There are lots of various opinions that exist in a world of reboots, sequels, prequels, and remakes. More often than not, the original triumphs in every way over their follow ups. Some follow ups exist to richen the lore of the universe, some exist to continue a story that hasn’t been thoroughly dissected yet, some exist solely as cash grabs, and some exist as a way to bring an old piece of property back into the public’s eye. This is a look at the reasons and successes between the old and modern reboot of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tobe Hooper’s 1974 debut has been hailed for a long time as one of the classics – one opinion that I highly agree with. It’s a film that forces you to question what you’re looking at with a grand deal of disturbing imagery and conversations that stay in your psyche long after the film has concluded. The story is one that has become traditional over time – a group of young adults on a road trip through the heart of Texas are on their way to visit their deceased grandfather’s old home along with their friends. There have been many reports on the news about the local cemetery being desecrated and the corpses being looted. In some cases the corpses themselves (or rather, segments of them) have been removed from their graves. The story shows these kids making a journey and seeing if their grandfather’s resting place has been disturbed. Once they arrive and see that things are as well as can be, they hang out at the grandfather’s home who happens to have some strange and unusual neighbors.
In 2003, director Marcus Nispel worked with Michael Bay to attempt to revive the series. Although the series had seen many sequels throughout the years, this was a grand attempt to bring the story back to the studios with a big budget. The story for the remake tells of a group of young adults who are traveling through the south, making a pit stop in Mexico to buy drugs before going to Arizona for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. After finding a hitchhiker on the side of the road in Texas, they pull over to give her a ride. Dealing with an apparent shock of some sort – the hitchhiker reveals a weapon and shoots herself, forcing our characters to phone the police.
**Heavy Spoiler Territory For Both Films Follow From Here On**
Now, I wanted to break these films down into events and style choices that make the films differ from each other and explain how they affect the film.
The Hitchhiker – both films show our group of kids pick up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. In the 2003 version, as mentioned earlier, they pick up a young woman who is walking very slowly and absentmindedly. They bring her on board to have her giving short responses such as “don’t take me back there”, “he’s a bad man”, and “you’re all going to die.” This is all muttered with hysterical crying before she kills herself. This action is what causes our characters to have to pull over at the nearest gas station and deal with the corpse. This inadvertently leads to them finding the old farm house with our villains inside and introduces us to the Sheriff – who turns out to be part of the family. In the 1974 version, the hitchhiker is a frantic man. He is crazy and unsettling – for both the audience and the characters in the van. Instead of killing himself, he pulls out a razor and slices one of our protagonists – not with a slice that causes any real damage but one that sends shockwaves to the audience and prepares us for the madness head. One major difference here though is in the interaction itself. While the female hitchhiker in 2003 serves as a simple foreshadow for the villains we are soon to meet, the male hitchhiker serves to set up the back drop of the story. He explains how he and his family used to work for the local meat packing industry before they went out of jobs due to automation – although it isn’t clear yet, this shows to be a major reasoning for why our villains do what they do to their victims. They are stuck in their ways and are forced to find ways to survive when the world around them betrays them. It paints a more sympathetic picture for the cannibalistic family rather than simply make them out to be monsters with a bloodlust.
The Meat Packing Plant – in the original the local plant is closed, and as listed above, this alludes to be the main reasoning behind our antagonists finding other sources of food (whether by tourists or the local cemetery). In the 2003 version, the plant is still up and running – as we see in one of the last parts of the big chase scene where Jessica Biel takes shelter in the plant which is full of live animals, uniforms, and fully functional equipment. In my opinion, this takes away the humanizing aspect of what made the villains what they were in the original. Whether this was a continuity error or simply misunderstood when filmed is beyond me, but this is a bit of a break in the story for me. The remake pits the family to be monsters, whereas the original gave them a chance to be understood.
Leatherface – The man behind the mask (er, the face). He is the spotlight character of the Texas Chainsaw universe and therefore the most important. His looks in both versions are different and I feel this is a good approach. It gives them a sense of distinction and allows comparisons to be made. For what it’s worth, Leatherface was never a consistent character who is seemingly reimagined in every iteration (even in the 1986 sequel that Tobe Hooper made). Two major differences though are portrayed in his body language and character. In the original, Leatherface is made out to be a big kid. His mentality is frail and weak – making him like a child in an adult’s body. He only talks through screeches, giggles, wails, and incoherent noises. Again (in my opinion) this helps give him more humanization because he comes off as an impressionable person who is obeying his family’s wishes to survive in their circumstances. In the 2003 version, he is more animalistic. He only communicates through grunts and shouts, which makes him more of a Jason Voorhees sort of killer rather than a human. Both versions work and are appropriate in their universes, but I always enjoy seeing the human under the mask and I feel the reboot missed this opportunity. Granted, Leatherface is absolutely terrifying in the reboot. He is tall, muscular, and has characteristics of a final boss in a video game. If I were face to face with either, I’d feel better odds surviving the 1974 version instead.
The Farmhouse – the scenic backdrop of the farmhouse is the most important since over half of the film takes place here. In 1974, we were shown a believable and gritty house. It featured furniture made of bones, large chickens inside of small birdcages, and feathers and kitchen instruments all over the place. Appearance alone it looked like a place where a butcher would do his business as well as sleep in. The 2003 version shows us a darker and much larger home that appears to be treated more like a home. The animals roaming the house are not so confined, the furniture is a lot more subtle, and the hanging bones and instruments all over the place are very little. This one is shown more like a large haunted mansion, whereas the original dropped us down into what legitimately felt like a farmer’s workhouse. Both are believable, both work to serve their purpose – this comes mostly down to personal preference for the audience.
The Family – both families are portrayed as sick and twisted. Both are painted as cannibals that are shunned from society. However, the colors they are painted with are very different. In the 2003 version, they are dark and cold. They don’t hesitate to eliminate those who are in their path and they work together to isolate their victims and flank them from both sides. We have the farm house in the middle of nowhere, and we also have an uncle who secretly plays the local sheriff. This works by providing a false sense of security when the protagonists need to call for help. In the original though, the family is painted with much warmer colors. They are still cannibals and they still do heinous crimes, but they are shown to be more human and civil than their counterparts. For example, the father of the family owns the gas station that the kids stop at shortly before reaching the farmhouse. When they ask for directions to that farmhouse, he even tries to convince them to “get their BBQ and head out”, insisting that they don’t want to go messing around and bother their neighbors. He literally tries to save their lives, but naturally, they feel that they know better so they ignore the warnings – a decision that leads to them fighting for their lives. In the 2003 version, they stop at a gas station to call for the local sheriff. While he’s on his way, two of our protagonists go wandering around the grounds and find the farmhouse a short distance away. They walk there (…to use a phone to call for the sheriff?) and it turns out to be the very farmhouse that they will have to fight to escape from.
The Final Encounter – Both films see our final girl end up inside the home itself but with two dramatically different approaches. In 1974, Tobe forces us to watch as his final girl wakes up tied to a chair made of human bones which is seated at the head of the dinner table. Here, we are forced to watch them cannibalize as well as torment her. They spew out lines helping remind us that they are victims of circumstance, while we watch a horrendous scene unfold for a good length of time. When the dinner is just about over, they remove her from her chair to finish her off which is ultimately when she escapes. In 2003, she is awoken by the Sheriff pouring beer on her face. As she comes to and realizes where she is, they laugh at her and yell for Leatherface to send her to the basement. The basement in here is where he prepares the meat. She finds herself surrounded by her dead friends and from here, she escapes and the final chase is pursued. The encounter in the original is far more terrifying because we are forced to watch a psychological breakdown and justification/explanation on everything we have seen up to this point and so on. In 2003, it serves merely as a backdrop for her to battle against and escape. The tension in this version is high nonetheless, but for the audience to watch it doesn’t nearly hit on quite a dreadful level.
Gore – Arguably the most important difference between these versions is the level of gore. The 2003 version gives us state-of-the-art effects and a polished level of CGI which lets us see all of the carnage underway, even to the point of letting us feel the pain ourselves (such as Leatherface shoving a handful of salt over a severed limb as the character screams in agonizing pain). In the original, Tobe Hooper gives us a tasteful classic that noticeably features no gore. This is one of those circumstances where the title of the film and its story gives you more nightmare imagery than the on screen murders themselves. Save one scene where a bit of blood sprays onto Leatherface, you never actually see anything. Everything is insinuated (and succeeds) on a very high-caliber level, especially since most of the onscreen deaths here are by hammer rather than by the saw. It’s an achievement worth highlighting on its own.
All things considered, I greatly believe that the original is superior. However, I will not take away from the fact that the 2003 reboot is a fine film (especially in the realm where horror remakes stand – it’s one of the best of those). They both are scary and provide the audience with one intense rollercoaster ride, the argued difference mainly being what kind of terror you are looking for. If you want a good popcorn flick with jump scares and extreme violence, the 2003 version is a great choice. If you want a film though that digs deep into your subconscious with nightmare fuel that takes a long time to dissipate, you cannot go wrong with the original.
‘Til Next Time, Mike Cleopatra