I’ll give Texas Chainsaw this – it’s a very different take on remaking a classic horror film. The 2003 remake of Tobe Hooper’s classic was essentially a repackage of the main plot points (basically: Leatherface kills people), modernized with a higher budget and more attractive cast but none of the twisted charm of the original film. This kind of limp mimicry could only suffer when faced with the inevitable comparison to its predecessor. A decade later, we have an entirely different beast, one that’s less a remake than a particularly wrongheaded piece of fan fiction; one I’m now about to spoil in some detail, so perhaps exit stage left if you’re planning on watching the film without foreknowledge of the story.
Sidenote: I’ve eschewed the “3D” adjunct since the film never received a cinematic release in Australia, meaning that my viewing was decidedly two dimensional. The occasional whirring chainsaw shoved in the direction of the camera was the only indication of the film’s 3D accoutrements.
This remake opens with a hasty summary of the events of the 1974 film. This establishes the film as a sequel (ignoring Hooper’s jokey actual sequel) rather than a “reboot,” but it’s an inauspicious opening for a number of reasons. My first reservation is that setting a 2013 cheap-ish remake in the ‘70s is asking for trouble, since that requires period clothing and period-appropriate dialogue and all kinds of things that require more talent than most directors put in charge of such films possess. The more significant problem is the way the prologue is composed – it’s essentially a YouTube highlight reel of the first film, condensing its events into a minute-long compilation of “best kills” and that one nice shot of the girl in the red shorts’ ass. This gives you a pretty good insight into what to expect from Texas Chainsaw, as it’s the kind of film that people who fast forward through horror film to get to the gore would make.
From here the film chronicles the aftermath of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre; the town sheriff rocks up to the Sawyer residence and demands Leatherface – sorry, “Jed,” as the film steadfastly refuses to call one of horror’s most iconic villains anything other than … Jed – since the Sawyer’s have “gone too far this time.” The sheriff turns out to be one of the few good guys in the film, and given this opening scene implies he’s looked the other way when it comes to the Sawyer’s graverobbing and murder in the past … well, it gives you some insight into the misguided way these filmmakers perceive “good” and “bad.”
A battalion of the kind of hillbillies that film has led me to believe populate every square inch of Texas arrive and soon lay siege to the Sawyer’s house, unleashing makeshift molotovs and gunfire upon the household. Soon it seems that every Sawyer is dead (including original-Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, who plays an older Sawyer, clearly a bit too rotund nowadays to play a plausible monster), except of course “Jed” because otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? Oh, and there’s one baby who survives only to be whisked away to the arms of one of those aforementioned hillbillies, at which point the purpose of this introduction becomes clear – Texas Chainsaw is following in the footsteps of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake by giving its villain a female relative to …well, we’ll get to that.
We jump forward in time to focus our attention on Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario), a young woman whose identity remains unclea– okay, look, if you can’t work out that she’s the grown up Sawyer baby, you haven’t watched a movie before. The timeline here doesn’t actually make any sense, since this film features a very modern-looking iPhone and yet Daddario was 27 at the time of filming. If you’re generous enough to assume Daddario is 27-playing-30 (as opposed to 27-playing-20, which is more likely), you have to assume that the events of the 1974 film took place about a decade after the film was made. Which is already making my head hurt, so let’s move on. Daddario is getting hot and heavy with her boyfriend when she finds out a long-lost relative has left her an inheritance and she’s actually adopted and all this kind of tedious exposition that the film is courteous enough to power through quite quickly.
Heather, her boyfriend and two friends pile into a Kombi van and drive out to collect her inheritance. In case you were worried –that’s only four young adults! Cabin in the Woods made it quite clear that it should be five victims! – they run into a hitchhiker/ne’er-do-well at a gas station who you’d be right to be wary of if you remember how well collecting a hitchhiker worked out in the first film. This one proves less interested in self-mutilation than good old-fashioned thievery, and proceeds to ransack Heather’s inheritance (a stately mansion filled with silverware and such) before wandering down to the basement. If you’re one of those people who’ve never seen a horror film before, you might be surprised that he encounters Leatherface – sorry, Jedidah Sawyer – down there and doesn’t enjoy the introduction all that much.
At this stage it seems like we’re in a fairly typical slasher film. The other four return from a trip into town (where they meet a handsome young policeman and the hillbilly ringleader, now the mayor, and the film lingers on them long enough that you know they’ll be important later on), and proceed to get picked off one-by-one. Naturally we still have time for Heather’s boyfriend to hook up with one of her friends. The film seems to be going out of its way to establish its victims as “bad people” before killing them off; the reasons for this will become clear soon enough. Texas Chainsaw is oddly prudish with nudity here, stripping Tania Raymonde down to her underwear but cutting away before we see anything else.
Maybe this is a weird thing to criticise the film for. Hooper’s original film was plenty effective without a boob in sight, and it’s a bit hypocritical for me to point the finger at the filmmakers for demanding nothing but gore when I’m well… demanding boobs. Of course nudity isn’t necessary for a good horror film! The problem is that Texas Chainsaw includes a number of scenes that serve no significant plot purpose other than to remove their actor/actresses clothing, except that they draw the line at actual nudity. This might be dictated by ratings concerns or the actresses’ no-nudity clauses, but it’s at the expense of the immersive, no-holds-barred tone needed for effective horror when the film can’t even do trashy exploitation properly.
Back to the story! Her friends’ remains scattered around her recently-acquired house, Heather spends a while getting chased around by the lumbering, grey-haired chainsaw-wielding maniac before stumbling into a carnival. This is about the time that any vestige of “horror” evaporates; Leatherface might be scary in a dark wood or an ominous old house, but when he’s running around waving a chainsaw through a fucking carnival it’s hard to take the old guy particularly seriously. To its credit, the film doesn’t even pretend to be a horror film anymore, as this is the point where it doubles down on the fan fiction element of the screenplay.
You see, it turns out that ol’ Jed isn’t the bad guy at all. He’s just a misunderstood, simple man with an unfortunate penchant for chainsaw massacre from time to time. Who can’t relate to that! The last half of the film, I shit you not, decides to take this ridiculous concept completely seriously, positioning Leatherface as the “hero” of the film. Heather learns of her true identity and the torrid history of the town flicking through police files while at the local police station, before intuiting that the mayor is out to get her (he is!) and running away from the station. None of this – why she’s given free access to these police files, how on earth she works out the true agenda of the eeeevil mayor – makes any sense, and this is a film with six people credited for screenplay/story. Heather’s escape attempt is short-lived; she slashes an old man with a knife before the handsome young cop captures her. It turns out that his handsomeness was merely a façade! He’s actually the son of the mayor, and therefore evil. As you’d expect, Heather tries to stab him in the face with a knife. I am not making any of this up.
Heather is strung up in the slaughterhouse, because somehow everyone knows that Leatherface will go there to find her (this, also, has no reasonable explanation). Once again, the film emphasises that it’s quite happy to remove most of its actresses’ clothes, as long as we don’t get a hint of actual nudity.
The climax is as silly as you expect. A scar left by Heather’s mother’s necklace convinces Leatherface he should rescue rather than dismember her, and there’s a climactic showdown between Leatherface and the mayor. That sheriff from the opening scene returns, and demonstrates he’s a “good guy” by refusing to shoot Leatherface as he mutilates the mayor. The film ends with Heather moving in with her favourite cousin Jed, and the audience shaking their heads in disbelief.
Texas Chainsaw ends up being far more interesting than the previous remake, simply because it tries something different. It’s a very strange kind of different, though: to understand Texas Chainsaw, you need to understand the kind of people who go to a horror movie to cheer on the villains, and laugh in joy when hapless teenagers are gruesomely murdered. Personally, I don’t understand such people, nor how they ended up getting to make this film.