Double Take – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974 vs. 2003)

Welcome to the first edition of Double Take. In this feature, I’ll be comparing a film and its remake: looking at the films’ similarities and differences, and what the remake does right or wrong. Is the remake worth your time, or are you better off sticking with the original? Read on and find out.

This feature was originally posted at The Alternative Chronicle

WARNING! – This is an in-depth review of both Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies. Spoilers for both are to follow.

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History – The Texas Chainsaw Movies

In October of 1974, an independent film out of Texas, made for less than $300,000 and featuring unknown actors, was released on an unsuspecting public. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre almost instantly gained widespread notoriety for its brutal violence and terror. Banned in several countries and receiving mixed reviews, it stuck around long enough to earn over $30 million. It has been hailed as one of the greatest, most influential, and most controversial horror films ever made. Three sequels followed, and then, almost 30 years later, it was remade by Platinum Dunes for $9.5 million. Directed by Marcus Nispel and starring popular actors such as Jessica Biel and R. Lee Emery, it was critically maligned. However, it earned more than $100 million; enough to justify a prequel and recently, a second attempt at a direct sequel to the original film.

Story – One of the Most Bizarre Crimes in the Annals of America

The story of both Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies are similar and simple enough in the beginning. The year is 1973. A group of five teenagers (all piled in a van) are driving through Texas when they encounter a mysterious and disturbed individual. In the original, they pick up a psychotic hitchhiker who slashes his own hand and attacks one of the characters before they kick him out. It’s a bizarre, unsettling experience, but nothing that would indicate that the characters are in any danger. It never hints directly at the truly awful things that are yet to come. After they reach their destination, it’s not long before two characters wander off and discover a plain-looking house nearby. One of them ventures inside and it comes as a complete shock when Leatherface appears and clobbers him over the head with a meat hammer. This moment is handled so matter-of-factly that it almost looks like an accident, but it’s shocking because there’s been so little build-up to the moment. You never expect it.

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Meanwhile, the remake does something totally different by making the hitchhiker a traumatized woman who has just recently escaped the house of horrors. Upping the ante, she puts a gun in her mouth and blows her brains out. This almost immediately tells the audience and the characters that really bad things are about to happen (and the woman actually tells them as much). They are then led to what looks like a creepy abandoned house with creepy people inside (scored by creepy music). This makes the introduction to Leatherface a bit later on less impactful. By now, we’ve seen so many creepy, deformed weirdos, that Leatherface is practically just another guy. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the value of suspense over surprise, but the way it’s handled here is less than effective.

Things only get more different from there. In Hooper’s version, our protagonists are taken out one by one as they all take turns trying to find their missing friends. Nispel’s film has a couple killed while the remaining three are menaced for a while by R. Lee Ermey’s sheriff. Then, the killing begins again. In both versions, we are eventually left with a single female protagonist. The original has her captured by the family and tortured before she manages to barely escape with her life, but not her sanity. She is so psychologically traumatized that all she can do is laugh maniacally (covered in blood), as she is driven away. The remake becomes a repetitive cat-and-mouse where Biel runs around and hides in a closet or a piece of meat or a storage locker before Leatherface finds her, and they run around again. Biel’s character, however, remains resourceful enough to cut off Leatherface’s arm, rescue a kidnapped baby, and hot-wire a car to escape, seemingly none the worse for wear.

Style – Dirty, Sweaty, Slimy, Bloody

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The main difference between the two films is in where the horror lies. For all its killing, the original film really is a psychological horror. It feels oppressively bleak and violent, but with very little blood or explicit gore. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you might remember the film as being incredibly violent. This is just the filmmakers effectively making your own mind do the work. The physical violence itself is almost secondary to the mental violence the film is inflicting on both the characters and you, the viewer. The possibility that there may be something worse than death-by-chainsaw waiting for you is the real terror. The remake dispenses this notion and chooses instead to be as nasty as it can. Blood flows freely and we see limbs severed, ears sewn into necklaces, salt rubbed into gaping wounds, and other unpleasantries. Here, the fear comes mostly from the threat of physical violence and how the person will meet their end. Our protagonists in the remake are beautiful people being threatened by the deformed. It is their own beauty that is in jeopardy.

The films differ stylistically as well. The lo-fi original feels dusty, sweaty, and dry as a bone while the ultra-slick remake wallows in filth and slime and blood. One of the most striking differences between the two films is their respective color palates. The original film is bright and colorful, even within most of the house, whereas the remake is dark and desaturated with its primary colors being dark brown and green.

Now we come to Leatherface himself. Take a look at the difference between the masks in the respective films.

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The original looks terrifying because it actually appears to be a human face, while the remake’s just looks like something from a Halloween store: brow furrowed, its menace already built in (without earning it). The differences between the masks exemplifies the difference between these two films. The original, scary because of what it implies. The remake, frightening only in surface terms.

Results – Who Will Survive and What Will Be Left?

I could continue talking about these two films, but we’ll leave it there and let the discussion continue in the comments. For my money, the original is easily the more effectively frightening film, due to its emphasis on raw psychological terror. I do give the remake a few points for not trying to be a carbon copy, but the direction they took makes for a weaker film overall. Just stick with the original, and you’ll be worse off…in a good way.

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Let me know if you agree or disagree with my conclusions or what you believe makes for effective horror. I’d love to hear what you think.

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