Written by: L.M. Kit Carson
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Jim Siedow, Caroline Williams, and Bill Moseley
Reviewed by: Brett G.
“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not stopped. It continues to haunt Texas. It seems to have no end.”
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a seminal moment in horror history. In many ways, it was the ultimate drive-in film and helped to usher in an era of stark, unapologetic violence in cinema. It was a prelude to the slasher boom, yet was very far removed from that movement because it refused to be a simple body count picture that littered the screen with blood and guts. As hordes of slashers were released during the 80s, the saw remained silent until Cannon Films unleashed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986. Boasting everything that the original didn’t--star power, a budget, and major studio backing--it’s no surprise that Hooper’s often-maligned sequel turned out so different from the original.
It’s been 13 years since Sally Hardesty escaped from the “window in hell” where her friends were butchered by a family of maniac cannibals. Her wild story was never officially confirmed, and other stories involving similar tales have popped up all over the state in the years since. This brings us to the weekend of the Red River Shootout, where two really obnoxious Texas Longhorn fans decide to play chicken with the wrong people. The joke, of course, is on them, when it’s revealed that one of their intended targets is brandishing a huge chainsaw and proceeds to hack up the two idiots. Conveniently (or not), the two guys happened to be on the phone with a radio station who recorded the entire ordeal. The DJ there, Stretch, seizes the tape as evidence and seeks out the help of Lefty Enright, a disgraced Texas Ranger and Sally Hardesty’s uncle, who has been attempting to prove that his niece’s story is true. Stretch ends up getting a little more than she bargained for, however, when she’s unwittingly taken to the lair of Leatherface and his cannibal family.
This sequel is pretty much everything the original wasn’t; it eschews the suspense-building, faux-documentary style approach and trades it in for something more cinematic. This is evident from the opening credits, which features Herrmann-esque styled strings that soon give way to a synth-laden 80s pop tune. It’s basically got its foot on the gas from the opening moments and it doesn’t let up too often. Even though the opening monologue attempts to re-recreate the original’s sense of dread and atmosphere, it’s soon washed away in a gory, over-the-top romp. The first murder sequence alone contains more blood and grue than the original did for its entire running time, and it’s an altogether different experience from that film.
Many fans lament this fact, particularly all of the absurd black humor that pervades the film. While the original dinner scene especially contained some of this morbid humor, it feels different here. Basically, imagine the bewildering insanity of that original dinner scene stretched out over 100 minutes. This one is supposed to be funny in a really stupid way--I would say that only a few of the jokes are actually funny or clever--but it somehow works just right and manages to capture that Texas Chainsaw Massacre spirit, if only ever so slightly. You’re definitely laughing at the film rather than laughing with it, but I don’t think Hooper would have it any other way. The premise itself is the stuff of slasher absurdity: a roving cannibal family that peddles its own special chili sauce (the secret is in the meat!) while operating out of an abandoned Texas battleground amusement park. What’s not to love?
Thus, part 2 isn’t nearly as groundbreaking or as original as its predecessor. Instead, it feels very much informed by all the slasher films of the era. The only leftover from the late 60s and early 70s that inspired Hooper’s original is Bill Moseley’s Chop-Top, an insane Vietnam war veteran. There’s not much of a political statement to be made here, of course, as he’s no more or less crazy than his two brothers, Leatherface and The Cook (as a family, the trio have become a model of Reagan-era excess). Stepping into the role of the former is Bill Johnson, whose portrayal reveals a bit more about the chainsaw-wielding maniac. He’s got a bit of puppy love for Stretch, and the two share a few odd moments where Leatherface shows his affection in a way that only he can. Jim Siedow reprises his role as The Cook, and he’s just as demented as ever. Leatherface gets all the glory (and with good reason--he’s a visually iconic character), but The Cook is the real ringleader and one of the more underrated madmen the genre has ever seen.
The chainsaw fodder here is adequate. Caroline Williams is likeable enough as Stretch, and her Texas twang is somewhat charming. At this point, it’s hard to believe that the legendary Dennis Hopper starred in such a film, but, at the time, he wasn’t exactly A-list. However, oddly enough, he featured a career resurgence right around this time due to Blue Velvet and Hoosiers. Obviously, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn’t nearly as important as those two films, but you’d never know it from Hopper’s performance. He’s giving it his all here, even when he’s not given a whole lot to do; still, he brings a lot of righteous conviction to the role of Lefty, and when he absurdly claims that he’s “the lord of the harvest” at the end of the film, you believe it. If nothing else, this film is worth seeing if you’ve ever wanted to see Hooper dual wield chainsaws and duel with them.
There’s some flaws to be found here as well: the film is overly long at 100 minutes, and there’s a good long stretch where Hopper does nothing but spout crazy, religious-driven dialogue while trying to bring down the cannibal lair. Still, this can be overlooked because there’s some great gore effects by Tom Savini, which is the essential element in a splatter flick like this. It’s grotesque cinema at its finest, really, as the elaborate lair set pieces and the returning Grandpa character are well done effects showcases that make up for a shallow narrative. MGM has actually released the film twice on DVD. The 2006 “Gruesome Edition” is the way to go: it boasts an impressive anamorphic transfer and a nice 2.0 surround soundtrack. There’s also some nice special features, including an audio commentary with Hooper and TCM scholar David Gregory, another commentary with Mosely, Williams, and Savini, deleted scenes, a featurette, and some still galleries. Unfortunately, neither release features the original Breakfast Club-inspired poster as cover art. Still, it’s a nice package for film that doesn’t even get much love in fan circles. That’s not the case here at OTH, where “the saw is family” (yes, even the red-headed stepchild that is The Next Generation). Buy it!
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