In 1974, director Tobe Hooper released The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a nightmarish and intense horror film about a family of murderous cannibals that, with a budget of less than $100,000, raked in over $30 million in the U.S. alone and now stands high on almost any list of the all-time great horror films. Despite the film’s reputation (and title) its on-screen violence is actually quite mild – the makers had hoped to secure a PG rating – with the very effective result of leaving the more brutal aspects of the film’s violence to the viewer’s imagination. Hooper has long insisted that the film is a dark comedy, but because of the harrowing intensity that ended up earning it an R rating it can be hard for some viewers to laugh – except maybe as a release of tension. The success of the film lead Hooper and his co-screenwriter to start thinking up a sequel, but it kept getting back-burnered, shelved, and otherwise delayed until Hooper scrapped his initial sequel idea, connected with the producers of the notorious Cannon Films, and brought on a new screenwriter to create The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
For some reason, this film is decidedly less well-liked by most than the original. Not me though. Situated right in the middle of the 80s as the slasher (and sequel) era was giving way to some great horror-comedy (Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, etc.) and featuring a promotional poster that mocked the then-hot film The Breakfast Club and bore the tagline “After a decade of silence… the buzzz is back,” the sequel seemed poised to be a worthy box office draw honoring the original classic. Add to this that it also utilized the talents of screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson (star of the 60s underground hit David Holman’s Diary, writer/director of the Dennis Hopper semi-documentary The American Dreamer, and writer of 1984’s Paris, Texas) and brought original director Tobe Hooper back into the fold along with actor Jim Siedow (reprising his role of The Cook from the original film). Carson took the comedic subtext of Hooper’s earlier film into something that openly satirized things that Hooper had been implicitly referring to – the Vietnam War (and now, its aftermath), The Cook ranting about how hard the competition is in capitalism for a working class chef, and so forth. Both are subtext in the 1974 film but very much on the surface here. And where the performances of the original strove for documentary-like realism, here the murderous family (plus Dennis Hopper as the avenging angel Lefty) are portrayed as over-the-top, seemingly designed solely to bring chuckles – or at least incredulity – throughout. And then there’s the blood – lots of it. This being the 80s, Hooper enlisted special effects master Tom Savini to provide the requisite amount of gore for the film (in addition to subtler work, like the aged face of the 137 year-old Grandpa), distributed in an equally over-the-top show to match the unhinged performances on tap.
And yet – even with its decidedly unrealistic tones, even with its over-the-top gore, even with its satirical flair, the film manages to be nearly as unnerving as the original. And that’s mainly due to our central character, the radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams in a mostly thankless role). She’s a late-night DJ who unwittingly overhears a murder by the family and is subsequently stalked by them. Her down-to-earth performance grounds the film from flying off into becoming the “geek show” that Roger Ebert (who hated it) saw in it. When she’s in danger, we’re scared. When a couple of the family members visit her at the radio station, it’s terrifyingly creepy. As the film progresses and she tracks the family to their underground lair it becomes something of an amped up remake of the first film’s climactic scenes (and a flash forward to Rob Zombie’s far less effective homage, House of 1000 Corpses), in which she’s imprisoned, tormented, and tries to escape while pursued by the chainsaw wielding killer Leatherface and his deranged brother. It’s easy to laugh it off if you want, but if you let it the film gets under your skin and becomes nearly as effective as the blunt nightmare of the original film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was plagued with issues during its creation – money to make the film ebbed and flowed with the fortunes of producers Golan and Globus of Cannon Films (a low-budget studio that’s the subject of the entertaining documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films). Hooper delivered a film he figured was in line with the violence quotient of the day but was slapped with an X by the ratings board, choosing to release the film unrated which lead to its distribution being severely hampered in the process. So in the same year that the utterly mediocre Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI managed to draw nearly 20 million out of the pockets of filmgoers, this one – with intelligent (if not exactly artistic) ambitions – barely scraped out enough to make its budget back and make a few extra bucks. Dennis Hopper – right then in the middle of a run of films that included an Academy Award nomination for Hoosiers and other honors for his role in Blue Velvet – is alleged to have said that this was the worst film he’d ever been in. By contrast, Bill Moseley, who had the role of Leatherface’s brother Chop-Top, has named the role as his favorite of his own. I’m definitely in Moseley’s camp – not only does he turn in a truly effective performance, the film as a whole finds the perfect pitch of dark humor and nightmarish terror and stands as one of the highlights of 1980s horror/comedies.
- Patrick Brown