Well, here's what I surely didn't expect: that a remake produced by the insipid Michael Bay in 2003 and starring a TV teen starlet would end up being the second-best film with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its title. No, it cannot hold a candle to Tobe Hooper's original, but it's not a godawful comedy, and that alone would be enough to bump it above at least the second and fourth entries in the franchise.

The question could probably be asked, why remake TCM, anyway? And the answer would probably come back, why the hell not, they did it twice already. Neither Leatherface nor The Next Generation fits comfortably into the continuity of the first two films, and they both take significant chunks of plot and several details from the first, as much or more as the 2003 movie does. One of them did a terrible, terrible job of it, and the other is at best an unpainful retread of the material. Today's subject has to be at least a step up from "unpainful": the script isn't any worse than the third film's, and it looks a hell of a lot better. But I don't mean to get ahead of myself.

Still, it seems curious: why remake this film in that year? The truly amazing glut of horror remakes that has brought us new versions of (at least) The Hitcher, Prom Night, Halloween, The Hills Have Eyes, Willard, The Fog, The Amityville Horror, Killing Me Won't Bring Back Your Goddamn Honey, The Omen, and (God help us) the upcoming Friday the 13th hadn't begun yet - indeed, I think The Texas Chainsaw Massacre uncorked that particular genie - and the general trend of remaking '70s films was still in its cradle. Slasher films weren't remotely popular in 2003; still aren't, the rise and fall of torture porno from 2004-'07 made sure of that. But Michael Bay is nothing if not a man with a keen eye for what will pack a movie theatre, and the handsome returns TCM brought back proved that he knows from crowd-pleasing, two years before The Island suggested that maybe he actually doesn't. But something convinced him and New Line that the world was dying for a return to the franchise that had bottomed out less than ten years earlier with one of the most wretched barrel-scraping exercises in all of '90s horror.

At any rate, remake it they did, and right from the very start it's clear that somebody was trying to avoid intentionally pissing off the fans of the original: the film begins with narration by the very same actor who performed that function in 1974, the now-venerable John Larroquette. His little speech - very close to the one in the first film, with a touch more vagary to it - isn't replicated on a scrolling card like it had been in all of the preceding four installments; instead, he speaks over some super-duper grainy footage that's meant to be the official police film from their investigation of killing site on August 20, 1973 (the police footage comes back at the end, where it's used to set up an incredibly stupid sequel hook). Apparently, the lone survivor of an event quickly dubbed "the Texas chainsaw massacre" alerted the cops to the terrible goings-on at the old Hewitt place - and isn't Hewitt a much friendlier bad pun than "Sawyer" was?

Jump back in time two days, where a group of five slasher-ready college kids are driving from Mexico to Dallas, where they have front-row seats to see Lynyrd Skynyrd perform, and we know that they're huge fans because they're playing "Sweet Home Alabama" on their van's stereo, having apparently acquired a bootleg of the band's second album eight months before it was released. Hell, Skynyrd's first album had only come out five days prior! And thus it is that we learn a Very Important Lesson about setting the scene: when you hump period trappings as desperately as the first ten minutes of TCM humps "The Early '70s", it does well to make sure you're getting those period trappings right, because some snotty blogger will notice and he will mock you for it.

So, the van's occupants are: its owner, Kemper (Eric Balfour), wearing not one but two articles of clothing monogrammed with a "K"; his buddy Blond Dude Whose Name We Learn Halfway Through The Film (Mike Vogel); bespectacled pothead Morgan (Jonathan Tucker); Pepper (Erica Leerhsen, the oldest of the five actors, and the youngest-looking), the hitchhiker they picked up in El Paso, who enjoys extremely spittle-heavy make-out sessions with Blond Dude; and Kemper's girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel). Erin is an absolutely obvious Final Girl, for two reasons: she is played by the film's most famous star in an age of horror films when the famous person always lives to the end, and she is a mirthless prude. Not only does she find Blond Dude and Pepper's oral gymnastics distasteful in the extreme, she's probably the only twentysomething in America in 1973 who not only refuses to smoke pot herself, but is shocked - shocked! - that her friends might not actually share her moral position. Interestingly, she is not obviously a virgin (the original script made her pregnant, in fact), given that she's apparently living with Kemper and waiting for his proposal any day now; the fact that the new TCM, like its forebear, doesn't so much as nod in the direction of Have Sex and Die is one of its foremost virtues.

They're zipping through the Texas countryside with their giant piñata full of weed, basking in the most pornographic collection of '70s signifiers you ever did see, when they spot a "teenage" girl (Lauren German, who is three years older than Biel) standing dazed in the middle of the road. Since fate has kindly provided them with one insatiably horny hitchhiking ladyfriend, they pick her up, but find themselves more than a bit creeped out by her rambling, disjointed mutterings and pleas to be taken home. As soon as she notices what's happening, she starts screaming that they're going "back there", and so pronounced is her fear of wherever "there" is that she pulls a revolver out of... out of her skirt, but for the life of me I can only think of one way that you could hide a revolver underneath a skirt, and I really don't thank the filmmakers for going there, and she shoots herself in the head, splatting viscera all over the van and blasting a great big hole in the back window.

This, incidentally, is where the film first threatened to go off the rails for me. The opening was actually pretty swell: the characters were fairly well-written, for a slasher movie, and fairly well-acted, for a slasher movie/a Jessica Biel vehicle. But the girl's death scene is shot in a profoundly overbaked way, with three separate angles of the back window exploding in slow motion and a really sexy computer-aided tracking shot from the front seat, back through the giant hole in the girl's head, back through the broken window, and some fifty feet away from the car, which looks really cool but signifies absolutely nothing and seems like first-time feature director Marcus Nispel, a music video veteran, was doing nothing whatsoever but showing off. Such fripperies are the exception, rather than the norm, thankfully.

It's kind of amusing how desperately Morgan and Blond Dude (okay, we eventually learn that he's named "Andy") think that they can still make it to Skynyrd with a corpse in the back seat, but Kemper pulls off at the first available business, a gas station proudly selling barbecued meat - the only moment that the new TCM will ever even think about the cannibal angle that helped make the original such a queasy, nihilistic experience. The old clerk (Marietta Marich) is a real shady character who acts like she sees blood-spattered kids with a suicide victim in tow every day of the week and twice on Sundays, but she calls up the sheriff for them, and tells them that he's too busy to come out, but he'll meet them at the old mill.

The old mill turns out to be abandoned, and it's time to say good-bye to the relatively well-drawn characterizations of the Meat that we've enjoyed thus far, because everything from here on out requires them to be idiotic in ever more expansive ways. First up: root around the old junked cars piled to the side of the mill, one of which hides a jar of formaldehyde, containing a photograph of their suicidal friend and her family - incidentally, there seems to be no earthly reason for this artifact to exist except to frighten the kids, although at least they do get frightened. Idiots they may well be, but they're still idiots who are scared shitless that psychos are all around them, and indeed a spirited debate crops up about whether or not they should just dump the girl's body and flee, and the movie continues only because Erin - who is the noble, moral one, lest we forget - has Kemper completely pussy-whipped.

Cut a long story short, they meet a creepy little boy, Jedediah (David Dorfman), who tells them that the sheriff's house is just down the road, unreachable by car; Kemper and Erin head off to find him, the others stay behind to keep freaking themselves out. When the two finally reach the house, they find only a giant model that looks like a cross between a cinder block and the White House, and not a rural Texan farmhouse at all, but they go to it, and find a legless man in a wheelchair, named in the credits "Old Monty" (Terrence Evans). He grudgingly permits Erin to use his phone, and later to help him off the floor after he's emptied his colostomy bag - gee, thanks movie! - while Kemper, not trusting this situation at all, sneaks into the house, and finds himself unceremoniously clubbed to death by a hypertrophic man in a leather mask (Andrew Bryniarski, who apparently confronted Michael Bay at a party to beg for this part).

Meanwhile, the sheriff (the irreplaceable R. Lee Ermey) finally shows up - at least, he claims he's the sheriff. The film is curiously coy about whether or not he's the sheriff gone psycho, or a pyscho sheriff impersonator. Surprisingly none of the kids seem to notice that he's completely bugfuck crazy when he asks them to help him wrap the dead girl in plastic wrap (leading me to snark, in my best Jack Nance impersonation, "she's dead - wrapped in plastic!" to no-one in particular in my empty apartment), nor when he starts leering about how he used to grope corpses, and notices that the girl is "wet" down "there". Hokey smokes, this is mortifying just to recap.

By the time Erin gets back to the mill, assuming that Kemper preceded her there, everybody is starting to figure out that all is not well. Which is why Erin and Andy go back to Movie Set Mansion, where they meet Leatherface again (the leather mask is unusually good in this film - maybe even scarier than in the original, and certainly leaps better than in the three sequels). Erin books out, but Andy manages to get ambushed in some hanging linens, and gets his leg chainsawed off at the knee, whereupon he becomes this entry's "victim left to slowly die on a meathook", with the charming addition that Leatherface rubs salt on his stump to cure it. Cure it like you cure meat. Not cure it, like "fix it". This is actually another extraordinary subtle cannibalism reference, now that I think about it.

Back again at the mill, Erin is barely able to blubber to Morgan and Pepper that they need to get the fuck out of Dodge, when the sheriff gets back and flips out over the joint in the van's ashtray (topic for discussion: is this merely his pretext, or is he of the puritanical breed of psycho killers?). After a lengthy sequence where he mentally tortures Morgan with an unloaded revolver - this scene and the meat hook scene actually lead me to nominate TCM as the spiritual originator of the torture genre, for some damn reason - he takes the boy away, leaving Pepper and Erin to fend off Leatherface. Only one does.

Thus begins the Final Girl sequence, freely blending the TCM ethos of "running through the backwoods, end up at that gas station where you started just to find out that the owner was one of the killers all along" plus a stop off at a trailer where Henrietta (Heather Kafka) and the obese Tea Lady (Kathy Lamkin, who is extraordinarily distracting here, having also played the trailer park manager - "I ain't at liberty to give out no information" - in No Country for Old Men) are caring for the suicide girl's baby sibling, with the more typically '80s-style slasher film "cat and mouse" type of chase. I am more than happy to report that the played-out Dinner with Grandpa that was so nightmarishly effective in the first film and increasingly tedious in the sequels is nowhere to be found. I'm even happier that the Final Girl sequence here is actually pretty okay, not imaginative in the slightest, but propulsive and full of nice little grace notes. Not so happy that the scream-from-Hell's-bowels intensity of the production design in the first film is missing, but you take what you get when you get it.

You can't say that first-time screenwriter Scott Kosar didn't at least try. The framework of the movie is uncut slasher formalism - the first time the series really got to that point - but I kind of dig that, since the original did so much to establish the slasher genre in the first place. I certainly dig the characterisations, which are shockingly full for a teen-oriented horror picture, especially a latter-day teen-oriented horror picture, and I was delighted by Leatherface's unprecedented sensitivity towards pain. Maybe the screenplay goes a little bit overboard in trying to give the Hewitts a backstory, which doesn't make perfect sense (little Thomas developed a skin disorder and the other boys laughed at him, so we trap and murder itinerants now), but he could have simply rehashed the now-ossified TCM plot points, and he didn't. He rehashed Friday the 13th. Which is actually a step down, but in 2003 it wasn't quite as run into the ground as it was in the early 1990s.

Please don't misunderstand me: this isn't a good film. It's a paint-by-numbers slasher film with all the edges sanded off: Nispel can direct a functioning stalking sequence, but even by slasher movie standards, this is a resolutely unfrightening motion picture, and it positively aches for an unrated cut that doesn't keep pussyfooting around every last gore moment. Still, even a paint-by-numbers slasher is a novelty in this decade, and while Saw and its bastard children were still in the future, TCM is like a glass of cool water from a mountain spring compared to the torture fad.

But there's one place where the film really does excel, and I've saved it for last because sometimes I like to be a positive angry film blogger. Remember a few weeks ago, I referred to Daniel Pearl's "exemplary" and "iconic" cinematography as one of the chief reasons why the original film was a masterpiece? Here's something cool: that same Daniel Pearl, now sporting a very professional middle initial "C", was brought onboard to shoot the remake, something that I am almost positive has never happened before. Now, nobody is ever going to make a film that looks exactly like the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre again and have it work one-half as well as it did in 1974, and besides, if you're hiring Daniel "C." Pearl to shoot your movie, but you want him to exactly recreate something he's already done, shame on you. Pearl is a better cinematographer than that, and his schedule is full of more important projects like oh holy fuck he's shooting the Friday the 13th remake.

But back to my point, which is that, though TCM-03 looks nothing like TCM-74 and isn't as visually powerful as TCM-74, at least it still has killer cinematography. My eyes aren't quite good enough to tell if it's the result of some very clever use of stock and filters, or if it was just digital intermediate - I'd bet a lot of money that it was digital intermediate - but there's a pronounced yellowness to much of the film that hovers just below the conscious level in almost every respect, except for the sky. The sky is a very awkward shade of muddy-yellow-blue, and it looks exactly like that very distinctive color the sky turns in old photographs that have been fading for a while, and it gives the new TCM a very characteristic and somehow very appropriate look. I don't mind saying, I loved every bit of it, and I once again sit in stunned amazement that a talented man like this, who could have an Oscar or an ASC award under his belt by now if he'd done anything respectable, should be so very tied to such very shitty horror movies (his last two credits were More Aliens vs. More Predators and Captivity).

And there we have it: the hugely successful return of one of the granddaddy of all granddaddies in the horror genre, a mediocre film that nevertheless knocks Freddy vs. Jason, released by the same studio two months earlier for equally obscure reasons, right into a cocked hat. A film that managed to dodge a giant bullet, by somehow managing to not completely suck even though it took the most dangerous American horror film of all time and remade it into something soft and predictable. And therefore a film that should count itself lucky, and not toy around with a sequel. Which, technically, I guess it didn't.

Body Count: 8, one of them a suicide and one of them a villain. Two people are killed directly by a chainsaw, and one is dismembered while still living, making this the chainsawiest massacre yet.

Reviews in this series
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Hooper, 1986)
Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (Burr, 1990)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (Henkel, 1994)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Nispel, 2003)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (Liebesman, 2006)
Texas Chainsaw 3D (Luessenhop, 2013)