Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1986) Part 2

9. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The first two films in Tobe Hooper’s three picture deal with the Cannon Film Group, “Lifeforce” and “Invaders from Mars,” were both certified box office flops. It’s not surprising that, for the third and final production, Golan and Globus would demand a sequel to Hooper’s most iconic film. And why not make a sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre?” Half of the slashers flicks of the eighties had ripped it off anyway. Twelve years had passed, making sure that Leatherface’s position in the modern horror pantheon was secured. The sequel Hooper delivered to Cannon probably wasn’t what they were expecting. Instead of an unnerving horror film, they got a wacky gore/comedy so bloody an R rating wasn’t even possible. Though divisive at first, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” has rightfully earned its cult following over the years.

Twelve years have passed since the fateful day Sally Hardesty and her friends stumbled upon hell. Leatherface and his cannibalistic brood have passed into Texas legend. For all that time, Lt. Lefty Enright has been pursuing the maniacs that killed his nephew and traumatized his niece. He gets a lead when a DJ named Stretch gets a phone call apparently from two men being attacked by Leatherface. Soon, Leatherface and his brother Chop Top track Stretch down. She escapes and follows the psychos back to their lair, while followed by Lefty. Yet Stretch’s nightmare is only beginning.

How does one make a sequel to a true slice of madness like “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” still one of the most unsettling horror films ever made? Realizing there was no chance to top the original, Hooper opted for a different strategy. An often overlooked streak of black comedy ran throughout the first movie. For the sequel, the director decided to exaggerated that pre-existing element, making the sequel a full-blown farce. Now Leatherface is put upon by his family, with a goofy and almost innocent side. His brothers, including manic new addition Chop Top, are deliriously and amusingly insane. The new comedic tone allows the sequel to go to places the original couldn’t. The off-screen gore is now very on-screen, pushed into a level of splatstick wetness. The set design has been exaggerated to delirious, surreal heights. The movie concludes with a chainsaw duel, which is only the outrageous conclusion to a thoroughly nuts story.

The original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” has been interpret in multiple ways over the years. Some see a metaphor for Vietnam, a vegetarian subtext, or an indictment of capitalism. The sequel, while more farcical, hasn’t escaped similar readings. In part two, the Cook – real name revealed as Drayton Sawyer – has opened a successful, award winning traveling chili business. Yes, the meat is of the human variety, Drayton making all his customers into unaware cannibals. (In one of many sick jokes, any bone fragments are dismissed as peppercorn shells.) This literalizes Sawyer’s “dog eat dog” business ethos. He yells about how the small businessman is constantly getting fucked, even though murder drives his company. The sequel was released a year before “Wall Street” came along to provide the Reagan decade with a pithy catchphrase. Before “Greed is good,” Leatherface and his brother summed up the ruthless Wall Street environment of the decade by literally eating their competition.

Yet this isn’t the subtext that really speaks to me in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.” The first film already presented the newly-named Sawyer clan as a perverse parody of the nuclear family. The sequel runs with this idea. Entering a belated adolescence, Leatherface starts to rebel against his insane family by being sexually attracted to one of his victims. (Keep in mind, to the Sawyer, this would be like a butcher falling in love with a pig.) Chop Top mocks his brother – real name Bubba, of all things – in a childish manner. Drayton, meanwhile, assures him that sex is a mystery. But the saw? “The saw is family.” Leatherface bumps his head into a lamp shade, embarrassed, miserable. In other words: Family drives you crazy.

Leatherface developing a sudden sex drive might seem at odds with the character as we know him. In the original, Leatherface saw humans as only meat or confusing invaders into his happy home. Yet if you accept this character development, it allows Leatherface to develop in new, interesting directions. If one could look past his terrifying exterior, Leatherface was already sympathetic in the first. The sequel plays up this quality. Now, the killer is even more badgered and bossed around by his brothers. The way he reacts to this treatment, often cowering, makes him seem like even more of a bullied little kid. When Stretch gets through to him, from time to time, it suggest there is some sort of humanity inside the hulking madman. Matching the comedic tone, Bill Johnson’s performance is intentionally ridiculous. He waves his chainsaw in the air so often it becomes a running gag. All of this combines to reveal Leatherface as the most human and relatable of all the seventies/eighties horror icons.

The sequel adds many inspired, manic bits of sick comedy to its story. Yet none is more manic then Chop Top. The fourth Sawyer brother, he was unmentioned in the first movie due to serving in Vietnam at the time. There, he was wounded when a portion of his skull was sliced away with a machete. The missing flesh was replaced with a steel plate. It’s hard to know if Chop Top was more or less insane before the war. Now, he’s completely bug-nuts. He drags around the corpse of the deceased Hitchhiker from part one, calling it “Nubbins.” He derives pleasure from picking at the skin around the plate with a hot wire hanger. He dreams of opening a Vietnam themed amusement park called ‘Nam Land. He claims music is his life and has a love/hate relationship with hippies. Chop Top provides the sequel with some of its quotable dialogue. “Lick my plate, you dog dick!” “Dog will hunt!” “Chewing ass like it was steak.” “Nam flashback!” And so on. Bill Moseley would be transformed into a cult icon, and an ever-present fixture in the horror genre, thanks to this character. His perfectly insane performance makes Chop Top hilarious and utterly unforgettable.

So who’s the woman who awakens Leatherface’s lust? Caroline Williams plays Stetch, the DJ caught up in the Sawyer’s family madness. Stretch was only Williams’ sixth role, after a few undistinguished bit parts. Yet Willaims makes the character immediately lovable. Stretch is spunky, with a punk rock energy similar to the music she plays. She easily avoids the clumsy romantic advances of her co-worker L.G. and even manages to negotiates Leatherface’s crude gestures. Though she’s as terrified as Marylin Burns’ Sally, Stretch is more proactive. She fights back, continuing to out-think the cannibals even while on the verge of madness herself. Also, Williams knows how to rock a pair of jean shorts. A fixture of horror sequels, Williams would also appear in “Stepfather II,” “Leprechaun 3,” Rob Zombie’s “Halloween II,” “Hatchet III,” and get a cameo in the third “Texas Chainsaw” flick.

Aside from the franchise itself, the marquee name in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” was Dennis Hopper. The film was released the same year as “Blue Velvet,” “River’s Edge,” and “Hoosiers,” marking it as another comeback vehicle for Hopper after years in the wilderness. As Lt. Enright, Hopper brings a similar intensity to the part as seen in those films. Lefty stares ahead, rarely blinking. He is keenly focused on his goal of pursuing and catching the Sawyers, a tactic that has made him unpopular with the Texas police force. When Hopper gets his hand on a chainsaw, it results in a delirious sequence of him cleaving through a giant log. By the time he reaches the Sawyer’s lair, Lefty has gone entirely around the bend. Hopper yells about being the Lord of the Harvest and sings hymns. Hopper would call this one of the worst films he ever appeared in it. Which isn’t fair, considering the likes of “Super Mario Bros.” and “Unspeakable” are also on his resume. The truth is Dennis Hopper is right on the movie’s deranged wavelength, adding another memorable aspect to this cult classic.

I don’t need to tell you that, despite its reputation for intense violence, the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” kept must of its gore off-screen. The sequel, meanwhile, has no such fear of the red stuff. One of the earliest scenes features a head being sawed in half. After Chop Top’s introduction, he’s soon clobbering L.G. over the head with a hammer, each bloody blow being intently focused on. After dragging his body back to the Sawyer lair, we get to see firsthand how Leatherface creates his skin masks. In another extended sick joke, L.G. continues to wander around for a while even after his face has been torn away. The sequel also shows a willingness to deliver punishment to its villains. Leatherface exits the film with a giant chainsaw shoved through his gut. Amusingly, it’s not this wound but a simple blow to the head that puts the maniac down. The vividness of the gore should come as no surprise, considering it was provided by legendary effects man Tom Savini.

The sequel doesn’t just up the dark comedy and gore either. The Sawyers are given a much bigger location to play in then the original’s cramped farmhouse. The flesh-eating maniacs have shacked up in underground tunnels beneath an amusement park inspired by the Alamo. The contrast between the maniacs and Texas’ most venerated bit of history is a nice, ironic touch. Meanwhile, the Sawyer’s home remains a hypnotically bizarre creation. They still decorate with human bones, building tables, chairs, and room decorations out of skeletal leftovers. More amusing is the family’s habit of propping up the dead remains of their victims in comical little scenes. Such as a pair of corpses sitting in lawn chairs, apparently sunning themselves. The grandest bit of set design is saved for the end. Atop the amusement park is a shrine to Great Grandma in Chainsaw Heaven, a bloated corpse grasping a saw in a make-shift temple. Hooper shoots it all with a crazed dedication towards details.

Since the sequel has wildly different goals then the original, the sound design has a very different direction. Instead of the harsh mechanical noise that replaced a musical score in the first, this film features a traditional score. Jerry Lambert provides a score that is so typical of the horror genre, that it wouldn’t feel out of place in a fifties monster movie. More important then the orchestral music is the soundtrack. Befitting Stretch’s job as a DJ, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” is filled with some awesome alternative and New Wave music. The first murder is set to Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever,” a comically morbid choice that matches the story’s tone. The likes of Timbuk3, Concrete Blonde, and The Cramps fills out multiple scenes. In other words, the film’s choice in music lines up nicely with my own taste.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” would be the most successful film of the three Hooper made for Cannon. Even then, it only managed to just double its four million dollar budget. This might have something to do with the excessive gore forcing the film to be released unrated, which limited its distribution. Reviews weren’t kind upon release but time has shown “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” to be a cult classic of the truest variety. Hooper’s decision to play the material for sick laughs was ultimately proven right. Despite killing off the notorious villains at the end, further sequels and remakes would follow, most of them completely straight-laced and nearly all of them rather dire. Though it provides a very different flavor from the original, it turns out to be a complimenting one. [Grade: A-]

No comments: