The question of remakes has been long-discussed elsewhere. The evidence against them is apparent in any number of films made as more or less direct copies of older films, an onslaught that seems to grow every year. But I’ve chosen to focus on just one case against: the 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the 2003 remake of said film.

The original version is a true classic of horror in the best grindhouse tradition. For the first half of the film, nothing much happens, except for characters just talking and yelling and fighting. Some kids on their way to a concert get lost in rural Texas, and stop to use a phone. One unlucky soul wanders into someone’s house… and suddenly, a tall man with a mask made of human flesh and a butcher’s smock walks out from behind a metal sliding door, knocks him in the head with a wooden mallet and, like a butcher with a dead pig, pulls him into a blood-stained room. The door slams shut behind them.

And even with the bits of weirdness we’ve seen so far, we’re left to wonder.

What the hell just happened?

That kind of unease is not only what drives the movie; it’s the entire point of the movie. Not the violence—what there is of it; you think you see a lot more than you actually do—but the intense schism between what we know as the mundane of the every day and the sudden randomness of cruelty and terror. In a sense, the film has no real plot, not in a sense that the plot tells a story. It’s fairly simple grindhouse stuff: some kids talk for 45 minutes, then something weird happens, and the last 45 minutes are intense as, for lack of a better word, a monster chases the victims until one of them gets away. There’s no real story there; it’s just action.

But the movie is about something, and it’s much deeper than monster chases pretty girl. It’s about violence. It’s about horror. It is a reaction to the mood of America in 1974, trying desperately to get out of Vietnam and reacting to the tense mood of the country. The death of the sense of brotherhood and togetherness of the sixties was occurring, and it was being replaced with something more selfish and, at the same time, more fearful. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in 1974, said that even in the American heartland, we are not always safe. We can’t walk into someone’s house and treat them in a cavalier manner, because we never know what’s hiding behind the door. And that is the terrifying truth at the heart of the film’s horror.

 

Jumping ahead three decades, the remake of the film is released. The plot is essentially the same, but the effect is completely different. Knowing that the audience is at least passingly familiar with the original movie, the filmmakers try to up the ante by having strange things happen earlier. But they don’t seem to know anything about the grindhouse structure, and telegraph their scares with moody music and overwrought production design. The film simply tries too hard to shock.

The remake also falls straight into one of the problems I have with current American cinema: they explain too much and feel too little. So the film tries to come up with an origin for the monsters, but can’t sell it because of the lack of genuine character in the film. The people in this story are really here to be moved around by the conventions of the action film genre. Which is fine, if you can make it work; the original film was much the same, but conveyed a feeling and made a social point simply by the fact that the film was so genuine. The remake is slick and cynically made to be merely a popcorn movie. It is a commercial enterprise, and all that entails. Nothing more; nothing special; nothing memorable. And there are no surprises.

Ultimately, the remake fails because it trades horror for cruelty. There is a meanness of spirit to it. The film is no longer about anything; America, people, or otherwise. It barely resembles the original, so why even bother calling it a remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Disassociation wouldn’t make it a better movie, but it would at least give the illusion that the filmmakers set out to make something that wasn’t merely a copy for the sake of money.

And overwhelmingly, this is the reason why I have to decide that direct remakes should be disallowed in American filmmaking. They trade on a familiar property to make some quick cash, and the few films that actually add something or tell a genuine story are lost in the shuffle or tainted by association with inferior remakes. And with remakes of nearly every truly good horror and science fiction film of the 1970s and early 1980s planned, the future of filmgoing is looking bleak indeed. No wonder more and more of us are staying at home and watching our DVDs of the originals.

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