I think we shoot a lot of stuff and then 20 years later, we find out what it meant.
— Tobe Hooper, The American Nightmare (2000)
The images are indelible: a monster wears a mask made of human faces; an old man sucks blood from a screaming girl’s finger; a girl runs in circles around the very house she’s trying to escape. And of course, the chainsaw — roaring, raised high, cutting through limbs, torsos, doors. In 1974, the release of Texas Chainsaw Massacre changed the ways viewers thought about horror. Shot for $140,000 with a manifestly amateurish cast, Tobe Hooper’s first feature went on to make over $30 million in the U.S. alone. A favorite of academics — who see in it critiques of the Vietnam War, patriarchy, frontier myths, and consumer capitalism — Texas Chainsaw Massacre has inspired frequent homages, descendants, copies, sequels, and remakes.
The latest of the last is, like the first, set in sweltering August 1973. It begins, again, with John Larroquette’s voiceover attesting to the film’s basis in a “true story” (as well as the first film, as he also narrated that one). Under this solemn narration runs “confirmation” of the truth claim, in the form of a police “crime scene” film (a seeming nod to The Blair Witch Project). A deputy points out the scratch marks and blood stains on the stairwell leading to the dank and drippy basement of the “Hewitt house,” offered up in scritchy sepia footage, handheld and too close. All bad.
The dated footage gives way to the moment it apparently documents — circa-’70s blondish color (the new movie is shot, beautifully, by original TCM cinematographer Daniel Pearl): five kids in a van, headed from Mexico to Dallas by way of Nowhere, Texas. The group consists of straight-ahead thinker Andy (Mike Vogel), his recent lovechild pickup Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), annoying Morgan (Jonathan Tucker), baseball-capped driver Kemper (Eric Balfour), and his girlfriend Erin (Jessica Biel who, with this role, can consider her much-publicized campaign to beat down her goody-girl Seventh Heaven typecasting done.)
As before, the kids are smoking dope, sweating, and making out, ostensibly dooming them, morally, until they meet the Hewitts, that is, Leatherface (Andrew Bryniarski) and family, who set any standard morality on its ear. This meeting is orchestrated slightly differently this time, as the van kids pick up not Leatherface’s whacked out brother, but a delirious escaped victim (Laura German). On seeing that the van is headed back in the direction she came from, the girl promptly shoots herself (granting the film its most sensationally crowd-pleasing image). Unsure how to handle the body and trusting the locals — including the predictably sadistic Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey) — the vansters are slowly sucked into one disastrous encounter after another.
The most dreadful of these, of course, involve Leatherface, notoriously produced by inbreeding and born into a family of cannibals (the slaughterhouse reappears, all dark corners and lockers and sides of beef). The ghastly cretin is incapable of speech and wholly relentless in his pursuit of fleshly collectibles. His home — shot here so that it stands tall and stark, against shadows and clouds — is the ultimate Terrible Place, adorned with human bones, peepholes, chickens and pigs, and doll parts. This time, the threat of a next generation (and a next after that) looms, in the form of the feral child Jedidiah (David Dorfman): if only he can come to sympathy, instead of self-satiation. If only he can come to see the victims as images of himself.
One by one, the kids wander inside the Terrible Place, and all but one can’t escape. Last Girl Erin becomes, like Sally (the excruciating and amazing Marilyn Burns) before her, a mirror image of the brutal, canny fiend she battles throughout. Though she must also endure a couple of overwrought, big-music moments (such as a superfluous mercy killing, only underlining what you already know her, that she is capable of great violence and great courage), Erin is more overtly tough than Sally, even borrowing a moment from TCM2‘s more tomboyish Stretch (Caroline Williams).
The first feature by music video director Marcus Nispel (George Michael, Lil’ Kim [the fabulous “No Time”], Bryan Adams), the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre venerates the first film and its fans (going so far as to include a victim cameo by Harry Knowles), but also, disturbingly and appropriately, accommodates its own moment. This even as it’s plainly cashing in on a brand name, crassly putting its $13 million budget (courtesy of Michael Bay producing) onscreen in makeup and digital effects, and blatantly borrowing from any number of more inventive films.
Hooper’s movie famously reflected frustrations and fears of the early 1970s, in its low-budget severity and visual chaos. Scholar Robin Wood has argued that Hooper’s movie took on “the authentic quality of a nightmare,” such that it represented a sense of endless loss and disorder, inevitable political and moral calamity (Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan ). This relation to context made the movie resonate, linked it to other films doing similar work (Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left  and even earlier, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead ), and viewers looking to be creeped out gave it legs, for years.
With most all expectations set against it, 2003’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, also speaks to its moment. Yes, it’s part of a resurgence of the genre — gross-out horror inflicted on young, mostly unknown bodies, less snappily ironic than the Scream movies, but no less deft in its dark comedy. Worse, and more difficult to know now, it also points out its own context, the torrents of horrors that take place daily around the world and on television. It is its own nightmare — recycling the past in a frightful present.