Desolate Madness: A Look at the ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ Franchise Part 2
As part of October, the scariest movie month of the year, MovieBabble is looking back at one of the most prominent horror franchises out there: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. The following article is part two of the retrospective. To read part one, click here.
In part one we dove into the low-budget hardships the cast and crew had to endure in order to make the original classic come to life. We discussed how the cast ventured into method-acting madness — sometimes as a consequence of the limitations of budget — mostly due to the commitment of everyone and how this was the secret to the film’s terrifying nature.
But we also looked at the ideas of the original film, how the scares are less likely to be found the lumbering giant chasing the characters with a rollicking chainsaw, but in the isolation of the disturbed mind. Each Sawyer family member was left alone to wallow in their own individual neurosis. There was no one to set them straight. They were left to fend to their own psychological needs. These needs became murderous and cannibalistic. The greatest terrors are always found in the mind. It’s the mind that turned each Sawyer family member into these human monsters. It’s the idea of being trapped inside their world, becoming a subject of sadistic torture or a source of literal consumption to unhinged demons, that makes Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre truly scary.
In part two, we will look at its misunderstood sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. A film that looks and feels very different from the original film. It has a bigger budget — almost three times more. The desolate madness of the first one becomes a colorful freak-show. The gore that is mostly absent in the original now come bursting through walls. The grit is gone and the chainsaw dance has become a parody of itself.
But despite its differences, it’s still a fantastical sequel. It might seem like a betrayal of the original, imbued with eighties excess in comparison to the original’s seventies understated charm. But there lies a deeper meaning within its goofier aesthetics. Tobe Hooper did not make this film without artistic virtue.
TCM 2 not only presents the sordid evolution of the Sawyer family but of America as a whole. It’s about how the desolate madness of the Sawyers has become commercialized in Reagan’s America.
Tobe Hooper: the Canon Years
Tobe Hooper’s name is synonymous with classic horror cinema, similar to George A. Romero and Wes Craven. Like his peers, there were lots of hits and misses, but in Hooper’s case, the misses were more frequent. The seeming greatness that was promised with his tales of poltergeists and chainsaw wielding cannibals would make him reach what is essentially his swan-song in the mainstream with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
This is not to say that he didn’t make anything noteworthy afterwards. There are things to enjoy with his murderous laundry press machine thriller, The Mangler, The Toolbox Murders remake and the fascinatingly bizarre Spontaneous Combustion. He also did some fine TV work, directing episodes for Freddy’s Nightmares, Masters of Horror and most notably, Tales from the Crypt.
But looking at his filmography, it’s hard to deny that there are lot projects on there that should have been beneath him. Famed horror directors generally had a problem with keeping up the quality. Most of the time, their failures are noble ones, cinematic experiments that failed to live up to its promise or were tampered by studio interference. Sometimes they hit on something truly remarkable. Their ghouls become the stuff of cinematic history. Craven had Freddy. Romero had his horde of undead leaving the crowded domicile of hell. And Hooper had the Sawyer family.
TCM 2 was the final feature of his three picture deal at Canon films, which started with the bonkers vampire-space opera Life Force and was followed by his loving remake of Invaders from Mars. Both films, similar to TCM 2, would receive greater appreciation as the years went by.
At the time, 1982 to be exact, Hooper had made his most conventional and consequently financially successful film in Poltergeist. Canon films wanted to bag Hooper’s creative talents for themselves. They offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse: make two films of choosing as long as he made a more financially bankable sequel to his infamous Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
From the perspective of a soulless studio-hack, a straight-up rehash of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was preferred. The original broke new ground, now it was time to cash-in on its infamy. This was during the height of the slasher craze, when a young Mr. Voorhees was hacking away through a multitude of promiscuous teenagers on a nearly yearly basis. It was a time of dream demons and deformed killers. A time when a psycho with a knife and a convoluted motive could mean an easy buck for studio execs. Even the ones that started it all, Norman Bates and his domineering mother, had returned to the big screen after a twenty-two year hiatus.
A sequel concept was easy. A bunch of teenagers come across the Sawyers again. There would be another final girl. Even though the Hitchhiker named Nubbins had perished, some character would replace him. At night you would see the smoke of Leatherface’s chainsaw billow to the sky. The recycled Nubbins would die. The gore would be amped. The iconic chainsaw dance would return in some fashion.
But Hooper had no interest in treading old ground. He wanted to do something different. He was at the height of his career. He had creative power, people would have to listen to him. Money was spread around.
So after twelve years, how would Hooper continue the Sawyer family saga?
What are the Sawyers Up to Now?
The film takes place thirteen years after the events of the first, in the height of Eighties decadence. The Sawyer family has become successful in this glossy era. Drayton’s signature barbecue meat has become a lucrative franchise. The secret of the meat, consisting of human flesh of course, is attained by the nightly hunting sessions by Chop-top (Bill Mosely who considers this his personal favorite role), a newly introduced Sawyer family member and good ol’ Leatherface (now played by Bill Johnson after they couldn’t come to a financial agreement with original star Gunnar Hanson).
Fan-favorite Chop-top has become mangled by his experience in Vietnam. He’s got a metal-plate in his head and a consistent itch at the edge of his scalp. He resembles his brother Nubbins in that he takes a sadistic pleasure in the hunt for human flesh. Undoubtedly, the unnecessary carnage of Vietnam has definitely warped his mind, if not enabled his sadistic tendencies.
Nubbins is actually still around, though he’s nothing more than a decomposing corpse, which Leatherface and Chop-top use as a prop to scare potential victims. There’s something to be said that even if a family member dies, they refuse to say goodbye to them.
Grandpa (played by Ken Evert) now over hundred years old, is still alive. He actually looks so much better thanks to Tom Savini’s make-up effects. Grandpa even regained some of his strength as he actually manages to hit someone with a hammer this time. Unfortunately, his aim is terrible.
Leatherface has become a victim of the eighties as well. Instead of his butcher apron, he now wears a suit throughout the movie. He wore a dress-suit at the end of the first one too, but this one seems perfectly tailored. He’s more stylish, it might even be a brand-name suit. A colorful tie hangs in front of his protruding stomach, his weight gain signifies the gluttony of the times. He even wears a red silk pocket square. In many ways he resembles a wall-street broker, completely unaware of the evils he’s committing, completely giving himself up to the rancid ideology of the times.
Most noticeably, his chainsaw is much bigger. In the eighties, everything must be bigger and better. His overlong chainsaw resembles not just eighties excess but his sexual frustration. The over-sized chainsaw is like a sexually frustrated man with a brand new sports car. It compensates for his lack of getting any, for his lack of manhood.
This is even further reiterated when he expresses his lust to the film’s heroine Stretch (Caroline Williams) with his chainsaw. This scene is both disturbing and darkly comic. It does dilute the scariness of the character, but it makes sense too. This is a lumbering simpleton, with sexual urges which he doesn’t know how to express. The only semblance of release, is when he dominates his victims with his chainsaw.
Leatherface is still the muscle for his family. But he does some more kindness too, especially with his affections for Stretch, who he spares and even defends against his family. In a darkly comic moment, he wants to bond with her by making her a human skin-mask — something that Stretch understandably doesn’t react favorably to.
Drayton, even more hilariously performed by Jim Siedow (in his final film role), has become a respectable member of the community. In his own colorful vernacular, he has begun to sound more like a businessman than a small-time cook. He’s constantly concerned about the competition, considering himself the true-blue American small-time businessman. All he cares about are the numbers. The innocents that suffers from his pursuit for “happiness” just doesn’t matter. It’s the American way. It’s as Drayton says, in true Ayn Randian fashion: “it’s a dog eat dog world and from where I sit, there just ain’t enough damn dogs!”
The Radio DJ, Her Swooning Co-worker and The Lord of the Harvest
Instead of a group of unsuspecting teens, we have three very different protagonists, starting with the final girl Vanita Brock, or, as she is commonly referred to, ‘Stretch’ (Caroline Williams). Compared to final girl of the previous film, Stretch is a stronger female character. She’s still becomes a victim to the Sawyer antics, and we do see her running and screaming a lot, but she not afraid to fight back. She shows remarkable courage throughout her horrifying ordeal, risking her life to expose to the Sawyers and save her swooning co-worker L.G. (Lou Perryman) to stop him from becoming Drayton’s signature meat.
Even though she doesn’t surpass Marilyn Burns, especially because the terror Burns imbued in her performance, she was inspired by her method streak and the horrid conditions on set, and still does a fantastic job. Considering that Williams is almost the sole female presence of the film (unless you count the corpse of grandma), she certainly holds her own, especially against heavyweight Dennis Hopper.
Lou Perryman, as her co-worker L.G., brings his natural southern charm to the part. His eventual fate is both horrific, darkly comic and even moving, especially when Stretch mourns his demise.
But the true star of all of them is undoubtedly Dennis Hopper as the avenging former lawman Lefty Enright. Lefty was the uncle of catatonic Sally and the wheelchair-bound Franklin, the latter having lost his life at the end of Leatherface’s signature chainsaw.
Disillusioned by the authorities unwillingness to solve the case or pursue any potential leads, Lefty decides to take matters in his own hands. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes Lefty goes into a hardware store and purchases one mighty chainsaw for himself. He even holsters two tiny chainsaws by the side. He displays his sawing talents by testing it on a piece of hardwood — the look on the hardware store owners face, a look of almost erotic bliss, is hilarious.
Why a chainsaw and not guns? Well, I guess Lefty believes that the only way to stop evil is to use their weapon against them.
After Lefty finds the macabre layer of the Sawyers, witnessing the gory remains of victims as well as the wheelchair belong to Franklin, his religious beliefs start to become increasingly manic — he even begins to refer to himself as ”the lord of the Harvest”. In other words, Lefty goes a little crazy himself. This is all the better for the viewer because Hopper has always been amazing when he goes a little over the top — as any Hopper fan knows. Lefty’s holy mission against evil eventually leads to one of cinema’s greatest chainsaw fights (more on that in part 3).
Bringing It All Down
In the seventies, the desolate madness of the Sawyers had to remain hidden. But in Reagan’s era, when the American soul was sold to the yuppies, their brand of madness has become commercialized. Their dilapidated farmhouse has been replaced by an elaborate macabre amusement park, its decorations of death and horror having a more elaborate and ridiculous bend. They now have the budget to let make their madness appear vividly and decadently, similar to how Hooper now had the budget to make this mad tale come to life.
Their crimes have become notorious in the state of Texas, yet the authorities, similar to the blue-collar crimes of wall-street execs, dismiss the dangers since the victims are only the little people who don’t matter — just like how the little guys were the ones that ultimately suffered from the deregulated economy. The madness inherent in the Sawyers have become more dehumanized. Society was supposed to suppress their darker urges, but instead, it has encouraged them.
When Lefty confronts the Sawyers in the final, Drayton, like any capitalistic villain would, he first tries to reason with him with money. He doesn’t understand Lefty’s grief. It’s meaningless to him. There’s no humanity. There are no innocents. There’s only the numbers. And the numbers must rise. Nothing else matters.
Lefty is not just taking down the Sawyers, he’s taking down the establishment. When he sees the truth, when he sees evidence of all the innocent victims, he cannot stand by. He must, as Hopper hails so marvelously “bring it all down!”
In many ways, I like to see Lefty as Hooper himself, taking down the establishment of the era. Instead of delivering a standard by the numbers sequel, he gave us something wild and different.
In TCM 2, evil does get defeated in the end. The only survivor, Stretch, similar to Sally, loses her mind and enacts the famous chainsaw-dance. Of course, however, this is all fantasy. In real life, the soulless, soulless predators of the upper echelons of corporate life have only increased in power. It’s not as simple as sending a good-hearted but slightly mentally unstable vigilante to take them down. No chainsaws are going to defeat this evil. Nope. It would take years of upheaval and systemic legislative change.
It’s unlikely that this evil will ever fade. It will continue to fester and poison the minds of many. We need more Leftys in this world.
And we also need more directors like Hooper, who are willing to take chances, willing to alter conventions and use his established characters to make a different statement.
And from here, the next article will delve more into the making of TCM 2, how the film was slightly compromised by Canon and Tobe Hooper’s eventual career thereafter.
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