Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

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When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was originally released, it was treated with some disdain by many fans of the original – something that was almost inevitable, given the legendary status of the first movie by the time this belated sequel appeared. For British fans, a BBFC ban meant that it would take a while for copies to become available, and then only as VHS copies, the watchability of which would depend on how many generations down your particular dupe was. I recall that the first copy I saw had more red bleeding that any of the characters in the film. Nevertheless, I was pretty knocked out by it at the time and watching it again on Arrow’s fantastic new Blu-ray edition, my opinion has not changed much. While almost all the Chainsaw films have their merits (the one exception being Kim Henkel’s abominable Next Generation), this is the best of the sequels and re-imaginings, simply because unlike the others, it maintains a direct connection to the original movie while completely turning the film on its head.

Certainly, it’s easy to understand why some fans were so dismayed by it – while the first film certain had humour, it was essentially a brutal, grim, almost documentary-style trip into Hell. This sequel, on the other hand, is a hysterical, dayglo splatter comedy. Both films pile on the excess, but while the original movie used it to brutalise the viewer, here it is to create a high-camp spectacle. But for me, this was the only way to go. The original Chain Saw is my favourite film and there would be no way to recreate the tension, the horror and the intensity of that film. So well done to Tobe Hooper and screenwriter L M Kit Carson for not trying to. Instead, they go for a ghoulish, EC Comics level of excess and madness. Making a comedy sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is obviously a risk, and one that many people thought had failed to come off. But I think it works really well.

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The nature of the film is spelled out immediately, as the movie opens with a spoken / text scroll in the tradition of the original film. But while that first narration was measured, even sorrowful, this is increasingly manic, setting the scene for what is to come.
Set 12 years after the original story took place, the film sees the Chainsaw killers – now christened the Sawyers – carrying on their slaughter with a series of crimes that the local police prefer to cover up, and also champion chilli makers (“it’s the meat”, says Jim Siedow reprising his role from the first film). We first see them sawing up a pair of ghastly yuppies (because if you have hippies as victims in the 1970s, what hated group would you choose for the Eighties?), a killing caught on tape by radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams), who the dumbasses were on the phone to at the time.

Enter Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper), a police lieutenant and relative of the victims from the first film, who has been tracking the murderous family across Texas. He convinces Stretch to air the tape on the radio in order to flush out the killers, essentially using her as bait. The plan works, and the radio station is invaded by Chop Top (Bill Moseley) – a family member out in Vietnam during the first film and sporting a steel plate in his head – and Leatherface (Bill Johnson), who brutally attack Stretch’s co-worker L.G. (Lou Perryman) with a hammer and terrorise the DJ. But she brings out new urges in Leatherface, who feels a sexual attraction for the first time, leading to one of the most outrageous scenes in 1980s cinema as he caresses her bare legs with his chainsaw and then rubs it against her denim shorts – no wonder the BBFC, always on the guard against sexual violence, found the film such a struggle!

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Stretch follows the pair as they drag off L.G.’s body and return to their new home, an abandoned amusement park paid for with Chop Top’s military pension. She in turn is followed by Lefty, who has tooled up with chainsaws and is ready to deliver the final judgement on the Sawyers.

What’s notable about this film when seen now is just how similar it is to the original movie in structure. I don’t mean in terms of following the same story or visual style (though there is a recreation of the dinner party scene and Grandpa’s attempt to deliver a killing blow with a hammer that shouldn’t work, but does because of the sheer hysteria of the scene, very much like the one in the original but cranked up to 11), but because like the original film, this builds its story to a certain point and then lets all hell beak loose for the remainder of the movie. From the moment we first see Chop Top, the film barely pauses for breath, piling on increasingly deranged material. It’s pretty dizzying in fact as the colour saturated imagery, the wild spook house set designs, the demented performances and the crazed atmosphere bombard your senses. But while the first film did a similar thing to batter the audience into submission, here it is more light-hearted – it’s sensory overload, but you don’t come away feeling emotionally drained so much as exhilarated.

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Siedow, Moseley and Hopper all seem to be competing for the prize of ‘most over the top performance’. Siedow gives the best performance, cranking up his schizoid twitchiness and outrage at the miscreant behaviour of his younger brothers, both appalled and amused by their actions. Hopper’s character is no less insane than the family he’s chasing, willing to sacrifice Stretch if he has to, losing his grip on sanity and finally becoming a psychotic avenging angel. Hopper plays this in the way that only Hopper could, drawing upon his own ‘eccentricities’ and never looking anything less than a complete lunatic. The scene where he tests out his new chainsaw is both hilarious and terrifying, and how can you not love a character who goes into battle with two small chainsaws strapped to a holster around his waist?

But the film ultimately belongs to Moseley. There were doubts about the introduction of a new family member (to replace the Hitch hiker, killed at the end of the original film and represented here as rotting corpse) but those doubts were banished within seconds of Chop-Top’s appearance. Blessed with fantastic dialogue (“lick my plate, you dog-dick!”), Moseley is funny, frightening and convincingly insane – this is a character who is genuinely creepy and his first encounter with Stretch is a classic moment. What’s more, he gets the film’s most intense moment of violence, the hammering of L.G. Which just goes on and on and on. This is the point that comes closest to the intensity of the original film – gorier admittedly, but so utterly relentless that you are almost begging it to end.

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Bill Johnson has the thankless task of replacing Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, and while we can say that he is nowhere near as good, it’s an unfair comparison. This is a very different Leatherface than we saw in 1974 – an adolescent version of the character, discovering girls for the first time and generally goofier and more pathetic. If the original Leatherface was the ‘mother’ of the family, then this version is the teenage son. As such, Johnson gives a fine performance and his sense of confusion and conflict is handled well.

Williams makes for an appealing heroine, even if her spunkiness is sometimes rather unbelievable. She’s no Marilyn Burns when it comes to screaming – who is? – but she makes an effective 1980s version of the Final Girl and proves to be a real trooper – she deserves lots of credit for the scene where she is made to wear the face of the recently skinned L.G., if nothing else, a moment that is horrifying, kitsch and moving simultaneously.

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The underground lair of the family is an amazing creation – as far removed from the farmhouse of the original as you could get, yet brilliant in its own way, filled with multi-coloured lights, skeletons and corpses. It gives the film a genuine sense of style, turning it into a ghost train of a movie. People planning spook show exhibits should use this film as a template!

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a cocaine version of the original – bug-eyed, frenetic and overly excitable. It’s certainly very 1980s, and that’s rarely a good thing. But it works, against all the odds. Like the first film, it shows no restraint, no sense of decency and gives no quarter to social niceties or censorial demands. Even the soundtrack, which replaces Wayne Bell’s ultra-unsettling musique concrete with a mix of mid-Eighties alt. rock (The Cramps, Timbruk 3) and a more ‘conventional’ – though still pretty delirious – musical score, works well – much more so than many Eighties films where the ‘rock’ music often dates it badly.

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In the end, this is what a sequel should be – retaining the flavour of the original movie while completely re-inventing it. I’d say it’s the only essential Chainsaw offshoot, good as some of the other films are.

This new edition finally gives the film the respect it deserves. Duplicating the US DVD, it has the feature length documentary It Runs in the Family, a commentary track from Hooper and David Gregory and the oft-discussed deleted scenes – unfinished moments that were dropped for reasons of pacing. Hooper made the right choice – these scenes would have added more Tom Savini gore (of which the film has rather less than you think) but would’ve slowed things down without adding any narrative value.

DAVID FLINT

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