Desolate Madness: A Look at the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Franchise Part 6
We’re continuing our look back at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise into the new year with part 6 in our series. This time, we’ll dissect the 2003 remake of the 1974 classic.
If you missed any of the previous discussions of MovieBabble’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre retrospective series, use the following links to navigate to them:
In the nearly three decades after the release of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, three financially underwhelming sequels had been produced. In the case of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, its financial returns could rightly be considered catastrophic. In comparison to other horror classics such as Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th or Child’s Play, Texas Chainsaw Massacre did not seem to lend itself as the start of an extremely profitable horror franchise.
This could partly be considered a good thing as many horror icons would lose their edge after many unnecessary sequels. It’s not hard to find examples of this. Freddy Krueger, the supposedly terrifying dream demon, turned into a full-blown cartoon spouting numerous silly one-liners when dispatching his victims. The Crystal Lake serial killer known as Jason Voorhees was blown to pieces by a sexy leather-clad android, only to be resurrected through nano-technology and become Uber-Jason. (Admittedly, I’m quite a fan of this goofy entry of the Friday the 13th franchise.) Fans of the first Child’s Play probably never thought they would see Chucky jerk off to a magazine of Fangoria — yes, this actually happened.
While a good argument could be made that Leatherface stopped being scary the moment Bridget Jones told him to “shut up” and “sit down”, the character never ventured into the wacky hijinks that his horror brethren had to go through.
It’s because the overly comical turn of these horror franchises that we saw numerous horror remakes popping up in the twenty-first century. The quality of them are debatable. Some can be considered to be great modern and grisly updates such as 2006’s The Hills Have Eyes. Some are enjoyable but pointless. Some can be considered as enjoyable but pointless such as the 2010’s A Nightmare on Elm Street remake. Some are extremely flawed but loving homages to the original franchise — the 2009 Friday the 13th remake. Others are completely disrespectful of the magic of the original. (There are many to pick and choose from, but let’s just mention The Fog, House of Wax and Poltergeist.)
But one of them, which is also often perceived as the one that started the horror remake craze of the twenty-first century, stands above all of them, and that is 2003’s remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even though it lacked the low-budget perils that made the original feel so gritty and authentic, it still managed to be surprisingly effective in suspense, horror and also had some surprising instances of black humor. It’s a film that takes many cues of the original but does its own thing. Most notably, it introduces a new family. Instead of the Sawyers, we have the Hewitts.
Let me introduce you to them…
Meet the Hewitt’s
What makes the remake great is that doesn’t try to copy the iconic set of characters of the original — besides Leatherface of course. They aren’t recycled or updated copies of Drayton, ‘Chop-Top‘ or Nubbins Sawyer, either. Each of these deranged characters are unique and interesting in their own way.
What has been retained is the sordid family dynamic surrounding their organized acts of bloody carnage. Similar to the Sawyers, economic disparity as the local slaughterhouse helped the Hewitt’s not only find financial security with but also had given them some semblance of self-respect. Even though most of their fellow southerners had begun to desert their humble little down, the Hewitts decided to stay put and fend for themselves.
The central traits of Leatherface haven’t been altered in the remake as he’s still a humongous chainsaw-wielding psychopath (played in the remake by former body-builder Andrew Bryniarski). But this version is more vicious than his previous counterparts. If we take the character of Leatherface of the first two films into account, we can gather he’s a victim of his own mental deficiencies. Even though it’s possible that the 2003 Leatherface also possesses sub-par intelligence, he never becomes sympathetic.
In the first two TCM films we were shown tiny moments of frail humanity, the self-doubt and confusion in the original from his romantic affection to the main heroine in part 2. Even part 3 showed Leatherface as tender and nurturing towards his surrogate mother and daughter.
We don’t get any of such moments in this remake. The Leatherface in the remake is bigger (well to be frank, R.A. Mihailof is barely an inch shorter than Andrew) and meaner than ever. If you are a pretty woman and show to be willing to give into some kinky-chainsaw foreplay, you might be able to cool down the original Leatherface. There’s no cooling down this Leatherface. He’s out there to maim and kill.
This Leatherface certainly isn’t my favorite, as I like the innocence that Hanson gave the character in the original, but it’s certainly the scariest of all of them.
So now to the rest of Hewitt’s: first we have Luda Mae Hewitt (Mariette Marich), the elderly matriarch of the family. While never actively joining her family’s murderous tendencies, she seems to condone it if it means there will be food on the table. She seems to be in denial of the madness running rampant in her family. She consistently proclaims to be proud of her neat household, even though it’s as disgusting as you’d imagine a house filled with deranged cannibals would be. When the victims pray for her mercy, she projects them to be the cruel bullies of Thomas, or as part of the counter-culture that is threatening her old-fashioned ideals.
Her brother is wheelchair-bound Monty Hewitt (Terence Evans). Like his sister, he doesn’t actively partake in the violence, though he does show predatory behavior to the female victims. For me, it always seemed like he never had the guts to unleash his dark side. If he had the guts, his depravity could equal his chainsaw-wielding nephew.
But the real monster of the family, the true instigator for most of the ensuing violence that follows, is Sheriff Hoyt aka Charlie Hewitt (played unforgettably by the late great R. Lee Ermey). Hoyt relishes in his sadism, torturing his victims both physically and mentally. As the prequel would later reveal, it’s Hoyt that spurned on their family’s wicked ways. He might not have spilled first blood, but he was the true mastermind for the Hewitt’s reign of bloody terror.
Then we have the amusingly credited ‘Tea Lady’ (Kathy Lamkin), the portly younger sister of Luda Mae who doesn’t live with the other Hewitt’s but in a nearby dilapidated trailer. Her continuous warped smile reveals that her mind has been slipping for some time. She’s lost in her own world, seemingly unaware of the gory evil and madness around her.
Her daughter, Henrietta Hewitt (Heather Kafka), is far less innocent. Though at first she seems like an absent-minded local whose trying to help out a distraught Erin, it’s quickly revealed that she’s well aware of what her family has been up to. Her extreme need for motherhood is what drives her in being culpable in their crimes, as she’s trying to parent the child of one of their victims.
And then finally we have Jedidiah Hewitt (played by David Dorfman who was barely ten years old at the time), the youngest and kindest of the Hewitt kin. His sense of empathy makes him an outcast of the family and he’s often sent outside to fend for himself. This further reflected in his rugged attire. His origins are unknown. He’s listed as the grandson of Luda Mae but he was probably the son of one of the unfortunate victims who came across the Hewitt’s, which partly explains his rebellious ways. Adopting young strays or children of their victims is not unusual for the Hewitt’s. Erin even saves a child from turning into another hell spawn.
The Final Girl
Just like in the original, we have five teens who become unfortunate victims of a psychopathic family. On the surface there are some obvious differences, such as there is no clumsy paraplegic like Franklin this time. But the real difference lies in how these characters interact with each other. Unlike in the original, where everything feels natural, even improvised, these remake characters feel incredibly scripted.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as they aren’t badly written. But you do begin to miss the authenticity of the original, as these characters just feel like well-written/well-acted slasher movie characters with an original flair.
We’ll begin with our final girl Erin (Jessica Biel). Unlike Sally, the final girl from the original, Erin has more of an arc. Like your stereotypical final girl, she rises above her tortured past and manages to stand up against violent oppressors. Sally had none of that. Sally never had a chance against her oppressors. She was just lucky that she saw a chance to escape. The whole ordeal even makes Sally lose her mind at the end.
Erin, on the other hand, manages to not only seriously wound our infamous Leatherface, but she actually saves a baby from being instructed in the psychopathic Hewitt ways and kill Sheriff Hoyt in the process. You could argue that this makes her more interesting, as there is admittedly more to her character than Sally.
But it’s a little too neatly packaged. You miss the grit of the original. This is even apparent from how different the characters look. Biel is the perfect Hollywood specimen; she doesn’t look like a natural woman. And that’s because she was already quite an established woman at the same. Marilyn Burns, on the contrary, was a struggling actress. Her paycheck wasn’t even close to Biel’s wardrobe budget. Biel looks perfect in every shot, with a make-up artist on the spot making sure she still looks beautiful even if she’s crawling away from a murderous giant with a chainsaw.
Burns simply had none of the privileges Biel had. Biel starred in a $9.5 million horror film that was surely going to make some profit while Burns starred in a $140,000 film which could have easily disappeared alongside sleazier grindhouse fare.
None of this means that a low-budget horror film with a troubled production automatically makes it in a better movie, but, with the right talent, it can have that grittier edge that would make it more interesting than its highbrow counterpart.
This is why no matter how good Biel is in her role — and she is really good — Burns always has the edge because her performance feels more real. As highlighted in the first part of my Texas Chainsaw franchise retrospective, the painful ordeal Burns underwent did have a positive effect on her performance and cemented her as one of the greatest scream queens of horror history.
Just like Erin, the four victims of the 2003 are better written than the original film, but also have lost their natural gritty edge. First we have Kemper (Eric Balfour), Erin’s boyfriend. At first he seems like the most boring of the bunch — just a boring, handsome, and nice guy. He appears at first as the kind of character you can’t wait to see brutally murdered in a slasher film.
But his character does have a morally scrupulous edge. Unlike the original, where the teens are just on their way to visit their old family home, in this remake they are on the way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. But unbeknownst to Erin, the trip also had a criminal side to it: Kemper has secretly hidden marijuana with the aim of selling it. This revelation causes a lot of friction between Erin and him, and after witnessing a horrific tragedy, Kemper has to choose between his financial opportunism and doing the right thing.
His character has a little redemptive arc as a result. This is further highlighted after his sudden demise — which still can’t beat the original for its quick and shocking brutality. After Leatherface hangs him up in his dingy basement, a tiny box falls out of his pocket. When Leatherface opens it, it reveals a wedding ring he had planned to give to Erin.
There is no clumsy paraplegic in this version. Instead we have Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), the moralistic hippie of the group. Even though he seems like the meekest male of the bunch, he does show courage in the face of murderous cannibals. His character also suffers the worst of the five as he’s humiliated and brutalized by Sheriff Hoyt before finally losing his life protecting Erin from Leatherface. It’s because of the all the horrors he endures that he instantly becomes the most sympathetic of the bunch. Tucker gives the best performance of the victims, in part because he shares a lot of dialogue scenes with R. Lee Ermey. Even though Ermey chews the scenery, Tucker holds his own.
Then we have Andy (Mike Vogel), another handsome teen; there’s not much else to say about him. You are introduced to him while he’s making out with Pepper (Erika Leerhsen). He seems like the typical horny teen, and you know what happens to promiscuous teens in a slasher film. He’s seemingly a good person, opting to help Erin find her boyfriend in a creepy house instead of just running away — which could have saved his life. But he doesn’t get enough characterization to stand out. Vogel certainly gives a good performance, however, especially in his final scene when he pleads for Erin to take him out of his misery.
Pepper is a superficial, free-spirited, pseudo-spiritual teenager who completely loses it the moment any violence interrupts her tranquil existence. She becomes the stock slasher character, the frightened teenager who’s completely useless at a time of crisis. Despite Leerhsen’s solid performance, her eventual death is predictable and leaves you mostly cold.
Eventually it’s the performances that save these characters from becoming bland stock characters. Every performer nails their cues of drama and terror. And for the most part, you don’t want these characters hung on meat hooks. If a slasher movie can make you care, even just a little for some of the characters, it’s certainly doing something right.
A Welcomed Return
Even though Tobe Hooper returned as ‘co-producer’, his creative input probably wasn’t noteworthy. But he wasn’t the only one that returned. John Larroquette, who made his first credited ‘vocal’ appearance as the narrator of the original, returns as the narrator of the remake.
But the most noteworthy return is cinematographer Daniel Pearl. The different cinematography between the original and the remake is probably the most interesting difference. Not only do you see the evolution of an award-winning cinematographer but you also see two similar but very different styles of cinematography that work in their own ways.
The original will always be more unique just because of the unique conditions during its inception. Pearl was only 23 years old at the time while he was working on the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, having only done some commercials beforehand. Hooper gave Pearl immense creative freedom, protecting him from the studio which was demanding a rigorous and cost-effective shooting schedule.
Naturally because the remake is a bigger studio project, the resulting film looks more polished. It would be an impossible task to replicate the grit of the original. The privileges the filmmakers had during the remake would make this impossible. Nevertheless the film still lovingly pays homage to the original in style, even recreating the swing set sequence (without a swing set).
But the remake has quite a few remarkable shots in of itself. The most notable one comes after the despondent hitchhiker (Lauren German) shoots herself in the mouth. After the violent blow-out, we see the shocked and panicked faces of the teenagers as the camera pulls back through the exit wound of the dead hitchhiker. Her head flops back against the seat and the camera pulls even further back through the hole in the glass as we see the teenagers rushing out of the car. All of this was done in one beautiful take.
It might not be as iconic as the swing set sequence but this one-take sequence has become one of my personal favorites.
Out of all the obligatory twenty-first century slasher remakes, 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands out among all of them. A remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have easily been a disaster. Like so many of the horror/slasher remakes before and after, we could have had another heartless studio remake that fails to capitalize on anything that made the original so special.
What makes this remake so great is that they didn’t even try to copy the original. It respects the original and it recreates some of the gritty aesthetic, but it’s a film with its own, singular identity. It doesn’t feed on fan service like so many belated sequels and reboots of today. It has new, interesting, and memorable characters. Like the original it still focuses mainly on suspense rather than gore.
The teenage characters are thankfully bereft of the tiresome Kevin Williamson banter that became so popular after the success of Wes Craven’s Scream. Most surprisingly, the film is fueled with many effective moments of black humor, courtesy of R. Lee Ermey’s hilarious delivery. Let’s not forget that it made Leatherface scary again, especially after he was turned into the shrieking pushover in the previous film.
Though the success of the film might have inspired the many tired remakes that came after it, it still doesn’t deter from its own singular greatness.
Strangely the massive success of the remake didn’t lead to a sequel but lead instead to the 2006 prequel. We will discuss the slightly unnecessary but highly entertaining prequel in the next part.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise? Comment down below!
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