Midnight Screaming: Tobe Hooper: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

tcm2One might think TCM2 is an obvious proposition: director Tobe Hooper attempting to escape the dark days of artistic poverty known as the ‘80s by returning to his most demonic days, forging a communion with the film devil and resurrecting the zombified corpse of his most famous film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But TCM2’s is no sycophant wearing its father’s clothes; more like a renegade fugitive dressing up like a horror film to throw the authorities off its trail. It is its predecessor’s polar opposite, as overt a case of a cinematic progeny rebelling against its parent with youthful indiscretion as the medium has ever birthed. Anticipating the devil-may-care comic mania of The Evil Dead 2 with as much brio but much less skill, Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his most famous film at least deserves points for attempting – rather openly – to misdiagnose its predecessors’ successes and run around in its own bizarre head-trip version of the original. An overt comedy, the film’s combustible zaniness is spirited even if it isn’t really inspired, and it sometimes feels like a colossally misjudged entity that is worth seeing only for the courage with which it misjudges itself. The quasi avant-garde set design and the ludicrous, anarchic disinterest in conventional mood skeletons mark Texas Chainsaw 2 as a fugitive inferno of sustained weirdness.

Which is not the same thing as a good film, simply a potent one. Ripe and sour in equal measure, TCM 2’s basic line of attack is to inflate the corpse of its predecessor with noxious laughing gas until it explodes, toppling to the ground in chaotic convulsions of violence and beguilingly standoffish comedy. At the least, it has an identity – as baroque and strangely misguided as it can be – that is not synonymous with the dredged-in slasher glut so thick on the ground in the ‘80s. Possibly aware that the genre was waning (it was already on the way out by 1986, when TCM 2 was released), it at least diffuses the general tepidness of the genre and indulges in the incredibly toxic potencies of producers Golan and Globus, the most notorious producers of the ‘80s, responsible for a proper murderer’s row of cinematic monstrosities. Faced with the choice of going bad or going middle-of-the-road, let no one say the film wasn’t courageous. Proceed at your own peril.

Golan and Globus only earned the rights to the series, of course, after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s original production company semi-folded after making a fortune on its earnings. Not exactly stable territory for a sensible sequel, but it could be a precarious plateau for a wonderfully unstable one. Truth be told, TCM 2’s eccentricities often feel, dialectically, like both the only logical manifestation of the peculiarity of its production and a deranged attempt by the filmmakers to match the bizarre behind the scenes vibe with their own on-the-screen tale of deluded America. Tonally ravaged, little about TCM 2 is respectable. The strange production seems to authorize the film to unleash some previously withheld psychic impulses in the slasher landscape, reveling in the absurdity of the situation by embracing its own transgressive fringes.

However, the film paradoxically sidelines real subversion in favor of an astonishingly inelegant tone the more the parody layers on. The bigger it gets, and the more obviously humorous, the less sinister and controversial it feels. The less it feels like a wonderfully formless creature, a maelstrom of unfinished thoughts and violent physical spasms, and the more it feels like the Airplane of the slasher genre, so broad and obvious in its comedy that it loses any dialectical impulse. Although this film anticipates Evil Dead 2, only the latter film, from one year later, genuinely sustains the tonal schism between horror and comedy by dismantling our emotional and mental faculties for categorizing tones. The latter film never grants us the common courtesy of satisfying our uncertainties about the material by classifying it as a composed, stable, clearly-demarcated, and solid entity; it etches out a realm of permanent transgression and operates with a low-level hum of mental pandemonium that precludes easy definition. TCM 2 begins this way, but by the end, it has defined itself quite clearly and unanimously as a comedy, which is rather deflating.

So rather than a virus that disdains your emotional rituals for encountering strange art, a film which restlessly and formlessly adapts against your mind by resisting and flipping on a dime, we have an alternate-universe comedy played with a Dukes of Hazzard drawl where a family of cannibals are hunted down by an investigative DJ named Stretch and a loose-cannon cop named Lefty (played by Dennis Hopper in a performance only slightly denatured from his truly maniacal Blue Velvet role from the same year; talk about blending high and low art). The film obviously thinks it’s totally the bee’s knees in the wits department – we know so because of the uber-confidence of one Freudian phallic mockery that plays like a high schooler just discovered that sexual politics and slasher cinema are cohabitants in the critical studies department. But it is far less clever than it thinks it is, and only more curious in the end.

But it is entirely mesmerizing, for what it’s worth, concluding as a truly diabolical situational comedy about a family of cannibals dressed to the nines as parodies of their representation in films, not unlike what a sketch comedy might summon if given the logline “The Waltons meet the Munsters encounter a post-modern milieu in a rusty bucket swimming with tetanus”. If the general impossibility of this artifact wasn’t already enough, it is written by LM Kit Caron (who also wrote another beguiling rumination on American eccentricity, the positively divine Paris, Texas, a gruesome twosome of cinema if ever there was one). That 1983 film was the product of a German director fascinated with classical Americana and the Westerns of the ‘50s, and this 1986 film plays like a satanic high-school party similarly recapitulating the ‘80s fetish for the gentile and rebellious American ‘50s. Maybe a better comparison than The Waltons and The Munsters is The Misfits and The B-52s, acid and sugar, since TCM2 is loaded with nastied-up ‘50s signifiers, fulfilling the simultaneously genuine and perverted affection those bands felt for domestic American culture. But while those bands provocatively queered American culture or exposed underbellies of the nation hidden from view – or hiding in plain sight – TCM2 just flagellates itself silly. It’s, frankly, awful, but an essential kind of awful.

(Incidentally, see the previous year’s Return of the Living Dead for a success in the same idiom; TCM 2 is a psycho-billy monstrosity with ‘50s Westerns and “reckless youth” pictures on the mind, and Return is a horror-punk extravaganza with ‘50s B pictures and, also, those same juvenile delinquent films on the mind.)

It is certainly wonderful in theory: a film series losing its bearing and rediscovering itself anew, but the comedy is too broad and the tone too tendentious for the film to play in this liquid realm of perpetual redefinition and refreshment. We are, unfortunately, far too certain of the film’s intentions once it lays its comedy hand bear to have our faculties for tone shaken to the core. I am pleased that the film confronts its ancestry not with propriety and timid respect but with a gross negligence; its anxiety of influence, its palpable worry that it is merely recapitulating its ancestor film, causes it to throw its parent in a blender and puree it into one of the strangest and most alienating horror films of its decade, perhaps in all of American cinema. That alone is a kind of essential cinema, and it has been the foundational drive of many a great film, but it certainly isn’t great cinema in this case.

Score: 4/10? 5/10? Dennis Hopper/10? A fish/object permanence?

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