Original US release date: October 17, 2003
Production budget: $9,500,000
Worldwide gross: $107,071,655
Almost 30 years after the original 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came this shiny updated version from director Marcus Nispel and superstar it-girl Jessica Biel. Inspired by a true story (which is not the same thing as being “based on” a true story, as this is not), this new millennium remake introduced the story to younger audiences who refuse to watch anything “old”. Luring audiences in with strong marketing and the Biel appeal, it proved a worthwhile venture for New Line Cinema and company, grossing more than eleven times its production budget. Again, this is why there are so many horror films; they’re cheap and they make money.
Following the journey of five twenty-something friends on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Dallas, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a polished, yet still gritty presentation, focused on mood, ambiance, and jump scares. There is plenty of each of these things to go around for fans of the genre, but also some of the typical trappings that horror films often fall into.
We meet up with our protagonists in their van, already on the road towards their Dallas destination. Only one of the five, Biel’s Erin, is truly likable throughout the entirety of the film. The other four are already engaging in the debauchery that one might expect twenty-somethings on their way to a Skynyrd concert in 1973 to be engaging in. The first fifteen minutes, or so, are littered with the sophomoric, lowest-common-denominator drug humor that is expected from this type of film. It’s eye-rolling and in no way endears the audience towards the characters but, thankfully, it also plays itself out fairly quickly, once things start to go sideways for our group.
After picking up a young woman walking alone on the side of the road (the second time the group has done this, seeing as one of the original five was also a hitchhiker before we join the story), things go horribly and we’re off to the races. From this point on, the film mostly succeeds in its goals. Massacre makes sure that at least a couple of the main group are completely off-putting so that we don’t feel too guilty when their day goes south. (At one point, Mike Vogel’s Andy gives a whistle and snaps his fingers at Erica Leerhsen’s Pepper, as if she’s an obedient dog, as a way of communicating that Pepper should follow him. It was at this moment that I began rooting for his death.) Aside from Erin, Eric Balfour’s Kemper and Pepper are allowed to show a little bit of wisdom and growth and, therefore, some level of complexity, which is refreshing and does help them become somewhat more sympathetic. Primarily, however, it’s Erin that audiences will truly care about. ( I would like to note, however, that while not at all a tolerable human being as a character, Jonathan Tucker gets one scene to truly shine as Morgan and he doesn’t waste it, providing the most memorable few minutes of acting in the entire movie.)
And Erin’s allure is not solely by design of the script. Biel commands the screen and projects an easy, natural charisma that make her hard to look away from or root against. This film was made at the beginning of her rise and she was still primarily known for her long-running role on the family television drama 7h Heaven. Massacre was considered a huge departure for her and she needed to make the most of it to further her attempt to break free of the wholesome image that had been thrust upon her by Heaven. And it wasn’t only about wearing low-rise jeans and a tight white tank top for ninety minutes (though that didn’t hurt her efforts). She also had to show that she could be something and someone entirely different from what audiences had become accustomed to seeing her as. She pulls it off with ease, here, simultaneously playing the role of relatable audience surrogate and tough-as-nails independent badass. I would even venture to say that Biel is the only reason this film was memorable for me as, any time I reflect upon it, I see her in my head and not blood, gore, chainsaws, or Leatherface. There are so many horror films – and nearly all of them with attractive people aimed at appealing to any and all persuasions running around – that it’s tough to break out and be memorable, so for Biel to nearly single-handedly make that happen is a testament to her abilities, efforts, and presence.
The horror elements of Texas Chainsaw Massacre are vastly successful. There are definitely some issues with the internal logic of the film in certain parts, but internal logic isn’t the appeal of a film like this. Sure, it’s always nice when everything clicks on every level, but I can forgive some continuity problems if the horror works. And it does. What I particularly like is that there’s enough of each type of horror to satisfy any brand of fan. Jump scares? Plenty! Leatherface’s first full reveal is impeccably and impactfully achieved. Blood and gore? Don’t look, Grandma! Mood, atmosphere, and suspense? That’s the best part for me! Once the first Unfortunate Event occurs, the tension grows and grows and grows with each successive happening, each new character, and each ensuing scene. There is absolutely no relief, no respite. Nispel refuses to let the audience off the hook once the ball is rolling and the result is a nail-biting, nearly torturous experience that stays with you long after the film concludes. That sounds horrible, out of context, but isn’t this why we watch horror movies? So, yeah, I don’t care as much if character A should have been walking in the opposite direction from where they were walking or if character B’s shirt wasn’t tied off in the scene before this one, but now it is. Not if the film succeeds in being as unsettling from beginning to end as this one is.
A lot of people will hammer 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre simply because it’s a remake. That’s lazy and unfair. Maybe the idea isn’t an original one, but the delivery of said idea is energetic and has the benefit of Jessica Biel who nearly (though inadvertently) overshadows the rest of the film due to her natural on-screen presence and it-factor. Biel and the overall atmosphere/ambiance are the two defining characteristics of 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and both help to keep it relevant and memorable almost 13 years later. If you don’t like horror, I can’t imagine that you would want to watch this film. Otherwise, I think 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre has plenty of thrills to offer up for a revisit from fans of the genre.
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