Two Halloweens ago we discussed Tobe Hooper’s first masterpiece. This is his second. He didn’t even want to direct it at first, sort of got pushed into it, but damn did he rally. In many ways THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is the Tobe Hooperest movie ever made.
I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical during the opening scene where two obnoxious “senior boys at Wheeler High” calling themselves “Buzz and Rick the Prick” drunkenly drive a Porsche, fire guns, and harass the K-OKLA request line until they receive a drive-by chainsawing on a bridge that must’ve been built by the same people who made that endless runway from the climactic chase in FURIOUS 6.
I’m not big on that murder-victims-who-“deserve”-it trope, but in all other aspects I love this movie’s ultimate ‘80s-horror-ness. Thanks to the work of makeup FX genius Tom Savini (coming off the triumph of DAY OF THE DEAD), it actually shows the graphic gore people imagined they saw in the first film, and then goes way further than that. There’s a soundtrack of quirky rock from the likes of Timbuk3 and Oingo Boingo, thanks to Stretch’s job at a radio station. Instead of the mob-connected makers of DEEP THROAT, Bryanston, this was produced by the Israeli-owned makers of Chuck Norris movies, Cannon, and the sequelization approach is almost more like an action movie than, say, a FRIDAY THE 13TH or a HALLOWEEN. It’s bigger and more expensive, the humor is more outrageous, andthough the body count is technically low the number of dead bodies is off the charts, even without including the wall of skulls.
I think a major problem with most of the Hooper-less CHAINSAW sequels and remakes is that they think it’s all about Leatherface. They never make him look as good and the actors never portray him as well, but more importantly they just don’t get that the other family members and the dynamic between them is the important part. This is the only sequel to bring back Jim Siedow as The Cook, and the only to have a worthy substitute for The Hitchhiker (R.I.P., now a dead body they carry around called “Nubbins”).
That substitute would be Chop Top, played by Bill Moseley, long an obscure figure who thankfully has been given his due as a great horror actor after Rob Zombie put him in HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES. He starts with an imitation of Edwin Neal’s performance in the first film (a parody short called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure got him the role) but evolves it into his own thing – a wiry, hyperactive freak with real, monstrous menace underneath his buffoonery. When he trespasses in the K-OKLA radio station after midnight and pretends not to understand that Stretch is asking him to leave, repeating each of her “Good night!”s in a different funny voice, it hits that rare, beautiful horror frequency where I’m laughing out loud and also feeling a real tension in my gut. This is a really funny movie but I never think of it as horror comedy. The horror is relentless. It’s not fucking around. The comedy is there to taunt you.
And it really must be said that only a Tobe Hooper movie would have a character who’s introduced holding a bent coat hanger that he keeps heating up with a lighter and scratching at his head with and after a while you figure out that he’s picking off pieces of skin from around the exposed metal plate in his skull and snacking on them. Just a neat little character quirk.
I think this is also the only CHAIN SAW followup that successfully reinvents Leatherface. I don’t know why they didn’t get Gunnar Hansen back (one story is that he was insulted by the amount of money they offered), but, despite what some of my fellow purists say, Bill Johnson really gives Bubba a real characterization here, kind of a pitbull – potentially friendly, but also ferocious. Crucially, he gave him a new trademark move, holding the saw above his head and doing a bizarre little side-to-side shimmy with his torso as a prelude to an attack (or mating call?). Also helpful: Savini’s highly detailed mask and the out of fashion suit he wears make for just the right mix of disgusting and comical.
The script by L.M. Kit Carson (BREATHLESS, PARIS TEXAS) has been rightfully praised for its satirical wit, but also deserves credit for its carefully calibrated mix of rehashing the original and not rehashing the original. We have that reconstituted trio of cannibals, and it’s building toward a supersized restaging of the original dinner table climax, but it’s not at all the same group-of-friends-picked-off-one-at-a-time structure. And it’s not out-of-towners cluelessly sticking their noses where they don’t belong. After radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) hears the initial murder live over the phone she intentionally lures the killers to her by playing the tape on the air over and over. When they attack her she escapes Leatherface, but follows them home. She’s going after them!
Even setting aside everything else that’s great about this movie, it would be monumental in the genre just for how far it takes the “same but bigger” sequel tradition. One of the things that makes the original film such a classic is the detailed production design of the house, with its room full of bones and feathers, chickens in cages, turtle shells hanging from strings, table settings made from body parts, the big metal door that opens to the crimson wall covered in skeletal trophies. For part 2, Hooper and production designer Cary White (GETTYSBURG, MEAN GIRLS, Yellowstone) seem to have asked “Where can we take that now that the company that makes the DEATH WISH sequels gave us a couple million?”
So instead of filling a house with dead animals the family have repurposed the entire “Texas Battle Land” theme park into an underground lair, including tunnels decorated with tableaus of posed corpses, naturally lit with lamps and Christmas lights so director of photography Richard Kooris (CAROLE KING: ONE TO ONE) could do the chase scene in long, unbroken takes. There’s an absolutely incredible shot when they get to the dinner scene – it’s already a huge, elaborately decorated table in a big room with all kinds of stuff in the background, then it pulls back and back and back and you see that it’s an enormous room full of more weirdo graverobber decor than we could ever take in, though we can definitely see that they’ve re-created the DR. STRANGELOVE bomb drop with a skeleton. Might as well reference Kubrick, because they took the most elaborate scene from the ultimate low budget horror movie and then made the opulent BARRY LYNDON version.
As I’m writing this, we’ve got an extremely consequential American presidential election coming up on Tuesday, and the tension (and the pandemic) have sort of put a damper on candy corn season. I go on walks to relax and my mind wanders through everything I’m angry about, everything I’m worried will happen. I feel like it’s very clear what the will of the people is, and even more clear that the people in power are planning some bullshit to thwart that will. And it’s not clear that they will fail, or what we can do if they succeed, and when I think about it my stomach tightens up like I have stage fright.
But I’ve had some success escaping into the horror movies I try to marathon at this time of year anyway. I have a review of another horror classic that’s all ready to go and worthy of posting on Halloween. But late on Wednesday night it hit me that THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is the horror movie of this moment. Of course it is. We thought we got away. We thought everything could be okay again. We didn’t know it would get worse. Years later not only are they still getting away with it, they’re being more flagrant about it, making money off of it. Winning chili contests, living it up in fancy new digs. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre “seems to have no end,” according to the narration.
This review is itself a sequel to that 2018 one I wrote of the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. After referencing it as a favorite over and over across two decades of movie reviewing I finally sat down to write my definitive CHAIN SAW piece, but I couldn’t help looking at it through the lens of a country two years into Trump. I used it as a symbol for the complete lack of comprehension many of us have of our fellow Americans (whether family members or strangers) revealing a completely alien set of values through their support of the death cult/hate group/pyramid scheme that is Donald Trump fandom.
For this Part 2 analysis I’m interpreting it the more obvious way. The Sawyers are Trump and friends. On the surface they’re very different – they obviously come from a different social class, they have a combat veteran in their family, and obviously Drayton comes across much nicer and less deranged in his public appearances as an award winning chili chef than Trump does as a president. But they’re living in massive opulence by the standards of their lifestyle, the house full of bones and animal parts having expanded to a massive underground complex. And when Lefty shows up to stop them, Drayton assumes it’s a business thing and tries to pay him off. Rich people shit.
Hooper and Carson were parodying Reaganism with some of this, so it overlaps with tried and true Republican themes of yore that mutated into the MAGA ideology. Drayton complains about property taxes and waxes nostalgic for the alleged good old days before technological changes at the rendering plant made the killing not as fun. He reveres Grandpa, a confused, drooling monster he says is “137 years old but as fast as Jesse James” even though his hands are too shaky to continue the family murder traditions. And since they live in the wreckage of Texas Battle Land, their house of horrors is literally built on tall tales of violent conflict.
Ironically it’s the straight horror stuff that more closely resembles Trumpism: the victimizing while complaining of victimization, the long history of flagrant violation of the innocent without ever being held accountable. The opening narration says that “It seems to have no end.” The police never got them because “No facts; no crime.”
And it’s frustrating because there’s so much crime, and they’re so brazen about it. The Trump people/everybody else dynamic can be pretty well summed up in the encounter between Chop Top and L.G.:
L.G. (walking into the station and discovering a weirdo on the floor going through his records): Hey! What the shit?”
Chop Top: “Lick my plate, you dog dick!” (proceeds to bash L.G.’s head in with a hammer and bring him home for meat)
Nothing is too foul, nothing is sacred. For God’s sake, their brother died 14 years ago and they don’t give a fuck, they just carry his corpse around and use it as a puppet. (insert Herman Cain joke)
Lefty is the one investigator trying to put a stop to this madness, with very little backing from the system. He’s not like the guys who went after Trump, trying to maintain a reputation as an institutionalist. He believes when they go chainsaw, we go chainsaw. He uses strategic leaks to the media and finds their literal skeletons in the very large metaphorical closet, but he’s powerless. It ruins and ends his life. It leaves him yelling “They can’t do this!” and “Bring it all down!” as he tries to do just that, sawing at the support beams. We feel you, Lefty.
Chop Top and Leatherface, of course, drive around in a huge pickup truck with an American flag covering the tailgate. If I may be so bold, I don’t believe they share my idea of American values. Chop Top is a veteran and now wears the tie-dyed clothes and peace symbols of the counterculture, claiming “music is my life” – I don’t know if it’s appropriation or trolling – but he doesn’t seem torn up about his war experience. He excitedly pitches a section of the park called “Nam Land.” I think this was Hooper turning the “Do we get to win this time?” themes of ‘80s movies on their head.
It’s fitting, I think, that our hero is a rock DJ – it aligns her with the youth culture, the artists, the rebels. Chop Top knows she’s cool, calls her his “fave,” but has no qualms about trying to kill her.
She’s also, of course, a woman, who asks not to be called “darling,” and doesn’t like that Lefty doesn’t want to involve her out of paternalistic protection. And she knows men well enough to pick up on the phallic nature of Bubba’s saw and realizes she can defeat him by feigning sexual interest.
Obviously this is not a family with a healthy view of sexuality. Drayton warns, “It’s a swindle, so don’t get mixed up in it.” The only woman in their family, and likely the only one they ever respected, is the dead Grandma they keep mummified in a shrine in the artificial amount above the park, and seem to believe is alive.
I’d say the sexual politics are of then, not now, but whatever you think of the things this movie puts Stretch through, the point is she gets through them. She fights, she bites, she literally climbs out of metaphorical Hell, from the dark catcombs to the sun-drenched surface, up to the top of that mountain, dumping Chop Top into the hole like garbage as the whole thing comes crashing down on the motherfuckers.
And she stands up there looking like a mad woman, waving the chainsaw around, mirroring Leatherface’s dance at the end of the first movie, but for her it’s a victory dance.
And that right there is the reason I had to watch this movie in this week of anticipation and hope and dread. Because some day, whether it’s in a couple days, or after a whole lot more fighting and running and climbing out of Hell, we’re gonna push past this era. We’re gonna survive, some of us. Hopefully most of us. And I imagine it’s gonna feel a whole lot like standing on top of a mountain, spinning around and stabbing the air with a chainsaw.
Happy Halloween everybody. Be safe, climb out, spin around.
NOTE: I also wrote a pretty thorough tribute to this movie when it first got a special edition DVD fourteen year ago. I tried not to overlap too much with this one.