Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror feature The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has gone down in the annals of American cinema history as a modern-day classic. Alongside such contemporaries of the same dramatic canon and thematic content as John Carpenter’s Halloween and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, Hooper’s seminal film of low-budget scares and viscerally-felt terror has not dissipated at all in the intervening forty-plus years since the its initial theatrical release. Following on its heels, and situated across the temporal expanse of just over ten years, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 saw theatrical release in 1986, earning Hooper even more morally stipulated derision, but with less critical attention paid to the film’s likeminded practical scares. Where Hooper’s first film to feature the now infamous movie monster Leatherface was inseparably attached to the horrifying aspect of actor Gunnar Hansen’s perverted visage, assembled from the skinned corpses of his many human victims, Bill Johnson in the second film at first appears a poor, latex masked caricature of what made the original film and antagonist so collectively disturbing.
Neither film was initially a rousing commercial success, with each one becoming a cult-classic years on into their shelf life on home video, though it is in Hooper’s sequel where much of the franchise’s most prurient and grotesque debauchery fully takes shape. However frightening the first film may be, much of its horror is displaced by the second film’s graphic nature and darkly humorous take on the bare bones aesthetic of the original. In 1974, the murderous Sawyer Family enacts inhuman acts of torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism largely off-screen, with cinematographer Daniel Pearle suggesting some truly gruesome fantasies in the editing. These scenes very nearly become straight Soviet montage, all of which is backed by composer Wayne Bell’s unsettling musical score and practical sound effects minimally applied throughout. In 1986, the same clan of mass murderers is still just as depraved as ever, though in transporting their antics to the dilapidated grounds of an abandoned carnival located in the utter recesses of what is depicted as a thoroughly redneck, backcountry, cinematic locale, homicide becomes almost funny. The film openly embraces some of the black comedy intimated in the original to the point of an incredibly subtle social satire.
The schlock and gore most commonly associated with Hooper’s titular franchise has given rise to a long string of exploitation horror genre-features over the years, though not all of them maintain the same sense of aesthetic gestalt that imbues the original and its sequel with respective parts terror and lampoon. Violence in the 1974 film is appropriately handled, with all of the murder that takes place onscreen and off implied to mean even more than what ostensibly takes place, lending too the slow build-up of tension that persists up until the film’s anti-climactic and nightmarish final frames, wherein Leatherface is caught dancing, chainsaw in-hand, with menacing fluidity as the soundtrack, mechanical buzz emits its final roar before the entire picture cuts to black. In 1986, violence is grossly conceived and comparatively inappropriate, though in application much of the gore and bad taste is made laughable in Hooper’s sequel, the performers involved always in on a joke that initial audiences may not have been ready to entertain in a follow-up to one of the most straightforward slasher films of all time.
And yet there have been other horror films to follow in the steps of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, both in a broad sense and in exact replication. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead from 1981 is a campy, horror genre-feature that implements practical effects and evocative set and costume designs in order to make its hellish fantasies come to life on-screen in the service of a straight horror movie not very far divorced in tone from the likes of Hooper’s first Texan massacre. However, 1987’s Evil Dead II, which followed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 by approximately one year, allowed Raimi to make a broad comedy out of the very same beats and practical effects that made his first franchise feature so dissimilarly scary, with his sequel achieving many of the same feats that Hooper had previously articulated to the release of the second-coming of the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis only a few months prior. Moreover, there is a certain kindred, comic continuity between Hooper’s ‘Chop-Top’ Sawyer, played by horror movie character actor Bill Moseley, and Bruce Campbell’s sophomore outing as the ironically chainsaw wielding ‘Ash’ Williams. Both characters operate as players within a macabre farce that lampoons gore and horror movie tropes as a grand joke that continues to self-perpetuate itself time and time again, but still retains all of its menace even as the artifice of the supporting narrative begins to come apart at the seams, an inevitable side-effect of the viewer’s post-modern understanding of the construction that goes into each film’s featured content.
More recently, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has given rise to the directorial career of hard rock musician Rob Zombie, whose films The House of 1000 Corpses in 2003 and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects in 2005 follow the trajectory set by Hooper to a tee. The former film sees Zombie assembling his own murderous, backcountry gang of sociopaths and killers, only his first feature immediately assumes much of the black comedy more apparent only in Hooper’s sequel. The House of 1000 Corpses is a perverted experience that disallows its audience to ever take anything too seriously given the presence of overtly comic performances from Sid Haig as Captain Spaulding, Karen Black as Mother Firefly, and Moseley, again, in yet another broadly horrific role as Otis B. Driftwood. The Devil’s Rejects follows as a bizarre, melodrama that seeks to make anti-heroes out of Haig, Moseley, and Sheri-Moon Zombie’s Baby Firefly from the first film, borrowing heavily from much of the comic heart that makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 incongruently entertaining despite the subject matter at hand. Hooper’s latter film is subversively engaged with a dialogue on post-traumatic stress disorder following the Vietnam War and rampant, commercial capitalism, his characters mere puppets to voice the concerns and growing disease of an entire nation of people. Unfortunately for Zombie, his reading of his own mass murderers is far too generous, and his insistence that viewers sympathize and identify with his perpetrators of sociopathic terror appears tone deaf and ethically misguided, his films too distressing to ever become as genuinely entertaining as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is.
Perhaps what makes Hooper’s franchise so consistently appealing and remarkably inspiring as an example of late twentieth-century commercial entertainment comes in its insidious differentiation from everything that would follow in its wake. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, its sequel, and its progeny have come to stand for sadism as entertainment, despite the intelligence so precisely articulated in Hooper’s original two films. While Raimi has continued in the same black comedy tradition, with films like Army of Darkness in 1992 and Drag Me to Hell in 2009, directors like Zombie continue to misappropriate the bad taste more aesthetically pleasing only within the boundaries of Hooper’s singular genius.
Violence has come to mean something entirely outside of what it sought to bring attention to in Hooper’s works of blood, gore, and thematically macabre genre-feature elements, the carnival of horror set up so effectively in the former director’s 1986 sequel since degenerated into genuine psychopathology. Leatherface may be a truly gruesome modern movie monster, but in Hooper’s hands the film always sought to allow the audience to interpret the character on their own terms. The figurative children of the Sawyer Family, seen in the works of such contemporary auteurs as Zombie, have dissimilarly become increasingly unambiguous in their distasteful natures, a definitive clarification denied in Hooper’s works to their respective betterment and continuing cultural relevancy. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, violence is made into a surreal, bad joke, whose punchline has been largely forgotten in a sea of literal degeneracy and genuinely bad taste, its respective legacy more important now than ever before in its deceptive intelligence and self-aware cultural critique of the very genre to which it otherwise belongs.
Featured Image: Bryanston Pictures
Editor’s Note: You can read our 40th Anniversary Retrospective on the original film here.