Sunday, October 31, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Sure burned my beans bad on that one


The Eighth (oh God) Annual Great October Switcheroo!  Once again, we're crossing over with the wonderful Brennan Klein of Popcorn Culture and sometimes Alternate Ending, and I'm doing some of the 80s slashers he's catalogued as part of his Census Bloodbath project, while he's doing some of the old-timey sci-fi I've been hoarding as part of my own Cardboard Science archive.  This year, he finally gave me three pieces of the slasher genre's major arcana, such as I've been very subtly and surreptitiously hinting that I'd like to do this whole time; in return, I accidentally gave him three pieces of indecent crap.  Oops!  (But, seriously, apologies.)

Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by L.M. Kit Carson

Spoiler alert: moderate

I suppose it makes a kind of sense that the maker of one of horror's grimmest and grisliest motion pictures would, with its twelve-years-later sequel, make one of horror's most absurd.  I don't necessarily hold with the common claim that Part 2 is actually a comedy; though, obviously, I can see where you're coming from.  Here's something that stands out to me: not counting Carpenter's contribution to Halloween II, and not counting Wes Craven much later, Tobe Hooper is (I'm pretty sure) the only director of a major slasher franchise's first entry to return for a first sequel.  There's something to that, I'd hazard: maybe even because they're so distinct, only the man who did make The Texas Chain Massacre would go out of his way to make The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 the way he did.  I expect he signed on to this Cannon Group cash-grab largely to rehabilitate a failing career (it didn't work), but there's a modicum of wisdom in Hooper's recognition that the dour nihilism of his breakthrough hit could only have met diminished returns.  So, yeah, it makes sense. Chainsaw 2 isn't even really any less dark, just not heavy, and when it is dark, it's in ways calculated not to be taken seriously.  It's dark like a Tim Burton movie's dark, albeit gnarlier, and more intentionally annoying.

A word, then, on 1974's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: needless to say, it's a film that's earned its extreme reputation, and while it's not necessarily a film I find "scary" (particularly if by "scary" you mean that it bothers me after it's over), that kind of scary isn't its goal: Chainsaw '74 is viscerally upsetting, the kind of film that makes you quiver, less as a psychological reaction than a physical one.  And it does this by presenting its horror with a queasy matter-of-factness; it's hellaciously well-shot by Daniel Pearl with lumps of grain and unstable, metastasizing darkness, and with an eye for the heat and haze and the permeable boundary between nature and civilization in a decaying rural Texas, but, altogether, he and Hooper sought something you could almost describe as an anti-aesthetic.  (That first kill...)  It feels real, is what it feels like, and truly dangerous, or at least it does up till a finale that feels like they somewhat wussed out, and even then, the final shots are iconic.

But twelve years later, there was this thing, which trades in Hooper's anti-aesthetic for lurid, well-photographed sleaze, for elaborate blood and elaborate gore and, somehow more importantly, elaborate set design, all of it presented at a downright unreasonable level of theatrical flair.  The scariest thing about Chainsaw 2?  Thanks to the "coup" of casting Dennis Hoppera more-or-less real actor!as the man obsessed with vengeance against the cannibals, which in practice meant the film's co-lead operates in nearly a complete parallel reality to every other person in it, I was starting to get real worried that they weren't going to give me the chainsaw duel between Hopper and Leatherface that they'd clearly promised, especially as Hopper spends most of the third act in bolted-on insert shots sawing through roughly fifty individually-unimportant support beams while the villains fail to do literally anything about it but yammer.

It's a very different take on the basic idea of a cannibalistic family of garden tool worshippers, as you can see.  That's a creditable thing.  It's not, you know, actually good.  But there is something magnetic about its very excessit feels like every idea for the movie ultimately wound up in the movieand I heartily acknowledge that its fans aren't wrong to be drawn to it.  The first film's text crawl uses the word "macabre" because it had to use something, even if words were bound to fail; Chainsaw 2 embraces the connotations of that word, "macabre," as something icky but also sort of, well, fun, starting with its own text crawl and an opening credits sequence that decide a "chain saw massacre" would be best accompanied by the score from a 60s Gothic horror movie, only as arranged for a Casio keyboard.

The problem?  The movie's plainly having more fun than its viewer.  At least this viewer: I scowled my way through a lot of it.  One of my notes from its first hour reads "the only things I like about this are the heroine's haircut and the fact she wears daisy dukes."  And, ahem, even that's only up to a point.  That first hour runs out my patience for a movie that already clocks in at 18 minutes longer than its predecessor, and Chainsaw '74's horror-neorealism already lent itself to a certain amount of padding.  Nevertheless, Chainsaw 2 fully revives before the end.  I don't know if I condone itbut even that's something of a testament to its basic effectiveness as a piece of gonzo Goddamn nonsense.

Well, as those credits go, we're introduced to the only characters, ironically, that we can rightfully deem "meat."  So let's meet Buzz (Barry Kinyon) and Rick the Prick (Chris Douridas), as he identifies himself.  The duo are on a little mayhem spree across some stretch of backwater Texas, apparently during the wintertime or perhaps Buzz, as a dedicated preppy, refuses to take off his pastel yellow sweater under any circumstances.  They call up their "favorite" radio show DJ, "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams), and give her a hard, sexist time until they meet their fate on a secluded bridge.  That's where the movie kicks into the highest possible gear and more-or-less stays there, as Leatherface (Bill Johnson) engages in Mad Maxian car warfare with the two dickhead teens, who for cinematic reasons make sure to carefully maintain pace and position with an attacking truck driving in reverse.  This pays off anyhow with the film's best grue effect, courtesy Tom Savini, namely a chainsaw-mediated buzzcut for poor Buzz.  It's fucking metal.  For better and worse, this whole movie's pretty metal.

It turns out, however, that Stretch has kept her recording of the call.  Her decent-hearted redneck colleague L.G. (Lou Perryman) finds this pointless, but a news-of-the-weird piece about the murder catches her attention, detailing the years-long quest of a certain former Texas Ranger who dresses like M.F. Fatherton, one Lt. "Lefty" Enright (that's Hopper), to uncover the truth about chain saw massacres in his great state.  Driven by his personal connection to the case, he's the uncle (or, according to later dialogue in this frequently-sloppy-to-the-point-of-being-unparsable film, brother?) of two of the victims of the massacre we saw in Chainsaw '74, and he's been pursuing the killers ever since, alluding to willful cover-ups and what must be dozens or hundreds of victims between then and now.  Stretch reaches out, but while he's reluctant to involve a young woman in his vendetta, he comes around eventually (that is, offscreen and in the narrative's substantial negative space), albeit with plans he doesn't fully share with his new partner.  Suffice it to say, the Sawyer familyapparently that's their namecomes to them.

It's not a comedy, I said, but there's a cheekiness to it, starting with the Breakfast Club poster and remaining incipient in the film, from the long pig chili that wins first place in a chili competition, much to the delight of our Cook (Jim Siedow, the only returning cast member, and with so much more dialogue this time that I realized, startled, that if Wallace Shawn and Tommy Lee Jones had a kid, it'd be him), down to the scene where Lefty buys a big-ass chainsaw at a roadside chainsaw store, then buys two little back-up chainsaws for dual-wielding purposes.  Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is, like, already the video game adaptation of itself.

Look, it doesn't entirely sum up the film, but it comes close: Lefty appears to be right-handed.

This film's iteration of the original's Hitchhikeryou know, the sibling serving as the mouthier prologue to Leatherface's inarticulate hungeris fulfilled by Chop-Top (Bill Mosely), a crazed vet still ranting about Vietnam in 1986, perhaps because that's where he got the hole in his head patched with a visible piece of steel.  Still trapped in the accoutrements of Flower Power, he's a parody of a hippie that would have been less out-of-time in the original film, but being so much out-of-time is the point here.  Eventually, we also see Grandpa (Ken Evert), but the first film's make-up, in being "worse" in the sense that it turned him into a mummy, was actually better, or at least the shock of it was better.  And so you can see Chainsaw 2 is more interested in its cannibal family's hillbilly dynamics than literally anything else, which signifies a potential negative: a very low body count.  Counting only innocents (or not-quite-morally-deserving, though Buzz and Rick indeed come close), Chainsaw Part 2 might have the lowest slasher body count since, gosh, Psycho?

I've never seen this pointed out, but I believe it might be the only slasher in existence where as many or more villains die than victims, an odd distinction for a sequel to what is, arguably, the first "true" slasher ever.  (I wouldn't make that argument myself: Chainsaw '74 prefigures the Halloween structure to a remarkable degreeand I think it must have the first true Final Girl sequencebut Peeping Tom is just an amazingly fully-formed slasher for something made in 1960.)  Hence this Chainsaw almost isn't really a slasher, structurally.  It makes up for its small number of victims (even so much as "potential victims") with goreto the point of being ridiculous and unbelievablebut that's part of the "fun" aspect of it.  And, yes, it bears mentioning that a Savini-composed bloodbath at a movie theater was apparently just cut out completelyHooper, what the hell, man?

Evidently, what it really wants to do is just chain together scenes of alienating provocation and crowd-pleasing weirdness, essentially a less-assured Mandy (though Cosmatos owes a lot to Hooper here).  In the former category, we have the inexplicable beginning of Leatherface's crush on Stretch, manifesting in a scene that I don't understand but does come with what I would have to assume is the slasher genre's most literal-to-the-point-of-absurdity equation of a villain's weapon with his dick, as Leatherface nudges his chainsaw right into Stretch's cleft.  Not while it's on, but still: gross!  But also very extreme, and admirable for that, even if I'm not buying the dumbassed Beauty and the Beast subplot it engenders.  (I kinda thought Leatherface was the wife.)  In the "crowd-pleasing weirdness" column, however, we have every scene with Hopper, doing his Hopper thing.  And it's all put together with a great carelessness, overstuffing itself with stray notions to the point that all Hopper and Williams can do is serve as Hooper's dutiful meat puppets for the duration, screaming in their various registers (gleefully insane and frightened, respectively), while rednecks chortle at them in theirs.  It is a noisome film, and while I could pretend Chainsaw '74 was noisome to either test our empathy for the victims, or to gesture at the diminished distinction between human being and animalthe truth is, I think it's noisome because Deliverance was firstChainsaw 2 is noisome more-or-less for its own sake, up to and including a cluttered and frankly hateful sound mix that tends to combine three or more audio sources at once, all at full volume.  Sometimes, this has a purpose, like in the cocaine rush of the opening setpiece; mostly, it doesn't, egregiously so in a scene where a radio announcement and a Goddamn marching band overlap.  Ironically, the movie becomes more watchable after we've arrived at the cannibal factory.

And that is Chainsaw 2 truly summed up: cannibal factory.  (I think the undercommunicated idea is that Cook sells his "chili" on the market.  I guess that's suggested in the first movie, too.)  Well, this film's third act takes place in this outright chamber of horrors, a geographically baffling series of sets that surely cost more than most whole slasher movies do, resplendent in its gaudily-lit costliness and coming off like the time-traveling bastard offspring of Rob Zombie and Henry Selick.  The gaudily-lit part's been around since Stretch ran into Chop-Top in a room full of inexplicable green and red lights, like this was 60s British schlock horrorand, even so, it's this film's only even-remotely-actually-scary part, since we've never seen this guy until he appears unbidden in her radio station's break room, with Moseley bringing a real anxious energy before every subsequent scene allows his character to degenerate completely into a hillbilly clichébut it's in the bowels of the family's factory that it clicked for me what Hooper and cinematographer Richard Kooris and production designer Cary White were going for.  And that's the grungy feeling of getting shoved through spookily-lit hallways in a sketchy and negligently-run roadside haunted house, only they've punched it up for cinema's sake till this haunted house sprawls past your ability to fully comprehend it in its size and ludicrous overdesign.  And like a haunted house, it somewhat outlasts your enjoyment of italso like a haunted house, it recycles every possible idea it can from the 1974 classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre, turning each one into something kitschy and vaguely-irritating in the processbut it's still crappily cool.  And it does, in the last possible moment, deliver on that aforementioned promise of a chainsaw duel between Dennis Hopper and Leatherface.  I cannot in good conscience dismiss a movie that accomplishes these things.

Killer: The Sawyer clan
Final Girl: Stretch
Best Kill: Oh, Buzz's head-ectomy, by a mile
Sign of the Times: Due to the limited nature of telephonic communications, female media personalities can only be sexually harassed by one or two people at a time
Scariest Moment: When the Fifth Beatle shows up
Weirdest Moment: When L.G. turns out to be not quite dead and seems mildly put-out at having, inter alia, his fuckin' face removed
Champion Dialogue: "Hey, lick my plate, you dog-dick!"
Body Count: 8 or 9, depending, and not counting the innumerable pieces of meat no longer recognizable as individual people
1. Buzz gets a moving violation
2. Rick is smashed in the car when it turns out Buzz needs at least some of his brain to drive
3. L.G. is captured alongside Stretch, and mutilated, eventually bleeding out
4. Leatherface is chainsawed in the gut, which is called poetic justice
5. Cook is blown up with a grenade he unpins in a suicide move
6. Lefty is blown up by the same grenade
7. Grandpa is blown up by the same grenade
8. Grandma has her sacred chainsaw removed, which... kills her, if she was actually-factually alive, look man, I'm not really sure
9. Chop-Top gets chainsawed by our triumphant Final Girl driven to a murderous insanity herself
TL;DR: Did you like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but felt it lacked a certain abiding wackiness?  Has Tobe Hooper got the movie for you!
Score: 5.01/10

Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)


  1. Alas, this one really is an acquired taste. I have fully acquired it, and willingly hold onto that live wire for 90 minutes. But it sure is... well, it's weird, Hunter.

    1. Well, it does remind me I need to catch back up with Rob Zombie. I think with a slightly surer hand I'd have like-liked it (and, as the squeaker score suggests, I *kind-of* like it anyway), as its not the shrillness or nonsense or repudiation of TCM continuity that bug me but some of the filmmaking hiccups, like Hopper's obviously abbreviated participation or the annoying sound mix and the repetitiveness. Because at heart I do appreciate the excess.