Deliciously dark, depraved and deviant exercise in satirical shock tactics
The Buzz is Back – Sawing through Tobe Hooper’s excessive, blood-drenched satire!
After you’ve made one of the most shockingly original, profoundly disturbing and iconic horror movies of all time, just how do you approach making a sequel?
Audiences require that most unattainable of things from a much anticipated follow-up – that it be both more of what they loved the first time around and also that it adds something different to the mix. They want the same thrills and excitement that wowed them to begin with, but they don’t want to be palmed-off with a simple rehash of the same basic ingredients all over again. This is the perennial dilemma that damns filmmakers and the cash-cow sequels that they come up with … and this is magnified exponentially when it comes to sequels to celebrated, one-off genre classics like Tobe Hooper’s seminal 1974 grungy groundbreaker, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which inevitably carries an even greater weight of expectation and higher hopes.
Yet, despite all these odds stacked against it, Texas 2, as the crew tended to simplify the production’s tag, is actually quite a brilliant film in its own rights. I understand some of the animosity that has often been fired in its direction, but I am quite willing and prepared to defend it. As sequels go, this is, in fact, one of the best ones. With a screenplay continually written and rewritten even as the shoot progressed – Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon, taking some time out from chop-socky with Chuck Norris, demanded more horror and less family twists so writer L.M. Kit Carson (Breathless and Paris, Texas) was kept on tinkering duties throughout – it is surprising how coherent and well put-together the whole thing is. And with the original budget slashed by a million dollars half-way into the shoot, out went several neat turns that the plot was going to take. But the film is still essentially what Tobe Hooper, who had been harassed for a sequel for a decade at least, wanted to say. His last word on the chainsaw clan and their depraved antics in a dog-eat-dog culture that was being compelled to devour those that got in your way to the top.
Much like George Romero with Dawn of the Dead tackling consumerism as the social statement that was only barely masked by the blood, Hooper was assaulting the vain, shallow materialism of the 80’s and the surge to be upwardly mobile, although there is some very obvious sponsorship product placement going on, so there is a sense of irony there. And, again, much like Romero on Day of the Dead, he had to contend with a cinematic compromise and not the full picture he had hoped to make. Thus, it seems only fitting that he recruit Romero’s main gore-wrangler, Tom Savini, to supply the blood and guts that modern audiences demanded from their horror films. Seeing Savini’s name up there on a Texas Chainsaw movie was absolute geek nirvana, and fans salivated at the prospect of an all-out bloodbath.
Whilst the film doesn’t disappoint in its sky-high levels of violence, it was still not quite what anybody fully expected from such a conjunction as Tobe Hooper and Tom Savini, chainsaws and vulnerable flesh.The Sawyers have entered the cut ‘n’ thrust world of small businessThe cannibal clan, now known as the Sawyers, have upped sticks and vamoosed from their southern gothic hell-hole in the back of beyond, and taken up residence in the vast underground warrens that make up an old disused amusement park. With Ed Neill’s Hitchhiker dead (though still hanging around; his Big Red swigging corpse now called Nubbins), we have the Cook (a returning Jim Siedow), the ogreish Leatherface (Bill Johnson replacing Gunnar Hansen) and Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), who is the Hitchhiker’s twin brother, back from Vietnam with a steel plate in his head from a Gook machete-attack and a wholly unsavoury penchant for raking off shreds of his own scalp with a lighter-heated coat-hanger and chewing on them like they were beef-jerky dregs.
Where the first saga was pungent with Hooper and co-creator Kim Henkel’s anger towards the US involvement in Vietnam, the race riots back home and corruption in the government, this entry adopts Reaganomics with rabid fervor. The Sawyers have entered the cut ‘n’ thrust world of small business. Their special chilli is the talk of the town, even winning awards. Cook is quite the forward-thinker, having created their own unique brand made from some very dubious ingredients indeed. Times have changes, and the target of the hunting team of Chop-Top and Leatherface are no longer hippies who have strayed from the path, but yuppies. And, let’s be honest, we all applaud that strategy. The irritating jerks – or Beemer-Bums as Hooper calls them – who ride around the Texan roads shooting holes in signposts, gulping beer at the wheel and making abusive calls to the local radio station, pick the wrong truck to play chicken with. When the tables are turned and the two preppie slummers are slain by the Leatherface in a terrifically silly yet brilliantly effective set-piece on a seemingly endless bridge, their high-speed demise is recorded by DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) over the airways. Their car is found wrecked and soaked with blood.
“The driver even managed to saw off his own head, going 90 mph!”
Honing-in on this mysterious “accident” is wild card Texas Ranger “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper), who has been seeking out the Sawyer clan for years. Although the original massacre, and subsequent disappearances have been conveniently brushed under the carpet, Lefty will not stop in his crusade to hunt down those responsible. His relatives were involved in the Sally Hardesty incident so, for him, the case is personal. When Stretch hears of his investigations she comes to him with the tape recording of the yuppie murders, and Lefty has her play it over the airwaves as a request, hoping that it will draw the killers out. Unwittingly, Stretch and her producer and almost boyfriend LJ (Lou Perryman, Hooper’s friend and assistant camera operator on the original) are being used as bait. But Lefty is a little bit late to the party and the couple wind up in the vile clutches of the cannibals.
With the rest of the film filled with skinning and face-peeling, running, fighting, sawing and lots and lots of screaming, it seems like just another fun-filled night with the Sawyer Family. But this was a different kettle of guts than we previously recoiled from. It’s a twisted love story, a biting social satire and big bloody pantomime of subversive comedy ‘n’ carnage.
But with the cinematic spin that embraced graphic gore in the 80’s still whirling around like a Dervish, the belated second installment had to up the explicit nature of its inherent ultra-violence considerably. What is unique and clever about how this has been accomplished, courtesy of splatter-master Tom Savini, who was still the go-to gore-guy at this time, is that as wildly excessive and nasty as the mutilations and slaughter are, the sense of humour that prevails throughout never dilutes them. We all squirmed when a girl was hung up on a meat-hook in the first film. We all choked on our own hearts when poor Kirk got his skull cracked with a lump-hammer. But the crucial thing was that we imagined we saw a whole lot more going on than was actually up there on the screen. When Hooper and Savini ladle on the gore this time around we genuinely get the blood to go with it, and copious amounts of it too. As deliberately and darkly amusing as these crazed vignettes are, they are still shockingly vicious to behold.a truly audacious moment in hi-octane brutalityThe early yuppie murders on the bridge – a truly audacious moment in hi-octane brutality - sees one of the cretins getting his bonce diagonally bisected by Leatherface’s saw, and three joyously cute little brain spurts issuing from the resulting lopsided cavity. Later, the endless head-hammering of LJ is only an appetizer for what has to be one of the longest drawn-out deaths in the series. Only Lou Perryman’s perfectly in-character performance in the latter phase, even hurling out his customary spit ball from skinned lips as he tries to reassure his traumatized would-be lover, who just happens to be wearing his peeled face, redeems this from being one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the genre. Flesh is sliced off in wet, leathery strips. An entire wall gives way to reveal an intestinal flood of real guts hauled in from a nearby abattoir. Body-parts adorn every inch of the cannibal clan’s immense subterranean lair.
Dotted about the incredibly intricate dioramas are one hundred real human skeletons imported from India. Look closely and you’ll see one of them with a Stetson on its head and riding an H-Bomb in a pure Dr. Strangelove homage. In a deleted scene, the family even slices ‘n’ dice an entire mob of hooligans in an underground car park, sending limbs flying in every direction. It is a shame it no longer resides within the movie, but I can understand why Hooper felt it better served the more intimate momentum of the story to jettison it. In fact, the bodycount in the final cut is quite low, but Savini’s showstopping gore-gags still occupy a large amount of the running time, with the skinning of LJ and his stolen face placed over Stretch becoming a queasy and emotional tour de force that is not soon forgotten. Plus, we get the chainsaw answer to Steve Martin’s arrow-through-the-head gag.
Elements made notorious by the original juggernaut – the chainsaw twirl, the dining-room sequence, Grandpa with the hammer – are repeated and reheated but perfectly spiced-up with new ingredients. We have Blue Velvet-era Dennis Hopper armed with plethora of saws and spouting Old Testament rage, for God’s sake! It’s the Hooper and Hopper Show, folks! Just how mad do you want things to get? His very presence in the movie radically alters the course that the story could have gone in and sends it out on an intoxicated new trajectory. And, to Hopper’s credit, he doesn’t condescend towards the material or the genre crowd. Having just come through a difficult phase when his on-set problems and ego had made him virtually unemployable, he gathers himself together and then literally lets Lefty rip as the Ranger with a vendetta that could well take him to Hell’s Playground and back.
It can’t be denied that there is little actual substance to the role of the evangelical Ranger, but Hopper doesn’t give a damn about depth and emotional texture, although he is given a touching reunion with the skeleton of his long-lost brother, the wheelchair-bound Franklyn from the first film. Watch the movingly spectral moment when Franklyn’s flashlight comes on for a final haunting illumination, showing Lefty the light. He then just goes ape with his own arsenal of power-tools on his mission to take the Sawyer Boys back to hell … in pieces. His screaming excesses during the last third of the movie – tearing through the underground base of the clan with his saws and bringing it down upon their heads – are the perfect weapon to the killers’ own warp factor dementia. In truth, you couldn’t have had any “serious” nemesis for these good ol’ boys. Thus, the only person who could feasibly mount a reprisal is Dennis Hopper!
“Bubba’s got a girlfriend! Bubba’s got a girlfriend!”
I understand the motives that Hooper and Kit Carson felt they had to explore the character of Leatherface a bit further than previously. Giving him a sympathetic and emotionally fragile side is certainly a way of encrypting him with fresher DNA. In the first film he was simply a freak of inhuman nature, a whirlwind brute of untamable and purely primal deviance. The screenplay now allows him to reveal some hidden emotions and a sensitivity that belies his unearthly appearance and size. Love and lust battle within him when he first encounters Stretch, the woman he is supposed to simply kill. But this lumbering, monstrous man-child has no comprehension of how to make sense of these impulses, let alone deal with them. The infamous ice-box scene in which he caresses Stretch’s naked thigh with his saw-blade and then prods her between the legs whilst licking the borrowed lips of his mask make for very uncomfortable viewing.
But in the context of Leatherface’s development this is massively important. We have never seen him take a shine to any of his female victims before, and we have no reason to suspect that he has ever had any sexual experience prior to this event. To wit, his dry-humping maneuver with the saw! Johnson’s eyes continually shine through those parchment holes with puppy-dog innocence and a genuinely heartbreaking sensitivity. Hansen, fourteen years before, would sit and whimper and cradle his mad head in stark psychological, cross-dressed oblivion, totally adrift from the mechanics of the outside world. We knew he was abused and tormented and almost certainly predisposed from an early age to commit atrocity through no design of his own, but this rejuvenated incarnation is the epitome of the misunderstood and shunned outcast.
The evolved Leatherface is still subjugated by his family – he is merely the big dumb dog of the brood, chastised and mocked at every turn – but he now acknowledges the feelings of somebody who is supposed to be merely meat for cutting-up and cooking. There is a great moment when Stretch makes a break for it from her hidey-hole and darts past the three clan members, who just stand and gape as she vanishes up another metal chute. “Did you see that?” the stunned Cook wants to know, and Leatherface is clueless as to how to react because he doesn’t want this girl to be hurt, so he nods, shakes his head and then nods again like an imbecile. Hansen’s brute would have done this too, but Johnson’s, now named Bubba, really cranks up the pathos to deliberately farcical levels. Watch the Stooge-like moment when he bangs his head repeatedly against a hanging birdcage in comical frustration at Stretch’s subsequent capture.Has the rampaging human bulldozer been tamed, like King Kong, by a woman?Well, almost … though not quite. But the alterations in his emotional and behavioural profile are not exactly subtle, and many people found this to be an unpalatable change, almost as though their favourite psycho had been neutered. The caring-sharing T800 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day is possibly another example. But this queer, perverse relationship between Leatherface and Stretch is a vital modification to the tried and trusted formula. Plus, because of Leatherface’s own internal quandary over what to do with her and how to reconcile these alien feelings he has, this lends their encounters a frighteningly off-kilter edge. We simply don’t know what he will do with her. Nor does he and, obviously, nor does Stretch, who tries to use her sexuality and his obvious affection for her as tools for her survival. This conundrum does inevitably weaken Leatherface as the big bogeyman.
After his barnstorming introduction, dancing the buzzsaw-jig with his brother’s corpse as a disguise and carving-up yuppie noggins, this switcheroo can’t avoid taking down his threat level a notch or two. But Johnson, who is a very sensitive, quiet and thoughtful person in real life, is brilliant at peeling back these layers of the giant’s personality and allowing us some sympathy for him. We never felt that previously, but Hooper was adamant that he wouldn’t simply use Leatherface as just the big monster-man all over again. He’d done that … and perhaps this was a more interesting route to take. It is worth remembering that in the derisory most recent offering, Texas Chainsaw 3D, Leatherface’s relationship with the leading lady is considerably more preposterous and it is her turnaround towards him that rankles most of all. “Do your thing, cuz!” she cries as she realizes that blood is thicker than water in one of the genre’s worst ever familial twists. This is positively charming by comparison and far more credible, to boot.
“A man builds a good solid trade by hookin’ and crookin’, and the gods just kick him right in the balls.”
Siedow is, once again, magnificent as the Cook, or Drayton Sawyer. For the first time we see one of the Family interacting with “normal folks” in essentially “normal” situations. His exulted chilli recipe has won the cook-off contest two years running and everybody is dying (literally, one surmises) to learn the secret of his recipe. Running The Last Round-Up Rolling Grill, his mobile catering service, Cook, as before, is the only one of the now depleted tribe who can actually pass about in public without causing a panic. Whereas both Leatherface and Chop-Top are mad all of the time, Cook is the more profoundly schizophrenic. We saw Siedow, who was the only professional actor on the first film, expertly segue from one personality to another in the original and, for me, his soothing voice and giggling torture of Marilyn Burns, poking her trapped body with a stick, are possibly the most terrifyingly believable things to come out of it.
We only see this skillfully crafted attitude once this time around when he witnesses Leatherface snogging the bound Stretch, with the now established businessman version of the Cook played much more broadly and for laughs almost all of the time. This being said, there is an unscripted occasion when he is about to slap Stretch when even Caroline Williams thought that she was in for a walloping. Look at how he completely disregards getting slops of chilli on his suit as he accepts his trophy. Listen to his comments about how a chainsaw up his backside has taken care of his “hems”, although he’s “badly burned his beans” this time. Siedow, though, is supreme when it comes to his reactions to the chaos his family tend to bring about, and funny as hell.
“It’s a smash! It’s what the people want! It’s ‘NAM-LAND!!!!!”
The big addition to the clan, the guy that really sells this shock-rock comedy to us, is Bill Moseley as demented ‘Nam vet Chop-Top, possibly the most unpleasant, stomach-churning and repellent character to be captured on film. Moseley virtually created this fruit-loop, himself, when he made an amateur parody of Hooper’s classic original film entitled The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. Hooper saw this and knew that when the time came to revisit the terrible Texan tribe, he would be enlisting the assistance of the ever-creative Moseley.
With his unstoppable torrent of anarchic dialogue – some composed by Carson, but most of which was adlibbed by Moseley on the spot – he became the most quotable of horror rogues from the 80’s besides Freddy Krueger. Does anybody remember the decade’s electro dance group S Express? Well, their song “Hey Music Lover” features many direct quotes from Chop-Top. “Music is my Life!” “E-X-I-Teee. Exit! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” With disgusting and depraved put-downs and wild, stream-of-consciousness gibberish, he is like the genre’s sick answer to Russell Brand. And, with this in mind, it is no surprise that some people just cannot stand him. But I think that Moseley’s exuberant contribution is pure genius. “Nam-Land!” “Time for incoming mail!” and several priceless utterings that I sadly cannot print here for reasons of decency become immortal expressions of the utmost madness. But he is just hysterical, filling every gap and pregnant pause with unabashed and ludicrously spontaneous lunacy.
Moseley is canny enough to remember, even during his zaniest moments, that he is the twin brother to Edwin Neal’s ghastly Hitchhiker, or the desiccated Nubbins as we encounter him here, so we can see the same characteristic mania and ADHD … albeit ramped-up via Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder, having had a huge chunk of his head ripped away and Chop-Top’s own uncontrollable state of ever-hyper bravura. He sports the same facial birthmark, just on the other side of his face. He, too, will resort to a cut-throat razor and hack and slash at a retreating girl’s back during a climactic chase. But whereas Neal was an extremely convincing and realistic psycho, Moseley goes for broke with stratospheric zeal, fashioning something that is part pariah, part parody, and only partly human.But he is just hysterical, filling every gap and pregnant pause with unabashed and ludicrously spontaneous lunacy“Grandpa’s a one-hitter!”
So it is clear that holdovers and throwbacks to the first film are abundant, even if the tone has been elevated and heightened to a more rock-operatic level of over-the-top mayhem. Having one girl put through a complete maelstrom of insanity, and to come out the other end as a screaming paranoiac, herself, was something that Hooper practically created with Marilyn Burns’ Sally Hardesty. It then became the norm for horror films to have the resilient lone female survivor make it until the safety of the dawn after a night of hellishly protracted torment and torture that has seen off most of her friends. Stretch, upon first viewing, may seem like just a substitute for this – another girl who gets lashed to a dining table of bone and cartilage and subjected to ordeal by hammer and blade – but she is not so much the victim as the huntress.
All the kids in the first film were unlucky wanderers straying into the abyss and paying the ultimate price. Stretch actively seeks out Lefty and, even if she doesn’t exactly anticipate being used as bait in a very badly sprung trap, she still goes after the killers and invades their lair with a score to settle. What happens afterwards is partly reminiscent of the harrowing ordeal that Burns goes through, but also steered with a different emphasis. For a kick-off, there’s the quirky, ghastly, skin-crawling love story angle, which puts an entirely different spin on things. She is also in terrific shape, and is really able to run and crawl and fight with gusto. Williams, a native Texan, also has two of the best legs in the business, and hurtling about in denim hot-pants, you can certainly see what attracts both LJ and Leatherface! She also has an extensive arsenal of screams – a holler for every occasion and, man, that is some set of lungs – but once she gets the bit between her teeth she makes for a very believable combatant.
“Darlin’ … I guess I’m fallin’ apart on ya …”
The underground lair festering beneath the abandoned amusement park is a labyrinth of dark and warped imagination. Bones and skeletons festoon every nook and cranny. Some are set up in deck-chairs, some are suspended from the ceiling like modern art. The craft and sculpting that has gone into these deranged creations is mind-boggling. You can imagine H.R. Geiger coming in and just sinking to his knees to weep with joy at this marrow-bone playground paradise. He’d never want to leave. It is like Horror’s answer to the Bond Villain’s secret base. Director of Photography Richard Kooris moves through this warren of deathly paraphernalia with speed and grace. There are a couple of great chase scenes that exploit this claustrophobic setting with unnerving urgency and desperation. Using strings of bulbs, neon strips and lots of on-set, in-camera illumination was a clever way of negotiating the shadows, and this also adds to the sickly, hellish glow of what looks like Dante’s Infernal Arcade.
It can’t be denied that the film lacks the raw, in-yer-face style of its predecessor’s groundbreaking cinema véritéand semi-documentary presentation. This is more comic-book and lurid, more action-packed and composed in a far more generic fashion. The editing, in some places, is quite clumsy, although overall this is a kinetic and vibrant ride that may appear more visually restrained and predictable than its ever-inventive forebear but still packs a punch when it counts.
There is another terrific moment, both visually and action-wise, when Stretch makes it out of a steel tube and clambers up on to a rickety wooden slat bridge. In the one same shot, we see Chop-Top scampering down the chute after her as she scrambles up the rocky slope, and then him emerging from the tube and reaching up to swing himself onto the bridge just behind her. Moseley deserves credit for pulling off the stunt so well and with such spider-like agility although in the finished shot Hooper still used his double to Moseley’s consternation, and Kooris should be praised for simply keeping the camera locked down whilst the two actors do their thing. There is so much space in which the actors can move, and we really get a sense of the vastness of this horrific maze, but you also get the urge to explore. If this strange and exotic setting is paid homage to with the Mardi Gras warehouse in John Woo’s Van Dammer, Hard Target, then the climactic climbing of the Matterhorn edifice and fighting on the gantry-steps is recalled with Kirk’s tussle with Malcolm McDowell’s Soran in the ramshackle finale of Star Trek Generations.
The stunt-doubling of Hopper is a little bit obvious. Once you’ve clocked it, you will spot it every time. It is also possible to discern whenever Leatherface stuntman Bob Elmore takes over from pacifist actor Bill Johnson and revs up the chainsaw. Their statures may be the same, but Johnson is far, far gentler and more humanistic in the role. Mind you, they both excel with the chainsaw-jig, Leatherface’s alarming Rain (of blood) Dance!deliciously dark, depraved and deviant exercise in satirical shock tacticsKevin Connor’s excellent black comedy-horror Motel Hell was derived from Hooper’s ’74 breakthrough but, as I discussed in my review for Arrow’s Blu-ray release of it, you could certainly argue that Connor got there first with the idea that award-winning home-cooked produce was actually composed of human ingredients. And he also beat Hooper to the revved-up dueling buzzsaw finale, too. Let’s not forget that.
Despite losing some now cherished scenes to the cutting-room floor for reasons of pacing, it is hard to imagine any seasoned gorehound feeling shortchanged by Hooper’s second foray into Texan backwoods atrocity.
“I know what you’re thinking – this is weird but I can handle it!”
The MPAA were never going to allow this to go out with an R rating without an enormous amount of cuts, but Cannon weren’t phased by having to distribute it unrated. Financially that spelled more doom for Hooper, who had lost the Israeli producers money on both of their previous collaborations, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars. Hooper was philosophical, however, and realized that home video would provide it with a second wind. But its troubles weren’t confined to the States. The film was never given a certificate by the BBFC back when it was originally released because of both its association to the original movie, which was still a major thorn in their side, and because of its own assembly-line of graphic grotesquerie, meaning that UK horror-hounds had to settle for bootlegs and low-grade NTSC copies. It split the Board as severely as a buzzsaw driven up the groin. Inevitably, audiences who did get to see it were bemused, bewildered and, in many cases, disappointed. They expected a shocker of huge proportions based on what had gone before, and the 80’s was certainly a boom-time for outrageous exploitation. But they got a satire of the deepest black variety instead. Was it supposed to be funny? They just couldn’t tell.
It is totally understandable how irked some fans felt. But the film did indeed go on to gain a new lease of life on home video, becoming quite a cult item on its own multitude of merits.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a deliciously dark, depraved and deviant exercise in satirical shock tactics. I have enormous fun with it every time. Of course, it has its flaws … but it becomes the eccentric, oddball sibling to the first film’s dynamic gut-puncher, literally Chop-Top to Gunnar Hansen’s big deadly Leatherface. In 1974, Hooper unleashed what will always be regarded as one of the greatest horror films ever made. He knew he couldn’t top that, so he confidently walked his sequel in a different direction and delivered something that certainly won’t appeal to everyone that so admires the original but remains an excitingly grisly, entertainingly inventive black comedy of merry mutilations and surreal schizophrenics.
Bold, violent and incredibly witty, Texas 2 comes very highly recommended.
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.