Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Texas Chainsaw Week: 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2' (1986)

Between its release in 1974 and the release of its sequel in 1986, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre built up a reputation as one of the most terrifying movies ever made, as well as a significant critical and cult following. Hooper himself hit a commercial high with 1982's Poltergeist (even if consensus all these years later seems to be that Steven Spielberg did most of the directing on that one). So when Hooper finally decided to get back behind the camera for a belated TCM sequel, his plan was to make ... a comedy? Almost perversely at odds with its acclaimed, successful predecessor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 often feels like a middle finger from Hooper to all the fans who no doubt spent more than a decade clamoring for a sequel. "You want a Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequel?" this movie seems to say. "Here, choke on this."

While the original movie was an exercise in sustained terror but kept most of its violence just offscreen, TCM2 is rarely all that scary, yet full of graphic gore courtesy of horror effects legend Tom Savini. There were flashes of dark humor in the original, but TCM2 is often full-on wacky, treating Leatherface (played this time by Bill Johnson) and his family as a sort of cannibalistic version of the Beverly Hillbillies. Original Final Girl Sally made believable snap decisions in the face of terror, while TCM2 protagonist Vanita "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams) makes dumb choice after dumb choice, constantly putting herself in danger. But Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (a cult figure himself who co-wrote Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas) aren't really interested in logic or character consistency; they're just looking for the most outrageous approach possible.

The movie opens with another somber text crawl and voiceover, this time asserting that while the incidents of the first movie have never been officially acknowledged, mysterious disappearances and deaths across Texas have continued in the 12 years since, and "the Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not stopped." (Never mind that the first movie clearly shows cops taking photos of evidence at the home of the killers.) Seemingly the only person dedicated to tracking down the evil Sawyer family is former Texas Ranger "Lefty" Enright (Dennis Hopper), the uncle of siblings Sally and Franklin from the first movie. He's out for vengeance for his kin (Sally's survival is referenced in the opening text but she's never seen), and thanks to a pair of dumbass teens calling in to Stretch's radio show literally while being chainsaw massacred, he finally has the evidence he needs to get his revenge.

Although he mentions Sally and Franklin a few times, Lefty doesn't seem to have much of an emotional connection to his niece and nephew, and Hopper puts so much craziness into his performance that eventually Lefty seems like as much of a psychopath as the murderers he's chasing. That makes the movie's third act a little monotonous, as Stretch and Lefty follow the Sawyers to their new hideout in an abandoned amusement park, and both spend the next 20-30 minutes running around the underground tunnels and screaming a lot (Stretch in fear, Lefty in homicidal rage). Leatherface's weird romantic feelings for Stretch are kind of funny but mostly ill-conceived, perhaps an effort to make him a more palatable pop-culture figure like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees.

Actor Jim Siedow is the only person reprising his role from the first movie, as the mastermind of the Sawyer family, the one who interacts with normal people by selling all the human meat they cook up as award-winning barbecue. His folksy manner was menacing the first time around, but here he dials it all the way over the top, matched by horror icon Bill Moseley as a fellow Sawyer known as Chop-Top. Their scenery-chewing is amusing for a while but goes on for too long, especially as they're almost literally dancing circles around Stretch in the climax. Things perk up thanks to a chainsaw duel between Lefty and Leatherface, but Hooper and Carson seem to run out of clever subversiveness before they can get to the end of the movie.

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