For my inaugural Original vs. Remake post I’ve chosen an original film that is benchmark for the horror genre, instantly making any comparison to remakes unfair and pointless. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) is arguably one of the best horror films of all time and its influence on the genre is immeasurable. More importantly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has lost none of its potency or ability to shock audiences and get under your skin; a remake was unnecessary. Nonetheless audiences arguably prefer the familiar to the original and where there is money to be made remakes are inevitable. And, like it or not, the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) exists and what I would like to largely explore in this comparative piece is whether the remake can stand on its own two legs as an effective horror film while obviously labouring under the shadow of its superior predecessor.
The 2003 remake of TCM has been divisive and generally prompted unfavourable reviews, even winning a Razzie for worst remake. A part of a horror franchise that is far more muddled than some of its slasher brethren, I’m going to go out on a limb and argue that the 2003 TCM has some merits as its own horror film. Produced and released through Michael Bay’s production company, Platinum Dunes, the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the first major horror remakes of the 2000s, a decade that saw studios plunder and remake much of the 1980s horror catalogue. Platinum Dunes itself became synonymous with the remake trend churning out several reboots. Director Marcus Nispel had largely worked on television and music videos before getting behind the camera for TCM and the shine and polish style he brought with him accounted for a lot of the criticism levied at the remake. The original TCM was low-budget and looked it – the grainy picture quality and murky nighttime shots added a level of documentary realism to the film that only enhanced its ability to get under your skin. For contemporary audiences raised on the overt graphic violence of 1970s splatter films and the slasher cycle of the 1980s, Nispel also opted for a more visually visceral framing of the violence whereas Tobe Hooper’s original Chainsaw offered surprisingly sparse amounts of graphic violence. These deviations from the source material, among others, turned off a lot of audience members from the remake.
The TCM remake does get a few things right. While it was never going to re-capture the atmosphere and mood of the original, even if Nispel had elected to retain the original’s low-budget sensibilities, the remake does maintain a consistent sense of nihilistic dread from start to finish. Nispel doesn’t make the mistake of lightening the tone to draw in younger audiences. Like the original, the TCM remake has an aura of doom that hangs over its characters; from its opening narration (John Laroquette even reprises his role of the narrator from the original) you know things will not end well. The remake also boasts a good cast of polished young actors, including Jessica Biel as the film’s ‘final girl’. While the characters are largely fodder for the ensuing carnage they do at least remotely resemble ‘young adults’ you might encounter in the real world.
With its antagonist, the Hewitt Family, Nispel doesn’t make you forget The Cook, the Hitchhiker, or original Leatherface, but he does introduce horror film villains that are menacing and at least worthy of the TCM mantle. R. Lee Emery, in particular, makes for a terrifying and unpredictable antagonist and any time he is on screen interacting with the film’s victims there is clear tension and a level of suspense that raises this remake above most of the reboots that would follow in the 2000s. A former Marine drill sergeant, Emery is a distinct actor impossible to miss, that makes the TCM remake watchable whenever he is onscreen. Andrew Bryniarski’s Leatherface is physically imposing and while Nispel makes the mistake of perhaps rendering Leatherface as a more straightforward monster relative to the original incarnation, he still remains an object of fear in the film.
Nispel even manages to conjure up some suspense and tension, particularly in the film’s climatic chase of Biel’s ‘final girl.’ The TCM is a dark and ugly film with much of its settings – from abandoned mills to dark, dank basements – looking like discarded set from Se7en. And Nispel doesn’t show much imagination in the film’s violent set pieces largely relying on a brutal, straightforward, “in-your-face” approach to its death scenes; Leatherface’s chainsaw gets far more use in the remake than Hooper’s original. The TCM remake has more in common with the cycle of ‘torture porn’ films that were emerging at the time of its release than it does to the original film. If you can forgive the remake for existing at all and accept that it will in no way compare to the original, there is something to enjoy in the TCM remake as mindless horror entertainment.