“You got one choice boy: sex or the saw!”
I don’t think its fair comparing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II to the 1974 original – they’re different beast’s altogether. Even though Tobe Hooper directed both, each film has its own feel. The second film is based on the original and even contains many of the same characters, but it approaches similar subject matter quite differently. Hooper’s original is disgusting, but not because of overt visual violence but because the psychological brutality the cannibalistic family inflicts on Sally, the film’s one survivor. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II isn’t nearly as torturous, instead placing gore effects in Tom Savini’s capable hands and relying on bloodshed and completely bizarre, and darkly comedic, situations. For all its grizzly violence, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II is a comedy – very dark and sadistic comedy.
The film beings about 13 years after the events of its predecessor, initially following two wealthy teenagers off to the big football game between Texas and Oklahoma. They’re drinking, shooting down road signs, and even play chicken. Amidst all this the two prank call a local rock station, which introduces the film’s female protagonists Stretch (Caroline Williams), horribly irritated by the rambunctious teens. Eventually their game of chicken causes their demise at Leatherface’s hands. The next day Lefty (Dennis Hopper) arrives at the crime scene, instigating a further investigation. Hopper’s the uncle of Sally and Franklin from the original and obsessed with finding the chainsaw murderers. When Stretch approaches Lefty about an audio recording she has of the most recent murder he uses he as bait – forcing her to play it on the radio – for Leatherface and company. The result is a ridiculous chainsaw horror-comedy featuring a masturbating Leatherface, a zealous Dennis Hopper with a chainsaw, and Bill Moseley as Chop-Top.
Unlike the first film the dynamic between the family is hilarious and completely strange. Moseley’s performance as the shell-shocked, psychopathic Chop-Top really steals the show. He first appears wearing a “Sonny Bono wig” and hippy clothing, carrying a bent coat hanger and a lighter which he uses to eat his own flesh. He heats the hanger, scratches at an exposed metal plate on his head, and eats what comes off. He does it all throughout the film, subtlety inserting it throughout the film. Mosely’s rants are probably the most hilarious also. He recites a barrage of anti-establishment rhetoric, hippy stereotypes, and cold psychotic blurbs. Below are my personal favorites.
“Lick my plate you dog dick.”
“Can you play Inna-Vida-da-Gadda?
This incarnation of Leatherface differs from the original. He’s still mentally disabled and potentially inbred, but this time he’s sexually active. He develops a crush on Stretch, masturbating over her and presenting his chainsaw as a phallus. The infamous Leatherface shuffle, which closes out the original film, is refined and done much more frequently. Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow), the only returning cast member from the original, reprises his role as the family’s acting patriarch – only after their zombified grandfather who only comes alive after drinking blood – and embodies a psychotic right-wing small business owner. He chastises Leatherface and Chop-Top throughout the film’s second and third act, ranting and raving about capitalism, the pressures of the owning a small business, and the American way. All three family members, both individually and collectively, are amazing and the driving force behind this film. Hooper’s representations of his classic characters are great, parodying his own creation with a keen eye for avoiding repetition. Instead of working with potentially cliché characters, Hooper instead reinvents them and avoids creating a banal sequel.
The family’s introduction into mainstream America, albeit through radio and presumably television, really says something about our culture when viewed from an outside perspective. Hooper’s villains, in the first film, live off the grid, isolated from American culture. Automation made them obsolete – most of the family worked in a slaughterhouse killing cows – and their purpose, no matter how violent, was lost. Psychoanalyzing the family is a task beyond my abilities, especially considering their hyper-psychotic state, but it’s obvious they were simple people. They worked at an abattoir and lived in the country, using gas generators for electricity (probably stolen from their victims) and probably didn’t watch television or access other cultural information. Hooper captures the family’s indoctrination into America’s cultural zeitgeist beautifully in this sequel.
Their choice of personalities, their language, and their appearance reflect an outsider take on our society. They embody aspects of popular culture we take for granted which works as parody, showing how ridiculous some of our most cherished ideologies and cultural products are. For instance, Drayton’s misguided rants about liberals, the small businessman, and the like sound like verbatim copies of right wing AM radio punditry. His crass understanding of post-modern American business – treating it as religion – is accurate, even though he’s approaching it differently than you or I would. When Lefty arrives in their lair Drayton attempts bribery, assuming money solves all issues. Fortunately for the audience Lefty doesn’t take the bribe, leading to a saw ripping his rear end up and a great diatribe about his hemorrhoids. What Hooper’s characters say about 1980s America is poignant: a money obsessed society where greed trumps basic humanity. It’s interesting that his characters pick up on these themes, seeing through the projected façade of compassion and seeing the false morality beneath. Regardless of their former status as backwoods hermits, they’re intelligent enough to see the world for what it is.
Hopper’s role in the film is integral, but the real star of the film is Williams – he provides the recognizable name and she the performance. Williams’ performance is excellent; she isn’t an Academy Award caliber actress but she displays the necessary passions, conveying a real sense of the emotions the character’s going through. When she’s scared you see it; when she’s angry it’s palpable; at the end of the film when she fights back her fury and insanity comes across with validity. The film’s action revolves around her and as the vehicle driving the film she’s quite competent. Hopper’s performance is valid also, but his scenes are limited in comparison to the other characters. For the majority of the film he runs around the Sawyer’s lair, cutting it to pieces, screaming about how it’s, “the devil’s playground,” and saying he’s, “bringing it down!” His final showdown with Leatherface, where the two have a chainsaw battle, is comical and epic, especially for a middle-aged Hopper dressed as a 20th century cowboy.
What really separates this sequel from the original film is intention. I read an interview with Hooper where he argues his 1974 horror masterpiece is a dark comedy – a sentiment I don’t share at all. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a bleak film, filled with torture and sadism. I’m also approaching the film from a late 20th/early 21st century perspective, but I can’t see the film as anything other than an exploration of insanity. He may have intended the first film to be comedic, but it isn’t. The second Texas Chainsaw Massacre is actually witty. Hooper blends horror and farce well in this film; there are some moments that are genuinely horrifying and others that are disturbingly comic. Some of the actions, especially the violence (like when Stretch’s broadcast partner L.G. is bludgeoned with a hammer by Chop-Top repeatedly) are quite grim, but the family’s dialogue and interactions are simply funny.
I highly recommend avoiding any other films in this franchise except the first two. Although Hooper’s faded into obscurity, directing various television horror shows occasionally, these two films are prime examples of his talent. Unlike the first film, which features a soundtrack done exclusively by Hooper (which is great and emulated by many experimental musicians nowadays), the score for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II features both a competent original score by Hooper and a litany of punk and alternative acts like The Cramps and Concrete Blonde. Much of the score, both original and culled from outside outfits, seems a bit dated by today’s standards, but it fits the film well.
The film wasn’t a success when it first appeared in 1986. It was released without a rating, avoiding the dreaded X rating that would horribly damage its distribution. However, over the years it’s become something of a cult classic, receiving a barrage of various quality releases on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD. Produced for a little less than $5 million, it has earned almost double that over the years. Unfortunately it was enough to make Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III – probably one of the worst sequels I’ve ever seen (although Leatherface killing people to unknown cock rock bands is quite hilarious).
Here’s the trailer