Collins’ Crypt: The Ugly Beauty of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2

As viewing formats improved, so did BC's opinion of Tobe Hooper's polarizing sequel.

Every horror fan can probably thank a network (or at least, basic cable) broadcast for introducing them to a flick that would ultimately become one of their favorites, but if you were to poll all of us, you'd probably see a lot of the same titles over and over. Jaws, Halloween, maybe Alien... these were perennial options for late night scheduling back in the days when we only had a few channels (and nationwide programming hours were shorter), and even if we knew they were edited, there was something thrilling about being able to turn on the TV and see something like this without having to beg your parents first. And in most cases, the TV versions are fine - Jaws usually gets no editing at all, and Halloween's violence is minimal (removing a few quick shots of nudity does not decrease the movie's power to terrify you), but I can tell you from unfortunate experience that a local FOX affiliate showing of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is most certainly not the best way to watch the film even if you've seen it a dozen times.

Sadly, for me, this is how I saw it for the first time.

I don't know why my mom wouldn't rent the 1986 sequel for me as a kid. She rented the original for me, and at the time it came to my video store she was still renting horror flicks for us to watch on the regular - in fact I distinctly remember sadly putting the box back on the shelf the night she got Witchboard instead (instilling a life-long fear in the process!). Maybe the "not rated" element scared her off, maybe she just couldn't see anyone but Gunnar Hansen in the role, but whatever her reasoning was, I never got to see it until one night in I think 1988 or 1989 (it was before Leatherface came out, I know that much), when it was the 8 o'clock movie on our local Fox 25. Now, for those who can't remember that far back (if you were alive at all), Fox didn't have original programming every night of the week for its first few years of existence, so the local affiliates would show whatever the hell they wanted on those off nights, and the programming would be advertised during the usual Fox network shows - which means I probably caught wind of it during Married With Children or 21 Jump Street.

So I taped it, because my bedtime was probably still 8 (maybe 8:30), almost certainly watching it the next day and sadly not liking it all that much - I remember telling a friend that "the whole thing is just Leatherface chasing some lady around in a tunnel!" Luckily, I gave it another chance with a proper VHS release, and then another on (bare-bones) DVD, and so on - this new Scream Factory Blu-ray is the at least sixth release of the film on home video in the US alone. And as the quality of the formats improved, so has my opinion, going from a movie I didn't like much to one I thought was OK to eventually becoming my favorite Chainsaw sequel (surpassing Leatherface, which long held the title). And on this most recent viewing, I realized something - even if it was on a subconscious level in the past, I truly believe that the ever-improving quality of the presentation is the reason I fell more and more in love with the movie over the years: the better the image, the more I see to appreciate.

I rarely talk about picture quality when I review Blu-rays; I note if something is amiss, but otherwise they always look pretty great to my eyes and I don't know enough to act as an authority on things like "edge artifacting" and "haloing" - my test is to look at a wide shot and see if I can still see detail in a far off brick building or a patch of grass (if I can, then the picture is fantastic!). But I feel I simply must stress how terrific the movie looks on this new release - the vivid colors have never looked better, and the enhanced detail allows you to fully appreciate the (in all honesty) Oscar-worthy production design. I wish I hadn't gotten rid of my old DVD so I could take some screenshots and juxtapose them with the stills Scream has provided, but I'll say this much - this obviously isn't the first time the outfit has released a new edition of something I already own, but I'm pretty sure it's the first I would say it's worth the upgrade for the image quality alone, with the new bonus features being a, er, bonus.

The radio station scene, for example - the reds are at times intense enough to make Dario Argento blush, but they don't bleed at all here; every bit of detail in Caroline Williams' face is accounted for as she tries to get Bill Moseley the hell out of her office. When LG (Lou Perryman) is skinned, you can actually see the detail in his mangled "face" that Tom Savini provided and has been rather 'mushy' looking on previous releases. And that's just the color and stuff - I mean, this is a movie I've seen probably a dozen times now, so I was pretty blown away to notice new things in the production design, like the Dr. Strangelove-inspired skeleton elevated near the big dinner table:

(Photo courtesy of Matt Serafini)

But what's funny is the higher quality actually makes the movie grosser at times. I already mentioned LG's poor face, but Moseley's teeth, seen in closeup more than should be allowable by law, are covered in a grimy muck that might have you long for a blurry/dark VHS tape. His exposed metal plate and tiny specks of flesh around it (that he eats after scraping them off with a hanger) are also far more vivid than previously imagined, and the other details in both the Sawyer clan and their victims' corpses also pop more than ever. All of which I bring up because this is a rather icky movie - even the non-horror elements are grungy, like LG's spitting habit (which does not subside after he loses his face and gets his head bashed in), and the way the winning chili spills over the trophy. So I find it endlessly amusing that it's been given this beautiful presentation, as it will probably increase the likelihood of making some squeamish audience members gag at a few choice visuals (that closeup of Grandpa's sore-covered face, for example). 

Going back to the production design though - that's actually the main reason to see this movie in the most pristine format possible. In the grand scheme of things, there aren't a lot of horror movies where you'd want to single out the production design, and of that select crowd most would be studio productions, like Bram Stoker's Dracula or The Shining. You certainly wouldn't expect a rushed, low-budget horror sequel from the Cannon Group to be on that list, but even if you somehow think this is the series' creative nadir, you'd have to give it respect for the amount of effort the crew put into creating a fully lived-in world, particularly the Texas Battle Land. As a young BC once half-correctly complained, the movie's second half is pretty much just a bunch of chase scenes through the park's tunnels, but who can blame Tobe Hooper and his DP for wanting to show them off? You can pause it anywhere and spend several minutes soaking in all of the macabre set decoration and random paraphernalia adorning the walls and ceilings, and then let it run for a few seconds only to pause it again and marvel at how the frame has been repopulated with different things. All for a movie that cost a few million bucks, was insanely rushed (the final draft of the script was dated only about eight weeks before the film hit theaters), and wasn't appreciated by many at the time because they just wanted to see people being chainsawed*. 

The rushed and largely unpleasant (long hours, dangerous heat, no money) production, covered extensively on the bonus features (nearly ten hours' worth including the three commentaries, with about half of that time spent on new features), makes this dedication all the more impressive. Apparently the script didn't really call for that sort of thing, but they lucked into the Battle Land location (a real park that had gone out of business after only a year) and production designer Cary White and his team worked double time to not only live up to the incredible work Robert Burns had done in the first film, but also use tacky lights and skeletons and everything else as a necessity, to hide equipment and other "seams" that would show without their extensive decor. Given the insanely short production schedule, you could almost forgive them if the boom mic was in the shot for the entire movie, but instead they took a setback and turned into one of the film's most appealing features (the radio station is loaded with choice design too - note the Fine Young Cannibals and Beatles' "Butcher" cover for Yesterday & Today images on the walls). In today's "let's make a found footage movie because it's easy" landscape, this sort of enthusiasm and tenacity really warmed my heart.

Long story short, it takes effort to make a movie this scuzzy, and I love that it's always been properly represented on whatever the dominant format is every five or six years. A few days ago, some jackass took time out of his life to crop/murk up The Force Awakens and put it on VHS tape, for some reason that will never make any sense to me - and here's Scream Factory, offering a 2K HD scan of a movie where one of the protagonists hocks a giant ball of spit on the floor every minute he's on-screen. On paper, it sounds like a movie that deserves to be watched on an edited/cropped TV broadcast at best, but in reality, every chunk of flesh, wad of spit, and drop of tooth-slime deserves such an immaculate presentation. 

* Indeed, among the non-Sawyers, there are only two on-screen kills in the film - the driver of the car and LG, as the car's passenger is killed off screen and Dennis Hopper dies in an explosion represented by some flashing lights and a bit of smoke blowing behind the other actors. In a fun bit of irony, there was to be an actual "chainsaw massacre" in the series for the first (and last) time, but it was cut for pacing. The scene has never been fully restored or even finished, but is often available on the bonus features for the film's various releases, including this new one. I've always found it funny that the film got into all this rating trouble despite having a rather tiny body count and the fact that its goriest scene was cut by the filmmakers on their own volition.