Dismember the Alamo

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I had been warned by Paul Duane, who knows Texas, that TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 was pretty fucked up. He wasn’t wrong.

The first film managed to mingle a kind of very unpleasant black comedy with a grotesque charnel-house realism, avoiding extreme gore but lingering on extreme emotional distress. For the sequel, original director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kir Carson, who was coming off of Jim McBride’s BREATHLESS and Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS (on which he has an odd crediting for “adapting” Sam Shepherd’s original screenplay) evidently decided to abandon any taste of realism and pump up everything else until it burst. As a kind of Rabelaisian revulsion response to the concept of horror movies, meat, the human body and the state of Texas and the country of America, it’s pretty strong stuff.

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Hooper’s enthusiasm for cruelty and violence and terror and the gross seems to come at the expense of any interest in the non-mayhem scenes, which is a shame — final girl Caroline Williams and the recently career-resurrected Dennis Hopper are good company, but many of the straight acting scenes seem like rehearsals. Once some suspense kicks in — a long, creepy intimidation scene in a tiny radio station — Hooper’s skills with the camera and with pacing come to the rescue, and though there are continual flaws of logic and basic credibility, the pace never flags from then on.

Cannon Films evidently showered largesse — and offal — on the production, allowing it to employ Tom Savini for grue and mummification effects, and to build a spectacular, impossible set, Texas Battle Land, a decaying theme park partially converted into an abattoir by the Sawney Bean-inspired Sawyer family. Among the bizarre murals and sculptures is a huge hand with fringed sleeve, clutching a bowie-knife, apparently breaking through the floor. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s kind of wonderful.

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The active Sawyers this time are Bubba, AKA Leatherface, now played by Bill Johnson, who proves himself a nimble physical comedian, contrasting his physical bulk with small, apologetic gestures; Chop-Top, played with gusto by Bill Mosely, a Viet Nam vet with a steel plate in his skull, which he continually picks at with a heated coat hanger, eating the shreds of himself he tears away; and the paterfamilias, Jim Siedow, back from the first film. He can’t exactly act, though he is certainly a striking performer. This movie tends to showcase his weaknesses more than the first film, giving him more dialogue, more emotions, and more screen-time. He isn’t nuanced, but he IS enthusiastic. His forced maniacal laugh, which he throws in even when his character is supposed to be angry, adds to the sense of nervous strain on the whole enterprise, so it’s in its clumsy way pretty effective.

More bad stuff: Hooper co-composed the score, and he’s no John Carpenter. Fragments of Bernard Herrmann served up with synths — genuinely horrible, and not in a good way.

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But the film has a demented vigour, a go-for-broke aggression born either of Hooper’s sheer ignorance about what is acceptable behaviour in a mainstream horror movie (chainsaw masturbation? Really?) or his suicidal urge to career-immolate as penance for LIFEFORCE and INVADERS FROM MARS (which are still ridiculously enjoyable movies). The addition of hot-pink disco lighting doesn’t lessen the impact, it makes everything feel sicker. It’s like eating a barbecue under coloured lighting while death metal plays. It’s a film so full of bad-taste energy that it can casually throw out the suggestion of a Viet Nam War theme park and not bother to elaborate.

“Was it wrong of me to enjoy that?” asked Fiona. It’s wrong of all of us!

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7 Responses to “Dismember the Alamo”

  1. Bill Johnson is DEFINITELY doing a Charles Laughton in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame with all the tongue work he puts in. He also does lots of hilarious, apologetic little shoulder shrugs as if to say, “Sorry about all this Texas Chainsaw Massacring. It’s just in my nature.”

  2. I knew Kit, ever since David Holzman’s Diary — Jim McBride’s film on whose script he collaborated and which he memorably starred in. Everything seemed possible back in 1967 when that indie touchstones was shot. But as the years progressed “the number of choices has been reduced” — as Straub-Huillet quote in Not Reconciled. Kit was a VIP in South By Southwest and did a memorable turn as Christine Lahti’s ex-boyfriend in Lumet’s Running on Empty. He married Karen Black (of all people) and their son Hunter co-starred with Nastassia Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton in Wenders’ Paris Texas — with significant script contributions by Kit. It’s a long way from there to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The last time I saw him was in 2007 at the L.A. screening of the complete Out 1. He’s gone now, as is Dennis Hopper (a wingnut in his later years) and Karen Black ( a “Scientologist”)

    “If your friends only last through lunch. . .” — Noel Coward

  3. The film obviously earns points for choosing such an interesting writer, and shows integrity by trying to depict a nightmare Texas from the inside. It does devolve into a lot of shouting and running around and nastiness, admittedly. But it feels like, to quote Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (on punching a youth), “it meant something.”

  4. It is a dark, grotesque Rabelaslian satire on the horror film at a time gore was being emphasized/ Also, it ironically undercuts that appalling Laura Mulvey type Final Girl thesis by showing that the female survivor is clearly insance at the end. What a great statement for Feminism by a Scandinavian literature scholar who should have stuck to her field rathe rthan engage in slumming.

  5. The movie starts by affirming that the survivor of the previous movie lapsed into a catatonic stupor, and has Williams crazily dancing with a chainsaw in an echo of that movie’s climax.

    I haven’t read enough Mulvey to have a problem with her, though her commentary track from Peeping Tom is a little sleepy-making.

  6. Mulvey ? If Mr Williams’s rather aggressive comment (“a Scandinavian literature scholar who should have stuck to her field rather than engage in slumming” ) is referring to the still-interesting book Men Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, then I am compelled to point out that the author is not Mulvey but Carol Clover.

  7. Hmm, yes, and Clover is the expert in Scandinavian literature so I guess that’s who she meant. I liked the idea of her book for adding nuance to the condemnatory tone of earlier feminist writing on horror.

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