Monday, August 22, 2011

 

Like death eatin' a cracker


By Edward Copeland
When you hear people talk about those rare instances when a movie sequel turns out to be better than its predecessor, the usual titles spring up: Aliens, The Godfather Part II, Bride of Frankenstein, the original Dawn of the Dead, etc. However, there is one sequel that I feel has been unjustly neglected for its superiority to the original and today I come to praise it. Twenty-five years ago today, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 hit theaters to the resounding thud of overwhelmingly negative reviews by people who probably remembered the original a lot more fondly than they should have and didn't recognize the sequel for the hilarious, albeit grotesque, satire that it is. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill followup to a famous slasher film — this is a sharply written parody about the perils of the small businessman, who in this case happens to make his living by turning humans into chili. I never saw the original until shortly before the sequel opened — I didn't want to be hopelessly lost — but I found it terribly disappointing. It didn't seem that suspenseful to me and the sequence that worked best was when they hauled Grandpa out for dinner to kill the girl they captured, a scene echoed in the sequel for even funnier effect than in the first outing.



For solid evidence of the satirical intentions of Hooper and his screenwriter L.M. "Kit" Carson (and Carson has a long satiric history since he "was" David Holzman in David Holzman's Diary), one need look no further than to compare the posters on the left and the right sides of this paragraph. The one on the left side for John Hughes' 1985 film The Breakfast Club, has its five central characters posed with Judd Nelson's rebel pumping his fist into the air. Now, look at the poster on the right. The brilliant poster they came up with for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 the following year exquisitely apes the angst-ridden detention students by placing its assortment of misfits involved in the man-as-meat chili business in a nearly identical tableau with, as appropriate, Leatherface assuming the Judd Nelson spot since in the sequel's terms, he is sort of the rebel among the cannibal family. You see, in this slasher sequel, Leatherface, the grunting butcher for the family business finds, of all things, love. Alas, it turns out to be an unrequited one. I'll get back to that later.

A little background on the story is probably necessary at this point for the uninitiated: An opening title crawl informs the viewer that 13 years after the events of the original film (which for the sake of argument — long before The Blair Witch Project — actually happened), strange chainsaw slayings still occur in Texas though the story the sole survivor of the original film told could never be confirmed by authorities and the cannibal family (their actual surname is Sawyer) was never found. As the sequel opens, it is the fabled OU-Texas football weekend (another brilliant satirical touch) and two drunk preppie-looking guys are heading to Dallas for the festivities and taunting a disc jockey with phone calls from their car at the same time.

Unfortunately for the football fans on the road, they piss off the wrong drivers — and they encounter Leatherface and his deadly weapon. The chainsaw gang makes a crucial mistake though — as they are dismembering the two young men, the victims are still on the phone with the DJ, Stretch (Caroline Williams) who records their death throes and the sounds of the chainsaw bringing about their demise. Stretch is suitably horrified. Enter former Texas ranger Lefty Enright played by Dennis Hopper in the same year he brought Frank Booth to life in Blue Velvet and scored an Oscar nomination for Hoosiers. Lefty has been searching for the butchers for years — he is the uncle of some of the victims in the original — and he's been vengeance-minded ever since.

After stumbling upon the dead preppies, Lefty gets a newspaper to print his plea for any information — and Stretch answers his ad at the hotel where Lefty is staying (and which overflows with soused OU and Texas fans in Dallas for the big game). In another of the film's funniest sequences, Lefty goes chainsaw shopping to prepare for battle, purchasing a large main one and two smaller pair which he attaches to his belt like a pair of six shooters (though firearms would really be more efficient, but it would deprive us of a chainsaw joust). Part of what makes the scene so laugh-out-loud funny is watching the unabashed joy expressed by the manager (James N. Harrell) of the store (called Cut-Rite) where Lefty buys the equipment as Lefty tests them out on tree stumps in front of his shop. Meanwhile at the radio station, apparently Stretch's station management doesn't pay close attention to what she plays because she heeds Lefty's request to start playing the tape of the slaughter on the air — and the Sawyer family hears it and realizes they've made a mistake.

The news comes soon after oldest brother and family leader Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) has achieved yet another victory at a chili contest for his cannibalistic catering business. (As he tells the judge, the secret's "in the meat.") Chop Top (Bill Moseley), the hippified Vietnam vet of the Sawyer clan, calls to tell Drayton the bad news about the radio broadcast and Chop Top and Leatherface (Bill Johnson) are dispatched to the radio station to take care of the evidence — and Stretch. Unfortunately for the Sawyers, Leatherface gets distracted from his mission at the radio station when he encounters Stretch and does something you don't often see in nonspeaking maniacal chainsaw killers — he falls in love. Something about Stretch calms the killer inside Leatherface and he can't bring himself to off her. In fact, during their encounter he almost tries to accomplish the phrase Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) would make infamous in Heathers three years later — he tries to fuck Stretch gently with a chainsaw. He and his brother do get a body though in the form of Stretch's compulsively spitting co-worker L.G. (Lou Perry). When Leatherface and Chop Top depart the station with L.G., Stretch feels compelled to follow them to the roadside attraction that serves as the family's cover: Texas Battle Land. Of course, Lefty is not far behind — he even admits he used Stretch as bait.

When Stretch accidentally falls into the lair, Leatherface discovers her and does his best to protect his "girlfriend," even attempting to dance with her at one point, though Stretch tries to explain to him that their relationship isn't working out. Eventually, his brothers find her and decide it's time to serve her up to Grandpa, a veteran of the cattle industry who quit when the slaughtering process got too modern (and whose makeup to me always seemed very reminiscent of the old Salieri in Amadeus). While there are some standard sudden shocks, it's not really suspenseful, which is fine — because it's there to be funny. The comedy is sprinkled throughout, but many of the best bits occur once all the characters are below ground. (One of the best jokes references the original when Lefty finds the remains of his nephew Franklin in his wheelchair and now, 13 years later, that damn flashlight works.)

You don't often hear praise for the acting in films such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and I wouldn't suggest they were robbed of Oscar nominations, but Siedow and Moseley give absolutely terrific performances, especially Moseley who gets the bulk of the hilarious nonsequiturs sprinkled throughout the movie, including the title of this post and lines that make no sense out of context such as "You ruined my Sonny Bono wig" and his insistence that Texas Battle Land be transformed into Nam Land because, "It's what the people want." Siedow gets assigned the task of underlining the film's satirical content with his obsession with the business, worrying about property taxes and decrying that the small businessman "always gets it in the ass." In fact, when he finally encounters Lefty, who has been systematically destroying their lair with his chainsaw, Drayton jumps to the conclusion that he's been sent by a rival caterer and tries to pay him off. He also gets some of the best lines when he discovers Leatherface's affection for Stretch, accusing him of "turning traitor for a piece of tail" and explaining to him that sex is a swindle and only the saw is family. The final confrontation between Lefty and the Sawyers still trots out the laughs instead of the horror and as Drayton senses the end is near, he laments that he "wouldn't wish this life on a one-eyed ferret with mange." I understand that for many, the satirical elements of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 have and will be lost, but I stand by my assessment: This is a sharp, hysterically funny film and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 — I salute you on your birthday. If most people fail to appreciate you, take heart — I'll always be on your side.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This piece originally ran five years ago for the film's 20th anniversary. There have been a few minor revisions and art changes. Happy 25th Sawyers.




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Comments:
I can't believe you wrote all those words about this classic film, and yet you couldn't find a single spot for "You killed Grandpa, you hog bitch!"

Absolutely classic. I mean, c'mon. Choptop heating up a wire hanger so he can pick away at his head with it? It's gold, Jerry, gold!
 
I saw this movie on cable not long after it came out, and really enjoyed it, though at the time I was conditioned to think that if it was a shlock horror film, it probably had no merit and I shouldn't be telling grownups I liked it. (I was in high school at the time.) Your piece makes me want to watch it again. I did enjoy "Return to Texas Chainsaw Massacre," the third movie written and directed by Kim Henkel, featuring superb performances by then-largely-unknown lead actors Renee Zellweger (as the tough chick who survives) and Matthew McConaughey (as the rootin', tootin', nutball cannibal cowpoke -- still one of his very best performances, a real scenery-chewing, starmaking, intensely scary piece of work). The intense physical violence is all tied up in dysfunctional family melodrama; much of the movie takes place inside the scary family's house, and there's a long family dinner scene that's really quite stunning for its mix of cruelty and psychodrama. If the second film is, as you say, a satire on the perils of independent businessman, then "Return" is more like a John Cassavetes movie by way of, well, Tobe Hooper.
 
Nice tribute to a fun, witty movie. All those laughs are there, but I think you downplay the suspense a little bit. It's still got all the usual horror film stuff one would expect. The laughs relieve some tension -- and then "BOO!!" Also, I think the acting in the original Chainsaw is very effective too.
 
BTW Troy, it is "You killed grandma, you hog bitch!" :-) There were so many crazy-fun lines like that coming from Chop Top that I didn't list them all, just in case someone wanted to watch it for the first time.
 
Y'know what, Ed? I almost didn't post that, because it somehow sounded off, but I couldn't figure it out, so I went with my first thought. Just goes to show....

And thanks for taking the time to show the poster similarities to Breakfast Club. I think that is probably the most overlooked joke of the whole movie.

Great post!
 
Just for the record---the events of Texas Chainsaw most emphatically *did not* really happen. It's loosely based on the story of Ed Gein, who did make furniture out of corpses, but it's still debated if he killed anyone, and if he did, it was only a few people and it was most certainly not done with the help of a crazy inbred cannibal family.
 
I've got pretty fond memories of this flick and I've only seen it once and that was when I was about 14 or 15 - I did the first two CHAINSAW movies back to back on VHS having seen neither before. And I was alone and it was late at night.

The first one really freaked me out and it remains one of my favorite horror flicks to this day. In some strange way, CHAINSAW 2 "saved" me that night. It told me everything was gonna me OK and that these were just movies.

Reading your write-up, Ed, makes me wanna go check it out again. Cool, very cool.
 
Ed, what a nice surprise to see such a great write-up on one of the most underappreciated horror movies of the last 25 years. I've been preparing my own list of underappreciated horror films, and TCM2 is near the top of the list. Your assessment of the movie's satirical streak is right on the money. I'll be linking to this article when my own appears very soon.

I have a very strange history with this movie, as I saw it two of the many times I've seen it, with some very unlikely companions. The first was a very demure secretary at a radio station I used to work at, the type of person I would have never expected would enjoy such a spectacle. But she certainly did! (It was only after going to this movie with her did I notice the devil's charm bracelet tatooed around her ankle!)

The second was my dear old grandma. I brought a copy of it out to her old farm house when it premiered on home video. I was worried that she was going to be grossed out and/or offended, but she assured me that it wouldn't bother her. And she certainly did! She got into the humor of the opening chili cook-off right away, and was in stitches when Daddy utters his immortal line, "The small businessman's always takin' it in the ass!" as he gets his chainsaw enema. I never loved my grandma more than that moment, for liking the movie and for not kicking me out of the house for showing it to her.

Thanks for a great article!
 
I always felt TCM 2 was the EVIL DEAD 2 to TCM's THE EVIL DEAD - by that I mean, it's gonzo sequel where the filmmakers throw in everything but the kitchen sink and see what sticks. Fun, crazed film to be sure that still holds up. I might have to pull out this DVD and give it another go. It has been too long.
 
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