Tuesday 31 October 2017

Why Haven't You Seen...? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1990)

What Are They All About?
Tobe Hooper’s belated sequel to his 1973 classic is a very different film to the original. Leatherface and his family now live under a disused theme park, where they make award winning chilli (the secret is it’s made of people). One night a DJ named Stretch (Caroline Williams) records a call from two college kids, which ends in their murder by the Sawyer clan. This leads to Stretch meeting up with Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper), the uncle of Sally and Franklin from the original film, who has been pursuing his family’s murderers for years.

The third film goes back to basics, with a young couple (Kate Hodge and William Butler) ambushed by Leatherface and family. They fight to survive, with the help of a survivalist ‘Nam veteran (Ken Foree).

Why Haven’t You Seen Them?
13 years is a very long time to wait between an original film and a sequel. While the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a far subtler film than its title might have suggested, Tobe Hooper and co-writer L.M. Kit Carson (coming off the just slightly different Paris, Texas) decided to take a different tack with the sequel, amping up both the black humour and the gore to extremes the first film seldom approached. This brought predictable censorship problems, including a ban from the BBFC which meant that for many years, in the UK, you simply couldn’t see the film. It was treated, largely, as the bastard child of the franchise and wasn’t a hit.

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 suffered similar problems to the first two films. It was submitted 11 times to the MPAA, the violence cut back further and further each time. The eventual R Rated version, cut down heavily from Jeff Burr’s already compromised Director’s Cut, was banned in the UK. The film wasn’t a critical or a financial success. In a move that will be familiar to Terminator fans, it was supposed to kick off a new series of films, but the rights were allowed to lapse after it disappointed financially.

Why Should You See Them?
The first three Texas Chainsaw Massacre films showcase, to varied degrees of success, three quite distinct tonal approaches to the central idea of the franchise. The first is a pitiless dread machine, the second a parody and the third a would be slick studio product attempting to capture the raw feeling of the original. Neither sequel is quite the equal of the first (nor could they be, that first film irrevocably altered horror cinema) and the returns are diminishing, but both are well worth your time.

The poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a pretty solid tip off that this is not going to be the same kind of movie as the first was. It depicts Leatherface and family as The Breakfast Club, recreating the iconic poses from the poster of John Hughes’ 1985 teen classic. The implication couldn’t have been clearer had it actually been a picture of Tobe Hooper grinning and winking at us. While the first film set a mood of grinding terror and remained in it for 100 minutes, this is a wild, relentless, often fun ride that sometimes lapses into scenes of abject horror. The opening sequence sets the tone well. There’s the satirical comedy of the obnoxious yuppies who call in to Stretch’s radio show, the outrageous gore when Leatherface appears to slice them to pieces and the sheer horror of the sound of their murder, which Stretch records. 

This combination of horror and humour drives the film throughout. The brilliantly sustained set piece of Leatherface (Bill Lawrence) and Chop Top (Bill Moseley) invading the radio station does this especially well, with Chop Top ranting about ‘Nam and using a heated wire to scratch flesh away from the metal plate in his head while he helps Leatherface search for Stretch, it’s a disgusting image, but so absurd that you can’t help but laugh. The sequence takes this further with Leatherface’s attack on Stretch. It’s a terrorising moment; a character we’ve grown to like a lot, thanks to Caroline Williams’ energetic and upbeat performance being put in grave danger by this maniac, but it’s also very funny as it’s used to reveal Leatherface’s crush on Stretch. At first he can’t get his saw going; an obvious analogy for impotence, but when he does Hooper takes the metaphor to ever more absurd heights, you don’t know if you should laugh or scream.

Dennis Hopper once called this the worst film he ever made. He, not unreasonably, changed his mind once he saw Super Mario Brothers, but he’s one of the very best things in it. He plays Lefty at peak crazy and, again, the results are often hysterical. The wordless scene in which he goes to try out various chainsaws, tooling up for his fight with the Sawyer clan, is incredible, as is the visual of him - massive chainsaw in hand, two smaller ones slung round his body - charing into the family’s Texas Battleland lair.

Caroline Williams makes for a suitably iconic final girl; engaging, smart, tough when she needs to be (oh, and she’s got a great scream), but it’s not the scenes where she’s confronting Leatherface that bring out her best work, that comes in the scenes with her radio producer L.C. (Lou Perryman). Their relationship is teasing but affectionate and we immediately buy them as a team, but it’s their last scene together, in Battleland, which is the film’s most impactful. Both in terms of its viscera and its emotion, this is the film’s most extreme scene and Williams manages to balance the abject horror of it with the sense of loss and the dark humour. It’s a scene as good as anything in the first film.

I could go on and on about Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, about the glee with which Tobe Hooper seems to approach the idea of totally subverting audience expectations, about the brilliance of his visuals from set design to effects make up to camera placement, but instead I’ll just say this. If you’ve not seen it, or seen it before and not liked it, give Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 a chance, but when you do so, put the tone and approach of the first film out of your mind, the only way it will disappoint is if you go in expecting Hooper to give you the same thing he did first time round.

Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3, like Jeff Burr’s Stepfather II (see last week’s WHYS…?) is a much more basic film than its immediate predecessor. It doesn’t hang about, racing by in under 80 minutes minus credits, which definitely feels compromised and would leave room for several characters and storylines to be much more fully fleshed out, still, it works as a brutally focused take on the franchise.

Burr had very little time to prepare. New Line went through several prospective directors, including Peter Jackson, before hiring Burr just two weeks before cameras rolled. This means that Burr, though he had control of the film during production, didn’t get to have the first or the last word on the film. Still, this is an efficient and entertaining movie which, in the cut down form in which it’s available, hints at something even better that could have been had the initial director’s cut been left intact (many of those elements are now lost, so it seems the Unrated version will be as close as we’ll ever get to what we were meant to see). 

New Line was clearly looking for a franchise starter here, that’s nakedly obvious from the opening sequence, which riffs on the glove making opening of the original Nightmare On Elm Street, showing Leatherface sewing a new flesh mask. This film also introduces something that Leatherface hasn’t had before; a specific weapon. Previously there has been nothing particularly special about Leatherface’s saw, we imagine they are simply those that have been available to hand, this one is huge, chromed and has “The Saw Is Family” carved into it. The extremely cool teaser trailer for the film (shot before Burr was hired, with a different Leatherface) posits this saw as Excalibur, and it looks good enough to earn the distinction.

Many of the best things in Leatherface are the smaller elements of the film; Ken Foree appears relatively late as the survivalist Benny, but he makes a huge impression as ever and is the only figure in the film who could ever believably take on Leatherface. Making an early appearance and clearly finding the scenery quite delicious, Viggo Mortensen has a wonderful time as the guy who initially seems like the only sane one in the backroad gas station that our protagonists have found themselves in, but who turns out to be perhaps the craziest and most psychotic of them all. I also wish we got to see more of Jennifer Banko, who is great as Leatherface’s little sister, who turns out to be exactly as unhinged as the rest of her family.

For me, the film is hamstrung by two weak protagonists. William Butler is simply ineffectual, while Kate Hodge works hard, but can’t follow the iconic final girls of the two previous films. Still, Jeff Burr does what he can with the material and what freedom he had. He folds in some comedy, pushes the gore hard (the moment when Hodge is nailed to a chair remains wince inducing) and gives Leatherface an imposing new look. He also gave Caroline Williams a brief cameo which he told her was intended to be as Stretch, keeping the character alive in continuity. As with Stepfather II, you can feel the cuts, you can feel the compromises, but still, there’s a good time to be had and glimpses of something even better show through.

How Can You See Them?
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 received a deluxe special edition blu ray boxset courtesy of WHYS…? Heroes, Arrow Video. It contains the film, a feature length documentary, a commentary and the first ever UK release of Hooper’s first film, Eggshells. The US release from Scream Factory is slightly less comprehensive, but still stacked with extras.

Leatherface fares less well, but the UK and US DVDs still boast both the R Rated and Unrated cuts, a half hour making of and commentary with Jeff Burr. It could definitely do with a Blu Ray upgrade though.

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