’m old school and it’s just not my personal preference for the character.
I also appreciate the ballsy decisions they made with the majority of events that unfold during the third act in the picture. (Spoiler-alert!) Running over Hoyt (a richly deserved death and audience pleaser). Hacking off Leatherface’s arm. Unlike Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III, it doesn’t seem like the Platinum Dunes gang were really trying to launch a new franchise with this. They were trying to make an effective, scary, grotesque, notorious, one-off horror movie. And I think for the most part, they succeeded, even if now I think it was all a happy accident. Looking at the way they approached the Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street remakes only strengthens my belief of that. But alas, before they got to those remakes, they would bring Leatherface and family back for one more film, a prequel set before the events on this movie. But we’ll have to tackle that one tomorrow!
Post Mortem with Mick Garris Guest Starring Texas Chainsaw creator Tobe Hooper
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Revisiting Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4: The Next Generation
Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
FEARnet Movie Review: Texas Chainsaw 3D by Scott Weinberg