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Entries in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2/The [1986] (1)

Friday
Sep182009

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Junk or Genius?

A couple months from now, I will be co-hosting a Chateau Grrr dinner whose celebrity guest list sounds like the setup of a really weird joke: Margot Kidder, Ricou Browning, and Bill Moseley. In preparation for this special event at Crypticon Minneapolis, CG founder Chad Hawks and I have begun researching the stars’ various roles. Our hope is to keep the conversation lively and informative for everyone involved, or at least keep ourselves from looking like uninformed jackasses.

 

Here now is the first of several Kicking the Seat Home Video Reviews, Crypticon Edition!

I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre at a very young age. My Dad loved watching horror movies, and made no attempt to convince me that the on-screen carnage was make-believe; to this day, I can’t walk by a deep freezer without imagining a half-dead body inside.

Which I believe was director Tobe Hooper’s aim. His cinema verite approach to the story of a Texas cannibal family elevates the film above conventional slasher status: he set out to not only scare the audience but to instill in them an unshakable fear of being kidnapped and turned into award-winning chili.

Twenty-two years after the original film, Hooper made a (literally) head-scratching sequel that took a chainsaw to the subtlety and suspense he’d established. Perhaps hoping to capture the success of the many iterations of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, he turned his masterpiece into a franchise that—like those films—completely undermined the point of the original creation. To this day, however, it is debatable whether The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a sloppy cash-in or a brilliant Warholian experiment.

The plot is barely worth mentioning, but here goes:

A couple of drunk-driving yuppies crank-call an Oklahoma radio station. On the road, they encounter the murderous Leatherface and his family of psychopaths, who have lots of fun dismembering the boys and driving them off the road; all of this happens live on the air as DJ “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams), listens in horror. With the help of Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), Stretch uses the tape to lure the killers back to the radio station; the plan to arrest them on sight fails miserably—as must any plot to foil movie villains, if introduced fifteen in—and Stretch and Lefty find themselves trapped in the bowels of an abandoned Texas amusement park littered with body parts and ghoulish secrets.

That paragraph was my homage to 1980’s video box synopses; it’s the only way to describe this movie without falling asleep.

Unlike other films that I’ve viewed multiple times, my perception of TCM2 never changes. It’s always a boring, frustrating experience. The opening twenty minutes build relationships and set plot points in motion, but once the radio station debacle begins, we’re left with sixty minutes of running, screaming, climbing and mutilating. And, yes, I do expect more from a movie called Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, especially if it was written and directed by the same person who created the far superior original; Tobe Hooper can’t blame young hacks for ruining his vision.

This brings me back to the notion that the whole project is a deliberate joke played on the audience. Why else would one spend the money to hire Dennis Hopper, only to have him scream, “Bring it all Doooown!” for the last half of the movie while demolishing support beams? How else to explain Leatherface’s obsession with chainsaw-fucking Stretch while licking “his” lips? Then there’s Chop-Top, a heretofore unseen member of the family, who was apparently in Viet Nam during the events of the first film; as played by Bill Moseley, he’s a nigh-incoherent masochist that enjoys scraping off pieces of his scalp and eating them. There’s a tremendous energy to the movie; everyone seems to be having fun and really getting into their roles—but if Ocean’s Twelve taught us anything, it’s that the only good time that matters is the one had (or not had) by the audience.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s only triumph may be that it is a spiritual predecessor to Rob Zombie’s Halloween 2. Both films celebrate psychosis and fuse surreality with reality. Zombie has a leg up on Hooper in that he’s populated the real world with damaged people as opposed to creating a parallel dimension where everyone is a cartoon character. TCM2 plays out like a survivor’s PTSD flashback, and that gets tiresome after ninety minutes; wholly experimental films often fail because they forget that the viewer needs something sensical to latch onto in order to go for a ride. While Hooper establishes a plausible universe for five minutes, the majority of his picture is a descent into madness, and it throws everything off balance; Halloween 2 is even-keeled in its use of bizarre intrusions on everyday occurrences.

It just occurred to me that Rob Zombie actually remade TCM2 a few years ago, though he called it House of 1,000 corpses. That movie was also not very good, but it did improve on some of Hooper’s problems—such as casting Bill Moseley in essentially the same role, but with a slightly dialed-back brand of hysteria.

I’ll probably watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 again in a few years, if only to dispel this feeling that I’m missing something. As I said earlier, it’s not a pleasant or compelling experience, but neither was Napoleon Dynamite the first time I watched it. I have to believe that the man who gave me a paralyzing fear of deep freezers is incapable of making an utterly disposable sequel—the alternative is too frightening to ponder.