In 1986, director Tobe Hooper released the last film in his three-picture deal with Cannon Films, a follow-up to his 1974 landmark horror tour de force, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Like many of our modern horror greats, the 1980s gave Hooper his most consistent and impressive output, unmatched in proceeding decades.
The success of Chainsaw launched Hooper from independent filmmaking to mainstream studio productions. He directed the well-received TV miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979), the atmospheric carnival slasher The Funhouse (1981), and the Steven Spielberg-produced supernatural horror classic Poltergeist (1982). Spielberg tapped Hooper to direct primarily from the visceral strength of Chainsaw, presenting Hooper with the challenge of directing a movie Spielberg had intended to make himself but couldn’t due to contractual obligations with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Controversy over “who really directed the film” aside, Hooper proved to be undoubtedly the right choice for Poltergeist, and the evidence lies in his body of work.
Hooper’s deal with Cannon Films was something of a blessing for the former adolescent movie lover who spent his childhood in Austin theaters, absorbing everything he could. In two short years, he made three big budget movies with complete creative control. Unfortunately, Lifeforce (1985), his apocalyptic science-fiction epic, and Invaders from Mars (1986), a remake of the 1950s film of the same name, failed both critically and financially upon their release. This left Cannon with one last hope to cash in on the movie that had made their star director. They wanted a sequel every bit as harrowing and unsettling as the first one, and most importantly, just as successful. What they (and we) got was something completely different, a deranged sequel parody courtesy of Hooper and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was a film Hooper initially only wanted to produce. Making a sequel more than a decade later to his most seminal work was a feat itself. He eventually took the helm and presented the cannibalistic Sawyer family in a modern setting. In the film, Leatherface & company have since moved underground thirteen years after the original massacre. But, as the opening title crawl tells us, “Reports of bizarre, grisly chainsaw mass-murders have persisted all across the state of Texas.” The story begins on a bizarrely satiric note that never lets up throughout the film’s all-out assault on unsuspecting viewers.
Hippies from the original have been replaced with obnoxious eighties yuppies, two jocks, on their way to see an Oklahoma-Texas (OU) football game. The blitzed yuppies shoot passing signs and scream and giggle hysterically as they call a local radio station with their bulky car phone to harass on air DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams). They soon reach a bleak end after playing “chicken” with the wrong pickup truck along a desolate Texas highway. Inexplicably unable to hang up, Stretch listens in horror as Leatherface (Bill Johnson) dispatches her two pesky callers with his massive chainsaw. General mayhem ensues with comic gore effects by the legendary Tom Savini and accompanying music by Oingo Biongo. Their song “No One Lives Forever” decidedly separates the sequel from any notion of being a straight horror film. Unbeknownst to the killers, Stretch records audio of the slaughter and keeps it as evidence.
The highway aftermath sees the arrival of Dennis Hopper, portraying Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright, a former Texas Ranger. Lefty is obsessed with finding the Sawyer family and avenging the death of his wheelchair-bound nephew Francis (from the first film) and maiming of his niece Sally, the lone survivor. Hopper was the movie’s biggest star at the time and would solidify his comeback with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet later that year. Discovering the tape on hand, Lefty convinces Stretch to play the incriminating audio on air to “lure” the killers out of hiding. Meanwhile at the state-wide Chili Cookoff, Drayton Sawyer “The Cook” (Jim Siedow, the only returning cast member) has established an enterprising business from his family’s ritualistic killings and processing of human meat. Drayton later hears the recorded audio of the highway murders and sends Leatherface and “Chop Top” (Bill Moseley) to the radio station to eliminate the problem.
The tense confrontation between Caroline Williams and Bill Moseley is perhaps the movie’s most “nuanced” moment, followed by an ingenious jump scare that launches a chainsaw wielding Leatherface from the shadows and roaring into the room. Stretch screams, runs, and hides as her radio technician L.G. (Lou Perryman) is comically slaughtered by Chop Top. Leatherface then corners Stretch and uses his chainsaw in a perverse and overbearingly phallic manner. She survives their encounter by coaxing him into simulated chainsaw sex, and the rest is cinema history.
The movie screeches into its third act with Stretch making another inexplicable decision to follow the Sawyer family to their hideout. Lefty trails her and admits that she was used to discover where the Sawyer family is hiding. The two are separated as the movie plays out in the catacombs of Tobe Hooper’s twisted sensibilities. Lefty arms himself with multiple chainsaws and battles Leatherface in the only chainsaw duel of its kind.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was not well-received when it first came out. It also had the misfortune of being released at a time of unadulterated MPAA tyranny, where slasher films were rubber-stamped with X ratings to no avail. Hooper chose to release the film unrated, similar to George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). In both cases, horror fans are fortunate to not have to track down uncut versions thirty years after the fact. Such a move took guts, and frankly, the movie is not that violent. There are maybe three on-screen deaths, some casual bloodletting, and a grotesque moment involving a skinless L.G., but it’s hardly worth the fuss. Call me desensitized, but there’s nothing in the film that warrants an “X.” The movie ends on the same chaotic note it began with, portraying Stretch manically dancing around with a giant chainsaw, having survived her own traumatic brush with death.
Chainsaw 2 defines subjectivity. Critics hated it, fans were disappointed, and the movie failed to achieve the success Cannon was hoping for. They wanted a horror film and were given a black comedy evident by the movie poster’s parody of The Breakfast Club (1985). It’s a mad film, equally unsettling as the first, but with an entirely different tone. Roger Ebert called it a “geek show” in his one-star review. Other critics said that it only proved Hooper’s “contempt” for the original. Leonard Maltin gave the film a “Bomb,” saying, “Frenetic overacting and attempts at black humor sink this mess.” It’s a polarizing but no less memorable film. Hooper wanted to bring the comedy he felt existed in the first one to the forefront. In the process, he unleashed an insane commentary on modern times.
Hooper could have easily made the same movie again. Instead, he created something unique beyond the countless mind-numbing sequels, remakes, and reboots. It’s a film that embraces chaos, absurdity, and schlock to its lasting status as a cult favorite. Sadly, Hooper passed away in 2017, leaving us with one less pioneering auteur. We didn’t just lose a horror icon, we lost a talented filmmaker with an uncompromising vision, something rarely seen today.