The house anecdote about Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror masterstroke, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is that it was so terrifying, viewers left the theater thinking they’d just seen the goriest film ever made; a full-body submersion into blood, guts, and other assorted human viscera. The punchline, of course, is that Hooper had actually shown next to nothing, instead using quick cuts and frantic camerawork to engage the audience’s collective imagination, whipping them up into a hysterical frenzy. It’s not a stretch to guess that the film these impressionable viewers thought they saw might look a little bit like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
One of the most curiously off-brand, yet somehow also completely on-brand, sequels ever made, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 strikes a curious pose next to its immediate predecessor. In theory, it’s a disgrace, a film that kicks the original’s fierce, utterly American simplicity to the curb and replaces it with the vulgar, utterly American illiteracy of a carnival barker.
I actually quite like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Sure, within the space of any given minute the film lurches back-and-forth between “this is the single most exhilarating thing I have ever seen” and “that’s too much, man,” but it’s the kind of ludicrously expensive, high-octane trash-candy that nobody much cares to bankroll anymore.
Try and imagine, if you will, that the 2014 series reboot had contained a scene in which Alexandra Daddario is sprayed in the face by the contents of a beer can Leatherface has split down the middle and then—in case the audience had somehow missed the symbolic significance of this first image—brought to quasi-orgasm by the gyrating movement of his powered-down chainsaw against the crotchal region of her jeans. You can’t. You can’t imagine. Such is the very niche beauty of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 declares its war on restraint the second the opening credits end and a synth-soul ditty that goes “chain…chain….chain” begins. Lest this deliriously on the nose bit of cinematic branding has failed to knock your socks off, the first image— a couple of crazy teenagers barreling down the highway, spouting inane boffolas like “bright lights, big titties,” and punctuating them with gunshots fired at roadsigns advertising some key Lone Star State attractions (as if the first film hadn’t given the Texas Tourism Board enough heartache)— might do the trick. These two cretins neatly illustrate a good part of what makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 simultaneously endearing and insufferable. Namely, it never shuts up.
In contrast to the original, where each murder was as quick and brutal as the wringing of a farmhouse chicken’s neck, every single death in this film is preceded by a lengthy conversation between the villain and victim (or just a good minute of incoherent shouting on the part of the latter), and twice our lead character’s seeming doom is averted due to her unceasing lip-flap.
DJ Stretch is one of the most curious protagonists in all of slasherdom, and not just because of her silly name. What’s fascinating is that she’s not part of a group, gaggle, or assemblage of chainsaw murder-fare. Instead, she’s introduced like an ancillary character, as the two aforementioned cretins call her radio show and refuse to hang-up (this movie was released during an era historians have since deemed “Peak Car-Phone”).
After Leatherface slays them at 90 MPH while riding on the hood of his brother’s car like it was a paddle board, our hero ends up with a crystal clear recording of their death. I’d like to believe that this narrative turn is a direct homage to Brian DePalma’s Blow Out; but seeing as that film came out only five years earlier, it’s more likely a rip-off. Regardless, Stretch does what any sensible horror-movie character would do, and brings the tape to a member of the local law enforcement (queue Dennis Hopper’s entrance).
Hopper’s performance here as a singularly nutso ranger is probably what most viewers’ minds jump to when they think of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The star of such films as Easy Rider and Blue Velvet wanders through the picture looking simultaneously dazed and keyed-in; a state-of-mind suspiciously similar to the kind engendered by a drug that begins with a C and ends with an E. He’s so ruthless in his search for the crazed cannibals and their mysterious chili recipe, that he actually refuses to take the tape when Stretch offers it to him, instead tricking her into playing the whole thing live on her show so as to draw the cursed clan out of hiding.
The plan works, although Stretch’s radio-partner suffers maybe the most protracted and painful death I’ve ever seen in a film— an opera of comically exaggerated suffering. Anyway, all involved end up in the Chainsaw Gang’s subterranean lair for an extended set-piece that takes up the entire back half of the film. Fortunately, lest things get to claustrophobic, this devil’s playground is a true masterwork of maximalist production design, setting a gorgeous scene as Stretch runs around being terrorized on the lower levels by the camera-happy goobers, while above her an eminently GIFable Dennis Hopper chainsaws the structure’s joists and beams, screaming about how he’s gonna “BRING IT ALL DOWN!” The film follows his lead.
Watching all this madness unfold, one feels a real pang of sadness that Tobe Hooper’s career is so deep in-the-toilet. He certainly paved one of the most curious paths of anyone in Hollywood. As Hooper transitioned from the shell-shocked 70s to the debauched 80s, the naturalistic rhythms of his earlier work gave way to a deeply constructed (but no less vital) mis en scene composed of canted angles, two-color lighting schemes, and empty visual space; if you were feeling cheeky, you could say he morphed from horror’s Jean-Pierre Dardenne to its Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
So what to make of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 2016? What is its legacy? I’d say (coupled with the simultaneous rise of Troma Entertainment) it represents the first blossoming of the pre-fab cult film. Today, we’re saturated with genre pieces that take a cue from this 1986 schlock opera by knowingly pushing the boundary as far as they can, not because these transgressions are organic to the work, as they may have been back in the politically motivated days of grindhouse rabble-rousers, but because, “eh, why the fuck not.” When you strip away all the gruesome accoutrements, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is very clearly a film that just wants to be embraced by the small group of people who can actually stomach it.
It’s like that old adage about The Velvet Underground: only 1000 people actually enjoyed this movie, but everyone who did made their own. The film’s legitimate love for every scraggly detail of its villains no doubt influenced Rob Zombie’s own tales of outlaw murder families. The way it proves that a grimy, scratchy horror picture can also be as colorful as cotton-candy likely had a big impact on Robert Rodriguez. There’s some James Gunn, too, in the way that it presents murder as a long, difficult, sometimes riotously funny business. Bottom line: join the fan club.
Featured Image: Cannon Films/Pathé Films