1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of the most influential horror films of all time. Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece was a landmark thanks to its grim depiction of rural life and the unflinching realism with which the kills were orchestrated. The very concept of an emotionless, hulking killer who uses remedial tools would help define the horror genre moving forward, and the media firestorm over the film’s brutality and false presentation of being a true story only cemented its impact as a modern classic.
It’s certainly no easy task to make a sequel to any film with such a momentous legacy, so it’s understandable that it took Hooper over a decade to craft his follow up. 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a wildly different film than the original, and audiences and critics alike were initially taken aback by the sequel’s overtly satirical intent. The sequel didn’t attempt to replicate the original, instead choosing to approach the same themes by spoofing the first film’s iconography. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, deserves to be appreciated as a subversive classic in its own right that recontextualizes its predecessor.
The original film was so shocking in 1974 because there was little it could be compared to, but by the late 80s it’s style had been replicated and ripped off by many imitators. Films like The Hills Have Eyes, Cannibal Holocaust, and even recurring franchises like Halloween and Friday the 13th were inspired by Hooper’s approach, and the gritty atmosphere that was once novel had become more common. By treating the sequel as a parody, Hooper once again upended expectations on what could be scary.
You don’t have to look much farther than the opening sequences to see the difference. The original gradually eases the viewer into the story as the five teenagers embark on a lethargic road trip to Sally’s (Marilyn Burns) homestead, only subtly hinting at the dangers that await them when they encounter a hitchhiker. The sequel opens in a much more disruptive manner, as goofballs Buzz and Rick tear up the Dallas highway blasting music. The scenes have a similar intent, as they both serve to establish the environment and introduce the final girl, but the pacing is completely different.
If the original was landmarked by its minimalism, Hooper used the second film to lampoon excess. Buzz and Rick are comically exaggerated, checking off nearly every quality that makes a character likely to die in a horror movie; they’re drunk, rowdy, horny, and don’t understand until the last possible moment that they’re in danger. The only reason their gruesome deaths are surprising is because they happen immediately, as opposed to the gradual lead up to the first murder in the original film.
Although the original attracted controversy over its gore, the “massacre” itself is largely devoid of actual on screen violence because Hooper was trying to avoid censorship. Despite his efforts, the film was banned in many markets anyway, so the graphic dismembering in the opening sequence of the sequel felt like a direct response to critics. The torture of L.G. (Lou Perryman) later on shows in graphic detail the body horror that the original only hinted at, goading those that took issue with the violence in the first film with kills that are more overtly shocking.
If the original was exhaustive to the viewer through its desolate setting and purposefully uninspired dialogue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 overloads the senses with over-the-top caricatures. Dallas’s secret serial killer Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) couldn’t be more suspicious; the chef behind the state’s leading chili recipe frequently hints about the “secret ingredients” that make up his “prime meat.” It’s an absurd conspiracy that stands in contrast to the realism of the first one.
Every actor in the film takes a similarly farcical approach. Dennis Hopper gives the most restrained performance in the film as Lt. Boude “Lefty” Enright, the uncle of the original victims Sally and Franklin. His character has a definitive motivation for pursuing Leatherface (Bill Johnson). The original was perceived as terrifying precisely because the killer felt unmotivated. The horrific events could seemingly happen to anyone, and so inserting a character with a prior connection added a narrative element that wasn’t previously there.
Stretch Brok (Caroline Williams) is a much different protagonist than Sally. Sally was characterized by her apparent meekness and lack of confidence, and she became the definitive final girl by proving she could endure the trauma inflicted upon her. Stretch is similarly vulnerable, but she initially appears as a confident, smart-aleck radio host unafraid to investigate the mysterious killings. While not as comedic as her zany coworker L.G., Stretch actively seeks out danger, and unlike Sally, she gets to fight back.
Many of the key differences stem from the development of Leatherface himself. While the first film depicted an asexual killer who committed his butcherings in an orderly, childlike manner, here he’s developed into adolescence with a primal sexual drive. Hooper’s genius is making Leatherface just as terrified of his newfound desires as he develops a fascination and attraction to Stretch. The original film depicted human bodies as nothing more than meat to be butchered, and the sequel continues that objectification by lingering on Stretch’s body as Leatherface grapples with his own sexual fantasies.
Leatherface emulates pleasuring himself with his chainsaw in a sequence that is bizarrely campy, yet it’s absolutely terrifying to watch as Stretch attempts to control the killer’s hormones while he edges closer to her. Stretch’s agency as she guides Leatherface away from ripping her to shreds comes full circle by the film’s conclusion when she releases her pent-up frustration into a carnal scream.
The final shot that sees Stretch recreating the joyous Leatherface dance that haunted audiences at the end of the 1974 film epitomizes this sense of empowerment. Stretch’s reality has been broken and she’s unable to comprehend the violence and absurdity that surrounds her, expressing her pent up exasperation. Just like Hooper, she’s mimicking what came before when it no longer makes sense to conform.
Some of the best horror sequels are those that reframe the iconography of the original with a new perspective; Aliens amps up the minimal action in Alien, New Nightmare grounds Freddy Krueger in the real world, and Evil Dead II adds more comedy to the premise of The Evil Dead. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequels largely ignore this trend, resulting in interchangeable installments that feel like pale imitations of what Hooper originally envisioned. Confirmation that the upcoming soft reboot simply titled Texas Chainsaw Massacre would directly continue the first film’s chronology suggests this trend will continue.
Only Hooper himself was able to adapt and craft a tonal rebuttal that also affirms his themes of human banality and cyclical violence. The face of madness is most terrifying when it’s least expected, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 showed that inserting real terror within a spoof could be just as shocking as claiming the events it depicts are true.
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