Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Thirteen years after slicing up a group of hippies, Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and his kin have moved on. No longer a family of unemployed slaughterhouse workers killing anyone who wanders into their house, the Sawyers have taken their business on the road with the Last Roundup Rolling Grill, winning chili cook offs around Texas. No one questions cook Drayton (Jim Siedow, the only returning actor from the original) when he claims the crunchy bits are hard-shelled peppercorns.

One night, a pair of joyriding teens are killed by Leatherface after a foolish game of chicken, but the attack is caught on audio tape by disc jockey Stretch (Caroline Williams). She is convinced by Texas Ranger Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) to play the tape on the air to lure out the killers. Enright has waged a one-man manhunt for the Sawyers ever since learning of his niece and nephew's fates in the first film, and he thinks this is his chance at revenge.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most grueling and frightening movies ever. While nowhere near as gory as its reputation indicates, it's intense, in-your-face, and sweat-inducing. It's also funny. I always laugh when the cook berates Leatherface for ruining the door and having "no pride in his own home."

That aspect often gets overlooked, and for the sequel, director Tobe Hooper decided to bring the humor up front. The result is a wilder, gorier, and stranger movie. Drayton is small businessman, ranting about property taxes, driving a portable meat stand like an ice cream truck, and making an honest buck. When he ends up on the wrong side of a chainsaw, he laments, "Small businessman always, always, always gets it in the ass!"

Even Lefty's pursuit is played for laughs. Wearing a ranger suit, cowboy hat, a chainsaw holstered on each hip while carrying a massive one, he's just as crazy as any Sawyer family member. When he storms the Sawyer dwelling, he sings "Bringing in the Sheeves" and declares himself the "Lord of the Harvest."

The real standout performance of the movie is Chop Top (Bill Moseley). This guy has to be seen to be believed. Wearing Lennon shades and a Sonny Bono wig (to cover up a metal plate he got in Vietnam), Chop Top dances around with a corpse named Nubbins, picks at his plate with a coat hanger, and perfect illustrates how much more surreal and bizarre this movie is compared to its predecessor. He's wild, over-the-top, and colorful. In fact, the movie's worth seeing just for him.

The main action with Stretch parallels the experiences of Sally Hardesty in the first (getting chased, captured, tied up at the dinner table, meeting Grandpa) but is more absurd. In the first, the family lived in a cramped, claustrophobic farm house just a stone's throw away from the highway. Here, the Sawyers live in a world all their own, underground, beneath a Texas theme park decorated with Christmas lights. Instead of the sudden, blunt killings of the original, we get bizarro set pieces in which blood and gore are exaggerated to hysterical levels. When Chop Top attacks one character, he pounds the guy's head with a hammer for a good five minutes while shouting "Incoming mail!" One blow was enough in the first movie (and another to stop the convulsing).

Some scenes, however, are more uncomfortable than funny. The gore effects by Tom Savini are well done and realistic, but they don't always mesh with the slapstick. The result can be merely disgusting instead of funny or scary.One character's face is carved off and placed on Stretch's when she's captured by Leatherface and forced to dance with him.

But the most... awkward bit involves Leatherface's romance with Stretch. Leatherface falls in love, and this took away the menace he should have, even in a comedy. I liked Drayton's ultimatum to Leatherface. "You have one choice, boy: sex or the saw. Sex is, well, nobody knows. But the saw, the saw is family." And there is perverse nuttiness in seeing Leatherface try to use his chainsaw in a way never intended (besides killing people), but on the whole, this subplot made Leatherface pathetic. While he is dangerous, he's not intimidating.

I'm reminded of a line by Ian McKellen as James Whale in Gods and Monsters, discussing how he made Bride of Frankenstein more comedic than Frankenstein: the monster is never the butt of the joke; he maintains his dignity. I don't know how much dignity one can afford a retarded, cannibalistic psychopath who wears a mask of human skin, but I wish Hooper had made Leatherface more competent.

Chainsaw 2 was the third movie in Hooper's three-picture deal with Cannon films (the studio famous for Chuck Norris movies) following the blockbuster success of Poltergeist. However, Lifeforce and the Invaders from Mars remake both ended up being huge flops. Hooper returned to his roots for this one, and while it proved more successful than the previous sci fi pieces, it failed to match the impact of the original Chainsaw. Within a few years, Cannon was bankrupt, and Hooper's run in Hollywood was finished, prompting him to return to low budget horror and genre television.

The original Chainsaw Massacre is a powerful, scary motion picture. I consider it a perfect horror movie. The sequel is a wild, fun ride with some satire thrown in. In a way, it could be seen as a spoof of the original: more blood, guts, laughs, and weirdness. It's certainly more ridiculous and disgusting, and it doesn't always work. For some horror fans, that's blasphemy. For others, it's a good time.

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