Shortly after watching Tobe Hooper’s, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” from 1974, I got to thinking about the age-old dilemma of originals vs remakes and why aficionados (especially of the horror genre) are so divided in their opinions. Some would say we’re just a product of our generation. Example being, if you’re Generation X or Y you’d be more likely to prioritize originals, if you’re Generation Z then remakes. Don’t get me wrong there are definitely exceptions to the rule (I’m probably one of them) but still the debate goes on. It’s usually a topic of discussion that gets horror fans fired up (myself included) but is anyone actually analyzing each others point of view? If subjects like Religion, Sex, Politics are anything to go by, probably not. So that’s what I’m hoping to do with this here article, each film is obviously different in its own right but let’s create some healthy debate and go from there. This is my take on one particular film.
So Hooper came bursting onto the scene in 74′ with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Shocking audiences with the story of a cannibalistic family and most notably, “Leatherface”. Commercially the film was a huge success. Estimated to cost between $100,000 – $300,000 (even in those days not much) and eventually grossing over 30 million, TCM remained the highest grossing film until John Carpenter’s “Halloween” in 78′. No denying that if you were present at a screening all those years ago, you might have been shocked and appalled with what you saw (of course you would have because it was new). In the here and now, it’s 2016. We’ve seen it all, everything from Extreme Asian cinema that relies heavily on insane blood splatter, to Exploitative films from Europe based on shock value. Anything and everything has been done, so it should come as no surprise when I say watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2016 offers very little in the way of shock or horror. Let’s break it down people, keeping in mind I was born in 86′ and it wasn’t until the late 90’s that I found my love for horror. Even though it’s well before my time, I went into Tobe Hooper’s original film with an open mind.
The opening frames showcase the remnants of a disturbing crime scene. John Larroquette’s distinct narration about the lone survivor of a terrible ordeal with a demented family, play out amidst a nerve jangling violin scratching, thus setting the tone for what promised to be a shocking piece of horror cinema. Then we pick up on a painfully slow van ride where 5 friends, Sally (Marilyn Burns), Jerry (Allen Danzinger), Kirk (William Vail), Pam (Teri McMinn) and Sally’s wheelchair confined brother, Franklin (Paul Partain) are on route to the siblings grandfather’s grave in Texas. Right off the bat, the plot details sounded a little left of field and hazy. If that really was the reason for the trip, why bring three other people along for what would be better left a private family matter? The first 20 minutes of just an 83 minute film offer nothing. There’s no dialogue of any importance, in fact I don’t even recall catching the characters names, bar Sally and Franklin. Granted I was watching the standard DVD edition an it’s an old film but the atrocious audio didn’t help, especially during the scenes with the van in motion. Eventually they pick up a hitchhiker that turns out to be bat shit crazy, he proceeds to start a very small fire and cut Franklin’s wrist or arm (I forget which one and I’m not sure why).. they kick him out and continue on their merry way without really questioning it. By the time Franklin is done irritating anyone whose still listening to him (and no I don’t just mean the characters in the movie) the group finally arrive at a farm-house. 30 minutes have passed and nothing has happened. Now I’m all about building the suspense or the characters and story if that’s what’s required. Unfortunately I didn’t see any of that though. The suspense was non-existent, as was the character exposition and nothing I’d seen was shocking… except for maybe Partain’s acting.
His line delivery was horrible and he insisted on always saying “Sally” before entering into a conversation with her. Dude she’s your sister, you don’t have to do that. I have a sister and after I greet her I don’t keep saying her name before every sentence that follows. How to annoy your audience in one quick swoop 101…. The rest of the cast aren’t much better either. Burns is okay, at least up until her wailing and exaggerated reaction in the films final moments. The remaining trio of young adults aren’t given a single thing to work with, they’re just there to make up the numbers. Edwin Neal as the Hitchhiker and Jim Siedow as the “Old Man” are both awful. I’m sorry, I apologize to fans of the film out there (there’s plenty of you) but there’s simply no two ways about it, these actors are poor. Sure, keep in mind acting and the quality of it have come a long way through the years but this is incredibly sub-par, even for the time period. Neal’s stuff in the van feels really forced and he never once feels menacing, more like a kid who just forgot to take his riddlin for breakfast. Siedow isn’t much better. He shows some promise in the gas station scenes and then undoes it all during the dinner table scene. He grumbles lines and howls, with audio that bad it makes most of what he says incoherent. Gunnar Hansen does do a good job of making Leatherface child like in his mental demeanor. The makeup (dare I call it that), or latex mask or whatever the hell it was they dressed actor John Dugan in as the “Grandfather”, was embarrassingly bad… like really bad. I mean probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen committed to film. How anyone involved with that facet of the film couldn’t see how terrible it looked is beyond me.
On a positive note cinematographer, Daniel Pearl (combined with Hooper) was ahead of his time in his shot choices and camera movement. Upon the groups arrival at the house there’s some wonderful wide shots, panning across the property and through the junkyard around the side. There’s also some great vision inside the decrepit house and slick editing in certain scenes. At the same time, rooms of vile remains and carcasses and bones are repeatedly panned over for what feels like an eternity… okay we get it, this place belongs to some sick individuals, just get on with it already. I also respect the creative choice of no conventional music, just utilizing sound effects where needed to gauge the tension. The very first appearance of Leatherface is probably one of only two genuinely shocking moments in the film (especially the original mask which looks great). He slides that iconic door open and bludgeons an unlucky soul to death. On the downside that doesn’t happen until half way into the movie, meanwhile you’ve already lost interest because of the first 30 minutes that accomplished nothing. There’s an itching chainsaw chase through the shrubbery as Sally tries to evade Leatherface, probably the only action based highlight of the film. Things revert back to Burns incessantly screaming all through the final act, as she continues to drown out any dialogue you might have cared to hear from the psychotic house owners.
I’m divided when it comes to the film’s final moments. There’s something extremely unsettling about a mask wearing, beast of a man sporadically waving a chainsaw through the air in frustration (gee I wonder what it could be haha) but what’s not unsettling is Burns ridiculous, euphoria of relief manifesting itself in odd laughter and completely ruining what was a pretty impactful ending. Though if I’m honest, by that point of the movie I was over it so I didn’t really care. My issue with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not that there’s very little chainsaw massacring (like most people would think). I get that the film is about what you don’t see. Like a good book in the way that it makes your imagination run wild, that’s a powerful thing when it’s done right but in Hooper’s case, it’s not. In terms of a high gross return he did something right but it wasn’t making a great film that’s for sure. This needed a lot better baseline structure, as well as a more memorable opening act to draw audiences in immediately. More than that, don’t write such obnoxious and unlikable characters and expect people to invest in them, especially when they’re being portrayed by immensely poor actors/actresses. The biggest sin in film making is to bore your audience and that’s exactly what I was during The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, bored. Whether you’re watching it in 1974 or 2016, this is just simply not a good film.
3/10 (that’s being generous)
So let’s move right along to 03′ where Producer, Michael Bay teamed up with Director, Marcus Nispel to remake Hooper’s classic film. This time changing the characters names, the look of the time period and the setup of the trip and all for the better of the film. Our group of 5 this time are, Erin (played by Jessica Biel), her boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), Andy (Mike Vogel) and Morgan (Jonathan Tucker) they’re all heading across Texas to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. Straight away, it’s a much more plausible setup in Nispel’s remake. A group of young adults heading to a music festival is fairly common compared to say visiting a relative’s grave site. Veteran Actor, R. Lee Ermey plays Sheriff Hoyt, a local officer with a sinister agenda and a connection to “Leatherface” (played this time by Andrew Bryniarski). Enough of the screenplay remains the same but the story unfolds at a faster pace and in more of an entertaining fashion than Hooper’s original. Some of the iconic moments are still there too. Our first glimpse of Leatherface ends up playing out exactly the same as it did in the original film, death via bludgeoning and the sliding door to boot. Some would argue that the original “dinner table” sequence and Leatherface’s manic chainsaw waving, were also necessities for this re-imagining but I disagree. While both served a purpose and worked to a degree, some of the suspense was undone by the aforementioned over the top screaming and performance levels of Neal, Siedow and Burns.
Not only does the film sound great with a crisp audio track and really good foley, it’s also very tightly shot and lit atmospherically in all the right places. Even the color saturation is bleak and washed out, lots of grey’s and brown’s and when you combine that with the rundown farmhouse of the Hewitt’s, everything looks perfect. We still have the iconic violin track in the introduction, accompanied by film reel footage through the “Hewitt residence”, as well as Larroquette’s distinguishing narration. The opening act still closely resembles the 74′ film in terms of the van travel. This time the dialogue actually helps to build early character development and even the first “holy shit” moment comes within 15-20 minutes, which is a lot more than can be said for Hooper’s film. Actress, Lauren German has a brief, albeit extremely memorable scene as the hitchhiker. German is a really solid actress that plays the part with a certain nuance, a subtle approach, which is far more disturbing than anything Edwin Neal tried to dish up. It’s key that you draw the audience in as soon as possible and there can be no denying that Nispel’s film does exactly that and with one hell of a punch. The other countering hit is the suspense and the action sequences. I liked that the film didn’t head down the “torture porn” route, instead choosing to cut away from anything to visceral and use sound as the major contributing factor. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still some really good practical effects and a couple of violent kills for hardcore horror fans but Nispel toes the line carefully and I respect that.
There’s a handful of fresh sequences that feel far superior to anything Tobe put on the screen back in 74′. Erin and friend, Pepper spend an intense sequence stuck in a vehicle trying to evade Leatherface’s chainsaw as it strikes through the hood and glass. There’s another emotional interaction between Erin and Andy in the basement of the Hewitt house, as she must make a difficult decision surrounding their fate. If you’re looking for a highlight though it has to be the part at the slaughterhouse, specifically in the change rooms/locker scene. The scene only runs 5 or 10 minutes and has no on-screen violence, yet it’s more terrifying that anything Hooper offered up. If what I’ve mentioned already isn’t reason enough to really look at your evaluation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, than the quality of actors and their respective characters should be. We’ve got Erin, a sweet and down to earth Southern girl with a tonne of fight in her. Not only is the character realistic and likeable, Biel delivers one hell of a measured performance. Knowing exactly when to turn it on and when to tone it down, it’s not over the top, it never becomes awkward or darkly comedic, she’s just scared, plain and simple. Then we have boyfriend Kemper (played by Balfour). At heart Kemper’s a nice guy, a little juvenile, a little misguided but he’s got his future planned out. Balfour plays it straight and does it well so in turn, when he gets it, the audience doesn’t want him to.
With slightly less of an arc, there’s Pepper and Andy. On the upside though, Leerhsen and Vogel are given far more to work with than Vail and McMinn ever had for their characters Kirk and Pam. Andy’s a typical young guy, a little hotheaded and full of himself but he still remains fairly likable. Vogel has always been a bit of a pretty boy so this role was perfect for him and the character suffers the worst of fates (which remains memorable to say the least). Erica, as Pepper, is also pretty solid. Pepper’s more like your girl next door type, not classically beautiful or anything but attractive and a little wild at the same time. She has some of the heaviest emotional scenes and minus the odd inconsistency, displays it very nicely. She spends most of her screen time pretty worked up but it never grates on the viewer. The last of the group is fifth wheeler, Morgan (Tucker). Morgan is the half nerd, half stoner comedic relief cliché’, which has since become a familiar trope for writers to draw on for slasher films. He puts his foot in his mouth and likes to act tough but when push comes to shove he’s a bit of coward but an entertaining one all the same. I’m so glad that writer, Scott Kosar left out the Franklin character, or simply chose to alter the writing for Morgan making for a far easier watch for audiences. This time our wheelchair bound character is “Old Monty” (played by Terrence Evans, R.I.P), a secondary character and resident of the Hewitt house. Even with all the creative license taken, Nispel still tips his hat on several occasions to Hooper’s film and fans of it, the wheelchair aspect being one of them.
The masterful R. Lee Ermey turns in one of the most perverse performances in any horror movie I’ve seen. As soon as the mysterious Sheriff Hoyt emerges to help the group with their van trouble, you know there’s plenty more of that on the horizon. Some would say there’s not enough mystery about the character but honestly I don’t think he’s there to be mysterious, he’s there to let you know that all is not well and he delivers that in spades. Unfortunately, Jim Seidow’s performance in Hooper’s original film quickly turns silly. You can’t have this premise of a cannibalistic family long before Horror/Comedy was a done thing and have your big bad lead be uneven, it just doesn’t work. Ermey is anything but uneven, there’s nothing remotely funny about Hoyt (okay that’s a lie there’s an odd chuckle for his delusional behavior) but still. His calm presence can turn to aggravation on a dime and his little idiosyncrasies make him extremely menacing. The writing and structure of Kosar’s screenplay, in terms of characters and narrative, are a complete cut above anything Tobe Hooper was able to conceive. No doubting that Hooper had the building blocks and you have to acknowledge and respect that. However, it wasn’t until 2003 and a fresh pair of eyes with a better structured script, that we saw this idea reach its full potential. I’m not here to tell people what they should or shouldn’t like, I’m simply making points and references to the differences between the two films in the hopes that some of the haters might stop and look at why they’re hating. Don’t just feel the need to say you don’t like something or you hate it because you feel like that’s what you’re supposed to say. Get informed, read articles, re-watch a film, look for different things, stop and take notes, whatever medium it may be for the individual. I’ve analyzed all this for a while now and I’m going to continue to look at the differences between originals and remakes for other franchise films. In regards to this installment surrounding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, there’s no doubt in my mind which film is superior in every way, shape and form.
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