Texas, 1973. Five teenagers pick up a traumatised girl on a lonely road. When she commits suicide in the back of their van, they try to alert the authorities but wind up at the mercy of the extended family of a local mass murderer.
Had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - 2003 vintage - been perceived as competing against only House Of 1000 Corpses or Cabin Fever, it may have stood out as an above-average rural horror movie. However, as the first of a wave of pointless genre remakes (with Dawn Of The Dead due in cinemas soon), it's doomed to go up against Tobe Hooper's ferocious 1974 original and, in that league, simply can't quite cut it.
When writer Scott Kosar and director Marcus Nispel play variations on the original, almost setting this up as a sequel rather than a remake, the film is effective. The point of entry into horror is cannily contrived to be reminiscent of Hooper's opening, but spins off in a different direction.
The freaky hitchhiker turns out not to be a killer but a survivor (maybe the girl from the '74 film) who inconveniences her benefactors by blowing her brains out through the back window (a memorable shot tracks through the wound).
This gets the new kids, all credible '70s types, into an awkward mix of terror and embarrassment as they try to get locals even interested in the death. They run into a nightmare Texan sheriff (Ermey, still in Full Metal Jacket abuse mode) who takes an opportunity to grope the corpse and is casual about violent death, but goes into supercop overdrive at finding one joint-roach in the van's ashtray.
The film only turns conventional when it gets back to the old plot and starts replaying scenes. There's an attempt to rethink the premise as a franchise: while the new Leatherface has a larger group of weird relations, he's the only actual killer and the original's sitcom family arguments are missed, making this a freak show rather than a skewed State Of The Nation editorial.
The look, created by Hooper's cinematographer Daniel Pearl, and expert art direction is persuasively nasty... but somehow that buzzing saw doesn't sound as scary as it used to.
On its own terms it plays well, although the sense that it's an unnecessary remake is inescapable.