Archive for August 1986

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

August 22, 1986

the-texas-chainsaw-massacre-2-caroline-williams2The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has been called everything from “a geek show” (Roger Ebert) to “a satirical classic” (the Guardian). Brothers, sisters, why are we fighting? Can’t it be both? To be sure, a lot of the intended satire ended up cluttering the editing-room floor. The Reagan era was in full metastasis, and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson wanted to feed yuppies into the meat grinder. In the finished Chainsaw 2, we get a grand total of two dead yuppies — obnoxious students, speeding into town for the Red River Shootout, the traditional Texas-OU football game. The rest of the yuppies were to have done their last cellphone-fondling during a night run in which the Sawyer family — the Cook (Jim Siedow, returning from the original), Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), and Leatherface (Bill Johnson) — drive around looking for fresh meat to put into their award-winning chili. Depending on which account you prefer, director Tobe Hooper (the mad genius who’d shepherded the first Chainsaw) either cut those scenes for pacing or was forced to trim them by the film’s generally nose-picking distributor Cannon.

What’s left of Chainsaw 2 plays less as a satire than as Ebert’s geek show, a goony paradox of slickly photographed disgusting things, like an Annie Leibovitz  tour of a slaughterhouse. Yet Hooper does let a few arrows fly. The aforementioned students introduce themselves to Texas by shooting holes in the signs marking various historical landmarks. These kids have no respect for history, and they should die. The Cook, who sells his chili out of what looks to be a modified ice-cream truck, is always going on about money and how the small businessman suffers. The ghastly cannibalism of the first film, where barbecued human meat was sold as a sideline from the Cook’s gas station, has flourished into a thriving going concern. Perky porkers at the chili contest have no idea what’s in their food and don’t care. Chop-Top, a ‘Nam vet who has an exposed metal plate in his scalp from “a gook with a machete,” appears to be Hooper’s critique of the media’s contemporaneous treatment of the men who served in that war — whether “heroic” (Rambo) or not, they’re all regarded as ticking-timebomb psychopaths. “You want a psycho ‘Nam vet?” Hooper seems to say. “Here’s one right in your face.”

It’s tempting to look for more in Chainsaw 2 than is there, because it’s simultaneously more plot-centered than the first one yet kind of thin plot-wise. It’s top-heavy with set-up, but at the halfway mark just flips into a prolonged retreat/fight sequence. This, I thought while rewatching it, might have been Hooper’s middle finger raised to Steven Spielberg, whose Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has a similar structure; Hooper slyly parodies shot after shot from that film during the climax, when gutsy DJ “Stretch” (the invaluable Caroline Williams) and vengeful uncle Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) make their way through the garishly festooned lair of the Sawyers. Spielberg was the king of ’80s fare — so much so that to this day, people believe that he, and not Hooper, directed Poltergeist. So it makes some sense that Hooper would take the opportunity to lob a little spit Spielberg’s way.

Stretch is a feminine (i.e., not crudely “ass-kicking”) but, I would say, solidly feminist heroine. Hooper never defines her by her sex or sexuality. She has a friendship with (and unspoken love for) her helper at the radio station, L.G. (Lou Perry), who never sees her as anything other than a buddy and co-worker. When the two idiots at the beginning are killed while calling in to Stretch’s show, Stretch takes the tapes of the event to Lefty, who at first demurs but then agrees to accept her help. Most famously, when Stretch is cornered by Leatherface — who uses the tip of his chainsaw to insinuate his warped, nascent sexuality past Stretch’s boundaries — Stretch uses dog-training language on him (“No! Good!”), which amusingly works. If all you see when you look at a woman is a crotch, you’re a slobbering, skronking dog right up on the screen there — that’s Leatherface as you — and you should be corrected. Stretch corrects Leatherface, and thereafter he is protective of her, which still isn’t ideal but is at least a step up.

The original Chainsaw was noted for how much gore and violence it merely suggested; the sequel, with prince of splatter effects Tom Savini on board, leaves little to the imagination. The violence, though, isn’t brutal-cool in the mode of most slasher flicks of the day, even the ones Savini worked on. It’s painful and repulsive. A man is skinned alive, then rises up to try to talk through what’s left of his face, while the person he’s talking to is wearing most of the rest of it. It’s sick and bizarre and probably very intentionally off-putting. It’s also funny, but the jokes all have a subtext of agony and mutilation. It’s the sort of gallows humor you’d expect cattle to make while waiting for the sledge.

Chainsaw 2 at times feels stuck together by goo, sweat, Karo syrup, and sheer fucking will power. It skitters along to its climax as though shrugging and accepting that this is what successful movies have to do now (“now” being 1986). Lefty and Leatherface, twin madmen with opposite demons (Leatherface protects his family, Lefty is avenging his), go at each other with chainsaws while Stretch flees from the cackling Chop-Top, the walking shame of a nation. Chop-Top, who says he loves music and trashes the record archives at Stretch’s radio station, really is like a daisy-cutter dropped onto the smug, self-regarding Boomer nostalgia of the ’80s, with its white-liberal fetish for Motown and its uneasy relationship to Vietnam vets. (Oliver Stone finally united the two — former flower-power protesters and guys who were in the shit — in Platoon, which came out a few months after Chainsaw 2, and a grateful, relieved Hollywood buried Stone in awards. Hooper got nothing for his work, though the supremely less comforting Chop-Top speaks for the madness of My Lai and Kent State far more vividly, I’d say, than does Stone’s Manichean stoner-Christ/jock-Satan construct.)

I didn’t like Chainsaw 2 at first, and it’s still a difficult film to “like” — you have to make yourself a bit callous for a couple hours, because how else would you be able to laugh at a bubbly-voiced skinless man breathing the perfect last Texan words: “Aw, sheeit.” It truly is nihilistic, waiting-for-the-sledge comedy. Tonally, it veers so completely from the first Chainsaw that fans of the original might resent the sequel, even question if Hooper really made it. Well, no; the same Hooper who made Chainsaw did not make Chainsaw 2. Twelve years separated the two men, twelve years spent in indie films, then in Hollywood (where, for his troubles, everyone condescendingly assumed that he couldn’t have directed a big mainstream hit), then under the thumb of Golan and Globus. There’s a lot of contempt rattling around in Chainsaw 2, not only for the easy Reagan-era targets of “yuppies” and “businessmen” but for the entertainment we were in 1986 expected to swallow without question. A famous deleted scene from Chainsaw 2 sees Joe Bob Briggs himself spilling the beans on how guys like Savini achieve the saw-fu, and damned if the whole meta-satire isn’t complete if you imagine the Joe Bob scene stuck back in, the ultimate Texan Chainsaw-friendly movie critic telling us that what we’re watching, or rather what we’ve been watching the past few years, is fake shit, an explodin’ titty just as plastic as ever’ other titty in Hollyweird, man. No wonder Leatherface doesn’t know what to do with his saw.

The Fly (1986)

August 15, 1986

“I’m an insect who dreamed he was a man…and loved it!” David Cronenberg’s biggest hit assembles all his themes in one big, handsome, mainstream package (or as mainstream as he ever gets). He continues his excellent work with actors, extracting the performance of Jeff Goldblum’s career; there’s none of Jeff’s later gum-chewing, iMac-hawking smugness in this hyperverbal turn as Seth Brundle, a scientist whose experiment with telepods accidentally fuses his genetic structure with that of a fly. Seth maintains a lively scientific interest in his own grotesque transformation, while his lover, science reporter Geena Davis, looks on helplessly. At its best, the movie comes close to the power of classic tragedy — the moods are exaltation, dread, disgust, grief. Some have taken it for an allegory about AIDS or cancer, but Cronenberg means it to be less ripped-from-the-headlines and more timeless: a meditation on anything that changes us physically, and the corresponding mental changes. Mel Brooks, who also took another idiosyncratic Dave under his wing with The Elephant Man, produced this big-budget remake under his Brooksfilms label and encouraged Cronenberg not to hold back. (I wish Mel would produce more films.) The FX by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis won an Oscar. Walas directed the lame 1989 sequel, notable in my mind only for that unexpectedly tearjerking scene where Eric Stoltz’s dog gets turned inside out.

Howard the Duck

August 1, 1986

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Howard the Duck, in its peak years from 1975-1978, was the best newsstand Big Two comic book of the ’70s (the Big Two being Marvel and DC). To read this deconstruction of superhero clichés at an impressionable age was to have your eyes peeled to the falsehood of socially defined “heroism” forever. As scripted by Marvel madman Steve Gerber, Howard was a satirical vehicle with which to puncture the excesses of an excessive era. That he was a talking duck in a comic book made him that much more subversive; the best satire doesn’t always come shrink-wrapped and labelled “Serious Satire for Adult Intellectuals” — sometimes it comes in an innocuous, even ludicrous guise, and then sucker-punches you. Gerber used Howard as his Gulliver, his indictment of the madness of the ’70s and the emptiness of his own profession.

One of the comic’s best bits was its take-off of Star Wars, so it was ironic that George Lucas produced 1986’s $35 million Howard the Duck movie, which has the dubious distinction of being the worst movie of a particularly bad decade for movies (adapted from the best comic of a particularly good decade for comics). Whatever made George think that Howard the Duck could have worked as a live-action film remains a mystery. Seven actors in plastic-looking duck suits expend a lot of energy failing to achieve the suspension of disbelief that an animated feature (Ralph Bakshi would’ve been ideal) could have managed easily.

The movie’s plot departs from the comic in so many ways that I won’t even bother to enumerate them; none of the changes are improvements. It begins with Howard on his own world, where talking ducks are the norm. His apartment is festooned with movie posters and magazines (Rolling Egg, Breeders of the Lost Stork) that are meant to be funny alternate-universe puns but are just lame. He is whisked away to Earth, lands in an alley, and is attacked by a gang of dated-looking punkers who drag him into a club. Though he’s helpless in this scene, he somehow is able to use “quak-fu” one scene later when defending a woman from two punks.

That woman is Lea Thompson (with huge crimped hair) as Beverly Switzler, lead singer for an all-female band called Cherry Bomb, who play generic mid-’80s pop in what looks like a New Wave punk dive circa 1981. Thompson is one of two actors in the movie who actually come off well. She looks like the Bev of the comics (who was not a pop singer) and sounds like I imagine Bev sounding; she also does her own singing and isn’t half bad. Even when she has to wear a skimpy shirt and panties and mock-seduce a plastic duck head, she gives it as much conviction as she can muster. She’s such a lightweight comedian anyway that she escapes this mess without being tarnished; you can imagine her laughing it off.

Bev takes Howard to see her friend Phil, who works as a janitor in a laboratory and is played by Tim Robbins in his goofy Hudsucker Proxy mode. The movie got several genuine good laughs out of me (as opposed to bad laughs at the film’s expense), and Robbins can take credit for them all. His parodic performance is closer in spirit to Gerber’s wigged-out characters than anything else in the movie. Robbins’ presence also started me off on a mental tangent in which I envisioned Howard the Duck becoming a campy bad audience-participation movie the way his s.o. Susan Sarandon’s Rocky Horror did. Maybe to lighten up while making Dead Man Walking, they got stoned and watched Rocky Horror and Howard together.

But for the most part, this is an unspeakably bad film. I can’t decide whether Lucas intended to outdo E.T. or to parody it (there’s some manufactured poignance when Howard wants to go back to his world and Bev gets teary-eyed). Lucas’ cronies, the husband-and-wife team Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (who wrote American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), wrote the script together; Huyck directed it and Katz produced it. Obviously they read the original comics, because some of the dialogue is either directly quoted from the books or a dumbed-down variation. (When Howard is served fried eggs, he recoils and says “Do I look like a cannibal?” In the comic, he says “Do I give the impression that I’m into infanticide?” Big difference.) But they just as obviously missed the comic’s satirical flavor, opting for cheap puns, sophomoric touches like Bev finding a condom in Howard’s wallet (a detail reportedly cut from the British print), and the kind of empty pop fantasy that Gerber skewered.

The last third of Howard the Duck is an orgy of ILM effects, some of them halfway decent (Phil Tippett designed a fairly cool monster for the climax), some as cheesy as the duck suits. Jeffrey Jones (the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) turns up as a scientist who is possessed by a “Dark Overlord” after a botched experiment with a laser that was responsible for bringing Howard to Earth in the first place …. As you can see, the script gets sidetracked into routine pulp “thrills,” the effects take over, and the whole embarrassment ends with Howard joining Bev onstage for a rousing rendition of the movie’s title song — one of several cringe-worthy tunes written for the film by Thomas Dolby, of all people. Perhaps a Dark Overlord possessed him.


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