The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) at 20: The Birth of Platinum Dunes

In 2001, not content with outdoing Roland Emmerich in the bombastic, hyperkinetic nonsense department thanks to the likes of Pearl Harbor, Michael Bay embarked on a new adventure by establishing the production company Platinum Dunes, which to this day specializes in horror films. But whereas now it has earned a certain amount of critical kudos with the Purge and A Quiet Place franchises, in the early days it was a much grimmer affair. Basically, to borrow the visual language of his blockbusters, Bay (alongside his partners Brad Fuller and Andrew Form) was carpet-bombing iconic horror properties. 

The first of these, released on October 17, 2003, was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was successful enough to spawn a prequel released in 2006. It also paved the way for reimaginings of The Amityville Horror (2005), The Hitcher (2007), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). None of them were particularly well received (Elm Street even drew the ire of Wes Craven himself, who had been excluded from the creative process), although the first Texas Chainsaw film does have its admirers – myself included. 

There is something pleasantly perverse about a movie that aims to stay relatively true to the source material, going as far as retaining the period setting and John Larroquette as the narrator, but still sets out to be its own thing in the most extreme way possible. Lest we forget, Tobe Hooper originally tried to secure a PG rating for the 1974 classic, only to get slapped with an R because, even with minimal blood, the film was just too intense and scary. Conversely, Marcus Nispel’s take on the material is so gory it had to be edited to avoid an NC-17 (with the added fun fact that the director is from Germany, a country where horror films are routinely censored and illegal to purchase uncut, even on home video). And this was without including a proposed scene where a young boy was to be brutally murdered. 

Chief among this version’s detractors was none other than Gunnar Hansen, the original Leatherface, who was asked to cameo as the truck driver in the final scene and turned down the offer (he later agreed to play one of the killer’s relatives in Texas Chainsaw 3D, a direct sequel to the original released in 2013). In an interview with the British magazine Total Film in 2006, he shared his thoughts on every single entry in the franchise and criticized the remake for being “too slick” and “all about Jessica Biel’s boobs” (did I mention Michael Bay produced the movie?). 

He does have a point, in that the remake deviates from the original visually (amusingly, with Daniel Pearl serving as the cinematographer for both versions), while still adhering fairly closely to the 1974 script—a deliberate choice by screenwriter Scott Kosar, who felt the plot of Hooper’s seminal piece of dread couldn’t be bettered. And yet, for all the blatant commercially minded decisions (chiefly increasing the gore and casting an attractive TV star in the lead, with veteran character actor R. Lee Ermey thrown in for good measure as one of the villains), there is genuine affection for the material in every single frame. 

Unaffected by the cynicism of Hollywood decision makers, Nispel himself was reluctant to accept the assignment out of reverence to the original, and was talked into it by Pearl, a frequent collaborator and friend. As such, there is none of the cheap nastiness that permeates subsequent Platinum Dunes-produced remakes (and this film’s own prequel, an exercise in gratuitous brutality and shock value), which more explicitly come across as assembled on a conveyor belt, with little thought for what may lie beneath the buckets of gore (Nispel came back to direct Friday the 13th, and it’s pretty obvious his heart isn’t really in it). 

If New Line Cinema was the house Freddy (Krueger) built, then Platinum Dunes is the one Leatherface built, with a queasily horrifying Texas town as the foundation. Two decades on, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre endures among the cash-grab remakes by virtue of originating from a place of sincere love for the source material, divorced of pure cash-in calculations. And of the two 2003 films with Michael Bay’s name attached, it’s arguably the more enjoyable one. Certainly less exhausting than Bad Boys II

“Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is streaming on Max.

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