Wednesday, October 1, 2014

So, before kicking off our annual month of horror movies, there was a brief discussion between my wife and I about whether or not we'd start in the shallow end of the pool, say with a Universal monster movie from the 1930s, or just dive right on into the deep end. Well, given the fact that today brought us further news of the first Ebola case diagnosed on U.S. soil, in Texas, and given the further fact that today is, per NPR, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), it just seemed right to start with a movie I'd been wanting to revisit - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986).
In other words, we dove right on into the deep end.
I can still vividly recall seeing TCM 2 in the theater with friends when it first came out. Now, obviously, we all went in expecting a horror film, but I think it's safe to say we weren't really expecting anything as intense as this film. When the movie was over, I left the theater a little stunned and with a headache - both of which I counted as positive signs, mind you. You can't say this is a film that doesn't make an impression.
Years later, and viewed on DVD, TCM 2 can't hope to have the same impact. But it still packs a wallop. Boasting much higher production values, some truly effective acting, and a razor's edge balance of humor and horror, I think this sequel is much better than the first film - though, admittedly, both have the ability to make an audience very uncomfortable.
Picking up years after the first film, TCM 2 finds a vengeance-seeking "Lefty" Enright (Dennis Hopper) obsessively trying to hunt down the murderous hillbilly family that killed his brother. Said family - Drayton, Chop Top and Bubba ("Leatherface") Sawyer - has gone into the catering business - in a sense, hiding in plain sight. An ambitious radio DJ, "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams) winds up getting caught in the middle of it all after accidentally recording a couple of Texas yuppies who called into her show - and promptly got chopped up by the Sawyers while still on the phone. 

The sharp script, by L.M. Kit Carson, hits the right notes to please genre fans, while also deftly inserting some character development and psychological motivation for the far-out characters brought to life here. Dennis Hopper, an outsider making his way back in (the more critically acclaimed Blue Velvet and River's Edge both came out the same year as this), wisely underplays his role, and never seems to be "playing down" to the horror genre.
But most importantly, and impressively, Caroline Williams is simply great in what is the real lead role in the film. I find her extremely believable, very appealing, and she handles some genuinely difficult and horrific scenes perfectly. The scene where she talks her way out of getting killed by Leatherface at the radio station is tense, uncomfortable, and memorable, and Williams rises far above the average horror film screamer. Why she never went on to bigger and more mainstream roles, I don't know, though I'm happy that she's still acting.

Special note must also be given to Jim Siedow, who plays Drayton Sawyer, and to Bill Moseley, who plays Chop Top. Siedow, all toothy grins and stiff, awkward movements, is way too believable as the disgruntled and demented redneck patriarch. A returning cast member from the first film, Siedow acts as a sort of rotten foundation on which to build all the outrageous and vile things that make up this story. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, Moseley is wild and way over the top in what was only his second film role. Over the top, yes, but extremely creepy as the ever-manic Chop Top, Moseley also gets some of the film's choicest lines of dialogue. After watching this movie, you'll never hear the phrase "lick my plate" the same way again.
The film starts off on a fairly light note, before night falls (literally and figuratively) and the story becomes darker and darker. By the final section of the film, when the action has moved into the Sawyer's underground maze of a home, the film becomes truly nightmarish, and the pace becomes faster and faster. Finally, the film doesn't so much end as simply jolt to a halt - not unlike a dreamer being jolted awake. Everyone but Stretch is dead (or so it seems at any rate), but, even though she has survived physically, it's not clear that her psyche is intact.
Really, after watching this film again, the only complaint I can muster is that the original score, by director Tobe Hooper and Jerry Lambert, is truly terrible - cliché, cheap sounding keyboard washes and squeals that add nothing to an otherwise excellent and unsettling experience. But even that cloud has a silver lining: the soundtrack features a number of strong songs by "horror-friendly" bands like the Cramps, the Lords of the New Church, and Oingo Boingo, among others.

And it's a line from one of the Lords songs on the soundtrack that I always think of when this movie comes up: "You can get away with murder out here/If you don't run out of gas." This is a film that comes with a full tank, and gets away with murder and then some. It is not for the faint of heart.
And let the Halloweening begin!

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