The Film: 4/5
The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is many things: a brilliant work of cinema, one of the greatest horror movies ever made (and possibly the greatest of the 1970's), and a film that continues to terrify and inspire countless horrific nightmares to this very day. As the great drive-in movie critic and raconteur Joe Bob Briggs put it best, "'Saw' is still the king."
But a comedy? I've seen TCM many times over the years and could never spot much humor among the sweat-inducing intensity and the foul and unnerving atmosphere, unless you count the scene where Allen Danzinger screams like a woman before getting bashed in the head by Leatherface. Apparently co-writer and director Tobe Hooper thought the movie that made his career was a veritable laugh riot; us naive and close-minded moviegoers just failed to get the jokes. However, once you've seen TCM a time or two and get past the initial shocks and absorb the sensation of insurmountable dread you might be able to notice the undercurrent of pitch black humor running through certain scenes, particularly the climatic moments when beleaguered heroine Marilyn Burns finds herself at the mercy of Leatherface and his crazed clan of consumerist cannibals - think Sawney Bean meets Jimmy Dean. You just have to remove yourself from the perspective of Burns' character and abandon all pretense to be an audience surrogate. Then you might start laughing.
Chainsaw was such a smashing success when it was first released that the demand for a sequel remained at critical mass until Hooper finally agreed to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986 as part of a three-picture deal he had inked with Cannon Films, the Israeli-birthed cinematic schlock factory that was attempting to break free of their self-imposed reputation for low-grade (but extremely enjoyable) Chuck Norris and Charles Bronson action pictures. But the first two movies he made under that deal - 1985's sci-fi cult classic Lifeforce and an ill-advised remake of Invaders from Mars - were both costly flops. Cannon could no longer afford to bankroll another Hooper flick that had no chance of turning a profit, so only a week prior to the start of shooting TCM2 the studio cut the film's budget by a million dollars and reducing its shooting schedule to less time than most college students have to prepare for an exam.
To say that it was rushed into production is an understatement; filming wrapped the same summer Chainsaw 2 was supposed to hit theaters, and sure enough it made its debut on August 22, 1986 - a mere two months after Hooper's Invades from Mars opened. It was also the same summer that brought us Top Gun, Short Circuit, Ferris Bueller's Day off, Big Trouble in Little China, Aliens, Psycho III, Maximum Overdrive, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Manhunter, Howard the Duck, and The Fly. Even with the duds and bombs it was still a more memorable moviegoing summer than the one we had just recently. For the long-awaited sequel Hooper was given a bigger budget to work with than he had when he and a ragtag gathering of amateur actors and technicians made the original in 1973, despite the last-minute reduction ordered by Cannon. He just didn't have most of the original cast and crew this time (with a few exceptions). To write TCM2 Hooper retained the services of L.M. Kit Carson, the laconic Texas actor, writer, and documentary filmmaker (he directed the 1971 feature The American Dreamer, which granted viewers an eye-opening glimpse into the life of Dennis Hopper as he made The Last Movie) who had previously written Paris, Texas for Wim Wenders and the 1983 Jim McBride-directed remake of Breathless - a personal favorite of Quentin Tarantino. Both director and screenwriter made the decision early on to add more overt humor to the bloody mayhem this time around, and instead having Leatherface and his family go hunting for prime hippie meat for their delicious meat they would choose a target that sophisticated audiences of the time would gladly witness getting slaughtered in large numbers: yuppies.
Yuppies. I have the same level for disdain for those pastel-loving, pompadoured pricks and their hoity-toity fuck toys as Eric Cartman does for the people who willingly attended the first Woodstock. The entirety of the 80's seemed to be a decade-long blow job to these rich, spoiled, self-entitled buffoons who made a valiant attempt to ruin America's economic structure and cultural landscape for everyone but themselves. Even the murdering yuppie title character of Bret Easton Ellis' controversial 1991 novel American Psycho (and its subsequent film adaptation nine years later) got to live to the end even though they hardly deserved such a pleasant outcome. Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 gets off to a roaring start by introducing us to two egotistical yuppie shitheels making their way to the big "Red River Rivalry" football game between the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma while pumping bullets into every inanimate object along their way and harassing local disc jockey Stretch (Caroline Williams) with increasingly annoying phone calls. We know these two cowpies with pulses are not long for this world, especially when that world happens to be set inside a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel. When Leatherface finally shows up to do them both in (to the tune of Oingo Boingo's "No One Lives Forever", from their 1985 MCA Records release Dead Man's Party) it simultaneously functions as a suspenseful set piece - they're attacked on a lonely bridge in the dark of night as Leatherface's truck, which he isn't driving, rides alongside their convertible as the flesh masked one revs up his trusty chainsaw to carve some deserving human turkeys - and a moment of great humor.
Did I mention that the yuppie driving the car gets his head sawed clean in half? Yep, Hooper not only increased the amount of intentional humor but he also added some juicy gore set-pieces executed by the legendary Tom Savini. The original Chainsaw was accused of being a senseless gorefest by its less-than-impressed audiences over the years, despite not having a single moment of onscreen carnage and just a few squirts of stage blood in its entire running time. It was most definitely a shit-scary and uber-intense movie and had plenty of scenes of a hulking man monster wearing a face mask made out of human skin slicing into curious goofballs with his trusty chainsaw. People saw in that what they wanted to and it only added to the movie's enduring legacy. By 1986 Savini was the king of horror movie special effects; from exploding zombie craniums to gruesome slasher kills, the man could deliver some first-rate gore with delirious energy and style. TCM2 isn't the best of showcases for his talents as George Romero's Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead and the first and fourth Friday the 13th movies were, but Savini still gets in some giddily graphic moments to make this a decent addition to his unbeatable resume. No one gets hung on a meathook this time I'm afraid, though watching one poor sucker get his brains bashed in and a necessary layer of epidermis removed from his face perfectly suffices. Savini's effects crew included some future heavy hitters in the gore game like Gabe Bartalos (Darkman), John Vulich (From Beyond), and Bart Mixon (Gremlins 2: The New Batch).
In tone and spirit Chainsaw 2 could not be further away from the original unless Hooper chucked the horror and made it an all-out comedy instead. The movie seems to embrace the former in its first half before experiencing a wild tonal shift to the latter in the second, which is one of the main reasons why the sequel will never be as beloved as the 1974 classic that spawned its very existence. Top-billed Dennis Hopper - still in the midst of an epic comeback from decades of an unstable cinematic madman - is set up to be the hero as vengeful Texas Ranger Lieutenant Lefty Enright. Hopper is a master of concealing boiling wells of rage and insanity in his voice and behind his piercing eyes, and once he goes chainsaw shopping in an inspired scene that includes the priceless line of dialogue "Oh my aching banana" you know right then and there that the Sawyers may have finally met their match. The same goes for Williams' gutsy and lovely D.J. Stretch, looking to break out of the FM drive time purgatory and make a difference for a change. Of course, all of these good intentions are tossed screaming out of the nearest window once Bill Moseley, an icon to millions to horror fans for his enjoyably over-the-top performances in this movie and in Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects, makes his first appearance as the loathsome and uncomfortably hilarious Sawyer sib Chop Top. Moseley gets the lion's share of quotable dialogue ("Lick my plate, you dog dick!" "Dog will hunt!") and some priceless monologues delivered while scraping chunks of dead skin off of the metal plate that the character has sported since taking a machete to the skull during the Vietnam War - which explains his absence from the original TCM. In the annals of modern horror there have been precious few instances of a perfect melding of actor and character, and Moseley brings so much life to Chainsaw 2's duller moments (and there are a few, particular in the second and third act) that it's no wonder why Chop Top has become possibly the second most memorable character in the entire Chainsaw franchise, next to his saw-wielding brother Bubba obviously.
The only other time besides the twin yuppie slaughter when TCM2 is able to recapture some of that pants-wetting intensity the original had in large supply is that magnificent moment when Leatherface comes charging out of the record vault during Stretch and Chop Top's first encounter. That's the last time when Leatherface gets to be the roaring mad monster of our darkest dreams. That scene still gets me every time even though I've seen Chainsaw 2 many times. Since Hopper has star billing and Williams was a relatively unknown actress at the time (although she had a minor supporting role in Louis Malle's haunting drama Alamo Bay a year before Chainsaw 2 came into her life) it would have not seemed out of place for Stretch to end up a casualty midway through the movie as Janet Leigh did in the original Psycho. We can't be sure that the character will survive the whole flick, so the scene where Stretch is being pursued through the empty radio station by Leatherface generates the most suspense to be found in Chainsaw 2. When Leatherface finally breaks through the wall of Stretch's only hiding place and the audience believes her days are numbered does TCM2 abruptly shift gears and become a horse of a much different color.
The whole moment plays into the feminist interpretation of the chainsaw as a phallic symbol of brutish masculinity while gleefully sending it up at the same time. What could have been another gory death scene instead mutates into an oddly inappropriate sort of sex scene between Stretch and Leatherface as she challenges her potential killer on just "how good he is" with his rather lengthy chainsaw. Without spoiling the rest of the scene what happens is twisted and plain wrong, yet it almost feels as if Hooper and co. are having a big goof on us rabid horror fans and our expectations of what a Texas Chainsaw Massacre is supposed to be like. No wonder the movie failed to connect with audiences and critics at the time; they went in hoping for another pure, grimy blast of celluloid terror and were rewarded with subversion and satire. I'd feel ripped-off and pissed-off too.
The second half shift in tones changes the nature of the lead performances. Established as a self-righteous hero out to avenge the deaths of his loved ones, Hopper's salty lawman pretty much sits out the rest of the movie once Lefty goes screaming into the bowels of the Sawyer clan's hideous hideout located beneath a defunct amusement park wearing several chainsaws of his own like a cowboy's pistols. From there Hopper does little more than wander around the cavernous interiors by himself, sawing down the foundations and bellowing biblical pronouncements at the top of his weathered lungs. Williams doesn't fare much better as her forthright "tough babe" attitude sacrificed in order for Stretch to become yet another ineffectual damsel-in-distress, stretching her own vocal cords to their maximum volume. The screaming victim act gets old and tiresome very fast, and the misplaced implication of romantic feelings for Stretch in Leatherface doesn't help matters. Bill Johnson (in close-up) and stuntman Bob Elmore (doing the action stuff) together make for a pretty decent Leatherface as long as he's allowed to be the Leatherface we all know and love, but he suffers his own midpoint character change from fearsome monster to lovesick buffoon....complete with comical facial expressions that may get a few laughs out of the audience but feel completely wrong for the character. Jim Siedow, the only actor from the original Chainsaw to make a return appearance, loses most of the menace of his character the Cook - here given the name of Drayton Sawyer - as he has been reduced to a blithering, ornery old coot by the ravages of time, but his lunatic rants about America and being a small businessman are some of the comic highlights of Chainsaw 2.
For the original Chainsaw Hooper and Wayne Bell composed a music score that sounded like Satan's house band tuning up for a concert of the apocalypse. Unfortunately Bell did not return to score Chainsaw 2, so Hooper collaborated with Jerry Lambert, whose credits as a music editor and engineer are far more notable than the few measly forgettable flicks he worked on as a composer. What he and Hooper came up with for the sequel is fine and gets the task accomplished, but it's mostly pointless keyboard canoodling with no aspirations to be anything but background noise. The editing by Alain Jakubowicz (an in-house employee of Cannon) could have used a lot of additional tightening up because there are too many moments in the second half of TCM2 where the pacing sags and the attention starts to wander, until the saw gets fired up and your interest may or may not return. Luckily the cinematography by Richard Kooris is bold and colorful and drenches the later scenes in carnival-esque lighting, which does wonders for Cary White's inventive and detail-oriented production design.
Watching Chainsaw 2 for the first time in several years made me realize how much I miss seeing Lou Perryman. It's astounding how many people only know him as Stretch's lovable engineer L.G., who only wanted to build his unrequited love French fry houses and be the sweetest guy he could possibly be. Perryman had been part of Hooper's repertory company going back to the days when he served as first assistant director on Hooper's debut feature Eggshells. He was also an assistant cameraman on the original Chainsaw Massacre and had a bit part in Poltergeist. His most prominent work as an actor came courtesy of the late Texas independent filmmaking great Eagle Pennell in the director's heartbreaking human comedies The Whole Shootin' Match and Last Night at the Alamo. Perryman was so authentic and funny and amazing in those movies that it's one of the great tragedies of cinema and life in general that he was not given more opportunities to realize that boundless talent. Not that he needed it or cared whether he got it or not. Lou Perryman (credited as Lou Perry in Chainsaw 2) was murdered in his Austin, Texas home on April Fools' Day 2009. A few months prior to his tragic death I made friends with him through Facebook after watching his breakthrough work in a DVD release of The Whole Shootin' Match. I praised him for the performance he gave and he was genuinely amazed that I had even seen the film. We started communicating from time to time, talking about whatever struck our fancies. I found him to be a extremely warm and courteous man, and he left behind a far more enjoyable body of work than most actors better-known than he.
Arrow's 1080p high-definition transfer was sourced directly from a print restored under the supervision of director of photography Kooris. This is the best I've ever seen Chainsaw 2 look on home video. Colors are dazzling and details are rich in the production design and the actors' expressive faces. Grain content is very low so as to not look too scrubbed clean. The English 2.0 uncompressed audio track is terrific and serves the picture excellently. Audio distortion is non-existent and every component of the sound mix comes through each channel with marvelous crystal clarity. English subtitles have also been provided.
I would need an extra hand to count on my fingers how many U.S. home video releases have been granted to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 over the years. It was first put out by the now defunct Media Home Entertainment (which also gave the movie its first laserdisc) on videotape and redistributed by Video Treasures in that format several years later. (I remember seeing that version on a spinning wire rack of VHS tapes at my neighborhood Winn-Dixie throughout my childhood). For its tenth anniversary TCM2 was re-released on laserdisc by Elite Entertainment, which was the first video incarnation to include some bonus features - in particular, a 10-minute reel of deleted scenes sourced from a videotape workprint and the original theatrical trailer. Two years later Elite struck a deal with Anchor Bay Entertainment to distribute their remastered letterbox print on VHS with the accompanying extras. Another two years passes before MGM snaps up the rights and gives TCM2 its first DVD release with only the trailer as an extras. Fortunately the studio would rectify that egregious mistake in September 2006 when they released the supplements-stocked "Gruesome Edition" on DVD, and it was that same edition that became the source for the movie's Blu-ray debut late last year.
With the cooperation of MGM Arrow Films has put together a fantastic selection of bonus features for their eagerly-anticipated Blu-ray box set of Hooper's underrated slasher sequel, including everything from MGM's earlier Region 1 releases and a few interesting additions of their own - the most interesting of which is an additional disc that will be of great value to fans of Tobe Hooper.
The selection begins with two commentary tracks. The first pairs director Hooper with moderator David Gregory, the director of the documentary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (available on Dark Sky's DVD and Blu-ray Ultimate Edition releases of the original TCM) and co-founder of Severin Films. Hooper sticks mostly to the technical aspects of making TCM2 but gets in some fascinating tales of the production. The commentary isn't the most animated but Gregory peppers the filmmaker with plenty of questions and strikes up a very conversational tone that keeps the track moving without many dull spots. The second commentary is moderated by Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures and features actors Caroline Williams and Bill Moseley and special effects supervisor Tom Savini for a livelier discussion of the movie, making the movie, its cult following, and just about anything else that comes up. The experience of listening to this track is akin to watching the movie with a group of slightly soused buddies, therefore it's a guaranteed good time (much like the feature itself).
Felsher and Red Shirt Pictures were responsible for the next feature in the amazing supplements line-up, the feature-length retrospective documentary "It Runs in the Family", which is split into six chapters but can be watched uninterrupted in its 88-minute entirety. The only problem with this is every segment ends with a credits roll whether you watch the doc in pieces or as a whole. This tends to get irritating after a while but the documentary is so good you'll forgive that modest flaw easily. It covers just about everything you ever wanted to know about the making of Chainsaw 2 but isn't exactly the warts-and-all dissection those of us who have explored the back story in greater depth have long desired. The tone is more reverential and sweet and features interviews with many of the principal cast and crew members, along with some nice behind-the-scenes stills and on-set video footage. Fans of the movie will find "It Runs in the Family" well worth the viewing.
Next up are a selection of deleted scenes, including an alternate opening credits sequence (2 minutes) set against a moody nighttime backdrop with a different music cue that would be recycled during Stretch's encounter in the radio station with Chop Top. This is followed by some additional footage that is mostly superfluous, but of real value to fans will be the extended sequence where the Sawyer clan goes on a late evening hunt for fresh meat and finds most of what they're looking in an underground garage full of rioting football fans. Hooper deleted this sequence for pacing reasons but personally the movie could have used more gore and carnage, especially during its sagging middle section. We get to see some juicy Savini effects including another head sliced in half, many severed arms and legs, and a hand that gives the camera a defiant middle finger right after it gets cut off. Another deleted scene features Joe Bob Briggs in a cameo appearance playing a gonzo moviegoer whose personality is not too far removed from his own and has an unfortunate run-in with Leatherface that he actually enjoys in his own horror movie geek way. Briggs documented the filming of his cameo and its subsequent unexplained abandonment on the cutting room floor in great detail in his book Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In. "Goddamn, well nail my dick to a tree!"
The last of the features ported over from previous MGM releases are a gallery of black & white behind-the-scenes stills and the original theatrical trailer. Arrow's contributions to this set begin with "Still Feelin' the Buzz" (28 minutes), which sits down with Nightmare USA author Stephen Thrower for a discussion of the virtues and flaws of Chainsaw 2 and its place in the franchise. "Cutting Moments with Bob Elmore" (15 minutes) brings in the veteran stuntman who doubled for Bill Johnson in most of his Leatherface scenes to share some stories about his career in film and television stunt work and how he came to be part of the TCM2 production. Both interviews are well-produced and will be appreciated by fans of the Chainsaw series.
The first run of Arrow's Chainsaw 2 Blu is limited to 10,000 copies and will feature a bonus Blu-ray containing two early films from Tobe Hooper and several related extras. The films - both of which were restored in high-definition by the London-based Watchmaker Films (which also did a bang-up restoration for Eagle Pennell's debut film The Whole Shootin' Match four years ago) - are the short The Heisters (10 minutes) and the full-length Eggshells (85 minutes), the latter being Hooper's first feature film as director made about four years prior to the original Chainsaw Massacre. Hooper also provides an audio commentary for Eggshells, and the movie comes with optional English subtitles. Both films are provided with uncompressed original English audio tracks.
The Heisters is a rather broadly comical short filmed without dialogue (but not silent) and on sets that look like they could have been used for one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Hooper made it in 1964 as a student studying film at the University of Texas at Austin. Eggshells, which has never received a home video release or barely even been seen by audiences since its 1970 premiere, is a loose and rambling story starring the residents of a communal house near the U.T. campus in Austin that he co-wrote with future Chainsaw collaborator Kim Henkel (who also appears as a performer in the movie, credited as "Boris Schnurr", and has a full-frontal nude scene) and made for a grand total of $40,000. It's doesn't make a lick of sense as a narrative but Hooper's directorial talents are strongly in evidence here and would serve him as he moved on to his next feature. However, Henkel believes every copy of the movie in existence should have been burned.
Hooper talks about the highlights of his filmmaking career in an interview conducted by Calum Waddell (23 minutes). There's not a whole lot mentioned here that wasn't already discussed in greater detail on one of Hooper's many audio commentaries, but as a digest-sized career retrospective it works admirably. The disc closes out with a reel of trailers for most of Hooper's films (23 minutes): The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Eaten Alive, Salem's Lot, The Funhouse, Poltergeist, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, Crocodile, Toolbox Murders, and Mortuary.
A DVD copy of the bonus disc with standard-definition transfers of The Heisters and Eggshells and the accompanying supplements is also included.
This limited edition set comes complete with beautiful new designed by artist Justin Erickson and an exclusive 100-page book featuring new essays on the movie by John Kenneth Muir, Joel Harley, and Calum Waddell, illustrated with archival stills and poster art. Included with each of the limited run is a numbered certificate.
As far as home video releases of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 go it is now nigh impossible to beat Arrow Video's Blu-ray box set of Tobe Hooper's beautiful and bizarre feathered fish of a sequel that succeeds in realizing its lofty ambitions even when it fails at delivering on some of its promises. This is the definitive edition of the movie, with amazing video and audio upgrading and numerous essential supplements, and one of the best horror Blu-rays of 2013. Highly, highly recommended.