Remakes are curious things. Generally speaking, the weaker the original, the better the chances the second version will work. On the other hand, a remake of a good film–even one of a peculiar sort–is bound to bring invidious comparisons. So it’s unavoidable that Marcus Nispel’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” will be judged by reference to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cult classic. And it can’t help but come up short, just as Tom Savini’s second version of another horror touchstone, George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead,” did so spectacularly in 1990.
In this case, however, the comparisons have to be extended. Hooper’s grisly little movie about five teens traveling through the Texas wilds who are captured and slaughtered by a family of backwoods psychos has been sequeled and remade many times before. There was Hooper’s own 1986 followup, an idiotic farrago that featured Dennis Hopper as a Texas Ranger even nuttier than the fiends he was pursuing. Then came “Leatherface” in 1990–a numbingly awful (and Hooperless) near-retread of the original. And as though things hadn’t sunk far enough, “The Next Generation” made its way onto the screen in 1997, a dreary potboiler memorable only for the fact that both Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have since been trying to expunge it from their resumes.
By the standards of those three disasters (and more recent ripoffs like “House of 1000 Corpses”), Nespal’s is a commendable effort. Keeping to the late Nixonian period, it retains the basic plot of Hooper’s picture but isn’t slavish about it the way, for instance, that Gus Van Sant’s version of “Psycho” was. It flips genders (turning the old codger of the first film into a hag), transposes props (giving the wheelchair used by one of the kids to a family member instead), and switches characters (the hitch-hiker at the start is a victim rather than a conspirator). It also increases the gore level (the original picture is surprisingly blood-free, working more by suggestion rather than graphic exploitation)–though certainly not to the extent one encounters in the cruddier contemporary horror flicks–and adds some easy hillbilly humor by prominently featuring R. Lee Ermey as the local sheriff (though it isn’t post-modernly self-referential in the “Scream” sense). And it doesn’t avoid emphasizing the jiggly stuff on occasion (a shot of one of the girls from the rear as she approaches the death house is the most blatant example.) But its technical methods are pretty reflective of Hooper’s, and the horror devices don’t stray far from those of the original. There is one major lapse: an early suicide-by-bullet in which the camera tracks through the hole in the dead person’s skull as though we had suddenly been transported into an episode of “C.S.I.” Still, as remakes go this one is more faithful to its source than most.
The problem is that in 2003 this story, however well told, can’t recapture the frisson of Hooper’s version. It’s simply a matter of the time, and the fact that a remake necessarily misses the subtext of the original. On one level, the 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” was just a gruesomely efficient thriller. But on another, it was a parable of the whole Vietnam experience. Was it accidental that the victims were a bunch of college-age kids treated like slabs of meat by crazed, almost irresistibly powerful Texans, and used to feed their mad plans? Maybe viewers didn’t read the picture in so explicit a fashion in the year of Nixon’s downfall, but subconsciously the message was there, and fed the horror. Thirty years later, a refilming can’t possibly carry the same punch–although if the current administration’s foreign policy continues along the paths it’s now on, today’s college students may begin feeling the same mindless dread that prepared their ancestors to respond as they did to Hooper’s film three decades ago.
So the new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” though superior to the run-of-the-mill slasher junk of recent vintage, remains a pale copy of the original. Nonetheless one has to admire the neophyte Nispel’s skill in manipulating the genre conventions, the success of the crew in replicating the look of the first picture, and even the young cast, who cut far more credible poses as the doomed quintet than is usual in these sorts of movies. (The score, on the other hand, doesn’t duplicate the effect of the background sound of the 1974 film.) If this sort of thing is to your taste, it’s a better-than-average example; but it will never achieve the cult status of Hooper’s grotesque, unforgettable version.