“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has not stopped. It haunts Texas. It seems to have no end.” You could switch that title for any other slasher and those last words would still hold meaning. By 1986, there had been sequels to Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which were all, for the most part, consistent franchises. Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) had preceded all those properties and stood alone from the other slashers as a truly unique experience in authentic insanity. Only the prototype slasher Norman Bates from Psycho (1960) came before ‘Leatherface’, and the studios were already daring enough to greenlight Psycho II (1983) sans Alfred Hitchcock. It seemed inevitable a return trip to Texas would occur. Luckily, the original maestro Tobe Hooper would return, but his audacious one-upmanship against Leatherface’s newfound contemporaries proved to be too crazy for some.
Hooper initially reunited with co-writer Kim Henkel for their ambitious pitch of Beyond the Valley of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, featuring an entire town of cannibals alongside Leatherface, and a returning Sally and Hitchhiker. Despite the studio asking for a follow-up to one of the most unbridled horrors in cinema, they immediately baulked at such a grand concept. The eventual film they accepted wasn’t far off in absurdity value, however.
With a narrated opening crawl, echoing the original’s prologue, one might be lulled into a sense of familiarity…. then two rowdy teenagers sporting holographic glasses and blasting Oingo Boingo music are firing a gun at ‘Remember the Alamo’ signs. They call the local disc jockey Stretch (Caroline Williams) just as they piss off the wrong passing truck, which houses a corpse-wearing, chainsaw-wielding maniac who promptly shreds the car and its passengers. All of this is broadcast live on air, which prompts Stretch to visit Lt ‘Lefty’ Enright (Dennis Hopper), who’s been nursing a grudge ever since his niece Sally survived her ordeal with Leatherface’s family 12 years ago.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 offers an entirely different tone, one which should’ve been apparent from the one-sheet poster of the Sawyer family parodying The Breakfast Club (1985). The first movie teased a real-world, before stranding us with the cast in the desolate middle of nowhere, whereas we meet our new protagonist Stretch in her element—a late-night D.J calling out into the night. More than a narrative change of pace, it seems a conscious reversal that audiences not only survived Massacre but enjoyed their trip; now the roadside attractions are invading your reality.
The once isolationist backwoods family have become local celebrities, and not for the murders! Jim Siedow returns as the wonderfully deranged Drayton Sawyer, whose humble gas station barbeque joint is winning the Texas/Oklahoma Chilli Cook-Off, even as the hosts are pulling out what looks to be a human tooth from his awarded meat. The Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) had been thoroughly crushed by a truck so his ‘Nam-obsessed brother with a metal plate in his head, Chop Top, is played by Bill Moseley—who got the role because Hooper loved his impassioned performance in parody short The Texas Chainsaw Manicure!
Much like the first film, these two siblings contest over who has the most memorable dialogue. Chop Top clinches it with “lick my plate, you dog dick!”, but out of all the characters, the mute, asexual, and feral Leatherface undergoes the most fascinating and bewildering character growth. Finally defined as a human being in his developing, yet stunted, maturity, even if it’s on par with a 14-year-old. Gunnar Hansen portrayed him with a broken psyche in the original, adopting alternate personalities with each face worn, while Hooper never lingered too long for audiences to comprehend a method behind the madness. Sadly, Hansen wouldn’t return, after being offered next to nothing in payment, but replacement Bill Johnson does an admirable job—particularly with Hooper now focusing more on his psychology. Teasing the inner thigh of Stretch with his chainsaw, Leatherface has decidedly embraced a certain identity, with all the highs and lows accompanying; every failed start of his saw becomes a winking nod that this boy is still learning how to get his tool to perform.
Acting opposite to this disturbing behaviour, Caroline Williams gives an impressive performance in both continuous terror with growing confidence in confronting the family’s abusive nature. There are potentially more screams in this one movie than they are in all the other slashers listed earlier combined! There are a number of quieter moments hidden between the riotous bombardment to the senses, however. Stretch comforts her dying friend, all while unwillingly wearing his sliced off face, and ‘Lefty’ takes a pause to mourn when discovering the skeletal remains of his nephew Franklin, still sat in his wheelchair. The less said about Hopper’s performance, the purer the initial experience will be: let’s just say his enthusiasm to star in a horror sequel was proven when celebrating his 50th birthday on-set by cutting the cake with a real chainsaw.
If TCM is an undistilled rollercoaster of emotions, then TCM2 is an exploration into why people go on rollercoasters. Like Lefty assures Stretch, “they thrive on fear… I ain’t got no fear left”. Hooper overtly addresses violence in entertainment and our natural curiosity. The family have abandoned their modest farmhouse in favour of Texas Battle Land—a dilapidated theme park celebrating US warfare of the past. Most ironic in this indulgence of depravity is when Lefty saws through the support beams of their lair threatening to “BRING IT ALL DOWN!!” when this endeavour would pave the way for franchising with sequels still in production right now. It seems to have no end.
Grossing $8M on a budget of $4.5M and proving popular on the booming home video market, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was a mixed commercial and critical success. Initially derided for ignoring the original’s verité style and minimal bloodshed, Hooper confused contemporary audiences in his experimentation. One thing that carried over was Drayton’s speechifying of Grandpa’s shame with the meat industry, something that brings an entirely new message this time around. The cold, mechanical automation of the industry could easily be related to the money-sucking franchising of horror properties that began with authentic talents like John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and Hooper. Having been scrutinized by the public who insisted the mainstream Poltergeist (1982) must have been directed by Steven Spielberg, Hooper could’ve quit just like Grandpa and let someone else grind his vision down into a pale imitation. Instead, Hooper picked up that hammer and showed the world he could still deliver a killing blow.
USA | 1986 | 101 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Tobe Hooper.
writer: L.M Kit Carson.
starring: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Bill Moseley, Jim Siedow, Bill Johnson, Lou Perryman, Chris Douridas & Ken Evert.