For those of you who missed it when it was a Patreon exclusive in June, here’s my Vern’s Appeals Process revisit to the 2004 remake of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. And if you’re interested in something else to read I just put up a new Patreon exclusive (for now) where I do the same for Stephen Sommers’ DEEP RISING.
INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY
When I positively reviewed this year’s sequel to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), coherently titled TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2022), I wasn’t quite prepared for how controversial that would be. Not nearly as controversial as when I loved the 2013 EVIL DEAD remake directed by the producers/writers of this new CHAINSAW (I stand by that), but my appreciation for it really threw some people for a loop. What I came to understand was that people remembered how fiercely protective of Tobe Hooper’s creation I was when I went scorched earth on Marcus Nispel’s remake in my 2003 Ain’t It Cool News review, which I proudly titled “Vern massacres THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.” At least a few people wished I had come at this unpopular sequel with that same kind of righteous fury.
My perspective: of course I didn’t. That was a long time ago, I’ve changed, circumstances have changed, the franchise has changed, this one is more my style than that one was, and even if none of those things were the case, I’d still have different expectations for the — what, fifth? — sequel than the first redo. But I had been thinking about the remake, because I’d been seeing people on Twitter – possibly a generation younger than me, who saw it at a different stage in their life and horror fandom – saying that it was a classic in its own right, and they couldn’t believe there were people who disliked it. I ferociously disagreed with that assessment at the time, but like I said, I’ve changed, things have changed. And It’s been so long.
Longer than I thought, by the way! It’s basic math, but it had not quite occurred to me that 2003 means this came out 19 fucking years ago. Might as well get a jump on all the 20th anniversary retrospectives coming our way next year and get it over with now. So I did it. I gave it a second chance. Like that old lady at the orphanage when she took in Leatherface.
Truly, it is a rare and beautiful phenomenon in my life of writing about movies that sometimes I decide to rewatch something I used to hate and find out I like it now. I love that. I look forward to it happening again. It didn’t happen on this one. But that’s okay. You can’t win ‘em all. I did not re-read my 2003 review until after I watched the movie and wrote down some things that did and didn’t work about it. But it turns out I largely agree with my twenty-something Texas Chain Saw zealot self. The difference is I don’t get as worked up about it as I used to. I can recognize that overall this is a well made movie that I might think was okay if I could separate it from Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE in my mind. There’s plenty that’s good about it, which I’ll get into. But I still think it’s a shame how many of the changes they made just serve to force it into formula that came after Hooper’s film with the wave of FRIDAY THE 13TH and HALLOWEEN ripoffs. It still seems to me like either a misunderstanding of the original or a lack of respect for it. But before I get into that I want to talk about some things I did like.
In the public consciousness, at least in the post Freddy and Jason era, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE has come to just mean Leatherface. Many of the additions to the franchise, including the latest installment and to a lesser extent this remake, don’t seem to get that Hitchhiker and Cook are equally important. But here they at least had an idea for a spin on each of those characters, and those are two of the most effective parts of the movie.
Let’s start with the original’s obvious best character, Hitchhiker. They do not have this character or a similar one (as part 2 did with Chop Top), which is in my view an insurmountable mistake for a remake. But I do like their idea of having the gang pick up a hitchhiker (Lauren German, HOSTEL: PART II) who jibbers not because she’s crazy but because she’s traumatized from being the last survivor of a separate, off screen Texas chainsaw massacre. The shocking thing she does instead of cutting her own hand is blowing her own head off to save herself from being captured again. Easily the most memorable shot of the movie is the Raimi-esque pull back from the kids screaming in the front of the van, through the hole in her head just before the body flops down, and through the bloody hole in the window to the outside of the van. A tour de force.
(A recent revisit reminded me that LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART III had a similar hysterical survivor character, so give them the credit for the idea. But they didn’t give her a send off that good!)
As for “the Cook”/“Drayton Sawyer” – Jim Siedow’s indelible older brother/father figure/chili cookoff champ character from parts 1 and 2 – he’s sort of replaced by R. Lee Ermey as the Sheriff, a brilliant casting choice and organic addition to the CHAIN SAW world. His personality is very different from the Cook, who seems like a harmless guy at first and keeps being apologetic even as he turns sadistic, while this guy is just a straight up cruel bully from frame one. But his very presence, and the outrageousness of a bastard like this having a position of authority, is constantly intimidating and infuriating. More importantly, there’s a pitch black humor to him – bragging about how he used to “cop a feel” on dead bodies earlier in his career, hectoring one of the guys into helping him drape Reynolds Wrap around the poor hitchhiker’s body, telling him to put “it” in the trunk but “Don’t break my stuff,” etc. Those (ad libbed?) comments are honestly more true to the spirit of Tobe Hooper than most things in most TEXAS CHAIN SAW sequels or prequels made by other people. So take that as a major compliment.
In the original the Cook worked at the gas station and was just the nearest seemingly innocent person to run to for help, so when he turns out to be in on it and brings Sally back to the house there’s a feeling of profound betrayal and hopelessness. This remake raises the stakes by making the equivalent character the official person you’re supposed to call for help when you’re in trouble! (It seems to me the movie implies he’s an imposter, because Erin [Jessica Biel] seemed to be talking to some other sheriff on the phone at the same time he showed up, but if I remember the prequel right they treated him as the actual sheriff.)
I think it’s fair to call this an ACAB movie even if its actual intent was for this guy to be an outlier. There are two different scenes where he shows up and someone breathes a sigh of relief and says, “Oh, thank God!,” but they quickly learn the error of that assumption. One of the more upsetting scenes in the movie is when he arrives after Erin has seen her friends murdered, but he notices a joint in the ash tray so instead of helping he abusively pins them to the ground and then perversely makes one of them re-enact the hitchhiker’s suicide. Of course this is because he’s part of Leatherface’s family and knows what’s going on, but also it’s a fact that many, many law enforcement officers who have no relation to any cannibal family would or have beaten up some kids over some bullshit after they came looking for help with something serious. It’s relatable.
There are some other little touches I liked. The brief part where a scary rest stop bathroom is a site of horror – that’s pretty organic to the material. The disgusting fly-covered pig head in the display case at the gas station – not some weird shit hidden in their house, but something they show publicly. The weird grandson Jedidiah (David Dorfman, THE RING) curiously poking the hitchhiker’s corpse with a stick. The body flopping over to everybody’s terror when the van goes over a bump. The irony of the men arguing that it doesn’t matter how they treat the body because she’s already dead when we have a pretty good idea what sorts of disrespectful things will be happening to their bodies shortly. And speaking of which, something this movie can be very proud of is the scene where Leatherface turns to Erin and the skinned face he’s wearing is very identifiably her boyfriend Kemper’s. That’s something they’ve never done in any of the other Chainsaws, and it’s made all the more horrible by that being the way she finds out he’s dead.
The other thing that absolutely must be praised about this movie is that it looks beautiful. The Platinum Dunes movies generally emphasized cinematography – it was kind of their whole point – but I think this was the best of them in that respect. I think it’s pretty well known that original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE director of photography Daniel Pearl also shot this one, but I think it’s less known that that was, how do you put this… almost a coincidence? Starting in the ‘80s Pearl was one of the top d.p.s for music videos (Supertramp, The Tubes, The Police, Rick Springfield, Genesis, Billy Idol, and on and on). Nispel had shot a George Michael video and some commercials with Pearl, and likely would’ve wanted him for any feature film he got hired on. (He later did bring him along for his PATHFINDER and FRIDAY THE 13TH remakes.) On an old episode of the podcast The Movie Crypt, Pearl told a funny story that hopefully I’m remembering correctly: Bay (or maybe his producing partner, Andrew Fuller?) was skeptical that Mr. Music Video here could shoot a horror movie, and wanted to see his reel. Pearl was insulted so he gave him clips from things he’d shot for Bay himself, plus a DVD of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE.
So, that’s not just faint praise. Those are things I genuinely respect about the movie. But here are some problems I have. The characters in the original movie are not characters with any sort of depth to them. What they have instead is a natural quality. They seem like normal people, they have normal conversations, it doesn’t seem scripted. Their dialogue doesn’t seem like it’s here to introduce themes or plot points, it’s just the stuff you talk about when you’re hanging out. That’s one reason people always compare the movie to a documentary.
Understandably this remake (and most of the sequels) take a more polished approach. Literally, in fact! These are good looking actors wearing very carefully manicured period redneck chic that shows off their bodies, which are constantly sprayed in glistening sweat. And they’re learning their lines and delivering them professionally but artificially. That’s fine. What I don’t like is that the script (credited to Scott Kosar, who later did THE MACHINIST, THE CRAZIES and one of the best episodes of The Haunting of Hill House) forces them into generic slasher tropes. Abandoning the class and cultural tension of the original – they’re unwelcome because they’re hippie-ish kids from Austin – these guys are victims because they party. They’re returning from a Mexico trip, smuggling marijuana, also going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (and you bet your ass they use the cliche of mentioning that they better play “Freebird”). You kids and your drugs and your rock ’n roll, it’s time for you to be slashed by a slasher.
In case that’s not enough, a point is made that Erin, the character who will survive, did not drink tequila with the others in Mexico, does not smoke pot and doesn’t like that they’re smuggling it. These are tropes that didn’t even exist when the first movie came out, were crutches for lesser movies that came in its wake, and were old enough to have died off and then been made fun of in SCREAM seven years before this came out. So they seem lazier than usual in this context.
Aside from how these details change the story thematically, it’s just striking that Hooper had such an unusual setup – a group of young people go on a day trip together because some bodies got dug up at an old cemetery and they want to make sure their relatives’ graves weren’t affected – and for the remake they said, “Hey, dump all that – they’re going to a rock concert!”
“Wait – this is Texas, though. Do they even have rock there?”
“Oh, good point. I don’t think they do.”
“Yes they do! It’s called Skynyrd! They have that there!”
“Oh shit, you’re right! It’s perfect! Freebird!”
Another change that’s expected, but hard to miss if you love the original, is having a very generic horror score (by Hans Zimmer acolyte and Bay regular Steve Jablonsky). According to an interview with the original’s sound designer and co-composer Wayne Bell, he and Hooper made their score by “figuring out what strange and wonderful sound we could make” and that “one of the things we enjoyed the most was playing that line between music and sound… the music is very much about creating an uncomfortable environment.” He says they used children’s musical toys (cymbals, xylophones and shakers), a stand-up five string bass with a movable bridge, a lap steel guitar, and “a bow, plucking and rubbing various things on it.” It’s not surprising that the new score would be more standard, but if you’re gonna call this a remake and make it take place in the same time period and everything but then you’re just gonna do the exact over-hyping bullshit that would be in any other horror movie it’s gonna clash, at least for me.
I also don’t like the primary Leatherface mask. To be fair, none of the non-Hooper ones look as good as the ones in the two Hooper films, and there have been worse Leatherfaces. Still, the idea that they really believed the way to improve the skin mask was to add an evil monster brow like a dollar store devil mask still appalls me two decades later. That’s the choice that threatens to awaken the old, angry Vern. And it goes hand in hand with their choice for Leatherface, former bodybuilder Andrew Bryniarski, who plays him more like a WWE wrestler than the confused manchild of the original.
One nice thing I can say about Bryniarski is that he was funny doing a Christopher Walken impression as Max Schreck’s son in BATMAN RETURNS. One negative thing I can say is that when Gunnar Hansen died he wrote on Facebook “Could give zero fucks. suck his dead nuts.” Which I’m against. Anyway, not my preferred Leatherface.
In his defense, the movie doesn’t give him much opportunity to be anything but an angry bull. It bothered me in 2003 that Ermey’s character and the others don’t really interact with Leatherface, as the Cook and Hitchhiker did in all the best parts of the original. And I realize now it’s just because they ditched the climax. That’s my final and biggest grievance: it still mystifies me that they could do a remake that has no version of the dinner scene. I just can’t comprehend how you look at that movie, try to figure out what needs to be carried over into a remake, and determine that the famous climax is not on the list. It’s especially odd because more than many of the sequels it does bother to give Leatherface other weird family members. Ideally they would’ve all come together as Erin was held captive to witness their depravity boiling over until she manages to escape for a final chase scene.
I think this bothered me even more on a second viewing because I realized that not only did they lose it, but they replaced it with a ridiculous scene of her running into a slaughterhouse and being startled by rats, like some corny old haunted house movie. It’s hard not to imagine a certain blond producer looking at a more faithful script and saying “How do we get them away from this dinner table?” and somebody says “I guess… she runs into a slaughterhouse?”
He strokes his chin, staring off into space, then walks over to the white board. He writes “NIPPLES.” After a beat, he draws two lines through it, to say “NIPPLE$.”
“Have the sprinkles go off in the slaughterhouse and get her tank top wet, you’ve got yourself a greenlight.”
“Thank you sir.”
“Also she has to tie a knot in her tank top so her bellybutton is showing and she is forbidden from untying it even after being chased around for hours. I want that in the contract.”
“Shut up and get out of my office.”
During TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2022)’s brief tenure as a controversial discussion topic on Twitter and on horror podcasts, I heard somebody say that it was silly to bring back Sally, because she’s not an iconic character or anything. This person professed to be a fan of the series but hadn’t even remembered her name. I thought that was ridiculous because Franklin yells her name a million times, so of course you remember it if you watch the movie very many times, and I don’t think I’m alone in considering her one of the top final girls just on the basis of Marilyn Burns’ fierce physical performance and anguished state at the end.
And then I realized that the reason this guy didn’t think of her that way is exactly the reason it was a big deal to bring her back: they never did it before! HALLOWEEN’s Laurie Strode has returned in 5 sequels (soon to be 6), is mentioned in others, is a recast character in the remake and its sequel. Sally Hardesty had only been mentioned in the opening titles of 2, and had an ambiguous, no-dialogue cameo in 4. In this remake none of the characters have the same names as the ones in the original. Furthermore, it occurs to me that Platinum Dunes also didn’t reuse any of the character names for their FRIDAY THE 13TH or A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET remakes. (They did have the first name “Nancy” for ELM STREET, but inexplicably changed her last name to Holbrook.) That’s an indication of where these movies were coming from – glorifying the killers, not bothering to remember who the good guys were. Probly some stoner Skynyrd fans, would be my guess – why bother checking Wikipedia? I guess even older, mellower Vern is enough of a purist to be rubbed the wrong way by that lack of reverence for the masterpieces they leased to use as “i.p.”
But you know what? Everyone got what they wanted. The movie was a big hit, many people liked it, many people still like it. Some even say they like it better than the original, which I don’t get, but who cares? Not only has the original not been replaced, but I think it is even more celebrated now than it was back then. Part 2 for sure gets more respect, because back then it had a pretty bad reputation, but several DVD and blu-ray re-releases later I think horror fans generally agree with me that it’s a classic. Meanwhile, the remake got one poorly received prequel, Platinum Dunes burnt out their formula with a couple of less good remakes of horror classics, the genre moved on to other cycles and trends. Hooper’s original even survived as a continuity – we’ve since had a direct sequel to it (TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D), a prequel to it (LEATHERFACE) and another direct sequel to it (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE ).
This is what I want to express to younger people getting worked up about new sequels and interpretations of their “favorite properties” or whatever they want to call it. Life goes on. Most of this shit that we’re religious about will be back some day in some other form. At that time I was still bent out of shape about BATMAN & ROBIN too, but its particular sins opened a path for a totally different Batman trilogy that was way more what I was looking for, and everything was fine.
So that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned getting older. Don’t take this stuff too personally, if for no other reason than that you will probly live to see more of these things you might like better. If not, maybe there’s a better use for your last years than stressing about shit like this!
* * *
One thing I somehow forgot about this remake was the cameo by Harry Knowles as a severed head on a plate – strangely appropriate considering my reasons for revisiting. Many memories and feelings of those days have been churning up in me in recent months, mostly from listening to the podcast mini-series Downlowd: The Rise and Fall of Ain’t It Cool News and Harry Knowles. I was gonna unload some of my thoughts about that here, but then I got invited to do an interview for a bonus episode of that show and I was able to exorcise pretty much all of that. You can listen to it here if interested.
So instead what I want to say is that I have a certain amount of embarrassment for some of the writing I did back then. I’m not talking about any fears of guilt by association for what anybody else did there or in their personal lives – that’s another matter. I’m just talking about the reviews I wrote.
When I read them now I think there’s plenty to be proud of. I was onto something about the potential of DTV. I was waving the flag for Scott Adkins movies, Isaac Florentine, John Hyams and even just the format of non-theatrical action movies years before any more mainstream writers caught on, or before there were any other writers or outlets focused on those sorts of movies. I was ahead of the curve on worrying about action comprehensibility (though thankfully that issue is mostly moot now, unless AMBULANCE starts a new trend). I was right about many things (including, in my opinion, this movie), and pointed some people to some interesting things they might not have found out about otherwise.
Also, if I may say so, I was pretty fuckin funny sometimes. I think I have way deeper film analysis now, but sometimes I read old reviews and laugh at my stupid tangents and wish I still had those instincts. It’s not something you can look to do on purpose, it has to come naturally, and I think it just came to me more readily at that age.
But also I think I was an angrier person than I am now, a more arrogant person and a less thoughtful person. I wasn’t that bad, I’m not saying I was a total piece of shit back then and now I’m a saint. But I had aspects to my personality as a film writer that I try not to have now. I try not to take it personally if a big popular movie doesn’t live up to my ideals of its genre or the movie it’s sequelizing or remaking or whatever; I can criticize it, but I shouldn’t get all mad about it. I try not to do that young man thing of feeling my passion for a thing makes me the expert and I have to elevate my opinion as the correct one. These are not things I’ve entirely grown out of, but they more likely come out in comments that I write up real quick, and then I feel bad about it. Hopefully that’s passed by the time I’ve finished writing a review.
I try not to assume I’m smarter than the movie, or the people who made it, or the people who like it. I hate the mocking tone I have in some of those early Seagal reviews, before I wrote the book. I’m not against writing negative reviews, and of course it can be fun sometimes, but I’d rather find joy in things, including stupid or crappy things, if it’s there to be found. I was getting a kick out of the craziness of those movies so I think it’s better to celebrate that than belittle it.
And I try not to use hyperbole unless it’s as a deliberate device to illustrate my excitement. There’s too much exaggerating about things being the best or the worst. I think even back then I would rather be fair and honest than just say something because I know it would be a good line or because people enjoy me going over the top. Obviously I still dislike THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2003). So I could try to cut its face off again if I wanted to. But I’m not that guy anymore and I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I prefer nuance.
Even my famous (as much as a review I wrote could be famous) CHAOS review I wouldn’t do the same now. I’m sure that movie was bad but I wouldn’t write it so mean now. And then we would miss out on the fun wrestling challenge everything, but that’s just how it is. I’m not like that anymore.
Nineteen years later I can recognize many good things about this movie even though in the end it doesn’t work for me. I have no reason to be mad about it anymore. Maybe a little mad. But not really. You are free to love it. There’s certainly worse shit out there, and my sacred texts don’t have to be yours.
On Downlowd he’s interviewed many critics, including newspaper critics who were sort of rivals to us online critics. There’s a distinction made between critics and “film enthusiasts” like Harry, saying that what he did was not criticism, but advocacy for movies to be made his way, rallying the troops to support the nerd movies so more like that could be made, or whatever. One interviewee says the critic’s job is to stand between the reader and the marketing department, and more than one talked about their duty to protect people from “bad movies.”
I disagree with that. If you’re writing for a newspaper I think you’re aware that you are working for the marketing department. Remember that I was rejected from the S****** Film Critics Society for not having reviewed enough new releases. Your job is to work with publicists to promote the movies released that week, and tell your very broad newspaper reading audience if it’s worth paying for or not. That’s a legitimate job but I have no interest in it. Unless it’s produced by fascists or something I’m not gonna tell you not to watch a movie. If you have time you should watch all the movies you’re curious about, including ones I don’t like, ones you might not like, ones that disrespect the greatest movies ever made, ones that disrespect the greatest movies ever made and you hated them at the time but you want to give them another chance. That’s what we do, those of us who watch movies. We watch movies.