There aren’t many movies you can point to and say, “Here, this one changed everything,” but the Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is definitely one of them. Tobe Hooper’s low-budget shocker with its ghastly antagonist, no-name cast, and verité-style production shocked and appalled audiences when it was first released, and it was an inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers from Wes Craven to Rob Zombie. Thirty years later, the remake was itself an inspiration, with its box office success launching a new production company and a wave of classic horror remakes.
Any analysis of the popularity and influence of Hooper’s film begins with the violence, the white-knuckle thrills of seeing young people chased across the great Texas plain by a chainsaw-wielding maniac. For that reason, it’s rather surprising re-watching the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and realizing that the film is not as gory as you think you remember. Like Jaws one year later, much of the violence is left to your own imagination, but there’s debatably more spilled blood in Spielberg’s shark movie than Hooper’s about Lone Star state cannibals.
“You don’t beat the bad guys at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you just don’t end up being killed by them.”
The thrills however are legit. When our five hapless heroes finally arrive at a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, the majority of them are dispatched in a solid 15-minute stretch. The lone survivor, Sally Hardesty (played by Marilyn Burns), is then chased by Leatherface, on foot, for a solid four minutes through cornfields and down dirt roads. When captured, Sally is then taunted by Leatherface and his family, who are credited only as “the Hitchhiker”, “the Cook”, and “Grandpa Sawyer”. The film is an exercise in dread because Sally’s odds of getting out of that house alive are somewhere between slim to none, and you’re forced to sit there and wait for the inevitable.
Fortunately for Sally, the inevitable never comes. She escapes by breaking through a window for the second time in one night and is able to make to the road where she stops a pick-up truck and gets into the back before feeling the end of Leatherface’s saw. As you watch Sally get driven away, and as you watch Leatherface get further away from her point-of-view, it’s not triumph you’re feeling, but relief. Sweet relief. You don’t beat the bad guys at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, you just don’t end up being killed by them.
That may have been a distinction without a difference when it came to the 2003 remake, which comes with the adjusted spelling The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film, which was the first production from Michael Bay’s company Platinum Dunes, leans into all the things that people think they remember from the original. It’s gorier, more disturbing, and there’s a pantheon of disturbing characters that lure our unassuming heroes to the dinner table at a Texas farmhouse.
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The remake also has name actors, and it makes the point of framing Leatherface as the villain. Andrew Bryniarski, who plays Leatherface in the remake, is physically imposing, and his mask is designed to invoke fear, and create something more iconic in the mould of other slasher villains. That’s not to say that Gunnar Hansen’s portrayal in the original is neither imposing nor fearful, but the original movie also paints Leatherface as a pitiable figure. He’s abused and screamed at by the other members of his family, and, according to Hansen’s own commentary about the character, he has no real identity of his own outside of his masks. By comparison, Bryniarski’s Leatherface is the malevolent mascot of doom.
“…the gruesomeness of the violence visited on our heroes in the remake is exponential from the original…”
Marcus Nispel’s movie follows much of the same blueprint of Hooper’s original story, with five young people in a van driving through rural Texas who pick-up a hitchhiker. Unlike the original film, where “The Hitchhiker” is a kind of scout that marks the young people and their van, it’s inferred that the hitchhiker is a victim of Leatherface and his family who somehow escaped even though she’s heavily traumatized by her ordeal. She marks the van in a different way with her suicide, but it sets a disturbing stage in a very different way while at the same time letting the audience know that the violence in this The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was going to be more explicit.
Indeed the gruesomeness of the violence visited on our heroes in the remake is exponential from the original, and it could be argued that some of them end up getting killed twice metaphorically speaking. Poor Andy has one of his legs sawed off and packed in salt as he hangs from a meat hook, and Morgan is left to bleed out in a bathtub before escaping with our final girl Erin and then hung from a chandelier and sawed in half when Leatherface catches up with them. If you can say anything about the deaths of the gang in the original film, they are, for the most part, mercifully quick.
Perhaps the biggest alteration is in the way that Erin is handled versus Sally. In Hooper’s film, Sally reacts out of pure id, she’s just trying to outrun the chainsaw blade and tries desperately to hold on and look for a way out when cornered. Erin, more befitting the sense of the modern woman, is proactive. She can lure Leatherface into a trap, fight back, and cut off his arm. She can play mind games with the corrupt sheriff, luring him out and stealing his car and then running him over three times as she makes her escape. The catharsis at the end of the remake is definitely triumphant, as it could be argued that Erin beat Leatherface and his family at their own game.
Of course, Nispel’s film also has the sheen of a modern Hollywood movie, which would become a trademark of Platinum Dunes series of horror remakes as it grows to include The Amityville Horror (2005), The Hitcher (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). The films seem designed to wash away the grim of 70s and 80s film stock, but interestingly Daniel Pearl served as the cinematographer for both Hooper and Nispel. What the remake lacks in grime, it makes up for in capturing the heat and humidity of mid-summer in West Texas, so both films have texture even if they have very different feelings.
“When you build a mythology around something it becomes less unexplainable, and the whole point of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that you can’t explain what motivations went into those events.”
Amazingly, there have been eight films based on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre material including the original, but we never talk about this series alongside other long-running horror franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween, or Nightmare on Elm Street. Perhaps that’s because of the aesthetic of the original and the fact that it feels like a snuff film, which is not terribly replicable. In terms of the latter films, including the prequel to Nispel’s remake, there was too much of an emphasis on trying to explain the motivations and justifications of the horror. Is there meant to be an explanation for something called “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”?
The point is right there in the opening narration, these are tales of how an “idyllic summer afternoon drive became a nightmare,” but really any drive could theoretically descend into the macabre under the right (or wrong) circumstances. When you build a mythology around something it becomes less unexplainable, and the whole point of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is that you can’t explain what motivations went into those events. In the end, all you can do is hang on for dear life.
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