6 OCTOBER 2001, Page 79


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (18, selected cinemas)

Where evil triumphs

Mark Steyn

Ihad forgotten, if I ever knew, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 had been banned in Britain, on the whim of one man (James Ferman, Her Majesty's Lord High Taste Enforcer). Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 (1989), The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1995) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1997, with Renee 7.ellweger and Matthew McConaughey) were also banned. But there's a new regime at the BBFC these days and so, in an exquisite example of the absurdity of British film censorship, after 15 years The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is finally being released just in time to cash in on a huge New York massacre.

What difference this will make, I haven't a clue. The original Chainsaw (1974) was based on Ed Gein's bloody rampage of 1957, which also inspired Hitchcock's Psycho. But Chainsaw didn't mess with shower scenes. As Tobe Hooper (director) and Kim Henkel (his co-writer) told the story, a bunch of hippie kids run out of gas in the wilds of the Lone Star State and make the mistake of seeking help from a household inordinately fond of its power tools. Hooper says he wanted the audience to laugh 'guiltily' and to make themselves feel 'questionable as moral beings'. Instead, of course, moviegoers had a high old time, splitting their sides as the characters' sides were split. There's no redemption in Chainsaw: evil triumphs, standing in the middle of the road, crowing and swinging its blade. Needless to say, the film took in $30 million, which was a lot of dough back then.

I never gave the film much thought over the decades, but seeing it again a couple of years back I was impressed at how much the franchise foreshadowed — not just the other schlock-horror sequel factories like Halloween, but also the cannibal jokes of Silence of the Lambs ('You're the first girl Bubba's brought home for dinner'), the Tarantino signature of carnage as sophisticated humour, and even the grainy lowbudget cool of Blair Witch Project (it was shot on 16mil). Alas. Hooper himself never managed to leverage his cult status. He had no cash to make the original film and his preferred financing methods — one, keep the cast and crew from mutinying by offering them a piece of any profits; two, if that fails, see if you can find anyone who can access some mob money — meant that the eventual rights were so complicatedly dispersed that it wasn't until 1986 that Hooper could get a sequel together.

Chainsaw 2 has a script by L.M. Kit Carson (of Paris, Texas), who's mostly contented himself with providing some tart gags that don't disturb the clichés of the genre. In the Seventies, the designated corpses were hippies; in the Eighties, yuppies. But, other than killing off fashionably risible demographics, there's no pretence at social satire: one of the characters keeps making cracks about the problems of being a small businessman in a high-tax society, which may be a sub-textual needling of ruthless Reaganites or alternatively that Carson couldn't think of anything else to give him to say. Dennis Hopper stars as Lefty Enright, a psychologically scarred ex-Texas Ranger (is there any other kind?), who lost one of his nearest and dearest to the chainsaw crew first time round. Twelve years on, the Sawyer family — Cook, Chop Top and Leatherface, who uses his chainsaw even on ice cubes — are running the Last Round-Up Rolling Grill, whose chilli specials require a lot of prime meat.

Tagging along with Lefty is a lady discjockey called Stretch (Caroline Williams), who in hommage to the conventions runs around and screams a lot. She in turn has a sidekick, L.G. (Lou Perry), whose function is to suffer all the brutal forms of torture she manages to elude in the nick of time. Despite being skinned by a humming Leatherface, L.G. gamely tries to help Stretch one mo time, but unfortunately he can't get himself together. 'I guess I'm falling apart on you, honey,' he says.

But, even on its own terms, Hooper's touch is equally unsteady. Lots of scenes are oddly mistimed and lethargic, and the grand operatic finale when Lefty and Leatherface go buzz-to-buzz is an eternity in coming. The arguments for the desensitising of the audience are complicated, the ones for their dumbing-down are less so. But what bugs me, speaking as a gnarled old woodsman, is the way these movies keep turning tools into weapons. Every guy I know has a chainsaw. With the amount of trees downed by winter storms, you need a saw or at least an axe in the back of the rig just so you can chop your way along the road. Today, though, if a kid takes an axe to school on 'show-and-tell' day, he gets expelled for bringing a weapon, even if his dad's a fireman. Even if it's a plastic axe (as happened recently in Pennsylvania). Whether or not films like Chainsaw desensitise the folks who see them. they seem to turn everyone else into pantywaist. That sticks in my teeth, though fortunately not in my chainsaw's.