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Sometimes They Come Back is here to take a look at the horror genre and its love for remakes! We’ll be discussing both the original movie and its remake (sometimes multiple remakes) in detail before deciding who comes out on top! Are the originals always the best? Let’s find out!
‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974)
For this first edition of Sometimes They Come Back, I thought I would take a look at a horror movie which really shaped my love for the genre – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Directed by Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was refused a rating by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), which lead to it being banned for 25 years as one of the famous ‘video nasties’. Thirteen-year-old me settled down to watch the first viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on Channel 4 after the ban was lifted in 2000, even after my mum tried her best to talk me out of it. Even though I prided myself on having seen a lot of horror movies by this point I remember being flat-out terrified by Leatherface and spent most of the second half of the movie hiding under my duvet.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre tells the story of a group of five friends (Sally, her brother Franklin, her boyfriend Jerry, and couple Kirk and Pam) who have travelled to a graveyard in Texas to check on the condition of Sally and Franklin’s grandfather’s grave. As the opening of the movie tells us, the graveyard has been experiencing a recent spate of grave robbing and vandalism incidents. While they’re in the area Franklin decides they should detour to check out their grandfather’s abandoned house, and basically things go wrong from there.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre makes you feel pretty uncomfortable from the minute it starts, with flashes of dead bodies and headstones, teamed with the now iconic camera whine. The opening voiceover sets up the death of most of the teens, so when we cut to Sally and her friends hanging in their van we know things are going to go badly for them. They seem keen on this happening as quickly as possible and make bad decision number one by picking up a creepy hitchhiker from the side of the road. The Hitchhiker wastes no time in ramping up the creepy by cutting his own hand, burning a photograph of Franklin, attacking Franklin with a razor blade, and uttering the line the group of teens probably should have paid more attention to – “My family’s always been in meat.” I think this scene probably features the most blood of any other scene, which is pretty impressive for a movie with ‘massacre’ in the title.
After quite rightly throwing the Hitchhiker out of the van we come to bad decision number two – stopping at a creepy gas station (and eating their barbeque…). After finding out the gas station is out of gas and being warned away from going anywhere near the old family place by the owner, the group decides to ignore the warnings and head out for a look anyway. After a quick tour around the abandoned house, Kirk and Pam (the sexy teens of the group) go looking for a swimming hole. After finding it dried out they decide to ask the neighbours if they have any spare gas (hint: this is bad decision number three).
The first shot we get of Leatherface is Kirk’s very quick and unexpected death. As he explores the entrance hall of the seemingly empty house he literally trips into Leatherface emerging from his kill room, who promptly smashes him in the head with a hammer, drags him inside, and slams the door. It’s all over before you really know what’s happened, and you’re left staring at the closed metal door wondering what the hell you just saw.
Luckily for us, once Leatherface has made his first appearance on screen we don’t have to wait very long for him to pop up again. Pam, in her hunt for what happened to Kirk, ends up in one of the most iconic moments of the whole movie – the meat hook. In his aim to get the film a PG rating, Tobe Hooper tried to leave as much violence to the imagination as possible, but all it really does is make this scene more horrific. Up until now, we’ve had a lot of lingering shots of Pam’s completely backless top, so knowing that the hook is piercing right into her flesh, combined with the fact she’s still alive when Leatherface starts sawing up her boyfriend’s corpse in front of her, creates a really difficult moment to watch.
Once Jerry meets his untimely end as well, Sally and Franklin finally head off to look for their friends. This is the moment Sally should be glad she actually invited her incredibly annoying, whiny brother with her on this trip because he proves very useful as a human shield when Leatherface rears up out of the darkness and chainsaws him and his wheelchair to pieces. Franklin does get the honour of being the only person to die by actual chainsaw in this movie, which I’m sure would comfort him.
From the moment Franklin dies until the last shot of the movie, you do not get a chance to calm down. There are no breather moments, no light relief, just Sally running for her life and screaming. We don’t get a lot of backstory for the group of teens in the van, so you may think it would be hard to care about whether they live or die, as is often the case in a lot of modern horror movies. However, this final act of the movie really creates a bond between you and Sally. All her friends are dead, so it’s just you (the viewer) and Sally trying to escape this situation together. Though if I was in her shoes I would probably just lie down in a crouched, foetal position and hope for the best. Sally’s constant screaming, the extreme close-ups of her giant, terrified eyes, and the unrelenting speed of Leatherface all team up to really make you feel like you’re being chased as well.
It’s at this point we find out Leatherface shares his house with his Dad (the gas station attendant), his brother (the Hitchhiker), and his questionably alive Grandfather, as Sally gets to sit down to dinner with them all (lucky her). For once, the killers decide to make a bad decision of their own and choose the almost-dead Grandfather to be the one to finally off Sally, as apparently, his slaughtering skills are second to none. Seizing her chance to jump through the window and make a break for freedom, Sally not only manages to take the Hitchhiker out of the picture with a pretty spectacular running-over scene, she also manages to hitch a ride to freedom.
Covered in enough blood to give Sissy Spacek in Carrie a run for her money, Sally screams blue murder from the bed of a truck while Leatherface swings his chainsaw in the middle of the road in a blind rage.
Only when the scene cuts to black do you feel able to get your breath back. This whole movie has a creeping sense of dread which is cemented in place when that metal door slams shut and doesn’t let go until the credits roll.
‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2003)
Much like the original, the remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) also holds an important place in my own personal horror history, as I somehow managed to sneak into seeing it at the cinema when I was only 15. Over the course of my teenage years, a lot of classic horror movies were remade, and it was really exciting to be able to see any part of the series in the cinema and feel some connection to the original.
The remake takes a lot of the best parts from the original movie and mixes them with more up-to-date effects, and a hell of a lot more blood and gore, to give us the latest outing in the series. We open with the same style of voiceover, which basically dooms the teens to a very grisly end. We even get the same eerie camera noise from the original, even when there’s no camera about. This time there is also the addition of some grainy police footage, as officers tour the basement of the Hewitt (that’s Leatherface’s name now) farm.
The remake is still set in the ‘70s, which is made immediately obvious by the fact the group are on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert with a van full of weed. The van this time is made up of Erin, her boyfriend Kemper, their friends Morgan and Andy, and a hitchhiker called Pepper, who is already grinding on Andy when the movie begins. Erin (Jessica Biel) is immediately set up as the ‘final girl’ – she’s totally in love with her boyfriend but she’s not overly sexual, she’s sensible, she’s got mad skills like lockpicking and hot-wiring cars, and she doesn’t do drugs. Randy from Scream would be proud of how well she fits the rules.
This time the hitchhiker we’re greeted with is a clearly traumatised young woman wandering down the middle of the road. After they gang have rescued her, she quickly freaks out when she realises they are driving “the wrong way”. After telling them they’re all going to die, she swiftly pulls a gun from up her dress…I don’t know why she’s stashing a gun there…and shoots herself in the head. What I will say about this remake is there are a few truly beautiful horror shots, and the shot showing the horrified reactions of the van gang as the camera pans backwards through the hole in the dead girl’s head is one of those shots. Just beautiful.
The Scooby gang decide to call the local sheriff to report the death of the hitchhiking women, and through this, we are introduced to the worst character of the entire movie. Apparently, the thought of Leatherface and his cannibalistic, grave robbing family wasn’t scary enough for the remake, and so they introduce a violent, sadistic, corpse groping sheriff to really make you look forward to the scenes that actually involve chainsaw-related violence. Rather than let the tension build by itself, we are constantly barraged by scenes of the sheriff just being nasty in a way that makes you uncomfortable.
Erin and Kemper don’t have the joy of meeting Sheriff Hoyt just yet, as they head off to his house to try and get him to hurry up so they can start washing the brains off their back seat. Unfortunately for Kemper, he gets the honour of basically recreating the first death from the original movie as Leatherface pounces on him from a doorway and quickly dispatches of him with a hammer. Again, we’re greeted with such a quick shot of Leatherface that you’ll probably jump when it happens (I did) and he’s gone again before you have a chance to process what has gone on.
Both Andy and Pepper’s chainsaw injuries also give us some of the coolest shots of the entire movie. Andy is chased across the Hewitt family’s garden as he dodges through an excessive amount of sheets hanging from an impressive amount of washing lines. He almost makes it free and clear, until Leatherface sweeps in from nowhere and chops his leg off. I remember the sheet running scene being shown a lot in the trailers when the movie was first released, and it does work incredibly well at building up the tension and slowing down Andy’s escape in a believable way. In a similarly great scene, Pepper acquires a feather-lined jacket just in time for Leatherface to repeatedly chainsaw her in the back and send feathers spraying up into the air rather than blood. Pepper’s well-placed murder in the headlights of the group’s van means we get to see Leatherface turns to face Erin and reveal he is now wearing Kemper’s face. With all these teens running around just begging to be killed, it’s a wonder Leatherface had time to crack out the sewing machine and knock up a new face, but apparently, he knows how to multitask!
We soon find out that Leatherface is literally related to every other character we’ve met so far in the movie, including the sheriff, the old lady at the gas station, the creepy kid hanging about the old mill, and the caravan-dwelling women who have stolen the dead hitchhiker’s baby and plan to raise it as their own. Or eat it. I’m not sure.
While we don’t get as satisfying a final act as the original movie, Erin and Leatherface do get to have a bit of showdown, though she does spend a lot of this dragging about an injured Morgan which really slows her down. After Morgan meets an unfortunately crotch-based, chainsaw death, Erin runs into the slaughterhouse to hide, where I was greeted by my second jump-scare of the movie, as Leatherface throws himself under a hatch opening in pursuit of Erin. I’m not used to Leatherface being remotely sneaky or clever, which is why this bit was actually quite shocking, so well done to the remake for actually giving me a fright!
In the final showdown, Erin manages to chop off Leatherface’s arm before making her escape, which perhaps explains why the next film in this particular iteration of the series was a prequel, and not about Leatherface building an Ash-style chainsaw attachment for his arm. Erin rescues the dead girl’s baby from her new cannibalistic lifestyle and drives off in the sheriff’s car, not before splattering him all over the road. FINALLY!
The best part of the whole remake is probably the ending, as we cut back to the police footage from the opening of the movie, where a blurry Leatherface jumps out of the darkness and murders the police officers. The closing voiceover tells us the case is still open, which makes you feel just great about turning the lights off after the movie is done…yup…this is fine.
‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ (1974) vs. ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (2003) – The Final Verdict
Having watched it quite a few times as a teenager, I was under the impression I really liked The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003). However, watching it almost immediately after the original means it’s not hard to see all the places that the remake just fails to hit the mark, even if I did jump off the couch a couple of times.
First of all, I feel like the remake tries quite hard to make us connect with the characters. As Kemper lies dying in Leatherface’s workroom, we see he had an engagement ring in his pocket, after Erin had hinted at them getting married earlier in the movie. It’s supposed to make us feel more sympathetic to the characters, but really it just feels forced. The original doesn’t waste a lot of time giving us backstories or a lot of context for the character’s relationships, and yet I’m still rooting for them. It just feels like a waste of time in the remake.
This also goes for the Hewitt family and not just the ‘good guys’. When Leatherface is sewing his new Kemper face, we get a shot of his real face, which of course is horribly deformed. We’re later told it’s a skin disease and the whole town used to make fun of him as if it’s some sort of justification for him getting his chainsaw murder merit badge. I like my bad guys creepy, and they don’t have to have some logical backstory which made them that way (I’m looking at you, Rob Zombie’s Halloween).
In the original, Leatherface kills because people come onto his family’s property, and he wants to protect them from the outside world. This is clear from the scene where Leatherface peers through a pair of curtains and then sits, rocking, with his head in his hands. He seems incredibly stressed by the whole situation and clearly wants it to be over. His kills are very instinctual – he doesn’t think before he jumps out on Jerry and bashes his head in. However, 2003 Leatherface has peepholes all over his house, he watches Erin without trying to kill her, which makes him seem quite smart, he’s stealthy and manages to sneak up on a lot of characters, and most importantly, he seems to kill for pleasure rather than necessity.
The thing that makes the original film work so well is the complete fear that Leatherface instils in the audience. He is this huge, hulking, basically mute killer, who will run after you until he kills you – he will never stop. The remake relies on the creepy Sherif to carry the scenes that Leatherface isn’t in, rather than letting the sense of dread that you know the majority of the main characters are going to die (I mean the voiceover at the beginning told us as much) keep you on the edge of your seat. They also make use of the lots of jump scares, and even worse, fakeout scares such as an angry possum hiding in a locker or Morgan pretending something has grabbed his arm in an abandoned car. It’s all so unnecessary! Chainsaw-wielding guys who wear human skin masks are terrifying enough as it is thank you very much.
So the winner is clearly The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). I like that it’s horrifying without using excess gore and blood. You finish the movie thinking you’ve seen a lot more horrible things than you actually did – your imagination filled most of it in for you, and that makes such a refreshing change from seeing people actually get torn apart in movies like the Saw series. Plus I feel no matter how many times you’ve seen this movie, it’s impossible to watch Sally being chased for the last 30 minutes and not be terrified, and I like movies that can keep up the scare factor, even with repeat viewings.
Winner: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)