Sunday 27 August 2017


Directed by Tobe Hooper, Starring: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow. Horror, US, 1986, 101mins, Cert 18.

“The saw is family!”

Belatedly following up his seminal 1974 original, Tobe Hooper completed the third of his three-picture deal with Cannon Films in 1986 by delivering a (very) 80’s sequel. Eschewing the gritty grind house aesthetic of the original, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (TCM2) is very much a glossier product of it time, with yuppie Reagan-era politics now being satirised, a distinctly generic-sounding electronic horror-film soundtrack replacing the disconcerting farmyard cacophonic soundscape of TCM , and a generous ladleful of 80’s gore effects from Tom Savini. 

After inadvertently recording the buzz saw deaths of 2 affluent rich kids on her live phone in request show, DJ ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams) comes to the attention of the Sawyer family, and patriarch Drayton Sawyer (a much welcomed returning Jim Siedow) sends ‘Leatherface’ (Bill Johnson/Bob Elmore ) and brother ‘Chop-Top’ (Bill Moseley) to her radio station to chainsaw her broadcasting forever. Meanwhile, a revenge-hungry Stetson sporting former Texas Ranger, Lieutenant Boude "Lefty" Enright (a deranged Dennis Hopper), the uncle of Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother Franklin from the original TCM, is closing in on the Sawyer family, and he’s packing a veritable arsenal of chainsaws himself...

Understandably, no other director was willing to take on the unenviable task of helming a sequel to Tobe Hooper’s classic, so producer Hooper eventually took up the directorial reins himself. Sagely realising that he couldn’t capture lightning in a bottle twice, Hooper turned up the humour dial to ‘11’, and (miraculously, given the shooting deadline) delivered to Cannon Film’s Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus a film that censors both in the US and the UK collectively failed to appreciate the dark humour amidst the gore. Faced with an ‘X’ rating, Cannon released the film unrated (commendably intact for sure, but thereby hampered with both promotion and theatrical distribution). In the UK, the film never made it to initial release after the BBFC procrastinated over it for so long the distributor gave up the ghost. (It was eventually passed uncut on home video in July 2001!) Therefore, myself and fellow UK gore hounds had to resort to inferior 2nd generation video versions transposed from NTSC copies whose wobbly tracking and diluted colour palette didn’t help ones appreciation of the film one little bit.

Viewing it again through the rose-tinted luxury of Arrow Films HD transfer (supervised by Director of Photography Richard Kooris), there is much to admire about Hooper’s revised garishly gory cartoonish revision of the Sawyer family’s cannibalistic chain sawing exploits. 

Bill Moseley’s deliciously grotesque Vietnam vet Chop-Top (the brother of the original hitchhiker ‘Nubbins’) constantly ‘hot-wiring’ his skull along a fissure in his metal head plate with the heated end of a coat hanger - whilst spitting out eminently quotable sound bites such as ‘Dog will hunt!” - is so memorable he often threatens to upstage Leatherface himself. Largely essayed by stuntman Bob Elmore after Bill Johnson struggled to convincingly wield the chainsaw, Leatherface is no longer a squealing lipstick/apron adorned maternal distortion, but sporting a newly stitched Tom Savini skin mask, he develops a sickly comical ‘beauty and the beast’ attraction toward plucky DJ ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams, so striking in her ultra short denim hot pants). His courting methods however leave a lot to be desired, firstly (in an obviously censor-baiting move) phallically caressing her splayed inner thighs with his chainsaw (impotently, but thankfully unable to start the saw as it approaches her crotch), and later, ‘romantically’ presenting her with the freshly skinned face of her radio station soundman as if it was a corsage for a high school prom date!   

The Sawyer’s vast underground labyrinthine lair, set within the grounds of an abandoned theme park, resplendent with garish fairy lights and nicely poignant touches such as Franklin’s corpse and wheelchair, afford Hooper with the scope to dolly the camera right back during the restaged ‘dinner scene’, and to afford Caroline Williams with plenty of crumbling ghost train-like tunnelling to run from Leatherface.

Dennis Hopper’s bizarre turn as ‘Lefty’ culminates in a chainsaw duel atop the Sawyer’s dinner table which gives Tom Savini an opportunity to pull off another of his gory magic tricks following on from head-slicing and skinning mayhem. (There was also a sequence in an underground car park, cut by Hooper himself for pacing, which presented further opportunities for Leatherface to connect saw to flesh and bone and to demonstrate Savini’s penchant for inventive slaughter. This outtake is included in the extras, albeit in low-res VHS quality).

Part of the initial resistance to TCM2 was the absence of the original Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and the obvious transition to upfront humour and social satire at the expense of the unrelenting visceral terrorisation of its predecessor. But time has been kind to TCM2, and thanks to Arrow’s glorious Blu-ray, it’s a whole lot easier to appreciate Hooper’s vision for his sequel, and to, perhaps belatedly, feel the buzz.  

****(out of 5*)

Paul Worts

 (Originally published by FrightFest) 

Tuesday 15 August 2017

A DARK SONG (2016)

Directed by Liam Gavin, Starring: Catherine Walker, Steve Oram. Horror, Ireland, 2016, 100mins, Cert 15.

“...this is real stuff we’re playing with: real angels, real demons”   
Three years after the murder of her 7 year old son, Sophia (Catherine Walker) enlists the services of an initially reluctant occultist, Solomon (Steve Oram) to conduct an all-consuming black magic ritual to summon her guardian angel. At first, Sophia makes out her reason is for unreciprocated romantic love, but when Solomon refuses (despite being offered £80K) for what he perceives as such a pitifully unworthy reason: “Abramelin procedure just to force love. It’s like getting Titian to decorate a cake”, Sophia opens up to explain about her son and tells Solomon it’s actually to hear her dead son’s voice again. This changes his mind, but firstly he asks Sophia to reassure him that this now is the truth: “as it’s important” and not being completely honest could have consequences for both of them.

Director/writer Liam Gavin’s debut feature is a powerful assured two-hander set mainly within the echoed corridors and sparsely furnished bare wood floor rooms of an isolated manor house. It chronicles an almost forensically detailed depiction of arcane preparation and practice - far removed from the usual throwaway mainstream montage depictions of Ouija boards or séance clichés - and is all the more compelling as a result. 

To this end, it is immeasurably assisted by the abrasive matter-of-factness of Steve (SIGHTSEERS) Oram’s acerbic occultist Solomon, a character almost lifted straight out of a Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama. Solomon is spiteful, condescending and viscously cruel at times, so you’d therefore imagine intensely dislikeable. However, writer/director Gavin sprinkles occasional hints of kindness and compassion on the character to occasionally dilute his often downright unpleasantness, and Oram brings out the subtleties and seemingly contradictory actions with an unfussy convincing efficiency. 
Catherine Walker (Sophia) is superb as the grief and guilt-ridden mother who has had enough of counselling and her younger sister’s unwanted interventions and steels herself for what will prove to be six months of hellish endurance. Sophia’s arc is integral to the film, and Walker provides subtle nuance in essaying a character also seemingly hard to warm to, and her fully committed performance, often enduring arduous tests and physical challenges ultimately rewards. 
The supernatural elements of the story are initially introduced with delicate visual touches, and the build-up is assuredly measured (perhaps too measured for some viewers?). As events begin to take on a darker tone in the final third, it is telling that both players and their director have guided you to this point and have earned your investment in their characters, thereby enhancing the impact of their respective fates. 

The conclusion is, I respectfully suggest, bold and audaciously risky on one hand, yet on the other, it also has the potential to induce WTF-like giggles as much as it does genuine wonderment. To me it makes perfect sense, and demonstrates that the director has played it straight right from the off, but against a backdrop of mainstream supernatural horror, an uplifting spiritual dénouement is an acquired taste for audiences used to being fed a diet of final jump scares often heralding the next sequel in a franchise. 

This is a slow burn black candle of a film, but one I’m happy to wax lyrical about.

****(OUT OF 5*)

Paul Worts
First published on the FrightFest