Monday, October 3, 2016

Movies I Love: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

by Patrick Bromley
The saw is family.

Sooner or later, I'm guessing I'll get around to writing about every single one of Tobe Hooper's movies on the site. This is because a) I love him and b) it makes me happy to talk about his work. It's not always great, but it's almost always interesting and too often ignored by horror fans who wrote him off back in 1982 after deciding he didn't direct Poltergeist. While The Funhouse remains my favorite Tobe Hooper movie, his 1986 sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is a very close second and is the movie that, more than anything else he ever directed, best expresses who Tobe Hooper is as a filmmaker and what makes him so special.

After the Poltergeist controversy of the early '80s, Hooper had a bit of a stink on him as far as Hollywood was concerned. Lucky for us, Meneham Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Films didn't give a shit about that -- they wanted a big-name director that they could sign to a multi-picture deal to raise the profile of their company and hopefully deliver some hits. This is how Tobe Hooper ended up making three movies at Cannon -- later dubbed his Cocaine Trilogy (by me) -- in the mid-'80s and we finally got a follow up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hooper's deal was that he would be given a multi-picture deal (which also included Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars) and could make anything he wanted so long as one of the three was a sequel to his original horror classic, though where Golan and Globus might have gone wrong -- box office-wise, at least -- is that they never specified how Hooper should make the sequel. There's no way they could have predicted what he came up with.
Thirteen years after the events of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, former Texas Ranger “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper) is still investigating the disappearance of his niece and nephew, Sally and Franklin (characters from the first movie). He crosses paths with Texas DJ "Stretch" Brock (Caroline Williams, one of the all-time great final girls), who is broadcasting one night when two obnoxious college students call in and appear to be murdered on air by someone wielding a chainsaw. Yes, Leatherface and his family are up to their old tricks—and by "tricks" I mean brutally killing people, cutting them up, and eventually turning them into award-winning chili. To cover their tracks, Leatherface and his brother Chop-Top (Bill Moseley in the role that made him a genre star) show up at the radio station and terrorize Stretch, leading to an underground confrontation between the Sawyer family, Stretch, and Lefty, who is still hellbent on vengeance.

Between the level of gore and the cartoonishly comedic tone, it's easy to understand why The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was so disliked upon its release in 1986. While there have been horror sequels that depart from their predecessors dating all the way back to when James Whale turned The Bride of Frankenstein into a dark comedy, there is possibly no bigger shift between two horror movies in the same franchise than between the first movie and Texas Chainsaw 2. But it's precisely the differences from the original Texas Chain Saw that make it brilliant. The first film is a classic. Was anyone really going to improve on that? The best Hooper and company could have hoped for was "almost as good," and that wasn't going to work. So they went nuts and created a nightmarish mix of horror and comedy, satirizing ’80s horror conventions and Reagan-era politics. Holding them up against one another is like comparing Night of the Living Dead with Dawn of the Dead. The movies are different because they have different goals, but each is successful on its own terms.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is unlike any other horror sequel ever made. Hooper's original is a sweaty, claustrophobic masterpiece that’s terrifying specifically because of its documentary-like immediacy. It doesn't feel so much like a movie as it does some horrible thing that someone accidentally caught on camera, a quality that gives it a sense of danger. The sequel, also directed by Hooper and written by L.M. Kit Carson (screenwriter of Paris, Texas), goes off in a very different direction. It's more black comedy than horror. As a product of the ’80s, the movie really cranks up the gore. For all the claims about how violent the first movie is, there is very little on-screen bloodshed; not true of the sequel, which has effects by Tom Savini and is so violent that it had to be released as “unrated" or be slapped with the stigma of an X rating. We see the top of a skull sheared off with a chainsaw. We see a man skinned alive, his face peeled off an applied to another character. At one point, a hole is made in a wall and a literal stream of blood and viscera comes spewing out of the opening. The gore flows freely in Part 2. Seen today, though, it's not any more gory than most contemporary horror films given an R rating. It's just that the tone of the movie makes the violence much more uncomfortable because it's taking place within the context of a scene that's simultaneously comic and horrifying, garishly photographed and shrill. Having already destroyed our nerves in the original Chain Saw, Hooper opts to attack all of our other senses in Part 2.

The first Chainsaw was, like a lot of post-Vietnam horror films of the 1970s, was about a family pushed to the fringes of society, marginalized by economics and technological progress -- they were left behind by a world that no longer had any use for them. Hooper and Carson's screenplay for Part 2 finds the Sawyers not only rejoining that society, but conquering it. The Sawyers play the Reagan game better than rest, laying waste to yuppie America (as seen in the opening sequence) and then literally feeding them back to themselves for a profit. While the Sawyers are still revealed to be hidden away in an underground layer, patriarch Drayton (a returning Jim Siedow, in a performance that feels less like acting and more like brilliant casting of an actual guy) easily blends in and walks among the rest of society. I love the way Hooper changes up that dynamic for the sequel; whereas the first movie was about a group of people who stumbled on a house where they didn't belong, Part 2 sends the Sawyers out into the world as the aggressors. They can no longer be avoided just by minding our own business. Once cast aside, these cannibalistic chickens have come home to roost in the name of capitalism. Ah, the '80s.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 really is like a nightmare, even when it's being funny. Think of the super long sequence in which Chop Top first confronts Stretch at the radio station. He's weird and he's creepy, dressed like someone's Halloween costume idea of a hippie and constantly digging under his metal plate with a coat hanger. The performance is so strange and so broad that we can't help but laugh, yet at the same time uneasily sense that the character poses a legitimate threat. That then gives way to one my all-time favorite jump scares as Leatherface comes exploding out of a darkened doorway, chainsaw buzzing in all its violent fury. This is the magic of Texas Chainsaw 2: it never lets you settle into a groove, never lets you get comfortable. Another scene finds Stretch begging Leatherface -- who, it is established, is sexually attracted to her (I'm guessing this has something to do with her jean shorts, which should have won a goddamn Oscar for Best Costume Design) -- to help her hide from the rest of the family. His solution is to place the face skin of her murdered engineer L.G. (Lou Perry) over her own. Why this is his plan I cannot say, but there is something very funny about following the logic of a psychotic cannibal for whom this makes perfect sense. On top of that, Stretch is saying things like "It's wet," which is so gross and gallows that it's hilarious. At the same time, the whole scenario is disturbing and nightmarish. Hooper makes us laugh at things that are truly horrifying and are still being presented as such. It's a fucking magic trick.

As the movie descends into the Sawyer’s underground lair—an impressively designed set that quite literally feels like going to Hell, and yet another example of Tobe Hooper's obsession with the trope of "the bad place"— the wheels really come off but the film never stops being twisted and comedic. That's part of why it's such an uncomfortable experience, and also why it spent many years as an under-appreciated movie, only now starting to get the reputation it deserves. The comedy exists in the same moments as the horror. Most movies, even horror comedy hybrids like The Return of the Living Dead, switch between one and the other: here's a joke, here's a scare, here's a joke, here's a scare. Not TCM2. You don't get to choose between laughing and being repulsed. Both are happening simultaneously. That’s the movie's special genius.
A few words about Leatherface, as Part 2 is the movie that many of its detractors claim ruined one of the all-time scariest movie characters by turning him into a horny teenager with discipline problems. He's less of a threat here, they argue, because he can be reasoned with (sort of) and expresses wants outside of "kill them all." Yes, it's a different interpretation of the character. I'm still ok with that because Part 2 isn't as interested in visceral terror as it is in creating a family dynamic for the Sawyers and I like the way that Hooper and Carson reimagine Leatherface as a kind of King Kong figure -- a destructive beast capable of being soothed by beauty. Bill Johnson's performance under the mask is sillier and spazzier than Gunnar Hansen's, but so's the movie in which he's appearing. I like that he often moves like a kid throwing a tantrum. It's for this very reason that Part 2's iteration of Leatherface still manages to be terrifying: he is a child, completely unpredictable and, because of his size, his temperament and his enormous chainsaw, completely dangerous.

The story goes that Dennis Hopper used to claim this was the worst movie he ever made. This is a bummer for a lot of reasons, not the least of which because it suggests he forgot ever starring in Super Mario Bros. Maybe it was a very unpleasant experience to make the movie, and that informs his feelings towards it -- again, Tobe Hooper himself has admitted in later years that he had a drug problem and maybe it affected the set environment, but that's just me speculating one possible scenario and has nothing to do with anything I know to be true. It makes me sad because Hopper trash talked a movie I hold very dear. It also makes me sad because he's terrific in the movie, completely dialed into its lunatic frequency and creating a "hero" that's every bit as weird and maniacal as the villains. When he announces himself as the "lord of the harvest," he clearly means it even though I still don't know exactly what he means. As I am fond of saying, he commits to the bit.
Everyone in the movie commits to the bit. There's a reason Billy Moseley became a horror star off his work here; he creates an iconic character within his first scene. Caroline Williams is the movie's realy MVP, though, as she must first be grounded and strong -- the kind of woman who puts herself on the line to play the tapes of the Sawyers' latest murder on the air -- but by the end has completely given in to terror. What she is asked to do in the second half of the movie would be impossible for most actresses, and the way that Williams doesn't relent on the screaming and the wide-eyed horror goes a long way towards the movie's success. The entire second half of Texas Chainsaw Part 2 is legitimately batshit, but that wouldn't work if it were being experienced through the eyes of a character who reacted to the situation with measured determination, the way most horror movie final girls do. Stretch is just as strong as any final girl -- she's a fighter and a survivor -- but her reaction to everything that happens is abject terror. It's appropriate considering both her surroundings and the tone of the movie. Hooper wisely removed a subplot in which it's revealed that Lefty is Stretch's father; while there is a connection between the two of them, it's better that Lefty is avenging one family member instead of two and that he willingly uses Stretch as bait. This way, when Stretch goes crazy at the end of the movie and does her own chainsaw dance, it's not a reaction to seeing her father killed but rather an expression of her own animal strength. She can out-ugly all them sons of bitches.
I don't know exactly where The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 would fall in my list of favorite horror movies. It might make my Top 10. It would definitely make a Top 15 or 20. I think it's a truly great film and it's one that I unabashedly love in spite of how fucked up it is. I love Cary White's production design, which is cluttered and colorful and looks like a number of bad dreams I've had. This was his first movie and I don't think he's ever topped it. I love the synthesizer score, co-written by Tobe Hooper. It is spare and dissonant and perfectly captures the mood of the movie. At the same time, when people tell me they don't like the movie, I completely get it. This is a hard movie to love. That doesn't change the fact that I love it more and more every time I see it (and I've seen it a lot); as I've said before in the past, it's the rare horror sequel that I prefer even to its iconic predecessor. It represents so much of what I want out of a horror movie and does so in a package that's almost entirely rough edges -- for me, all the more reason to love it. It has an Oscar-nominated actor in a chainsaw duel. It has one of the strongest, sexiest heroes in all of horror. It has a character saying "Lick my plate, dog dick." It is the most Tobe Hooper of all Tobe Hooper's movies. Of course I love it. Oh, how I love it.


  1. Oh how I love it too. Great article Patrick. Everytime I watch this movie I love it more and more. Surprisingly I think I like it more than the first one now. It's nice to see some attention given to a very underrated horror movie.

  2. This is where my love of Caroline Williams began. I'll watch anything she does.

  3. This is why I love this site, what a piece, I also love Cocaine trilogy, patent that shit, I seem to enjoy this movie for the same reasons as you, the scene between Choptop meeting Stretch for the first time is one of my all time favourite scenes, and that coathanger, Exit, love it
    I can only dream about what Texas Chainsaw manicure would be but I'm more excited about the sequel All American Massacre that got made by Tobe's Son in 1998 I think and got stuck in Distribution hell and was never properly finished or released, Choptop could of been back

  4. I love your reviews for Tobe Hooper films, Patrick. They're always so much longer and expressive. I'm gonna be watching this tonight.

  5. Just popped it in! First time viewing it! After watching the original this morning, I'm really loving this Tobe Hooper guy's work so far. I'm already enjoying the music, digging the hottie DJ. Ok, I'll post more later, I stopped reading the article after I ran into some spoilers, so can't wait to read the rest!

  6. Holy Shit, this scene on the bridge is amazing, I can't believe I've never seen this movie!

  7. For the love of god, you weren't kidding about the chili were you Patrick?

  8. Well guys, it's only October 3rd and my month has already been made. I absolutely loved this movie! I had no idea. I'm literally high off that insane ending still. Expectations exceeded! I AM THE LORD OF THE HARVEST! Here's some notes I wrote down while watching:

    Love the lighting in first Choptop/Stretch scene, Caroline sells fear so well

    Choptop's Sonny Bono Wig lmao

    Did she just make Leatherface blow his load?

    Lefty using old bones to try and save Stretch, damn creepy imagery

    Lefty kicks in wall, intestines gush out..awesome

    Caroline's reactions to Leatherface skinning LG are perfect

    Really bringing out the humanity in the Leatherface character

    Stretch tied up so she can't take LG's face off, then LG rises to give her a hand...Tom Savini is a master! (DUH)

    Welcome to the Sawyer family butcher shop!

    Some amazing close-ups in this film, great perspective

    Boy that Lefty is kind of a dick huh?

    The Grandpa Sawyer closeups are so fucked up

    Caroline Williams in those shorts tho!

    Stretch biting Choptop's ear, top 5 final girl?

    My heart is still racing from that finale. I love that they cut to credits right after Stretch does her victory dance. THAT'S HOW YOU END A MOVIE! What more can I say that Patrick hasn't already said. My eyes have been opened to a true master of horror, Tobe Hooper. It's a great horror film and apparently very underrated. It's not like you hear about TCM2 being on a lot of top 10 horror lists, but it should be. It's better than the original. The original is great for what it is and when it was made, but I would much rather pop this TCM2 in again. There's just so much to take in and love. Can't wait to show this movie to friends and family this Halloween!

  9. Great article Patrick, I completely agree with you that Hooper performs an absolute magic trick, making us laugh at things that are nightmarish and terrifying. It's amazing how he walks that tightrope the entire film. Watching this film really makes me long for the days of old school special effects and make-up. I guess I just like the way this style of gore looks over many modern artists take on the genre.

    Thank god they didn't go with the whole, 'Lefty is Stretch's father' story, it wouldn't have worked. How can Dennis Hopper say this is the worst movie he's ever been in? Without question, Super Mario Bros. takes home that prize. How did people not enjoy this movie when it was released? I guess it's like Marty says in Back to the Future, 'I guess you guys weren't ready for that yet...but your kids are gonna love it.'

  10. I am loving this, I have been a massive fan for years but in my circle of friends noone else even knows the film, its great to see I am not alone, we all need to see All American Massacre one day

  11. I love this movie just as much as you do Patrick. I love how Choptop calls Leatherface bubba. What the fuck?