To say that Tobe Hooper has had an erratic career would be putting it mildly. If you were being generous, you could say that not many genre directors ever match (or better) their breakthrough hits. A case in point is John Carpenter - has he really ever done anything that tops HALLOWEEN (1978)? Having said that, even though, Carpenter himself hasn't had the most consistent track record, at least he hasn't delved into the similar kind of depths of cinematic despair as Hooper. Today, despite a seemingly out of character blip with THE TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) redux (i.e. it was half decent), Hooper has just about worn out all the goodwill his extraordinary horror debut generated amongst horror fans. Now, it's a surprise if his latest outing doesn't merely premiere on the Sci-Fi channel, but back in 1986 - despite a rapidly growing reputation for misfires - hopes were still high that he could deliver once again on that early promise ...
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 opens promisingly enough, with two of cinema's most obnoxious jocks meeting a messy end at the hands - or to be more exact - the saw of Texas' most infamous family (let's just forget the Bushs and Ewings shall we?). Leatherface's first appearance in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) has rightly passed into horror movie lore, and you couldn't ask for a better reappearance here for one of cinema's originally bogeymen: standing on the back of a pickup truck, his massive chain saw roaring and throwing petrol smoke into the night air, as the truck and the jock's car race side-by-side. What was hinted at in the original (the only really visceral gore was a brief shot of Leatherface dropping his chainsaw on his leg at the end) was made a blood-splattered reality in the sequel; every gorehound's wet dream came true with an 80's horror hero coming on board to provide his signature splatter fx. And Tom Savini showed he wasn't messing around from the off; the image of the jock trying to hold his head together (just after the chainsaw has bisected it) is certainly one that stays with you.
The authorities are only too keen to hush up this latest chainsaw atrocity - hoping to pass it off as a mere accident (despite saw marks all over the wreckage!). However, someone else knows different - the one and only Dennis Hooper, playing Lieutenant 'Lefty' Enright, whose brother's kids died at the hands of the Sawyer clan during the first film. Someone else knows different, too. Stretch (Caroline Williams), a rock radio DJ was called by the two jocks during a live phone-in just as the Sawyers attacked them. Originally thinking it was just an obnoxious prank, Stretch begins to think otherwise when she sees the report on the 'accident' that Enright has managed to place in the paper. She approaches him with tapes she made of the incident; initially reticent to get her involved he blows her off. However, she eventually convinces him, and they hatch a plan to bring the Sawyer clan out of hiding ...
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE mixed scraping-your-nails-against-a-blackboard horror with humour - although, admittedly, the humour was as black as the chambers of a dead nun's heart. With the sequel, Hooper's in similarly dark and mischievous mood - although the humour is far broader than the original. The landscape - both horror and otherwise - had changed out of almost all recognition since 1974, so I guess the semi-parody route was the only way to go. It works especially well with 'cook' (Jim Siedow), the 'normal' (i.e. most abnormal) member of the clan, whose 'special' chilli continually wins prizes throughout Texas - especially at an over-the-top award ceremony (once again ribbing (no pun intended) America's meat obsessed society). Incidentally, although off-the-bat it might seem strange, but Hooper's debut is probably the ultimate vegetarian horror flick: with the film's human victims suffering the same kind of senseless, barbaric treatment farmed animals raised for meat regularly do; not to mention that when one of the main villains meets a messy end under a lorry, if you take note you'll see it's an animal transporter (notch one up for our furry friends!).
The sequel also sees the phallic nature of the chain saw is also used to great parodic effect - especially in one scene, where Leatherface torments Stretch with the eponymous tool, pointing it towards her naked thighs (all the while masturbating). Pretty dangerous stuff for a mainstream release in 1986, and for that Hooper is to be commended. The assault on the radio station - and especially Leatherface's appearance from the darkness - are also highlights.
However, whilst this parody approach works much of the time it is also responsible for the film's misfires. Chop Top (Bill Moseley), with his Nam flashbacks, is disturbing in an EC comics type of way, but nowhere as near the sudden storm on a Summer's day of the appearance of the hitchhiker in the original. Also, considering that Leatherface had been the stuff of nightmares for so many, his - for want of a better word - humanisation, in the sequel is perhaps misguided. Whilst, the idea 'Leatherface falls in love' (when he grows fond of Stretch), might make good copy it only goes to make him seems less scary (much in the way that adding back story to Michael Myers takes away from that raw, it-could-be-any-of-us-he's-stalking intensity of the original). The pratfalls in the original seemed macabre, but here Hooper takes Leatherface dangerously close to Keystone Cops type tomfoolery.
Perhaps another problem with the sequel, ironically, is the increase in budget. Cannon had clearly given Hooper lots of moolah to spend - and it shows. Whilst the original movie was known for it's grating claustrophobia (the oppressive shadows of the Ed Gein inspired farmhouse), the sequel gives the Sawyers a lair that would give Batman (or perhaps Wild Boys era Duran Duran!) a run for their money. Whilst the veiled references to Dante's descent into the inferno are welcome, and the labyrinthine trailer trash hell (all fairy lights and moldering cadavers sat at picnic tables) is initially diverting (and boasts great set design), it smacks of bluff and bluster and little else.
Also, despite some especially gratuitous Savini kills, TCM2 is curiously light on actual murders - especially given that the screenplay makes much about the swathes the Sawyers have made across Texas. Interestingly, plenty of other murders were shot by Hooper (most notably a massacre in an underground garage), but were left on the cutting room floor. Perhaps, their inclusion might have given the sequel that visceral punch it needed. Finally, on the negative side of things, the recreation of the famous Marilyn Burns dinner table scene really smacks of flogging a dead horse. The law of diminishing returns, and all that, holds sadly true.
TCM2 never received a cinema release in the UK, and remained banned here on video well into the 90s. Incredibly - and this does seem like the dark ages now - the main reason, seemingly, that it was on the censors shitlist was the inclusion of the word 'chainsaw'; for a while no film could be released in the UK with that word in the title. This famously led to the 80s trash epic HOLLYWOOD CHAIN SAW HOOKERS (1988) (which incidentally starred the original Leatherface, Gunnar Hansen, who is missing here), had to be renamed HOLLYWOOD HOOKERS - which gave a rather different impression of what lay inside that clamshell!
Curiously, given its broad approach to both horror and humour, TCM2 does achieve one particularly unnerving moment. Intriguingly, it remains a mystery as to whether it was intentional or not ... Avert your eyes if you haven't seen the end of the film and don't want it spoiled for you ... For those handy with the freeze frame (and it helps if your DVD player has a zoom facility) check out the last few frames of the movie, after Stretch has vanquished the Sawyer clan. Just previous to this, she has found what is presumably a mummified Grandma, huge and dusty in a chair. However, if you look behind Stretch as she does her dance of triumph (and insanity), for a fleeting moment you can see a white shape appear behind her. Is it just a puff of billowing dry ice (this was, of course, the 80s!), or could it be Grandma standing up from her chair? As far as I know, no-one knows the answer to that one for certain ... End of spoilers.
Following up a film like THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE would be a tall order for anyone, not least for someone who's had more hits than misses like Hooper. The director, incidentally, claims that the sequel isn't the film he set out to make (something backed up by Caroline Williams, who said that Cannon mauled it beyond recognition). Maybe well see the movie as Hooper originally intended. However, presently, there's still enough of note here for it to remain the most interesting of the CHAINSAW progeny - and is probably Hooper's last truly worthwhile effort.
female:0 / male:6
1) Male has top of his head sawn off with chainsaw
2) Male killed in car crash
3) Male hit over the head with hammer and skinned
4) Male chainsawed up the arse!
5) Male killed with grenade
6) Male killed with chainsaw