Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2003)
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
You know the adage, “Everything’s bigger in Texas?” Well, there’s one big, twisted franchise that — for better or worse — is synonymous with that sprawling state. I’m, of course, referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise; a series of films that spans nearly fifty years, nine entries, and a myriad of tonal shifts. Does it all work, or is it messier than a big plate of TX BBQ? We’ll find out by taking a strange, sun-roasted journey though the series. In this installment, we look at the first of the early-aughts remake of a horror classic — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)!
As a guy in his early 30s, I remember the trend that took over the horror genre in the early 2000s with some admitted fondness. I am, of course, referring to capitalizing on the genre by remaking them. I mean, it’s a no-brainer. Doing such a thing draws in veteran horror fans, who, like myself, have an absolute completionist nature when it comes to the genre and the franchises within it. But then, you also bring in the teenage and young adult crowd by giving them the slicker version of a classic that might not have known even existed in the first place.
The production company responsible for a glut of these horror remakes was Platinum Dunes — a production company whose specialty was (and is) low-budget horror films. Well, “low” by Hollywood standards as the company already had a major industry player as a co-founder in producer/director Michael Bay (Ambulance). At the time, Bay’s involvement in this production shingle was a big deal as he is primarily known for working strictly in the realm of massively budgeted action blockbusters. Thus, the idea that he would apply his slick over-styled aesthetic to the world of horror was intriguing or confounding, depending on your perspective. While the director’s cachet put this company on the map, the more active producers at Platinum Dunes were and still are executive producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller (The Forever Purge); neither of whom were great at drumming up buzz or defending this remake or any subsequent remake they would go on to produce under the Platinum Dunes banner.
Keep in mind, though, that Bay’s involvement in Platinum Dunes is strictly as an executive. Thus, the company’s inaugural project still needed a director, and one was found in the now essentially bygone world of music videos — the same medium in which Bay got his start. The directorial duties of remaking a horror classic went to German-born director Marcus Nispel (Conan the Barbarian, Exeter). Despite having no feature film credit at the time, Nispel had extensive experience behind the camera having helmed dozens of music since the early 1990s.
Graduating from music videos to movies would seem like a dream for almost any filmmaker. But when Nispel was offered the chance to direct this remake, he had reservations. First and foremost, Nispel felt that remaking TCM was a “blasphemous” thing to do. Secondly, the director wanted to make his feature film debut with an original project. But, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, a frequent collaborator, convinced him to do the remake. Pearl’s pitch was simple, having shot the 1974 original, “Let me make the same movie twice. Once at the beginning of my career and once at the end of my career.” Through a sense of creative intrigue or a liking towards his colleague, Pearl’s desire was enough to convince Nispel to take this “blasphemous” gig.
The plot for this remake is exactly what you would expect from a deliberate remake … or any entry of this franchise in general. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) follows a group of young twentysomethings trekking their way through The Lone Star state on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. The trip is sidelined, however, when things go south in an incident with a teenage hitchhiker (Lauren German), which forces the group to find help nearby. Of course, the only locals offering assistance are Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) and the rest of his crazed clan. Soon, the would-be concertgoers find themselves trying to escape the family with Thomas “Leatherface” Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski) hot on their heels!
With a story, director, and cinematographer in place, it was time to cast fresh faces for Leatherface to skin. Interestingly, though, the proverbial face of the franchise was cast before his victims. After catching wind of the remake, Bryniarski (Batman Returns) approached Bay (who he had previously acted for in 2001’s Pearl Harbor ) at a Christmas party to ask for the role. Once given the part, Bryniarski packed on the pounds by eating an artery-clogging diet of brisket and white bread to reach the 300-pound weight the producers desired for the character. Of course, the physicality wasn’t where things stopped as the actor had a take on the horror icon, saying, “In my estimation, Leatherface is like a beaten dog — he was ostracized and ridiculed and treated harshly by his peers. The psychological damage they inflicted was immense — there’s no chance for him.” Although, as deep as Bryniarski tried to make his take on the character, I felt he merely cut an imposing figure, but didn’t bring anything new personality-wise to the role.
But what of Leatherface’s victims this time? Well, it consists of pretty young faces. None of them look like they came from the mid-1970s, but instead, an Abercrombie & Fitch or American Eagle catalog of the early-2000s that has some faux 70s fashion stickily applied to its pages. The only named star in this cast of protagonists is Jessica Biel (Candy), who parlayed her success on the dreadfully saccharine and pandering TV series 7th Heaven (1996-2006) into big-screen stardom. Like many actors throughout history, Beil chose the horror genre as her vehicle to the big screen. In the driver’s seat of such a vehicle, she does a perfectly serviceable job as the film’s primary protagonist and final girl.
Outside of Biel, the rest of the cast is filled with recognizable character actors of the time. Like their lead co-star, all of them deliver serviceable performances, but aren’t given much with which to work. Unlike the original film’s cast, this group lacks any real personality and argue to progress the plot. And yes, I know the characters of the ’74 film functioned similarly. The difference, though, is that the victims in the original movie had actual personalities to fuel the arguments and ever-growing tension of that original flick.
Unsurprisingly, all of these characters are overshadowed by the other members of the makeshift Hewitt family, all of whom are arguably the scariest aspect of this remake. As I’ve said in other installments of this franchise’s run, while Leatherface is the icon, his more seemingly “normal” family members unsettle me. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the South my whole life and know some folks with similar draws and mannerisms. Much to my relief, though, the people I know are perfectly well-adjusted, with a tinge of southern charm. This striking regional familiarity is utilized very well by all the cast members of this particular family unit to disturb the viewer. Especially if that viewer isn’t from the South and thinks that all the archetypes and stereotypes established in the modern age by Hixploitation flicks such as Deliverance (1972) and TCM ’74 are legitimate.
Alas, Sheriff Hoyt pushes the rest of the characters aside, played by the perpetually scene-chewing Ermey. Don’t get me wrong, he is always entertaining to watch, but he always goes up to eleven when he’s in a lead role. In the case of films like Full Metal Jacket (1987), that works perfectly. When Ermey is in minor roles, such as his appearance in Se7en (1995), he elevates the scenes. But, in the case of the movie in review, every time he’s on-screen, the film becomes “The Sheriff Hoyt Show Hosted by R. Lee Ermey!” Sure, that’s entertaining, but it takes me out of the flick since Sheriff Hoyt seems to be in his own movie, in which he’s the craziest character. As is the actor’s way, Ermey improvised most of his dialogue; frankly, you can tell.
All these characters are shoved into Nispel’s sleek, yet artificially grimy aesthetic exercise of a remake. An approach for the other classic horror remakes Platinum Dunes later adopted for the remainder of the decade. Visually, the film reminds me of a pale imitation of Se7en, as mentioned above, an aesthetic that the Saw series (2004-) would expand upon in the torture porn subgenre. Such an approach makes this remake entertaining enough and fun on a teenage nostalgia level. But the kills are not memorable, its characters seem empty, and there easily could have been so much more to it. A prime example is a subplot in which Biel’s Erin is going to be newly pregnant that didn’t make it into the final film. Obviously, this remake wanted to offer up a Massacre that would have the broadest possible mass appeal. (For an R-rated flick, anyway.)
Ultimately, this remake didn’t transport me back to my teenage years as I hoped it might. But, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) proved to be a mild Franchise Expansion for a couple of reasons. Love it or hate it, TCM ’03 was responsible for introducing some younger folks to this franchise. Moreover, it ushered in the trend of horror remakes, which pumped some fresh blood into the genre for a few years. Not that it’s a big surprise as the film was produced on a budget of $9.5 million and went into profit on day one of its theatrical release. After this, the movie went on to gross $107 million worldwide. Although, “worldwide” may be a bit of a misnomer as the film was banned in Ukraine. Of course, with all that success, this remake would lead to … a prequel.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) is currently available on Digital, Blu-Ray & DVD.
On the next ride through Texas will see where this remake really began with
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)!
Other Texas Attractions:
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)