1980s films, 31 Days of Halloween, abandoned amusement park, auteur theory, Bill Johnson, Bill Moseley, black comedies, cannibals, Caroline Williams, Chop-Top, cinema, Dennis Hopper, Drayton Sawyer, dysfunctional family, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, horror, horror franchises, horror movies, horror-comedies, Jim Siedow, Ken Evert, Leatherface, Lou Perryman, Movies, radio DJs, roadside chili, sequels, Texas, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Texas Ranger, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper
As a general rule, there are two ways to approach sequels: filmmakers can take the “more of what they liked” approach and…well…give their audiences more of what they liked the first time. On the other hand, sequels can be conceived as continuing segments of an interconnected story (ala Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy). The problem with the first method is pretty obvious: the more photocopying you do, the worse the reproductions become. If “Film X” was good, more of the same (Film X #2) should (theoretically) be just as good: if Film X #36 is just the same as the previous 35 editions, however, what’s the point? Despite how much you much may have enjoyed a particular film, would you really want to see the same basic movie all over again with minor tweaks? This, of course, becomes a bit of a moot point for anyone who grew up on ’80s slasher films: despite the fact that very few of these films were directly related, almost all of them managed to seem like generic sequels/copies of the others…call it guilt by association.
The flip side to that argument, however, is what I like to call the “Peter Jackson argument”: does every film need to be split into three equal parts? Trilogies have a long history within the film world but how many legitimate sequels are really necessary? Even something like the Hatchet series, which manages to keep a central narrative thread running through all three (at this point) entries begs the ever-important question: how much do we really need to know about a maniacal killer? There’s a tendency to want to do lots of “world building” in modern films, expanding simple ideas into full-blown mythos that rival the likes of anything Lovecraft or King could imagine: the idea behind this seems to be that “one and done” films miss a ton of marketing/box office potential…what good producer wants to be responsible for passing up all those easy ducats?
By taking one look at the above poster-art for Tobe Hooper’s direct sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), it should be pretty easy to see that neither direction really appealed to the horror auteur. While the original 1974 film was a lean, mean, claustrophobic and ultra-low budget chiller about a group of friends being summarily ground up by a rampaging family of Texas cannibals, the poster for the late-’80s sequel directly references the previous years The Breakfast Club (1985) (Leatherface as Judd Nelson? Talk about inspired casting!). What gives? A majority of film-goers and horror fans seemed to cry foul at the film, citing its tongue-in-cheek vibe, heavy-duty ’80sisms and dearth of legitimately sweaty scares as reasons to confine the film to the dustbins of history. Is TCM 2 really that bad? Was it the beginning of the end for the fledgling TCM franchise in the same way that the horrendously lame Hellraiser 3 (1992) should have killed off that series? Absolutely not. In fact, at least as far as my humble little opinion goes, I daresay that not only is Hooper’s sequel a fantastic film, in its own right, it’s a more than worthy followup to its iconic forefather. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, naysayers!
My main problem with sequels is the inherent wheelspinning involved: not only do sequels inevitably rehash some of the same setpieces/beats from previous entries but they often, by necessity, need to rehash the same plot points (as audience refreshers, if nothing else). In a way, it’s like a champion mountain climber continuously conquering the same craggy peak: the first time you do it, there’s a genuine sense of accomplishment and wonder. The tenth time you do it, however, it probably feels an awful lot like clocking in for a day at the office. Since the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was already one of the most notorious, intense and unrelenting films around, how could the filmmakers possibly top it without resorting to completely over-the-top overkill? There is, literally, no way to strip the narrative down any further than the original: the film is already primal enough as it is. Faced with the prospect of making a pale imitation of an accepted classic, however, Hooper took the unexpected turn of making the exact opposite kind of film: rather than stripped-down, drab and serious, Hooper made the follow-up loud, brash, rude, colorful and kind of goofy. More of the same? Not on your life, buddy!
A similar text-crawl to the first film reminds us of the situation behind the original and informs us that the current narrative takes place 12 years later…bringing us, of course, square into the magical ’80s. The action kicks off when a couple of shitty high school guys dick around with the wrong sinister black truck and end up pissing off the Sawyers. As Leatherface (Bill Johnson) is standing atop a moving vehicle, chainsawing one asshat’s head in half, diagonally, the other one is on the phone to a call-in radio show. The soon-to-be ex-douchebags happen to be on the air with DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) at the time and the intrepid DJ ends up recording the incident. Enter former Texas Ranger Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper, chewing up scenery and spitting out hot rivets like a Warner Bros. cartoon), who just so happens to be Sally and Franklin Hardesty’s uncle. Sally, we’ll remember, was the original film’s Final Girl and sole survivor, while poor Franklin was the mopey, wheelchair-bound guy who got gutted by a rampaging chainsaw. Seems that Lefty has spent the past 12 years tracking down their killers and, after examining the “accident scene,” has determined that the chainsaw-wielding cannibals are up to their old tricks again. We know that Lefty is right, of course, since we’ve previously gotten a look at a familiar face: Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), the insane cook from the original film, is back as a highly respected member of the local business community and frequent winner of the chili cookoff: “The secret’s in the meat,” he smirks, and we know he ain’t lyin’.
Lefty convinces Stretch to play the tape on the air, despite the protests of her second-in-command/not-in-this-lifetime-suitor L.G. (Lou Perry): Lefty’s plan to draw out the Sawyers is successful, since Stretch ends up with a couple of late-night visitors at the radio station: Leatherface and Chop Top (Bill Moseley). When Lefty is late to protect her, Stretch ends up having to fend off the killers on her own. During their interaction, however, it appears that Leatherface has taken a shine to her…at least, if his grunting, pelvic-thrusting and phallic chainsaw movements are anything to go by. When L.G. returns from a coffee run, he gets unceremoniously pummeled by insane Vietnam vet Chop Top (“Incoming mail!,” he shrieks, splatting L.G.’s noggin into paste in the process) and dragged off to the Sawyer’s secret underground lair (handily located beneath an abandoned amusement park, natch). Like any faithful friend would do, Stretch follows after him, rescue on her mind. For his part, Lefty heads to the amusement park, as well, albeit for a slightly different reason: he’s packing multiple chainsaws and fully intends to smite the heathen Sawyers with a combination of God’s wrath and a little good, old-fashioned extreme bloodshed. As Lefty runs around, sawing support beams in half and attempting to, literally, bring down the house, Stretch must sneak into the proverbial lion’s den and save her friend…or whatever’s left of him. In the process, Stretch will need to become what she struggles against: Hell, truly, hath no fury like a DJ scorned. In the unforgettable words of the original: who will survive…and what will be left of them?
There are a few very important things to keep in mind while watching TCM 2. First of all, the film is just about as different from the first film as possible, despite the fact that both were directed and conceived by Hooper. As mentioned above, the original TCM is almost like a photo-negative of the ultra-colorful sequel. Secondly, the film does function as a direct sequel, even if some of the specifics and timeline events get a little screwy. Drayton, for the most part, is a direct continuation from the first, as is Leatherface (albeit in much more of a “horny teenager” mode here) and Grandpa (Ken Evert). Chop Top, however, is a new construct, although he serves a similar function to Edwin Neal’s hitchhiker in the original. Since Chop Top was never mentioned in the original film, whereas the hitchhiker is never mentioned in the sequel, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that it’s supposed to be the same fellow (how he survived the Black Maria running over his skull at the climax to the original is a good question, although his metal head plate actually seems to answer this pretty tidily, numerous references to Vietnam notwithstanding). This is all just a long-winded way of saying that TCM 1 and 2 actually fit together pretty well, drastic difference in tone aside. It’s not a perfect fit, mind you, but there’s more of a sense of continuity between these two film than in many more “legitimate” sequel situations.
The third and most important thing to know about TCM 2 is that the film is an absolute blast, almost the complete antithesis to the original’s unrelenting tension. In certain ways, the sequel serves as a sly commentary on the original film: people thought they saw more blood in the original than they did, so Hopper drowned the sequel in outrageously gory setpieces. The original film had a modest, claustrophobic feel, so the sequel feels expansive and expensive. The original was so serious that any attempt at humor felt less like gallow’s humor and more like the rope: the sequel has one goofy setpiece after another (my absolute favorite being the one where Leatherface accidentally chainsaw’s Chop Top’s head, destroying his favorite hairpiece in the process: “You ruined my Sonny Bono wig, you bitch hog!”
Indeed, TCM 2 ends up being a perfect combination of Hooper’s harrowing aesthetic from the first film and the over-the-top atmosphere of most ’80s horror films: everything is blown up to ludicrous proportions here. One of the best examples of this notion in practice is the difference between the Sawyers’ lairs: the farmhouse from the first film will forever stand as a feverish nightmare, while the abandoned amusement park set from the sequel is an eye-popping, Christmas-light-bedecked marvel. For Pete’s sake: TCM 2’s lair features a skeleton riding a bomb, ala Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove (1964): it really doesn’t get cooler than that, folks.
Whereas the first film made subtle references to the tide of modernization being responsible for the Sawyers’ situation, the sequel is much more explicit about this. In a film filled with plenty of delicious irony, one of the neatest tidbits is the notion that one of the cities biggest pillars of industry, Drayton Sawyer, is actually the insane head of a secret cannibal family: those damned capitalists! There’s also plenty of rich material evident in things like Chop Top’s plans for his own amusement park (“I’ll call it…NamLand!”) and scenes like the one where Lefty tries to use a disembodied skeleton arm to lift Stretch from a trapdoor, only to have the arm break off at the wrist and send her tumbling down. For all of its sustained carnage, TCM 2 is actually a very funny film.
Which is not, course, to say that it isn’t also 100% a horror film. The opening setpiece, featuring Leatherface riding a moving truck while “wearing” a corpse like a costume, as Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever,” plays on the soundtrack is a real showstopper, as is the bit where he comes rampaging out of a pitch black room. There’s one scene involving skinning a body that’s more extreme than anything hinted at in the first and Chop Top’s pursuit of Stretch through the compound and up to a hidden aerie is alternately thrilling and nail-biting.
While the film is much more over-the-top than the first, no of the acting manages to seem out-of-place. In particular, Moseley does a career-defining turn as the crazed war vet: the scene where he uses a hanger to scratch the flaking skin on his head, before eating it, is by turns repulsive and awe-inspiring. There’s never a point where Moseley appears to be acting: rather, it seems like they recruited the role from a local loony bin, which is the highest compliment I can pay something attempting to portray “pathologically crazy.”
Truth be told, I unabashedly love The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It may not have the same sweaty relevance as the original film but it’s exceptionally well-made, features tons of great practical effects, some stellar villains and amazing set-pieces galore. If there are some elements that fall completely flat (Leatherface newfound sexual interest in Stretch is awkward and never explored to any reasonable measure, although it does although Moseley to prance around shouting, “Bubba’s got a girlfriend…Bubba’s got a girlfriend!” at one point), there are countless other elements that hit the bullseye. I can only assume that folks don’t like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 because it’s so tonally different from the first one. In my mind, however, that’s one of the film’s biggest charms: Hooper could have gone “cookie-cutter” but he went outside the mold and I think we’re all the richer for it.
Even though the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise would sputter to a finish with a couple lame sequels and a 2000-era reboot, nothing could ever tarnish the undiluted majesty of the first two films. The original film is and always will be one of my favorite movies: depending on my mood, the second one is, too. If you consider yourself a fan of the first film but have avoided the second like the plague, do yourself a favor: hold your nose, if you have to, but dive right in. I’m more than willing to wager that you’ll come to love it, too, as long as you keep an open mind. Proving that there’s always an exception to the rule, Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is almost as strong, although in completely different ways, from the first film. Besides, how could you possibly pass up a chance to watch Dennis Hopper have a chainsaw duel with Leatherface? The answer, obviously, is that you can’t.