The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 ★★★½

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Hell. Hell’s exactly what they raised.”

One of life’s fundamental truths is that anticipation—the limitless imaginary filigrees that accompany the expectation of something happening—is frequently superior to actual experience. One visualizes each upcoming adventure as its best possible version, only to be faced with the often disappointing reality. The dream is so much better than the awakening.

It's a fundamental truth of horror films as well. The camera gliding down a dimly lit hallway is unbearably tense, carrying with it nervous excitement as to what might lurk just around the corner. But the monster’s revelation often comes with a thud—it’s not as scary as the monster in our minds. The same applies to the horror sequel, which may on paper sound like an unmitigated delight, a chance to spend another thrilling ninety minutes with a beloved character. But then reality strikes—it’s only a film, almost certain not to live up to the prior incarnation or to our associated memories.

But behind these fundamental truths lurks another one—sometimes reality is objectively unsatisfying, but often it is only comparatively so. A disappointment, when taken on its own terms, might turn out to be benign or even delightful. You just have to remove the anticipatory effluvia from the equation.

No doubt this explains a good deal of the revulsion that greeted Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 upon its release in 1986. A dozen years had passed since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper’s cinematic landmark, had appeared, terrifying a nation and casting a long shadow over the many, many horror films springing up in its wake. As Roger Ebert put it in his one-star review of the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, there was hope that “Hooper, the master, [would] come back and show the kids how it’s really done.” Unfortunately for expectant audiences, Hooper had in mind nothing of the sort.

The disappointment is understandable. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an utterly brilliant, utterly horrifying descent into rural madness, reflecting with grim docudrama realism the terrors plaguing a country beleaguered by Watergate and Vietnam. Hooper lamented that audiences never fully appreciated the strain of black comedy running through the original film’s veins, but while there is some exceedingly dark humor there, the film is far too relentlessly nightmarish to be thought of as funny. Even forty years later, it’s a harrowing and memorable cinematic experience.

But Hooper’s approach to the sequel is also understandable. Of all the adjectives applicable to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, perhaps the most apt is “singular.” Duplicating the original’s stark tone would be a dream come true, but any attempt to do so would surely have fallen far short. Instead, Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson go for an over-the-top comedic satire of both Reagan-era excesses and the horror films that had followed in the original’s footsteps. It is a screeching, bloody, scattershot, utterly insane experience, but taken on its own terms rather than in comparison to its forebear—and taken primarily as a comedy rather than as a horror film—it is not without merit.

Picking up thirteen years after the first film’s events (at least, according to the opening crawl; a detective later says that fourteen years have passed, in one of the film’s many instances of inattention to detail), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 opens with a pair of ludicrously obnoxious yuppies driving to Dallas for Texas-OU weekend. In the years that have passed, no arrests have been made nor any evidence found of the events suffered by Sally (Marilyn Burns) and Franklin Hardesty (Paul Partain) in the original film, although reports of similar grisly crimes have popped up around the state. Sadly for our squealing revelers, the last two years have seen those reports centered in Northeast Texas, right where the abrasive football fans engage in an ill-advised game of chicken with a truck carrying Leatherface (Bill Johnson). The opening scene is the entire film in microcosm: outrageously over-the-top; parodic almost to the point of surreality; and quite gruesome (as Leatherface saws off the top of the driver’s skull), but in a manner more ludicrous than frightening.

It also introduces the tactic, employed throughout, of stirring sympathy for the devilish Sawyer family (it is hard to mourn the loss of two irredeemable assholes), and it sets the larger plot in motion. For you see, Frick and Frack weren’t simply annoying Leatherface. They were also crank-calling Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), DJ for tiny K-OKLA radio station in tinier Burkburnett, Texas. And Stretch, per regulation, recorded Leatherface’s inadvertent call-in massacre. But what to do with the tape now?

Take it to Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), a former Texas Ranger who just happens to be Sally and Franklin’s uncle. Lefty has devoted his life to tracking down the chainsaw killers he believes to be terrorizing the Lone Star State, much to his law enforcement colleagues' chagrin. After some back and forth, Lefty convinces Stretch to play her horrific recording on the radio in hopes of luring the Sawyers out of hiding.

Not that the Sawyers have really been hiding too diligently. They’re caterers now, owners of the Last Round-Up Rolling Grill and two-time champions of the Texas-Oklahoma Chili Cook-Off, where Drayton (Jim Siedow) brags that the secret is his eye for quality meats. Moaning about high taxes and how the small businessman always gets it in the ass, Drayton has transformed from the original film’s stand-in for the kindly veneer lain over the heartland’s dark underbelly to a 1980s-sanctioned avatar of patriotic greed, eagerly hunting the almighty dollar while casting himself as the put-upon little guy. It's a fun transformation, and Siedow’s scenery-chewing performance makes the most of it.

Siedow isn’t the only one gnawing on the sets. Hopper, in a banner year that also included his (only slightly more deranged) turn as Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth and his Oscar-nominated performance in Hoosiers, digs into his role as a crackpot driven off the deep end by vengeful bloodlust, spewing phrases like “It’s the devil’s playground!” and “I am the lord of the harvest!” When Lefty and Leatherface face off in a chainsaw duel, Lefty has not one, not two, but three chainsaws, procured earlier at Cut-Rite Chain Saws (wink wink) and test driven to the orgiastic delight of both Lefty and the disturbingly gleeful store owner (who no doubt has things locked in his basement that would make the Sawyers shudder). By the time Lefty wields two chainsaws—one in each hand—the film would have gone off the rails had it ever been on them to begin with. (That Hooper makes absolutely no attempt to hide his clear use of a stunt double, rather than Hopper himself, in all the medium- and long-shots in these scenes somehow makes them that much more absurdly delightful.)

Giving Hopper a run for his wackadoo money is Bill Moseley as Chop Top, yet another Sawyer brother whose behavior is inimitably bizarre. With a metal plate in his head and a tendency to suffer ‘Nam flashbacks, Chop Top carries a coat hanger that he heats with a lighter, then uses to scratch his scalp so that he might eat the decayed skin off the hanger’s end. And this is probably his most charming quality. Moseley plays Chop Top as a cartoon version of the first film’s Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal)—no small feat, for those who remember that performance—and has tremendous fun with the part, delivering Chop Top’s many crass quips with gusto (most notably his comparison of L.G. (Lou Perryman), Stretch’s radio station sidekick, to a type of lipstick not currently under production by Maybelline).

(As an aside, the Sawyer family tree is never clearly explained, which seems a drawback of the film rather than a deliberately murky strength. Chop Top’s lineage is confusing—he is supposedly the Hitchhiker’s twin brother who was stationed in Vietnam during the events of the original film, but this is never made plain. Also unclear is whether the old woman in the finale’s shrine is the family's grandmother or great-grandmother—she is referred to as both. Perhaps most strange is Drayton, who would seem to be Leatherface and Chop Top’s (and the Hitchhiker’s) father, but who refers to himself as their brother. If this is the case, why do we skip from the three brothers to grandpa? What became of the boys’ father? This presents a flaw in the film’s skewering of the American family, as Hooper takes aim at the much-vaunted family unit as inherently dysfunctional, rather than at absentee parenting and the breakdown of the family as a cause of social ills. These are all niggling details, but they are not unimportant—they suggest a haphazardness absent in the original film’s tight sense of control.)

Williams makes an appealing scream queen and does her best to keep Stretch grounded (since someone must be) until the end. And she’s resourceful, appealing to Leatherface’s base(?) desires by seducing him in order to avoid falling victim to him. (One of the film’s best scenes involves Leatherface spraying Stretch with water and soda as his chainsaw revs in an ice chest, surveying everything from Freudianism to beer commercial parody in one brief moment.) Whether it makes sense for Leatherface to have a girlfriend seems of little interest to Hooper—this Leatherface is essentially a new creation with apparent sexual longings (though one wonders how, given Drayton’s unprintably disgusting description of sex upon learning of his brother’s fondness for Stretch). As with the repellent victims of the opening and Drayton’s appeals to the tribulations of the hard-working businessman, Leatherface’s romantic longings show Hooper toying with the notion of making his ghastly killer sympathetic without really digging into the subversive idea too deeply. It’s fun but shallow, like most of the film.

The set design and gore mirror The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s tone in running as far away from its predecessor as possible. Gone is the original film’s near-complete elision of gore and guts, replaced by Tom Savini’s blood-drenched effects work. Also gone are the dilapidated confines of the first film’s rural farmhouse—a masterpiece of production design—in favor of a subterranean lair beneath an abandoned amusement park. Bedecked with rotting corpses and Christmas lights, it is not the equal of the first film’s unsettling achievement, but it is undeniably memorable: gaudy and carnivalesque and weirdly both dark and brightly lit. It is a candy-colored inversion of the first film’s decay, and—by moving underground—improbably even filthier than the farmhouse’s squalor.

Hooper and Carson can’t quite bring all of their elements together, for reasons that may not be entirely their fault (the film had its budget slashed late in the game, necessitating on-the-fly changes, and production company Cannon objected to the comedic approach, leading to some tonal incongruity). At times, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 seems to have more on its mind than it knows how to juggle; at other times, it seems to have nothing much on its mind at all besides being as gleefully repulsive as possible. It is, in its own way, just as singular as Hooper’s 1974 classic, but it doesn’t manage to linger as its predecessor did. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre opened the gates of hell and left you with an oxygen-starved terror that wouldn’t wash away. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 raises its own sort of hell, but it’s nothing a warm shower can’t take care of.

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