In my early 20s, I had a friend with his own home in the middle of nowhere. Every weekend followed the same ritual: a vegan (eww) potluck after a bunch of punk bands played basement followed by copious amounts of binge drinking and a two am screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We would continue to drink ourselves into oblivion while screaming obscenities at Franklin, finally engaging in group hugs and high fives when the wheelchair bound whiner got a chainsaw to the face. Thus began my love affair with Tobe Hooper’s classic. At one point after a messy breakup I hung a reprint of the original TCM movie poster above my bed. I guess you could say I went a bit of a dry spell with the ladies. No matter how many times I sit down to watch the film, I never grow tired of it. It has moved up the ladder into a tie with American Werewolf in London as my favorite horror film, nudging past Carpenter’s Halloween.
On the other hand, we have Michael Bay and the Platinum Dunes remake. This is the movie that you can blame for kick starting the seemingly endless glut of horror movie remakes studios have crammed down fans throats the past half decade plus. While that might sound like dramatic overstatement it is in fact in this case true. Shortly after the Chainsaw remake posted a healthy profit Platinum Dunes went on record saying their new business model would be to step up as many horror franchises as possible in order to remake thus ensuring a profit.
It would be difficult in one post to enumerate all the ways that director Marcus glassful and producer Michael Bay got it wrong. For all of its notoriety, Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece succeeded because of what it didn't show you. Everyone remembers leather face hanging Pam on a meat hook. However you never actually see the hook cut through its victim. In fact, for a film about a family of cannibals led by a chainsaw wielding cross dresser that wore victims’ faces as a mask, the film is incredibly low on blood and gore (a long-standing story tells that Hooper believed the film could achieve a PG rating due to its lack of explicitness). The pseudo-documentary cinematography of Daniel Pearl gave film in incredibly realistic “it could happen to you” look and feel*. We're allowed to viewer's imagination one wild on the horrors and suffering the gang of friends had to endure.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the remake. Knowing that he couldn't tell if its trademark explosions ala the Bad Boys films (though the addition of a Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as offbeat play-by-their-own-rules cops would have made for a more entertaining movie) able to ratchet up the mutilation and gore factor tenfold. Aside from one visual I have to give props to-the tormented hitch hiker that blows her brains out and we see the group’s horrified reactions through the new hole in her head-the film is too laden by run of the mill FX and gore work. The updated hook scene lingers forever on the newly amputated victim writhing agony. Nispel is far too in love with his own handiwork, displaying every angle in loving detail, taking all the mystery and imagination out of his attempt to recreate an iconic moment. The film is probably the closest I’ve ever come to walking out of a theater due to my anger at having my intelligence insulted.
A huge part of the reason I love the original is the grimy feel of the movie. Not only did Hooper’s background as a documentary filmmaker lend to the gritty realism of the movie, but the low budget nature of the work added another layer of sleaze to the horrific happenings. A lack of funds meant only one costume for Gunner Hansen and Hooper was so terrified of it getting lost or losing its color he refused to wash it. Marilyn Burns was covered in so much fake blood that by the end of the shoot, her shirt had caked solid. Filming in one hundred plus temperatures for sixteen hours at a stretch made for a hellish shoot, and that reflects in the final product on celluloid. The famous dinner scene was filmed for days with every window blacked out and covered, and no air circulating inside a scorching hot set (Texas heat plus the lighting put the temperature in the balmy one hundred and twenty degree rage). The props manager thought it’d be a nice touch to use real food for the scene. Ed Beal (The Hitchhiker) recounts the stench of rotting sausage and cheese filling the room, creating a need for a vomit bucket just off screen for the times when the actors and crews’ stomachs finally revolted.
As far as modern day horror icons go, I’ll take the original Leatherface over anyone else. Nothing could ever top the original’s introduction of the character. The moment he springs from behind the meat locker door, bashes Kirk with the mallet (in a manner deliciously foreshadowed earlier in the van) and slams the door shut forever remains the single jump scare moments in film history. What made Gunner Hansen’s portray of the brute so memorable wasn’t his propensity for violence or hulking presence alone. The sheer bizarreness of Leatherface made for a character never seen before on-there’s never been a character that could both freeze your blood and make you giggle in the same shot. Moments like Hansen blankly staring into the camera, licking his rotted teeth like a feeb still can’t be matched for its sheer off the wall nature. Unlike gleeful sadists like Freddy or unstoppable killing machines like Jason and Michael, Hansen’s Leatherface is simply an overgrown, mentally challenged man-child. While he cuts a terrifying figure, Hooper also interjects moments where Leatherface puts on makeup in order to get ready for dinner or gets fussily exasperated with his family in a futile attempt to get them to enjoy their meal. A decade before Krueger was practicing his Henny Youngman routine, TCM gave you a psychopath that would make you laugh as well.
The updated version keeps the mentally challenged aspect of the character but does nothing with it. Instead it births another hulking lunatic in a mask-less generic than the hundreds of others we’ve seen in the three decades between the films. There’s just nothing interesting about the guy at all. We get a tacked on explanation that he turned out the way he did because of his deformed face that caused other kids to pick on him and traumatize him as a youth. Yawn.
And then there’s Franklin. Fat, sweaty, crippled Franklin. There have been asshats in horror before and after him. There have been characters that got under your skin like a bad rash. But there has never been a character in a film so utterly annoying, or as unsympathetic as Franklin. From the minute he comes on the screen, the urge to shake him unconscious while screaming obscenities for the mewling priss to simply grow a pair is overwhelming. You’ll find yourself wanting to grab his tongue and yank it from his mouth when he starts crying and blowing raspberries and his friends like an overgrown infant. His character reminds me of the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard To Find. Much like her, Franklin’s actions spell doom for the group as he whines and insists they stop at an old family property just for kicks. Simply put, there is not a more satisfying moment in all of horror than when Leatherface emerges from the bramble to cut the porker into sausage strips.
The biggest failing of the Nispel/Bay remake is it simply never gives you a character remote as interesting amongst the group of cannon fodder.
The ’03 remake’s take on the family may be the biggest misstep in the whole production. While R. Lee Ermey has moments as a deranged sheriff (essentially channeling his pissed off drill Sgt. From Full Metal Jacket), everyone else falls short. Nispel displays his characters like sideshow oddities. SEE The crazy old coot with no legs! MARVEL in horror at the obese trailer park trash mother. The remake strips the new family of personality, simply laying out cardboard, stock characters for the camera. Nispel adds nothing new to the genre, no fresh take on the characters or story, nothing new in the way of “kids in peril” plot line, nor any sort of relevance that modernizes the story for this generation. The tacked on police footage that bookends the movie makes for a laughable attempt at adding a sense of reality to proceedings.
I can understand why TCM is such a difficult film to update. It was one of the first moments in horror that humanized the monsters. Gone were the giant ants creatures and fire breathing reptiles that emerged to wipe out cites and terrorize whole populations. Even Hammer studios, who had achieved immense success updating the classic Universal Monsters, had begun to run out of fresh ideas and simply ground their gothic creations into the ground. While Psycho may have been first to market with a cross dressing killer, very little could have prepared audiences for the levels of depravity that would unfold within the walls of the Texas clan’s home. Hooper’s film reflected the America of its time: one reeling from assignations of political and spiritual icons, distrustful of the ever increasing lies coming from Nixon’s administration, horrified but unable to turn away from the images broadcast from the South Asian jungles and just coming to grips that the flower power message of “peace, love and understanding” had fallen on mostly deaf ears. Audiences no longer needed mythical creatures to scare them as they became increasingly aware of the horrors they could inflict on each other. The film spoofs the typical American family with its deranged clan of nitwits. Tossed aside from their slaughterhouse jobs by technological advances, the close knit group simply eliminated the competition by having them for dinner. Jim Seidow's demented Cook kept everyone reasonably in line, and wasn't afraid to use the switch to beat the bejesus out of a misbehaving family member. They may have been psychotic, and they may be into digging up graves and kidnapping tresspassers in order to turn them into a rump roast, but dammit they were going to stick together.
Please note that I’m not suggesting a film like Texas Chainsaw Massacre is “above” getting remade. My long standing attitude towards remakes is unless they’re truly awful, they can’t do any further damage to the original’s legacy that a string of lowest common denominator sequels have already done. In the case of TCM-one could argue the French shocker Frontier(s) is everything the Bay/Nispel remake wishes to be. It’s similar in plot-a group of friends find themselves at the mercy of a sadistic clan of psycho cannibals-but the film manages to stand on its own. It updates the social commentary of Hooper’s film in order to make it relevant (it’s set against the backdrop of youth riots against French police) and is brutal, uncompromising film. It’s a brilliant film in its own right, yet so much of what it does well can be traced back to the original TCM. If Bay and Nispel had given their reimagining a quarter of the ideas of Frontiers, we might not be looking back on the film as a colossal misstep that gave birth to a seemingly endless series of misfires that followed.What say you dear reader?
*Ironically, Pearl was Nispel’s cinematographer as well. Goes the show that if you dip a turn in gold, it’s still a piece of shit.