It’s one thing to remember a movie you’ve seen. It’s another to remember all the details of when you saw that movie.
I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 at a midnight show; the venue was a gorgeous old theater in my college town, Columbia, MO (go Mizzou!). I plopped into my seat next to my then-boyfriend (hi Charlie, wherever you are!), scarfed down a bucket of popcorn roughly the size of my head, and waited for the show. Mind you, I’d seen plenty of gory movies at that time in my life, and had heard that the first Texas Chainsaw movie (which I hadn’t seen then) was low on blood and high on suggestion, and since I’d seen Night of the Living Dead a few weeks earlier and had only been mildly freaked out, I figured this wouldn’t be so bad.
I was wrong.
It’s been a number of years so I’m not sure at precisely which point I snatched my popcorn bucket from the floor in case I needed it as a barf receptacle. It was either when a man twitched convulsively as he was beaten in the head with a hammer, or when a person had their face skinned off and said face was put onto another person. Afterward my then-boyfriend, a nice Christian boy from The Bootheel, could only say, “Oh my Lord,” in a shaken voice.
OK, not the most pleasant night at the movies, but one I certainly didn’t forget!
Considering that it took the better part of a week to get some the images from this movie out of my head, you can forgive me for taking nearly 20 years to rewatch the film. The impetus for a rewatch was seeing cast members Caroline Williams, Bill Moseley, and Bill Johnson at the 2009 Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in L.A. and being floored at how nice they were and at what a fun time they all claimed to have had while making the film. So I decided to take the plunge and revisit Texas Chainsaw 2. And my verdict? It’s a flawed, far from perfect film that gets one thing wrong for every two things it gets right, yet puts a kind of insanity and fearlessness on screen the likes of which I’ve never seen since.
Texas Chainsaw 2 opens, as did its predecessor, with a lengthy expository crawl and voice-over. This time we’re informed that Sally, the lone survivor of the first film, told a tale of insanity and murder to the police (including the memorable phrase “hacked up for barbecue”) before lapsing into catatonia. The culprits were never caught, and despite denials from law enforcement officials, tales persisted of mysterious disappearances attributed to the chainsaw-wielding clan.
Deep in the heart of Texas, ranger Lefty Enright (get it?), who’s the uncle of catatonic Sally and her late, unlamented brother Franklin from the first film, has been searching all this time for the clan. It’s soon clear that Lefty departed South Eccentric long ago and is currently residing well within the town limits of Outer Batshitinsania, and the fact that he’s played by Dennis Hopper doesn’t give us hope he’ll be the story’s voice of reason. Lefty knows he’s close when two obnoxious yuppies die in what authorities call a car crash; Lefty sees the strange gashes in the car and on the bodies, which could only have come from a chainsaw. Proof comes from local DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams, in a fantastic and shamefully underrated performance) who was taking a call from the yuppies when they were attacked and has the attack on tape. Stretch wants to cover real news instead of chili cook-offs. Lefty wants to use Stretch as bait to bring the Sawyer clan (get it?) out of hiding. At Lefty’s request Stretch plays the recording of the chainsaw attack on her broadcast, and that night she and her long-suffering boss L. G. (the late Lou Perryman) get two unexpected and very unpleasant visitors named Chop Top (Bill Moseley) and Leatherface (Bill Johnson).
It seems the Sawyer clan are close by – they’ve set up a lair in an abandoned “Texas Battle Land” theme park (which looks like it was incredibly creepy before the Sawyers took it over). They’ve expanded their barbecue business and are into catering and winning the aforementioned chili cook-offs. Soon L. G. is mostly dead and Stretch is trapped in the lair where she’s alternately menaced by Chop Top and the cook (Jim Siedow, the only cast member to return from the original film) and given a dubious sort of protection by Leatherface, who’s smitten with her. Meanwhile Lefty, armed with multiple chainsaws, is literally bringing the house down.
The line between humor and horror can be a fine one, and Texas Chainsaw 2 doesn’t so much walk that line as erase it. Unlike its grim, serious predecessor, it offers plenty of opportunities for the audience to laugh: at the Sawyer gang’s banter and messed-up family dynamic, at the satirical touches brought to the story by Tobe Hooper and screenwriter L. M. “Kit” Carson (the cannibal family runs a thriving business that’s supported by the very people they prey on); at the way Grandpa Sawyer can’t even hold a hammer long enough to hit someone. But it doesn’t neglect the horror either, thanks to Tom Savini’s incredibly graphic effects, a thoroughly uncomfortable scene that explores the phallic implications of a chainsaw blade, and watching a character’s sanity erode until they’re as crazy as the film’s villains. And yet the blend of humor and horror never works as well as it could – the humor often isn’t strong enough, and the gruesomeness and insanity tip the balance. We can laugh as Stretch gives Chop Top a brief (very brief) tour of the radio station, but we can’t laugh as she’s subjected to repeated torments and gradually loses her mind.
Most people aren’t likely to watch Texas Chainsaw 2 for the acting but for the most part it’s quite good. Williams is a powerhouse and perhaps too good for the movie. Moseley has one of horror cinema’s great entrances as Chop Top – menacing, repulsive, and funny at the same time (though he never gets another scene that quite equals this one). Bill Johnson puts a new spin on Leatherface that makes him the one halfway sympathetic person of the clan; you get the feeling he’d be not a bad sort if he’d had a better family. Jim Siedow makes his cook just sane enough to pass for normal (in Texas anyway) yet it’s plain he’s as crazy as the others (and also very tired after years of putting up with Leatherface’s and Chop Top’s antics). Oddly enough the only acting misstep is Hopper, who is unusually subdued and often seems to be going through the motions.
Acting aside, the film’s greatest strengths is in the oddball dialogue (“Dog will hunt!”), its sheer audacity (you’ll lose count of the “I can’t believe what I’m watching” moments), and its truly amazing attention to detail. The cannibal lair set is the ultimate nightmare funhouse, full of grotesque caches of bodies, labyrinthine tunnels, collapsing floors, and the family’s insane approach to interior decorating. (This last is particularly chilling when you realize that the items have all been scavenged from the clan’s victims.)
There are still too many weaknesses to make the film entirely successful. The humor/horror intersection most often creates neither laughter nor scares but a sort of queasy discomfort. Some choppy editing near the end makes the action unclear at times (and Hopper’s stunt double is very obvious). While the movie gets props for including Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever”, the score is a weird pipe organ concoction that’s supposed to sound like music from a deranged circus but more often sounds like a cat walking on a calliope.
Still, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is unlike any other movie, and I found it more memorable in its own way than its more famous predecessor.
MGM has come through with a fine special edition. (Stupid decision to leave off the “Breakfast Club” parody poster for “Saw”-inspired cover art aside.) The DVD has a great set of extras that include trailers and deleted scenes including one with drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs (as “Gonzo Moveigoer”). There are also two commentaries: an informative one by Hooper and writer David Gregory, and a fun one by Williams, Moseley, and Savini that makes the movie well worth watching again.