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September 16, 2010

Midnight Movie of the Week #37 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

My first encounter with Leatherface when I was growing up was - regrettably - through Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.  That film was the fourth entry in the TCM series, featuring Matthew McConaughey as one of the sadistic "family" members and Renee Zelleweger as the female lead (both would have break out roles soon after in A Time To Kill and Jerry Maguire, respectively).  More notably, it's a film that's stuck in my mind as one of my least favorite movies I've ever seen.

Thus, I didn't give much thought to the sequels in the TCM series for most of my years.  I still took time to seek out the original film (which was Midnight Movie of the Week just over a month ago), but avoided any other trips into the Texas countryside where Leatherface resides.  When I did finally check out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - which promised '80s fashions and a crazed Dennis Hopper - I didn't give the movie much thought. When I popped the film in for a recent revisit, I quickly realized that I remembered almost nothing about the film.  This time around, I kind of loved it.
Texas Chainsaw 2 opens with a couple of teens driving around and causing mischief, all while trying to make requests of a young woman/disc jockey via their state-of-the-art car phone.  These men promptly come across the iconic Leatherface - perched in the back of the family truck and swinging around his chainsaw and a rotted corpse - who quickly makes a mess on that Texas Highway.  Called in to investigate is Texas Ranger "Lefty" Enright (Hopper, having a lot of fun), who then teams up with the DJ (Caroline Williams) that caught the murder on tape and wants to get to the bottom of it all.  An on-air demonstration of what she knows brings the freaks out, as Leatherface and brother Chop-Top show up to wreak havoc.

There's no way this film - or any of the other follow ups - can stand up against Tobe Hooper's original Massacre, which managed to resist going over the top with its gore and violence while staying incredibly brutal.  Luckily, Hooper is back in the directors chair for the sequel, and he seems to understand that most viewers would share my opinion.  In response, he opens up the door to a gory tale that adds the sadistic and unhinged Chop-Top (played by horror fave Bill Moseley), who's a much more vile brother to Leatherface than Edwin Neal's hitchhiker was in the first film.  One of my favorite moments involving Chop-Top is when he begins to pick his brain with a metal coat hanger while interrogating our intrepid DJ.
The other villains are our holdovers from the first Massacre - including Leatherface (now played by Bill Johnson), Grandfather, and - my personal favorite - The Cook, played by Jim Siedow.  They make great opponents for Hopper's insane Ranger, who storms their lair in the final act while bellowing "Ringing in the Sheaths".  Williams' turn as the DJ, Stretch, is mostly counted on to react to the carnage around her, and she does a fine job at it.

There are plenty of problems with Hooper's sequel, of course.  There's a large loss in tension from the first film, and the film also loses the gritty realism that film had.  The former was expected, but the latter is definitely a jolt to the viewer.  Many would call the film a mess in this regard - it does seem to go on about 15-20 minutes longer than a film as crazy as it should - but I find the shinier appearance of TCM2 to seem very nightmarish.  The dark corridors and neon lighting added to the mood for me, and establish the film's place alongside its mid '80s counterparts.  In my post on the first film I called it the bully in the schoolyard of '70s horror films - and I feel this sequel could compete for that honor in its decade too.
If there's one thing in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that really surprised me, it's the fact that it actually got me to jump out of my seat a couple of times.  The chainsaw sound effects are particularly jarring, as Leatherface makes a habit out of popping through walls at the exact moment when my guard is down.  The film plays for camp most of the time, though, allowing Hopper to shine as the potentially insane Ranger.  Still, Director Hooper proves to me in these few moments of fright that a lot of the magic inside his first horror classic is still there.  He's simply widened the scale of the film and added a large dose of cheesy humor to the mix.

It's very hard for me not to think of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as I write about this film or any other film that shares the name (if you want to see me get particularly mean, check out what I wrote about the remake seven years ago when I sucked at writing).  Despite that, I'm starting to think that my memories of the original are an advantage for TCM2 versus a lot of other horror sequels.  TCM2 seems to honor its predecessor while having fun with the world it set up, which is a rare and honorable achievement for a horror sequel.  If you can get past the fact that it's not that film - and if I can, you probably can too - there's a lot of fun and a few scares to be had in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.


Fred [The Wolf] said...

The best sequel in the franchise. Just a silly, fun film. I think Hooper did the right thing by taking it in this direction. He couldn't top the original, so why bother? Nice to see this film finally getting its due as a good flick. Great review!

deadlydolls said...

This is a good time of a sequel, one that does get better once you let go of the fact that it's following up Hooper's masterpiece. Stretch is one of my favorite final girls ever.

The Mike said...

Thanks fellas!

@Fred - Yeah, I'm really glad I gave it another shot. I think the orig is one of the least sequel-able(?) horrors out there, but this one is at least fun.

@Emily - I also totally loved Stretch. If I were listing SG's, she'd be up there.

Morgan said...

I almost love TCM 2 more than I do the original. It's a fun horror film and Dennis Hopper was such a badass as Lefty! Great review!

Bryce Wilson said...

One of my faves. Good write up.

I think this is one of the few horror comedies that's genuinely funny AND scary. Its all fun and games, and then Stretch is murdered in one of the most ghastly scenes I've seen in a horror film.

And God I love Hopper in this, the only man crazy enough to invite himself to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Fred, this is by far the best sequel in the franchise. Why we needed a franchise for TCM is beyond me, but we got one. Why do they always want to recapture lightening in a bottle with franchises and prequels and sequels and on and on...TCM as perfect as is, no need to be remade.
I'm actually watching TCM2 as I write this. If I were Stretch, I'd be playing Leatherfaces affection toward me to the hilt to get myself outta there, lol. I wouldn't care how nasty it was, if it meant my life, I'd do him in a heartbeat. With that whole "Bubba's got a girlfriend" thing, Leatherface came off kinda wimpy. I mean, this is the guy who puts girls on meat hooks for cryin out loud and now he's all dopey over Stretch. It's a tad hard to buy, but at least it's better than what they did to Leatherface in part 4, that was beyond pitiful.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

Thomas Duke said...

This was supposedly pretty screwed with in editing, and I find that the pacing is off. Some of the deleted scenes are pretty great. I wish there was a directors cut, but supposedly all of the cut footage is gone (the deleted scenes on the DVD are VHS sourced). I still really like the movie and it's goofy satirical take on the first movie.