The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre marked the start of a shift in the millennial horror zeitgeist. Much as The Blair Witch Project had formalised found footage horror four years before, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was the first in a wave of films to lean into torture as spectacle, as well as the first to remake a classic horror franchise in a neo-grindhouse style. For both those reasons, it’s the grimmest and best release in the cycle since the original, and reflects a world in which the public domain was darker than ever before. Footage of September 11 had circulated around the globe, news was breaking about American use of extraordinary rendition in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the execution of Daniel Pearl signalled the beginning of a new era of mass mediated atrocity. To remain relevant in that media sphere, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre both had to search for a new vocabulary of intensity, and channel the profound paranoia that was sweeping through a traumatised USA.
To that end, director Marcus Nispel performs a kind of evacuation and evisceration of Tobe Hooper’s original, making for a film that is defined first and foremost by what it is not. While this is a fairly faithful remake from a narratological perspective, there is none of the archness or campness of Hooper, and nothing that remotely resembles horror comedy. The comic finale of most films of the franchise, in which Leatherface’s family sits down to a cannibal dinner, is entirely absent here. Likewise, there’s none of the lyricism of the original – just an unmitigated nauseating dread. From the moment it starts, you’re waiting for it to end, producing a cinema of endurance that hasn’t migrated into the playfulness of Saw, or the archness of Hostel, the two biggest franchises that would eventually emerge from Nispel’s vision here. Instead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a dirge, an ordeal, a real bummer, and while it may have captured its zeitgeist in a peculiarly pure way, there wouldn’t turn out to be a great deal of longevity in this classical mode of torture horror, which of course makes it feel all the more singular, and all the more unremitting, when rewatched two decades later.
Interestingly, however, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is not the most violent film in the franchise. In an era when violence was so available through mass media, Nispel opts for a more insidious tapestry of dread, disgust and repulsion, starting with the sweaty slick that connects the five protagonists here – a quintet of twenty-somethings played by Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker, Erica Leerhsen, Mike Vogel and Eric Balfour, who are making their way across the Texas heartland after a trip to Mexico to buy marijuana. So sickly, queasy and tipsy is the proximity between these characters – we start with two of them having sex in the back of the truck – that they’re never really differentiated from the abject connective tissue between them. No sooner are we introduced to them than they pick up a teenage hitchhiker who just as quickly shoots herself in the head. The grossness of this suicide sets the scene for the remainder of the film – from the tracking-shot through the hole in her skull, to the gun smoke that emerges from her mouth, to the clumps of viscera that come to rest on the shoulders of the screaming twenty-somethings. Worse, the main characters have to keep the victim’s body in their van until they can find a sheriff in this remote part of central Texas, carting it though the noonday heat of the desert until the stench becomes almost unbearable.
That gross-out style pervades The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and extends to the camera itself, which leers at the action with a scopophilic intensity worthy of Michael Bay. From a hick who gropes one of the women as she helps him with a colostomy bag as wild pigs run through the bathroom, to the sheriff’s jokes about feeling up the gunshot victim as he wraps her corpse in cling wrap, the violence here is inextricable from the voyeurism of looking at it, which makes this a peculiarly sickly and sickening film to simply watch. Once the action inevitably shifts to Leatherface’s house, the twenty-somethings become embroiled in the same queasily embodied visuality. To look, here, is to perpetually be on the verge of vomiting, as Nispel attempts to stimulate the gag reflex directly through the optic nerve, an all-consuming eye.
In other words, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a culmination of what Mark Seltzer called America’s “wound culture” – an obsession with performed trauma, especially as it played out in and around the figure of the serial killer, as a vocabulary for dealing with the anxieties raised by mass mediation as they played out on the cusp of the millennium. In this culminative vision of wound culture, all bodies are abject, even or especially conventionally attractive bodies, since their inherent potential for decay gives their very attractiveness a particularly repulsive edge. People are filmed like meat that has been left on a display tray for too long – sweating grey lumps that are already partly putrefying, as flies buzz around in anticipation.
This greyscale continues over into the palette of the film, and especially into the found footage framing device, which purports to be archival footage of the original police officers discovering the aftermath of the carnage in 1973. In fact, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre squares the circle between torture horror and found footage horror, reminding us that these two early 00s registers shared a common commitment to being as grating as possible. Watching these genres was meant to be like hearing nails on a blackboard, and one of the most iconic scenes from Nispel’s film draws quite literally on this trope. Yet that grating quality is mainly deflected into grating machinery, and the depiction of the body as a grating machine, as would occur in so much subsequent torture horror. Before arriving at the house, the main topos of the franchise, these new protagonists come across a gigantic disused factory, full of twisted and wrecked equipment. This functions as prologue to a Leatherface who revels in grinding his chainsaw (which is already rustier than ever before) against metal surfaces more than ever before. The first time he appears, he grates the saw against the T-bar of a car; the second time, he cuts through the roof. Even when the chainsaw meets flesh the contact is much blunter and rustier – so to speak – than ever before, while this stuttering mechanicity continues into the ancient sewing machine he uses to stitch up his morbid masks.
As well as inflecting the actual depictions (or anticipations) of violence, the focus on torture also introduces a new conceptual direction for the franchise – envisioning social institutions as instruments of torture in and of themselves. In a brilliant piece of casting, the sheriff and unofficial head of the Leatherface clan is now played by R. Lee Ermey, the insane drill sergeant from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Nispel signals Ermey’s introduction to the franchise by providing him with an entirely new subplot, in which he holds several of the twenty-somethings prisoner alongside the corpse in the back of their car, and revels in one increasingly perverse display of power after another. While the Leatherface family is torturing people in their house, the sheriff is performing a good old-fashioned American interrogation, openly laughing when one of the young men attempts to invoke his right to due legal process.
Of course, when the sheriff returns to the house, he brings this interrogative address to its torturesphere, transforming the Leatherface manse into a Guantamano-adjacent exclave, a de facto black ops site, a deterretoralised blank spot in the midst of the heartland. The fourth film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation gestured towards this possibility by way of a twist in which the hick family were acting at the behest of a nebulous global conspiracy between the Illuminati and the FBI. That turns out to be the first stage in a gradual globalisation of the franchise, as the hyper-local horrors of Leatherface involute into anxious porosities between America and the world it is attempting to keep at bay. In Nispel’s film, this produces eerie traces of a more genteel Americana, and Texans who have been isolated for so long that their whiteness has started to degrade into the film’s own tortured greys, which in turn bleed into a new digital scheme that confounds all distinction between day and night. Immediately after Leatherface’s first chainsaw scene, the action retreats from bright daylight into a strange digital ether from which it never recovers. While Nispel reprises the iconic conclusion to Hooper’s film, this time Leatherface dances in driving rain, rather than sunlight.
This conclusion comes at the end of a third act that almost entirely refrains from overt violence – in stark contrast to the high torture horror of the next film, The Beginning – for a masterpiece of suggestion. Textures of repulsion cascade upon one another, as the final chase leads us to the abattoir, through a crowd of cow carcasses, and right up against the chainsaw, where the final survivor only just avoids the facial atrocities that would become such a hallmark of the Hostel franchise in particular. And the torture finally leaks over into the found footage framing device, where Leatherface appears and murders the cops investigating the scene, before vanishing into a new horror ether that exists somewhere between torture and found footage, testifying to the arrival of an American twenty-first century that is already unimaginably traumatic: “This is the only known image…of the man they call Leatherface.”