The third film in Tobe Hooper’s contract with Cannon Films was the one that the bosses really wanted: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre had gone from cinematic outlaw to respected classic by that time and, as anyone who lived through the ‘80s knows, sequels had become an inevitability in the American film business. However, Hooper was not content to give audiences more of the same. What he created was as much a dark comedy as it was a horror film, a ruthless satire that took on the attitudes of the ‘80s as well as the legacy of the first film.
The surprisingly complex plot set-up starts with a pre-credits bit of narration that lets us know the cannibalistic clan from the first film was never caught. It turns out that the Cook (Jim Siedow) has opened up a successful catering business built around “prime meat” dishes — and the raw materials for this venture are supplied by Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and Vietnam vet family member Chop Top (Bill Moseley) doing killing sprees on the back roads.
One of those killings is accidentally recorded during a call-in to a radio station by deejay Stretch (Caroline Williams). She’s pressed into service by Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper), a Texas Ranger and uncle to two of the victims from the first film. He uses Stretch to draw out the killers, leading to another night of terror that starts at the radio station and reaches an epic finale under the bowels of abandoned theme park Texas Battle Land.
The resulting film isn’t what anyone was really expecting back in the mid-‘80s. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 suffered from a hectic production schedule that resulted in a lot of on-set rewriting followed by additional restructuring in the editing room. This is visible onscreen in some moments of uneven pacing but what really threw mid-‘80s audiences was the film’s tone. Working with unconventional screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, best known for writing the drama Paris, Texas, Hooper has created a film where the satire is as vicious as the Tom Savini-crafted splatter effects.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 baffled critics and horror fans alike by allowing the two extremes, terror and satire, to exist side-by-side — often in the same scene. Carson’s script takes potshots at the yuppie phenomenon, the wreckage that the Vietnam War did to the American psyche and even classic moments from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the third act has extensive quotes from the first film’s finale, albeit reworked with oddball satirical flourishes). Simultaneously, Savini and his crew lace the storyline with creepy character makeups and some show-stopping gore effects that include head-cleaving, facial removal, chainsaw impalement and more.
Despite the initial confusion created by this satire/splatter combo, the result has aged quite well and is likely to feel au courant to modern viewers more comfortable with brutal satire. Carson’s script is packed with quotable lines, particularly the ones for Chop Top, and it skewers the gonzo ethos of the ‘80s with ruthless effectiveness. Hooper’s work behind the camera is inspired, especially in the opening “game of chicken with a chainsaw” sequence and an intense/hilarious reworking of the cannibal family dinner scene from the first film.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also boasts a set of colorful performances that live up to the film’s wild style. Williams proves herself to be one of the great scream queens of the era, bringing a warmth and wit to her character while also delivering on all the screaming and running the role demands. Lou Perryman also gives a unique performance that… well, let’s just say he retains his humanity even when buried under makeup.
Hopper is suitably intense and slyly humorous as the obsessed anti-hero cop but the real scene-stealers are the cannibals. Moseley became an eternal fan favorite here as Chop-Top, creating a persona that is part Robin Williams, part Beetlejuice and part Tex Avery cartoon character. Siedow is just as funny, delivering yuppie-satirizing businessman dialogue with verve, and Johnson gives an effective non-verbal performance as Leatherface, whose psychotic urges are complicated by puppy love.
In short, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is the rare sequel that stakes out its own turf, delivering both the horror and the humor with take-no-prisoners intensity. Its quirky brew of elements remains potent and worth rediscovering for the modern horror crowd.