Review for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

Jun 22, 2022 | Uncategorized

As a film critic, I try to have an open mind about the movies that I watch and rewatch. In the case of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” — not the 1974 classic directed by Tobe Hooper, but the 2003 cult classic directed by Marcus Nispel — I return to the flick again and again because it feels like a fable.

When I watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” it is as if I’m being transported back to a campfire and listening to a grisly “true” story by a shady fellow camper. More than any other film in the series — including the acclaimed original — this one evokes the gruesome mood behind a premise dubbed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

What kind of world would allow a family of sadistic, murderous cannibals to thrive in the middle of rural Texas? In the Platinum Dunes universe (i.e., the studio that produced both this iteration of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and its prequel, the underrated “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”), the colors are always sleazy and slightly oversaturated, a world of sickly greens and deathly dark blues and blackish reds. Everything seems sweaty, bloody, moldy, dirty and damp. You can practically smell the rotting flesh and feel the bodily fluids as they spray toward you. Even in non-gory scenes, the intense and humid Texas climate seems oppressive inside the characters’ poorly ventilated van or the un-hygienic general store they visit.

When people imagine a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” film, they anticipate gore on the grandest scale that modern horror cinema can provide. The 2003 version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” provides this with the most viscerally painful and nightmare-inducing kills imaginable. Even in situations where characters survive, they undergo ordeals that validate John Larroquette’s introductory warning about how anyone who lived through this sort of ordeal would be scarred for life. If you want a movie that lives up the premise of a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” concept — the very appeal of the story is right there in the title — it is hard to imagine leaving this flick feeling disappointed.

As I noted in my 2021 review of the prequel, the 2003 version has a fantastic opening half. There is an ominous newsreel that feels oddly welcome despite being a hackneyed exposition device; we meet five characters who feel real enough that we know them by their names instead of their actors (Kemper, Andy, Pepper, Morgan and Erin); and then, after they make a single fateful bad decision, something unimaginably horrible happens to them. And when that horrible thing happens, Nispel knows exactly what to do with the camera.

I won’t dare spoil what that event is, but I will say I did not anticipate it when I first saw the film. Even better, when the event in question sets off the rest of the movie’s plot, it isn’t because the characters act like idiots or do things which make us dislike them. They seem like real people who, through no fault of their own, wound up in a terrible situation. The movie’s first half works because it sticks to your ribs, and involves people you care about.

The two most important actors are Andrew Bryniarski as Thomas Hewitt, aka Leatherface, a hulking and monstrous presence filled with malice, rage and an implacable murderousness that allows him to seem truly unstoppable. He is part of a family led by R. Lee Ermey’s Sheriff Hoyt (we learn in the prequel that he stole that identity), whose performance rivals his work with Stanley Kubrick in “Full Metal Jacket.” In that 1987 war movie, Ermey played a drill sergeant whose advice was correct even if his methods were harsh and demeaning. Here, we are misled by Hoyt’s position of authority into initially believing that he too is correct even if his methods seem harsh. Only over time do we realize that this is a psychopath no less malevolent than Leatherface himself — and no less capable of violence. He uses his law enforcement status to get away with perverse sadism that would be immediate red flags to anyone if he was just a civilian.

With Bryniarski and Ermey carrying the story and Nispel making sure their universe has the right tone, the rest of the evil Hewitt clan (which includes a number of colorful characters; the Tea Lady is my personal favorite) emerges as rulers of their own little evil world. Within that paradigm, the rote narrative that fuels most “Texas Chainsaw” movies (the 2017 “Leatherface” is an exception) feels almost divinely ordained here. In a universe as well constructed as this, cliches feel like inevitabilities — and inevitabilities, especially those involving death, are truly horrifying.

And in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” universe, there is no escape from that horror. You are met only with blood, gore, sweat, screams and pain.

And so you have a horror movie that works because of, rather than in spite of, its formulaic elements. When Roger Ebert panned this film, he claimed that “it wants to tramp crap through our imaginations and wipe its feet on our dreams.” This is a legitimate emotional response to a movie that purges our own demons by putting us into the world of the truly depraved. You’re supposed to feel like you have been dragged through the darkest parts of your brain, and that the artist has violated the sanctity of your soul’s most vulnerable parts.

Ebert, as far as I know, never changed his mind about this film. I can. I would give it three-and-a-half stars out of far, despite having initially written this:

“The 2003 remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” had a strong opening half, one that could work as a suspenseful short film about a group of likable characters struggling with a severely traumatizing event. Unfortunately it quickly pivots toward being a bland rehashing of the basic story beats from the 1974 original, leaving unrealized its potential for a distinct creative vision of its own.”