Bright Lights Film Journal

An Unsawed Woman: Re-exhuming the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Remake on DVD

How Jessica Biel’s Moral Hotness Tamed the West

While Tobe Hooper’s original 1973 Texas Chainsaw Massacre stands tall in the orchards of horror academia as a symbol of the dismemberment of the countercultural ideal, the remake goes for the fruit much higher up on the symbol tree. The America Hooper was lamenting is long dead by now, so the remake explores instead the rich divide between MTV-sanctioned counterculture — represented here as a vanload of beautiful young people adorned with corporate product placements — and the feared, ugly, wart-ridden “real” counterculture; misshapen troglodytes who kill their own food and make jewelry and clothing from the leftover teeth and hides.

Interestingly the film is not updated to modern times but offered as a “period piece” from 1973, even portending to be based on a true story just as the original was (loosely modeled after the serial killing career of Ed Gein). If the remake aims to generate its teenage suburban fear factor via fright over the inbred yokels in them thar woods, however, it hardly succeeds. The inbred morons these teens encounter aren’t scary in the conventional sense; they are too pre-packaged, too post-grotesque. The film does succeed very well however, as a post-mortem of free love, illuminating why the return to Eden never panned out like we wanted. The original seemed to lecture the viewer (generally the audience at the time was a drive-in-attending couple on pot and in hip huggers) for forgetting about the pig-killing white trash that made their dinner so affordable; the remake on the other hand, covertly indicts the indictors. The reason the free love party is over is because those damned socialists had to invite all those dumb ugly townies.

It’s 1973; a vanload of good-looking youngsters is taking a shortcut along some lonesome Texas road to get to their Lynyrd Skynyrd concert on time. They are bronzed and sculpted and sprayed with a thin sheen of oil to represent a barely noticeable sweat. Kemper (Eric Balfour) is driving and his long time girlfriend, model-level gorgeous Erin (Jessica Biel) is at his side. In the back another hot couple (Erica Leehrsen and Mark Vogel) make out and the only un-beautiful person in the car (Jonathan Tucker), smokes pot and makes rude jokes. Kemper and Erin are too busy squabbling, getting high, and making out to notice a dazed barefoot woman on the road; they almost hit her. They don’t, but Erin insists they stop, and give her a ride, and when she blows her brains out all over the car, she insists they can’t just drive off and leave her; they have to invite the law in, their two pounds of stashed pot be damned.

As the most gorgeous one in the group, Erin is — by the holy writ of Glamour magazine — their natural leader and the moral compass of the movie. A statuesque beauty, she mixes glamazon va-voom-voom-voomity with moral righteousness in a way that’s unusual in the annals of horror film (a girl this hot would usually be the first one axed). It’s also the main reason why the film is worth exploring, as it is her sense of morality that continually gets them all into trouble. When the sheriff shows no interest in coming to see them about their backseat suicide, she insists on making him come, making him do his job. None of this is in the original, in which the encounter with the Chainsaw family is a result of actually visiting the area on purpose for familial nostalgia. Here it is Erin’s moral compass that guides them straight to the carnage, one good deed after another sealing the escape hatches behind them.

This is the slamming indictment of both feminism and the counterculture as reflected in the swinging free love hedonists of the 1970s. Erin is riding in a van full of dope-smoking wannabe non-conformists, but she is utterly unable to accept that in this part of Texas, right and wrong are just different ways to skin the same hippy. Even taking into consideration the amount of drugs in the car, Erin insists that the sheriff step in and relieve them of the responsibility of dealing with this dead body. The free love liberals see the cops as “pigs” until the situation gets out of hand, at which point their aid is not merely requested, but demanded by Erin. As Camille Paglia writes, “Liberalism sees law as tyrant father but demands it behaves as nurturant mother.”1

What really sets the film up as a completely different entity from the original is the heavenly body of Jessica Biel as Erin. Her moral piety is wrapped up in the booty-licious trappings of Paglia’s chthonic sex Goddess. By the power vested in her tight hip huggers and wet t-shirt tied, she assumes command not just of her van mates, but of any remote rural site she happens to be in. Though she’s dressed far too down for uptight Christian Texas, she places herself in a position of moral superiority over them, and by extension, the viewer, due to her good teeth and healthy hair. We are placed in the position of kneeling worshippers, or children, at the level of her navel by the camera, which is always focused right above her low rider pant line, the ship to shore radio of eternity.

It’s interesting that critic Roger Ebert — usually known for his sensitivity to genre pictures — viciously attacked this film as being pointless and nastily violent.2 I find it to be the least misogynistic horror film I’ve seen in some time, but it does succinctly criticize the liberal ideal, especially as it relates to feminism, so it might be misconstrued as a deep-seated attack if one doesn’t bother to dig for subtext. With a copy of Paglia’s Sexual Personae nearby, the script comes into fine focus as a subtle feminist critique:

Feminism . . . sees every hierarchy as repressive, a social fiction; every negative about women is a male lie designed to keep her in her place. Feminism has exceeded its proper mission . . . and has ended by rejecting contingency, that is, human limitation by nature or fate.3

Feminism views the dictates of nature as sexist. Men are generally physically stronger and more able to stomach violence than women, more able to make the sort of cold-blooded decisions that ensure group survival (such as leaving children, the elderly, or the wounded behind when being chased by wolves.) Granted power by women’s lib and her own alluring, maternal/sexual ability to control her man (who has the car keys), Erin never doubts her ability to navigate the terrain of hostile nature because she does not see it as different from civilized order. Thus, while her curves make the straight male voyeur/cinemagoer groan in his chair, her inflexible morality leads them straight to the meat hook. With one whack of a sledgehammer on Kemper’s head, the social codes she thought so pervasive are wiped from her immediate landscape without a trace, and so too is her power.

The family of crazies that inhabit the terrain are, as with the original, mostly nonsexual or coded homosexual, and are interested in Erin solely as meat product or art supplies for their bone sculptures. Indeed, it’s only the men we see getting hooked and abused, kept alive in Leatherface’s dirty basement to be tortured, skinned, and defiled. It’s Kemper’s face Leatherface wants to try on, not Erin’s. This actually only further reduces her power, as her sexual hotness holds no value either on the Texas flatlands or in Leatherface’s dank, drippy basement workshop.

This workshop is an interesting reflection of this symbolic castration of the feminine. This is not to say it’s scary. Rather, it’s a weak compendium of cliché, mixing in the cement from just about every scary basement between Nightmare on Elm Street up through Silence of the Lambs. But it’s interesting as a contrast anyway, as the polar opposite of the sun-baked van, and it starts a dot-connecting race up through the rest of the opposites in the narrative. Leatherface’s wide, dense body, for example, is the opposite of the statuesque maternal beauty of Biel; her lack of clothes the opposite of his thick leather butcher apron. Her strength comes from her maternal breasts and child rearing hips; Leatherface doesn’t have much power without his chainsaw, when it stops revving, he whines like a little kid. Erin owns “the” body and requires no “power” tools. Leatherface owns no body, even his own large form is a lack, an empty canvas; he must co-opt the bodies of others, for his own use in and for outsider art. He finds many male subjects to use in this fashion, but he cannot have access to Erin. She proves beauty’s superhuman power to hold onto itself. Leatherface by contrast is like Frankenstein’s monster constantly creating himself, an artist with an empty mirror instead of eyes (he looks out of more peepholes than a dozen Norman Bateses over the course of the film). That is what makes this film so completely not misogynist. Man does not create, destroy, or influence woman in the film. Erin is complete unto herself here, and Leatherface is a fucking total mess.

So we are basically presented with two hermetic environments here — the inside of the van, which is bathed in lovely golden colors, and the outside which is the stifling hell of Texas. The two are joined by the huge bloody hole the hitchhiker girl makes out the back windshield when she shoots herself in the head. This is the original sin — democracy, the final solution, the great mediator between upper and lower — BAM! A hole in the windshield to let the worst sort of flies in, the “townies” swarming 1967 Haight Ashbury like starving dogs at a free love lunch. But the hippies need these Morlocks to buy their art, to see their movies, in short to stand outside of their world and appreciate it. Without the filthy, malformed proles hammering at the gates, there are no sold-out stadium concerts. There’s not enough rich, educated beauty even in San Francisco to fill more than a small concert hall, and Jerry needs a new pair of shoes. Thus an uneasy truce must be formed — thus Erin throws her men to the slaughter like a Harvest Home Summerfest 73. Even the perverse homicidal sheriff admits; “Hell, I like Skynyrd,” in his one moment of warmth towards his latest victim (the ugly pothead).

It becomes even more baffling why Ebert has such a hostile reaction when, at best, the misogyny he singled out in films like I Spit on Your Grave4 is entirely absent from this film. Indeed, the few hints of rape or sexual harassment are placed in the film mostly as teaser fake-outs. For example, there’s a scene wherein Erin is drugged and wakes up on the family’s living room couch, her head between the legs of the sadistic sheriff (R. Lee Ermey). We, perverted viewers that we are, instantly think he’s been doing some obscene act with her mouth or face, but we learn that the womenfolk are in the room, ironing the sheriff’s pants. He’s just sitting there in his underwear, playing with her hair in the haphazard way one might leaf through a magazine while in the laundromat. The old man in the wheelchair takes advantage of her samaritanism by appearing to be helpless by the toilet with his colostomy bag, but really he just wants to grab her ass while she helps him up. But her jeans are so tight, he can’t really even get a grip. She barely seems to feel it as his withered arms try but fail to penetrate the dense material.

Erin is such an untouchable sexual force that even as the sole survivor — as far as she knows — of all the carnage, she manages not just to survive but to regain a sense of moral superiority along the way. This comes about with the sudden appearance of a baby, the sole survivor of the last carload of victims that came out this way. Wracked by fear and confusion (and having been slipped drugged tea), she sees the child and suddenly her sense of outrage comes flaring out like a phoenix from the flames, shouting “That’s not your baby!” Nothing so cute could come from these mutants; thus as the only other remotely attractive thing in their current location, she lays claim to it, even later stealing the child right out from under the family’s noses.

This is where the film taps into the same feminism re-empowerment angle of films like Aliens and Terminator 2. The women in these films only get really mean and nasty when a child activates their protective mother instinct. Thus, Erin, granted anew the right to judge others by this extra addition into her life, the child, starts hacking off limbs with unfettered cunning. Her moral compass has widened to include making herself a law unto herself, and she has become even more moralistic than before; instead of waiting for the law to come and sort out the situation, she herself has become the law, and what possibly more positive feminine/anti-counterculture message can there be than breaking from the “nurturant mother” of government, and taking direct action, becoming a corporate tyrant unto herself, the goddess Kali with a Diet Pepsi in each of her sixteen hands, widening the divide between the Good and the Bad/Ugly with every swig?

  1. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, New York: Vintage Books, 1991, 3. []
  2. Roger Ebert, review of . []
  3. Paglia, 13. []
  4. Ebert, review of I Spit on Your Grave. []