‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’ is a Mixed Bag, But It’s Never Boring

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 poster

After I finished watching “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I was in no hurry to watch part two. The 1974 horror classic still probes to be an intensely unsettling cinematic experience decades after its release, and Tobe Hooper’s film was far more terrifying than I expected it to be. Recovering from the original was no different than when I slowly pulling myself back together after watching Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or just about any Lars Von Trier film. But with Hooper having recently passed away, the time had come for me to check out “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” a sequel heavily criticized when it opened in 1986, but which has since become a cult classic in the eyes of many.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” takes place over a decade after the original, and an opening narration tells us the police searched for Leatherface and his cannibal family but never found any trace of them. But of course, it doesn’t take long for this sequel to reintroduce us to Leatherface as he gleefully slices away at a pair of obnoxious high school seniors who harass on-air radio DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams). Stretch captures the audio of these kids’ murders and passes it on to Lieutenant Baude “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), uncle to Sally Hardesty and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin who were victims of Leatherface’s chainsaw wrath. From there, the two of them become determined to end Leatherface and the Sawyer family’s reign of terror once and for all.

How you enjoy this sequel largely depends on what your expectations are when you go into it. If you think Hooper planned to match the claustrophobic terror and unnerving power of the original, you are in for a serious disappointment. But if you are able to accept this sequel in regards to what Hooper intended to accomplish with it, I think there is a good deal of fun to be had even if feels like there is a lot missing from this follow-up.

With “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” Hooper wanted to focus more on the black comedy he said was inherent in the original. Was there black comedy in the original? Yes, but it took a couple of viewings to realize this was the case. This sequel, however, was made to satirize both horror movies and the excess of the 1980’s. Since this one came out in 1986, the time had come to take aim at the greed which came to define this particular decade. Also, when you take into account how the poster gleefully parodies the one for “The Breakfast Club,” you should know this a film which will not take itself too seriously. Plus, this was released by Cannon Films, so you could count on it being entertaining, and maybe for reasons its director didn’t intend.

Looking back at “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” my feelings about it are decidedly mixed. I did enjoy the frenzied energy Hooper and company brought to the proceedings, and the actors look like they had great fun committing onscreen mayhem. At the same time, it feels like a missed opportunity as the style and substance of this sequel proved to be much too distant from the original. Its links to the 1974 film are very weak to where this feels like a sequel in name only. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns’ character from the original) is only mentioned in the opening narration as having since gone into catatonia. It would have been cool to see her come back in one way or another, perhaps as some badass hardened warrior eager to get revenge. Heck, this sequel came out in the summer of 1986 not long after Sigourney Weaver set a new standard for female action heroes in “Aliens.” Had Burns come back, it could have been the summer of the vengeful female warrior.

One thing which especially bummed me out was the lack of actors returning from the original. In fact, the only actor from the original to appear here was Jim Siedow who reprises his role as Drayton Sawyer. While his creepy face alone is the kind which inspires wicked nightmares, Siedow doesn’t get as much to do this time around. As for Leatherface, he is portrayed by Bill Johnson and not Gunnar Hansen who brought a twisted realism to the iconic horror character. Johnson isn’t bad as he can wield a rusty chainsaw like the best of them, and his sudden appearance from a room filled with vinyl records results in one of this sequel’s scariest moments, but Hansen is sorely missed here as no other actor can possibly match what he brought to the first film.

The rest of the cast, however, does rise to the frenzied challenge Hooper laid out for them. Bill Moseley, who has since appeared in Rob Zombie’s “House of a 1,000 Corpses” and “The Devil’s Rejects,” looks to be having the time of his life as Chop-Top Sawyer as he gleefully tortures Stretch even after a part of his skull gets accidentally sawed off by Leatherface. Speaking of Stretch, Caroline Williams brings a wonderfully spunky energy to the role as she uses her smarts to outwit the Sawyer family in an effort to escape with her life, and her last moment in this sequel is a memorable one to say the least.

But the actor I got the biggest kick out of watching in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” was Dennis Hopper who played former Texas Ranger Baude “Lefty” Enright, a man deeply obsessed with finding the Sawyer family and avenging the suffering they and Leatherface inflicted on his kin. Hopper was in the midst of a major comeback in 1986 as he appeared in “Hoosiers,” “River’s Edge” and, most famously, David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” While those films are better examples of his acting, his performance in this sequel is equally inspired as he clearly knew he was in an over-the-top horror movie and relished the opportunity to go mano-a-mano with Leatherface. Seeing the “Easy Rider” battle Leatherface with a chainsaw is wickedly gleeful fun as a battle with chainsaws is something this sequel just had to have.

So, when all is said and done, I did admire “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” but certainly not it in the same way I admired the original. Hooper’s vision wasn’t lacking here in the slightest, but he instead took things in direction fans were prepared for 30 years ago. It is only with the passing of time we can look at it differently and understand how it attained cult status. I don’t think it’s a bad film, but it does feel strange compared to what came before.

Looking back, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” represented one of several attempts by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of taking a well-received motion picture and turning it into a hopefully long-running franchise. Clearly, they had more luck commercially, if not critically, with “Death Wish,” but at least this sequel fared much better than “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the film which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin for Cannon Films.

Of course, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” franchise didn’t stop there as the buzz of the saw is still an inviting sound to horror fans all over the world, and filmmakers have continued on with other sequels, a remake, prequels and, yikes, an upcoming origin story. People still want to experience the visceral thrill the 1974 horror classic in one way or another, but when it came to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” perhaps Hooper realized from the start that it was not possible to top the original or match its terrifying power. Instead, he felt it was better to try something a little different, and that’s what he did with this sequel for better and for worse.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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