Following up a film that has gone on to be rightfully recognized as a classic is never easy, and often times completely unnecessary but in 1986 the late, great Cannon Films Company managed to get Tobe Hooper behind the camera for a second shot with Leatherface and company for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. This time around, however, Hooper and his cast and crew did things very, very differently.
The film starts with a pair of rednecks on their way to a party, enjoying a few beers while on the road and firing their guns at whatever signs they happen to pass. They call the radio station that they're listening to and speak to the DJ, a woman named Stretch (Caroline Williams), and harass her while the driver decides to play chicken with an oncoming truck which they run off the road. A little while later, after the party, the two guys are heading home and they decide to call Stretch for another round. Oddly enough, the truck they ran off the road earlier reappears and chases them. Once they catch up to the car, Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and Chop Top (Bill Mosely) hop out of the back and the two men are killed, their phone call to Stretch broadcast over the radio.
The cops show up in the morning and Lt. Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) soon clues in to what's happening here. His brother was slaughtered by a cannibal family years back and he's made it his life mission to track these guys down and make them pay. It looks to Lefty like they're still around and up to their old tricks again, so he tracks down Stretch to get a recording of the phone call to use in his investigation. Stretch has an ulterior motive, however, in that she hopes that if she works with Lefty on this case that she'll get the promotion to news reporter that she's been after for some time now.
Lefty convinces Stretch to play the recording on the air one last time in hopes of luring the maniacs out of the woodwork, and sure enough, Leatherface and Chop Top break into the station and just as Chop Top is about to do her in, Leatherface stops him – it seems he's fallen for the foxy disc jockey. The two maniacs leave and Stretch follows them back to their lair, a bizarre underground theme park where she knows Lefty will be waiting for her. Along the way, she falls through a weak spot and plummets down into the heart of the park where the bodies have been piling up for years. As she works her way out of there to try and save her skin, Lefty is trying to work his way in so that he can avenge his brother's death and get on with his life.
Everything in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is completely over the top, from the acting to the set design to the cinematography to the lighting to the dialogue and back again. The realism and bleak atmosphere of the original is thrown right out the window and this one functions more like a black comedy than a true horror film, despite a couple of good jump scares and a couple of genuinely creepy moments. Much of this has to do with Dennis Hopper in the lead. No one does 'bat shit crazy' better than Hopper and this role gives him the opportunity to really run with the material. Caroline Williams is a nice balance in that her more restrained performance contrasts Hopper's maniacal turn quite nicely but once you throw Bill Mosely into the mix, there's no turning back – the movie is nuts.
The special effects provided by Tom Savini are strong and the cinematography does a really good job of capturing the weird colors and unconventional lighting that was used to give the movie its unique look. Most of the film works really well, though there are spots where the dialogue isn't quite so effective and the story feels a little contrived. There are logic gaps to deal with, such as how the family has maintained control over a massive underground lair and gone undetected for so long, but that's not uncommon with horror films and can be easily overlooked when one takes into account the bigger picture here. At it's heart this is really a twisted revenge story as it focuses quite a bit on Lefty's manic obsession with payback for what happened to his brother but it does make for an interesting twist on the Chainsaw mythos, warts and all. It's a truly weird film but it has its charm and it has its place alongside the other sequels – just don't go in expecting a rehash of the more famous first film, because it almost seems like Hooper knew he couldn't out do himself and so instead he opted to go in a completely different direction.
The 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that MGM has given to this new special edition release is a big improvement over the previous DVD release in pretty much every way, the most notable difference being in how good the colors look here. Approved by the film's cinematographer the image is strong and stable without any mpeg compression artifacts to note. Some really mild edge enhancement shows up here and there but if you're not looking for it you likely won't even pick up on it. There's also a lot more fine detail present in the picture on this new disc, and while there are still some shots that look a little soft, this is a very nice transfer overall.
While a 5.1 remix would have been nice, the English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround track that adorns this disc gets the job done quite nicely. Channel separation is strong and distinct and the score for the film comes through very nicely. There are no problems with hiss or distortion and the dialogue is balanced well against the effects and the music ensuring that the performers never get buried and that everything is always easy to understand. Optional subtitles are provided in English, French and Spanish and the feature comes with an optional English language Closed Captioning feature.
The extra features department is where this new release really shines, starting off with a brand new commentary track with director Tobe Hooper moderated by David Gregory (who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth documentary among many others and who currently runs Severin Films). Gregory keeps Hooper talking throughout as he fires one question after another at him so this turns out to be a pretty packed discussion. Throughout the commentary we hear about the location shooting and how there were problems with some of the sets while the film was in production. He covers some casting issues though doesn't elaborate on why a new actor was brought in to play Leatherface, and he talks about some of the effects work. There are definitely areas where Hooper could have gone into more detail but it's obvious from his tone at times that he doesn't really want to elaborate on a few of the more controversial issues surrounding the movie and so he just doesn't go there. That being said, this is a good track and worth listening to just to get Hooper's perspective on some of the stranger aspects of the movie, working with Dennis Hopper, and to get an idea of his take on the whole thing.
A second commentary track is also included and the participants here include Tom Savini who did the effects work, actors Bill Mosely and Caroline Williams and moderator Michael Felsher of Red Shirt Pictures. This track can be a little hard to get your head around at times as the three alumni tend to want to talk about everything and anything so things are slightly chaotic, but there's a good sense of humor behind it all and each of the three key participants has no shortage of things to discuss. Savini or course covers his effects work while the two actors talk about their work in front of the camera and there are a lot of great stories in here about some of their co-stars and about some of the difficulties that they had to deal with while on the set.
The highlight of the extra features on this release is an all new feature length ninety-minute documentary on the film entitled It Runs In The Family. You can watch this in one ninety-minute chunk or select one of the six chapter – Texas Screenplay Massacre; The Art Of Mayhem; Cast Of Characters; Prime Meat; Father Of The Saw; Requiem For A Sequel – individually. The titles of the chapters give you a rough idea of what is covered but the interviews here with screenwriter Kit Carson, actors Bill Mosley, Caroline Williams, Bill Johnson and Lou Perry, effects guys Tom Savini and Michael Sullivan cover pretty much everything you could hope to learn about the making of this film. There are a lot of fun stories in here about some of the key scenes in the film and about Tobe Hooper himself and the whole thing is edited together nicely with film clips and photos from the film.
The highly touted deleted scenes are finally included on this disc after being considered missing in action for a few years when they didn't show up on the previous MGM DVD. The section entitled The Cutting Room Floor is where you'll find Joe Bob Brigg's cameo, the garage kill scene and an alternate opening credits sequence. While the quality on these isn't so hot (they look to be VHS sourced) the original materials are supposedly gone for good so it's at least understandable.
Rounding out the supplements are a still gallery of promotional art and home video releases and the film's original theatrical trailer. Menus and chapter selections for the feature are also included. Special mention should be made of the Saw inspired cover art slipcase. Once you remove it you'll notice a gory alteration to the similar cover art that hides the keepcase.
While this second film is a very different beast than the classic that came before it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is still a really well made movie that mixes humor and horror quite effectively. The berserk atmosphere of the movie coupled with Hopper's over the top performance makes it completely worthwhile and this new special edition features great audio and video quality and some killer extra features. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.