Revisiting The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2
Set 12 years after the first film, the plot kicks in when a radio DJ ‘Stretchy’ (Caroline Williams) listens live on her rock and roll request show as two annoying yuppies that called in are hacked to death by old Leatherbreath himself (Bill Johnson, who puts in a surprisingly effective comedic, physical performance). She soon makes the acquaintance of a renegade Lieutenant, nicknamed ‘Lefty’ (Dennis Hopper), who has been tracking the Sawyer family for years since they killed some of his relatives. While initially reluctant to work with Stretchy, Lefty eventually gives in, knowing that she could come in handy against the likes of Leatherface, his brothers Chop Top (Bill Moseley), a mentally unstable war veteran, Drayton (Jim Siedow), who is also the business-oriented brains of their operation, and decrepit grandpa.
Few would argue against the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre as being anything but a classic of the horror genre. Its influence lasted for decades afterwards, still reverberating today when horror movies opt for grimy, gritty, gross-out realism. With respect to the sequel, which was filmed and released a full 12 years later, the debate is still wide open. It has been equally lambasted and praised, sometimes for the very same reasons, such as not paying one iota of respect to the tone of the original. This goes far beyond the Alien vs Aliens debate. True, those films venture into different genres overall, yet they adhere to recognizable tones and aesthetics. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is truly nothing like its predecessor.
For one, Tobe Hooper, who has gone on record stating that the original is peppered with elements of dark humour (many have struggled mightily to pinpoint said moments), is willing to embrace the premise’s inherent preposterousness. While the first film successfully depicted how nightmarish an encounter in no man’s land with a family of cannibals would be, the fact of the matter is that the movie featured a collection of off-kilter, crazed individuals, one of whom has the head-scratching proclivity of wearing his victim’s dried facial skin as masks and wields a chainsaw. The potential for schlocky silliness is sky high, with the filmmakers fully acknowledging and giving in to said zaniness for the 1986 follow-up. Subtlety is tossed into the garbage bin in favour of slapstick, wild colours emanating from bright lights, obnoxiously loud characters, and a potential love angle between dear Leatherface himself and one of his potential victims. For those that hold the tone and attitude of the original near and dear to their hearts, fearful of anything that would tarnish its reputation, stay far and clear from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2.
Does such a stark departure hurt the film and its legacy? Yes and no. To be painfully honest, it depends on how the filmmakers play their cards, and in this case, the results are a mixed bag, if maybe mildly pushing towards the positive side of things. For starters, the second half features a wealth of genuinely excellent set design. After setting up the characters of Lefty and Stretch in locales that resemble the real world, director Hooper transports the action over the Sawyer family’s underground lair, resting beneath an abandoned theme park celebrating the great battles Texas has been involved in throughout its history. Through a combination of clever cinematography, clever editing, and serious dedication from the production crew, the Sawyer domain is quite a thing to behold. Both awash in shadow and weirdly lit with the help of a legion of multi-coloured Christmas-like light bulbs and candles, the cavernous headquarters is a feast for the eyes, to say nothing of the ostentatious decorations, most of which appear to represent odes to the family’s previous kills. It looks fantastic and gives the film a considerable jolt after a somewhat pedestrian first half. The entire cast seems to feed off the location’s energy, with everybody putting in committed performances. It’s all proverbially turned ‘up to 11’, but unquestionably committed.
Much has been written and said already about Dennis Hoppers participation in the endeavour. He is, simply put, a fascinating thespian to behold in Tobe Hooper’s playground. Starting the film off as a Texas Lt. that looks to be somewhat serious about the investigation into the chainsaw murders, Lefty eventually transforms into a bull-headed, one-minded wreaking ball, much like Leatherface himself, only that Lefty is out to stop the villains rather than kill innocents. Once again, the most obvious adjective that comes to mind is ‘committed’. Is it a good performance? Under the circumstances, given the sort of film Hooper has concocted…maybe. Jim Siedow as Drayton, the award-winning chef (if only the judges and public knew what the secret ingredient of that chilli was!) practically steals the show. Drayton is a hard worker, earning the family all its funds, unlike dunderheaded Leatherface and deranged Vietnam War veteran Chop Top. He takes his business seriously and has plenty of pride to spare. From the vitriolic insults he launches at his two useless brothers, to his adamant claims of being, as a small businessman, constantly given the shaft by forces greater than himself, Siedow chews through his dialogue, pun fully intended.
On the topic of Drayton’s hateful claims of always receiving the short end of the business stick, perhaps that is where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2’s secret genius lies. From a political and economic standpoint, the 1980s are revered by some, and reviled by others, especially from people living in Great Britain and the United States. Cultures of excess, very right-wing governments, countries opening up their borders for trade that often aided the establishment, maybe there is something to Drayton’s ramblings after all, about how unfair life was back then, how the ‘little guy’ often got swallowed whole by the economic policies that ran rampant back then (and still do today, in many respects). No one will start arguing that Drayton is not as bad as he looks, but the loon just might have a point. Beneath the outlandishness lies some food for thought, cannibal-style.
- Edgar Chaput