Friday, July 1, 2016

Cult Classics: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Our hero, Stretch, before everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was shot on a low budget and in a cinema vérité style that makes you feel like what you're watching isn't faked, but in fact seems all too real. It's a horror classic, no question, and it scared the living hell out of me when I saw it as a teenager. I'd been hearing about the film for years, usually in hushed and reverent tones, as if the older kids who raved about it were still traumatized. Well, it lived up to the hype, and then some. It took twelve years for a sequel to materialize, but in 1986 Leatherface returned to terrorize theater goers again with his favorite power tool, the chainsaw. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has a lot in common with its predecessor, most notably an admirably perverse goal to scare the living daylights out of you while rarely, if ever, taking a break to let you catch your breath. In most ways though, it's also a very different film from the original, and at the time of its release these differences seemed to mark it as a failure. However, as the film survived and thrived on home video it gained a fervent cult following, and now is considered another horror and cult classic. If you're squeamish and scare easily, this one might haunt your nightmares for a while. Its outrageously exaggerated performances and tone mitigate a bit of the horror, but just barely. Banned in Australia for twenty years and still banned today in Germany and Singapore, Chainsaw 2 was originally rated "X," (in the pre-"NC-17" era) prompting the filmmakers to just release it unrated. It stayed unrated for almost fifteen years on home video before being given an "R" rating for a 2000 DVD release.

"Why choose when you can buy both" is Lefty's philosophy.

A not-so-subtle homage to the
poster for The Breakfast Club.
Watching Chainsaw 2 is like being strapped into an amusement park ride that has gone completely off the rails: it's a manic thrill ride that just might kill you. Seriously, from the start, director Tobe Hooper (who made his bones—ha ha—with the first Chainsaw) establishes a relentlessly punishing pace. Chainsaw 2 adds a heavy dose of black comedy to the mix this time, and the results are ridiculously entertaining. If you like to see actors behaving like lunatics on the verge of a nervous breakdown, then you're in for a treat here. Not only does it feature Dennis Hopper as an obsessed lawman and relative of one of the victim's from the first film, teetering on the edge of losing his mind at all times, but it also stars Bill Moseley as the amusingly terrifying Chop-Top and Jim Siedow as the comically put-upon Drayton "The Cook" Sawyer, both chewing scenery so hard it's amazing they didn't crack some molars. Between Hopper's Lieutenant "Lefty" Enright and Chop-Top and Drayton, we're surrounded, nearly at all times, by actors behaving like rabid dogs. Chop-Top and Drayton do not shut up. Ever. They are two of the more nonsensically loquacious serial killers you'll ever care to meet. Lefty is a bit more subtle than the others—he quotes scripture and calls himself "The Lord of the Harvest"—but also has those crazy eyes that are constantly bulging out of his head with maniacal intensity. For a religious man, Lefty has very few qualms about using Caroline Williams's "final girl," radio DJ, Vanita "Stretch" Block, as bait for the crazy cannibalistic killers.

Speaking of Williams's performance as Stretch, she enters the Scream Queen Hall of Fame with this film. She exhibits tremendous range here, playing Stretch as a funny, confident, and determined woman, one who will eventually need all the determination she can muster to escape the living hell that awaits her in the film's brutal second half. Stretch knows something's up, that the chainsaw killers from years past are in her radio station's listening area now because she receives a call from two obnoxiously drunk frat boys who are murdered on air by a chainsaw (surprise, it's Leatherface (Bill Johnson), who impressively accomplishes this task from a moving vehicle). In films like this, no one ever believes the person who can see the obvious danger ahead, and in this film that person is Lefty. Stretch believes him though, and she sets out to help him find the chainsaw killers. After broadcasting the tape on air again, per Lefty's request and not a smart move on her part, she's paid a visit by Chop-Top, her number one fan. He's been dispatched by Drayton to take care of Stretch because, you see, Drayton can't have anyone finding out about what he does with all of those chainsawed bodies (hint: he wins a Texas-Oklahoma chili cook-off earlier in the film). It's an eerily disturbing scene, which Moseley simultaneously plays for laughs and chills. Stretch is trapped in the radio station with this lunatic, who becomes less funny and more threatening the longer he has her cornered. He asks for a tour of the offices, leading to one of Williams's best moments as she leads him on an extremely abbreviated tour, holding up one item after another from her desk (lamp, typewriter, assorted radio promo toys like "Rubber Man"), then quickly ends it with, "And there's the exit sign, tour's over!" Williams combines humor and terror in this scene—you know Stretch is scared silly here, but in keeping with the film's black humor, she still makes you laugh out loud like when she holds up the snapper stick toy she calls "Mr. Shark" and snaps his mouth open and shut quickly.

Caroline Williams got her scream on with this film.

Soon after Leatherface bursts into the room, chainsaw blazing. While Chop-Top bludgeons her poor producer L.G (Lou Perryman), Leatherface is about to saw Stretch to pieces, when he realizes that she's quite fetching, especially in those Daisy Duke shorts. From that moment on the hulking monster-man is hopelessly smitten, even protecting her from death several times. At one point, the two have a Beauty and the Beast moment when Leatherface covers Stretch's face with L.G.'s freshly removed and bloody-as-all-hell facial skin, slaps a cowboy hat on her head, and then begins gleefully dancing with her like he's at the county fair. Ah, young romance. This is how Leatherface courts women, apparently. Murdering hapless victims with chainsaws may be his primary hobby, but dancing ranks a close second. Through all of this madness, Williams is fantastic, constantly alternating between screaming for her life (and her screams convey a believable terror throughout) and trying to appeal to Leatherface's attraction to her in the hopes that he'll help her escape. I can't even imagine how exhausting this role was for her. Actors in movies like this never get awards recognition, but for her sheer perseverance in the face of such unrelenting chaos, Williams at least deserved a Joe Bob Brigg's Drive-In Academy Award nomination and win. Williams is another in a long line of "final girls," a horror film trope that may have originated with Marilyn Burns's character in the first Chainsaw,. Williams isn't just a victim here, but a survivor, bringing more intensity and charm to Stretch than most actresses in similar roles ever have, before or since.

The family that slays together stays together.

Did I mention that Lefty embarks on a mission to save Stretch while wielding not one, not two, but three chainsaws of his own? He carries a big one while strapping two smaller backup saws to his hips, like an Old West cowboy carrying his shotgun and two six-shooters. His descent into the killer clan's cavernous home—an old abandoned carnival elegantly decorated with human bones (because, of course)—provides Hopper with some of his best moments. This is when he starts going full-on southern preacher while chainsawing the killers' home to pieces. The problem is, the grounds are enormous, and Lefty spends an excruciating amount of time plowing through them but not reaching Stretch until late in the film. In the meantime, Stretch does her best just to stay alive, while Lefty distracted with cutting channeling his rage into sawing down support beams throughout the maze-like compound. Lefty eventually winds up in a chainsaw duel with Leatherface himself—and you thought lightsaber duels were cool??—clearing a path for Stretch to escape, but she's pursued and caught by Chop-Top. She fights him off, repeatedly, until finally besting the sick son of a bitch with yet another chainsaw, this one pilfered from the dead and decaying body of the clan's beloved grandma. Appropriately enough, our final scene features the final girl herself, full of adrenaline, holding her chainsaw above her head while twirling in place and shouting triumphantly. She's earned that moment of release, don't you think? It's an iconic shot, mirroring Leatherface's final scene in the first film. While it might not be as revered as the original, this film deserves recognition as an extremely effective horror flick. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is both frightening and funny, which is a tough thing to pull off.

Stretch, triumphant.

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