On Second Watch: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

the texas chainsaw massacre 2003
(Photo Credit: New Line Cinema)
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In terms of films that get under your skin, there aren’t many like Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s weird, wholly original, incredibly unique, and the type of movie you watch once or twice in a lifetime. Unless you’re Patrick Bateman, I suppose.

The story of a group of weirdos murdering teenagers in rural Texas hits hard primarily due to its realistic approach. When the iconic Leatherface emerges, his sudden appearance is surprisingly low-key — he randomly appears, bashes a kid on the head, and slams the door. There’s no music, carefully constructed buildup, and no effort to make the moment cinematic. He arrives and leaves before you realize what happened. It’s extraordinary filmmaking that strikes a nerve and affects the viewer psychologically.

And it’s all by design, according to Hooper.

“Yes, we did a lot of psychology and studying what it was that made genre films work,” he told FlashBackFiles.com. “One of the things that always work, one of the creepiest things a horror film can have, is the ambiance of death. Like the way Frankenstein’s monster is put together by pieces of dead bodies. That’s why I opened the film in a graveyard. You’re immediately repelled by this stuff. Like the sight of a coffin. It’s classic Freudian. Freud wrote that he would hold his breath whenever he passed a cemetery.

“A lot of people have phobias about death. I used to have them as a child, because our family was rather large and there was always someone dying. They would always take me to the funeral parlor and everyone was looking towards the end of the room, at this big box. So I asked why everyone was looking at the box. And all they told me was: You remember Aunt so-and-so. Well, she’s in that box, asleep. That was all the information I got, until one relative of mine told me that everyone dies and the world will end.”

Clearly, he put a lot of effort into crafting something audiences had never seen before, and he did it without using buckets of blood. The violence in Texas Chain Saw is disturbing, but Hooper forces your imagination to do the heavy lifting. By contrast, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre takes the same concept and, well, simplifies it, turning a psychological tale into more of a routine thriller.

That’s not a knock on the pic. In fact, I find the Marcus Nispel production, starring the utterly gorgeous Jessica Biel, quite entertaining, even if the film plays more like an extended walk through one of those cheesy fairground haunted houses than an out-and-out horror show. Check out Leatherface’s intro:

Note the cinematic lighting, the dark underscore, and the gradual buildup. This is a film made for people familiar with the Leatherface lore and presents the big bad as an iconic monster rather than a weirdo in a human mask. Leatherface is big, bulky, and – dare I say it? – cool to look at, which may or may not be the right approach to the material.

Also, in this scene, Biel behaves like a woman who has seen many scary movies. I find it hilarious how her character is cool-headed enough to close and lock the door behind her while Andy (Mike Vogel) immediately grabs a weapon to defend himself. In reality, both kids would likely run for their lives and be too hyped up on adrenaline to care about the other.

In Nispel’s film, they dutifully assume their roles, delivering precisely what audiences expect. That sums up the entire picture. Chainsaw 2003 lacks creative spark but fulfills the promises of its title. Beautiful people arrive at a creepy location and get chased by a chainsaw-wielding maniac for 90 minutes. Some live. Most die. I would’ve liked a fresher approach to the material, but who knows how that would’ve played to early 2000s teens drunk on Ghostface, The Fisherman, The Creeper, etc. Why make a weird, psychological horror flick when a run-of-the-mill slaughterfest will do?

Audiences agreed and pushed the October release to over $107M worldwide, enough to spawn two sequels, a prequel, another remake, and a video game. Eesh. Outside of Saw, has another slasher brand emerged in the modern era? Why do all the pop culture novelties come from the 70s and 80s?

I recall seeing Chainsaw 2003 in theaters with my brother, sister, and mom – perfect family night viewing! We all generally enjoyed it, as did the packed house, who screamed, gasped, and laughed at all the right spots. I doubt anyone thought much about the film’s events after they left the theater, but at least they got their money’s worth.

For the record, my friends and I took a shot with Hooper’s film shortly after Nispel’s, got bored, and turned it off about midway through. Teenagers are the worst, am I right?

Speaking of which, the cast in Nispel’s remake are actually pretty good in their respective roles. Biel admirably handles last-girl duties, while Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Vogel, and Eric Balfour lend their routine side characters with just enough spark to make them interesting. R. Lee Ermey goes for broke as the detestable Sheriff Hoyt. His screaming, manic routine gets old pretty quickly.

The violence isn’t as grizzly or obscene as expected, particularly compared to 2006’s The Beginning. Yeah, limbs are sawed off, and people are hanged on hooks, but it is never gratuitous, although this bit caused my brain to shut down:

Really, the ultimate flaw of Chainsaw 2003 is that it never justifies its existence beyond capitalizing on the original’s good name. I felt the same way after my recent viewing – only the second time I’ve seen the film. It’s a perfectly entertaining slasher, produced well enough to hold your attention, but there’s no point. Hooper’s original touches on themes like the degradation of the American family, the rural-urban divide, and the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization. It’s an unsettling art film with subtext.

Nispel casts old southern rednecks because they look scary. He aims to create tense-filled escapism that caters to the masses and largely succeeds. Chainsaw 2003 is a big, silly horror production; predictable, routine, and unimaginative, but it works well at parties with large crowds and is compelling enough to jolt your senses now and again.

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