Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: Dennis Hopper (Lieutenant ‘Lefty’ Enright), Caroline Williams (Vanita ‘Stretch’ Brock), Jim Siedow (Drayton Sawyer), Bill Moseley (‘Chop-Top’), Bill Johnson (Leatherface).
Genre: Horror / Comedy
As Halloween approaches, I veer back toward the genre I have a soft spot for; horror. Realising I haven’t added many new additions to my Why I Love… series lately, it felt like a good time to pick an underdog from the genre to shed some affection for. Having recently acquired Arrow Video’s luxurious 3 disc special edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 it seemed like the perfect candidate, especially as, in this genre, sequels don’t always draw as much attention as the milestones that often birth them. Often for good reason.
First of all, let’s get one thing clear; Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original is a terrifying masterpiece, and was in strong contention for a place in this series. But I have a love/hate relationship with that movie. As much as I watch a lot of horror, it is one of the few films to have genuinely terrorised me, so visceral is its impact. The film breathes evil, despite relatively little gore. It’s a thick atmosphere present from the very get-go. A lean, merciless piece of filmmaking, oddly beautiful in its sparse, punishing ugliness.
There have been many sequels and reboots since, featuring bizarre early appearances from the likes of Viggo Mortensen and Matthew McConaughey, but they’re mostly a sorry lot (though I have a guilty fondness for the recent Texas Chainsaw 3D – not a popular opinion by any means, but I enjoyed it’s sheer trashy cliché-ridden naffness). Yet it’s Hooper’s own belated sequel which deserves the most praise, for daring to follow-up one of the most notorious horrors ever made by taking the only viable option available… going crazier.
You get a sense of the high-pitched hysteria of TCM2 from the outset. The opening narration, when contrasted to the sombre original, is more urgent, even ever-so-slightly campy, then while the blood-red credits pay, Hooper and Jerry Lambert’s sea-sawing main title theme assaults you like some relentless carnival hurdy-gurdy. There’s a level of mania from the off, keying us into this movie’s very different tone.
Hooper’s original was very much about the era it appeared in, depicting an American wounded by Vietnam, paranoid and fearful (indeed there are stories documented elsewhere that make a good case for the whole movie as a microcosm for the country’s pressing troubles). By 1986 the cultural zeitgeist had moved on. A different approach was required. Here we open with a couple of loathsome, prank-calling yuppies careering through Texas. Their lack of respect and their constant giggling doesn’t evoke our sympathy and nor is it intended to. Last time we were on the side of the poor lost kids; this time we’re encouraged to root for Leatherface and the Sawyer family. When these yuppies get attacked on the road, we’re provoked to shameless sadism. “Yes!” we cry, “They got them!” This would never have happened in the first film.
Things progress into further transgressive territories. Dreyton Sawyer has become a successful businessman (reflecting how TCM itself has mutated into a commodity), yet he is still head of America’s most deranged family. In part this reflected Hooper’s own nervousness at making an ‘attractive’ product out of his own nightmare. Not only that, but their prior backwater farmhouse has been replaced with a delirious fairground attraction. Hooper openly invites us to reflect on what we’re paying to see. What we want is a consequence-free thrill ride. He’s happy to give us one, but not without asking us to pause and consider what it is we’re asking for.
Nevertheless, TCM2 isn’t out to just punish its audience (though there is an exhaustive element to watching this fever-pitched movie). It is far and away more entertaining than it’s predecessor. Video nasties and gore fans had changed the nature of horror. Subtlety was out. Hooper was as instrumental in this as many of his imitators. If the competition were biting at his heels he wasn’t about to lay down and let them take over.
As such TCM2 is positively hysterical, both in terms of being extremely funny (in a morbid way, granted), absurdly quotable (“Lick my plate, you dog dick!”) and utterly, utterly over-the-top. By the end, our triumphant last girl Vanita ‘Stretch’ Brock is waving a chainsaw herself, lost in madness atop a monument to sleaze and decline. It’s reminiscent of the self-congratulatory engorgement that ends a lot of Russ Meyer flicks. TCM2 is an exploitation picture. Our sick expectations are Hooper’s fair game.
A boon to all of this is Dennis Hopper in the lead role of Lt. ‘Lefty’ Enright. Hooper, fresh off of Blue Velvet unleashes as much if not more manic bile here than he did as Frank Booth for David Lynch. He is a force of nature; a caricature of himself. Not just larger than life but absolutely gigantic, wielding twin chainsaws in holsters like Clint Eastwood, fencing with Leatherface, and even skewering the franchise’s iconic beastie. If the lunacy that ‘Stretch’ encounters at the hands of the Sawyers isn’t enough, Hooper is there to add fuel to the fire. You’re not sure whose company is more lethal.
TCM2 reaches a crescendo about halfway through, but then dares to simply extend this insane shriek for the remainder of the running time. The film’s second half is a syrupy collision of scene after scene of weirdness, kept alive by the astonishing gonzo performances. Bill Moseley’s ‘Chop-Top’ is immeasurably entertaining, cavorting around the family’s fairylight-strewn hell hole with abundant glee (even proposing his own new attraction; ‘Nam-Land). Jim Siedow’s Dreyton charms as their grotesque father-figure. Caroline Williams’ ‘Stretch’, meanwhile, out-screams any and all scream-queens clambering for her mantle (this is not a film to watch with a headache). If anything, Leatherface is almost left in the shade by the riotous company he keeps, reduced to a mute, sexually-arrested caricature of his previous menace.
The film’s unseen stars, however, are production designer Cary White and set designer Michael Peal. Go through the last half hour of this movie with a fine-tooth comb and check out every prop and decoration in the Sawyers’ cavernous lair. Every stick of furniture, every element of their batshit-crazy base of operations is a goldmine of detail. All utterly grotesque. All entirely appropriate. Hooper films it with reverence, elasticating shots, expanding outward (especially this film’s token ‘dining room)’. There’re few comparable design spectacles in 80’s horror.
It all amounts to a film just as overwhelming as it’s predecessor, but in an entirely different way. I’m not surprised it’s still not quite embraced the way it could (and should) be. Part of the assault this time is the challenge of its crazy tone. On first viewing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is simply overwhelming and therefore a total success. Live through it, adjust to it, and then go back to it. It’s a celebration and damnation of 80’s excess. Fiendishly enjoyable if you’ve got the stamina for it. Watching Hooper’s sequel is like running a gauntlet. Are you crazy enough for it?
For the poster art, the cast sit in a mock-up that openly invites comparison to The Breakfast Club. This is your culture, it says. This is what you want. Be careful what you wish for.