Through the late sixties and early seventies, horror was a genre in transition. While Britain remained in the comparatively genteel but fading grasp of Hammer and its sibling Amicus, America had become increasingly transgressive with George Romero’s taboo breaking Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter’s defining slasher picture Hallowe’en, while respected directors Roman Polanski and William Friedkin brought respectability to their respective demonic tales, and north of the border David Cronenberg’s body horror probed the darker recesses, but not one of these visionary filmmakers approached their work in the manner of Texan born former documentary cameraman Tobe Hooper, who in 1974 took a chainsaw to the silver screen.
While not actually as bloody or gruesome as the name suggested, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was still a watershed in cinematic violence, but despite distribution and certification issues grossed over a hundred times its $300,000 microbudget and was re-released annually over a period of six years from 1976 onwards.
During that period, Hooper would collaborate with Steven Spielberg on the smash hit Poltergeist and the American financed/British set Lifeforce, a space vampire romp starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Patrick Stewart and the near perma-naked Mathilda May, and on the 1979 television miniseries of ‘Salems Lot starring James Mason and David Soul, regarded as one of the most faithful adaptations of the many works of Stephen King.
It was not until 1986 that Hooper would revisit the horror of his home state which had made his name, but in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, now released on Blu-ray in a restored version supported by extensive special features, he crafted a very different beast, no less bold, but shifting the tone to black comedy to balance the increased gore, a series of astonishing prosthetics and effects from the team headed by horror maestro Tom Savini, thoroughly explored in the accompanying documentaries.
Firmly anchored in the eighties, the sequel makes no attempt to step into the narrative of the original, the opening voiceover advising thirteen years have passed since Sally Hardesty escaped from Leatherface and his family but that the police could find no trace of the farmhouse where she was held captive and her friends were slaughtered.
As part of her duties, long suffering late night DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock handles the request phone line, but when two callers are attacked while on the line to the station she is convinced she hears a chainsaw in the background. Reading of the supposed accident in the papers, she tracks down the police officer investigating the incident, Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright, uncle of Sally and the late Franklin Hardesty, and presents him with the recording.
Encouraging her to play the tape on air that night, Stretch does not realise this will immediately mark her as a target for the cannibalistic Sawyer clan, determined to remove any evidence of their deeds. With her producer out of the building, Stretch is accosted first by the disturbing Chop Top, then by Leatherface herself, upon whom she has an effect none of his previous victims have had.
With over the top performances which verge on pantomime and a lighting scheme which draws from the carnival atmosphere of Romero’s Creepshow, this is a film of outrageous cinematic liberties rather than subtlety, but Caroline Williams manages to be interesting and endearing as Stretch, feisty and atypical in an era when attractive women in horror were still inevitably the helpless victim.
While clearly enjoying himself, Dennis Hopper’s role as Lefty is underdeveloped (deleted scenes included in the package expand and elucidate his character significantly), but the Sawyer clan, Jim Siedow reprising his role as patriarch (and award winning chilli maker) Drayton “the Cook” Sawyer, Bill Johnson bringing an unexpected sensitivity to Leatherface and genre stalwart Bill Moseley clearly relishing his screen time as Chop Top.
In the state which likes to make things big, the most impressive set is the abandoned theme park, Texas Battle Land, where the final act of the film takes place, a glorification of battle and the vanquishing of enemies which emphasises the violent past of that state as much as the opening scene of gun-toting prep boys being run off the road.
Gloriously designed by production designer Cary White, the production team scoured local farms for bones and charity shops for damaged furniture, combining the two to dress the set. Property master Michael O’Sullivan describes the venture as “a huge film with no budget,” quipping that the “scariest part was the budget meetings,” the dramatically lit chambers showcased in this pristine restoration affirming the dedication and skill of all involved.
Screenwriter L M Kit Carson, best known for his acclaimed adaptation of Paris, Texas, confirms the pressure the studio placed on the production, where he was constantly rewriting scenes as they were being shot, the twin consequences being the somewhat unfocused finished product and, as described by director of photography Richard Kooris, the conditions on set as the crew battled to complete the film: “It was a death march, the hours on set, the heat, the conditions.”
Actors Johnson, Moseley, Williams and Lou Perryman all speak with enthusiasm and affection of their time together, Moseley reminiscing that “This wasn’t any movie, this was the sequel to the greatest horror movie ever made,” and Savini shares memories of the late Dennis Hopper who celebrated his 50th birthday on set, cutting his cake in a manner befitting the project.
While the film itself is no masterpiece, many of the shortcomings are more forgivable in the knowledge that it is not to be taken seriously, and in many ways the supporting material is more interesting than the feature itself, and while Hooper is absent from the archive material carried over from the 2007 “Gruesome Edition” DVD, the director provides a commentary and an career overview interview, but of most interest is the inclusion of two early Hooper works, 1964’s short The Heisters and 1969’s feature Eggshells, both restored.