Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) is one of the greatest, most influential, and riveting horror films out there. It was a perfect storm of brilliant marketing and brave, visceral filmmaking. Its sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), less so. Hooper’s sequel created a divisive and ultimately disappointing continuation of the film classic. The focus on dark humor instead of the classic terror upset audiences and critics alike. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is more than just a bad sequel, though. In fact, the record has shown this to be the only worthy sequel to the original Texas Chain Saw at all. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is special because it uses an entirely different approach to explore the same subject matter. Tobe Hooper directly addresses some of the problems the first had and used its comedic elements to emphasize core themes the first film had that were effectively lost on the general public. Hooper also made the setting tie in better thematically and created fully realized characters for victims and cannibals alike, not just Leatherface. These creative decisions established the entire franchise’s identity more than the first film ever did, even if the rest of the franchise tries to ignore it.
None of it’s subtle, but maybe that’s the Texan way.
The biggest problem with the first film that is directly addressed within the sequel is a better articulation and connection between the setting and world, the victims, and the Sawyer clan. The first film tried to express its victims as seventies clichés that had little dimension or thought behind them. Ominous foreshadowing was done with hippies reading horoscopes and a bizarre sequence of logic and events.
Here, we follow rock and roll night shift DJ Stretch (played by Caroline Williams), her assistant L.G. (played by Lou Perryman), and a renegade lawman named Lefty (played by the always fascinating Dennis Hopper). These characters are well-developed on their own and they’re much more calculated in design. The humans in this film all have a little screw loose and nobody acts realistically. The film opens with eighties yuppies acting with almost as much abandon as the Sawyers, a man cackles with glee as Lefty hacks away violently at a log with a chainsaw, and the law enforcement adopts the same school of thought as the mayor from Jaws (1975). They practically say, “Chainsaw massacres in Texas!? What about the tourists!?” L.G. hopelessly tries to hit on and save Stretch, even with his face torn off (with amazing effects by Tom Savini), Lefty dual-wields chainsaws in a duel with Leatherface in the worst plan ever, and Stretch… We’ll get to her. This is a film that approaches Texas as if it was becoming as insane as the Sawyers.
If there was a food metaphor for every film, this film was beef tainted with mad cow disease. Over ten years had gone by since the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it never went away, and the world is now rotting.
Even the occupation of Stretch and L.G. provide unique social commentary about the world, their music selection and aesthetic design of the radio station reflect its own horror. The banned Beatles cover for “Yesterday and Today” is the primary album artwork hung behind Stretch during her radio segments. L.G. speaks into a mic decorated with horse teeth, which isn’t too different from how the Sawyers decorate their abode.
And even more fascinating is how the Sawyers interact with the world outside. It’s best seen within the newest member of the family, Chop-Top (played by the amazing Bill Moseley). Chop-Top is the hitch-hiker from the first film’s twin brother. Hooper admitted that the character was going to be Nubbins the hitch-hiker initially, but ultimately he evolved into something completely new. Nubbins was a very weak character in the original film, Chop-Top meanwhile harnesses that manic energy whilst having his own distinct look and origin. He’s a burnt out hippie dealing with his injuries from the Vietnam War. He listens to rock music and likes to have fun with the corpse of his twin all day. His albino skin and balding head make him look like a walking zombie, which has its own clear and vivid imagery paired with flower power. He’s not like the typical red-blooded Sawyers, but his consistency within the family lies within the evolving culture of the post-seventies world. He values his family and revels in violence, but he’s the product of the world outside as well. The war and the counterculture that followed burnt him just as much as it burnt itself out. To the Sawyers, Chop-Top’s actions seem true to the family. Going to war is just one of the many American things the Sawyers view as their birthright and duty (also Drayton Sawyer apparently pays taxes?). It’s no mistake they’re the ones hiding in an amusement park modeled after the Alamo while most other characters desecrate or disrespect the famous Texan landmark every chance they get. Their storage of guts and flesh is hidden behind the wall of Davy Crockett.
This level of interaction between character and world isn’t seen in the original film. The Sawyers’s seclusion from the world in the original felt appropriate for terror, but their backstories and interactions felt too contained. Nubbins in particular suffered, but Drayton has also grown from reluctance of his job to reveling in capitalism. Bubba, as a character, shows to be directly affected by the outside world within the film, particularly with his blooming sexuality and near betrayal of the Sawyers’ values. A great visual example of his sexuality is one of the best scenes in the film, where he has his own version of foreplay with Stretch above a cooler. It evokes images of sex and even advertising with the countless chilled sodas next to Stretch’s wet legs. With the mind of a child, Bubba is effected by the most blatant of the senses and imagery.
This dedicated evolution isn’t necessarily lost on the viewer, this is all very obvious stuff, but people expected a horror film, and when every character feels so expressive yet inhuman it’s only natural for an audience to have difficulties connecting. Stretch and Lefty may have more going on, as do the Sawyers, but the simplistic portrayals in the original allowed for more avenues of sympathy and horror.
So often you’ll hear that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre feels so terrifying because it looks like a documentary. This is a statement so simple I have to refute it, but it’s worth examining. It’s clearly not formatted like a documentary, but Hooper certainly had a background in making documentaries before this. He carried certain sensibilities over to be sure, particularly when the camera soaks in setting or faces. The 16mm camera definitely gave a grainy, low budget feel to everything, and in certain moments of surprise there is no dramatization to be found.
Yet it was clearly fictional, and often at points of terror the original film turned fantastic and went other places artistically. I guess most people want to cover their eyes and ears at the horror, but upon inspection of the mania this is where Hooper finds his artistic footing. Color and lighting, editing, and most importantly sound design all try to make the horror moments feel heightened in place of the almost nonexistent gore. Cackling from the Sawyers, the squeals of the victims, and added animal noises paired with the frantic cuts add to the shock value in a way completely separate from an objective lens. The close-ups for the Sawyers are a special kind of grotesque.
The scenes between the first film and the second film that are most similar to each other take place right near the climax, at dinner; this isn’t a mistake, either. The original film’s dinner scene was probably its most unrealistic, and the character of grandpa feels more at home here in the sequel than in the original. The vampiric geriatric patriarch of the Sawyer family is ridiculous in the context of the original, but was an essential part of its social commentary. Grandpa is the remnant of glory and authority the rest of the family is trying to restore and please. He is the man that thrived in the brutal past and is fading slowly but surviving off the violence still being perpetuated. Comedy enables this kind of commentary in a much easier and digestible way. Close-ups of the old man here don’t feel out of place, rather the comic effect is strengthened. The desperation to please this man from the family is tangible here.
Other aspects benefit greatly from the more comedic tone: specifically, the treatment of gore here. Gore was something the first didn’t dare to attempt very much because of its subject matter and tone, but here Hooper could utilize the comedic tone to provide insane bits of gore that he would’ve never been allowed to use or promise otherwise. The gore feels needed here too, L.G.’s skinning and Stretch wearing his face hits the sweet spot of scary gore and ridiculous to the point of funny. It’s an amazing effect, and the symbolism between the chili and the human blood (because meat is an essential part to these films) is also emphasized. Drayton’s chili looks just as disgusting as all the red corn starch we see hidden in the walls.
The original film was vegetarian in approach and also examined the socio-economic troubles of rural communities. Humans were treated like slaughter animals and the butchers were put out of work by technology (according to them, it’s better when you kill an animal with a hammer. I wouldn’t know I can’t taste the difference.) The first film had multiple scenes and moments dedicated to emphasizing these themes and concepts, but this is done in scenes with lackluster acting and in moments that are easily distracting. The sequel has Drayton comedically state the subtext in almost every one of his lines. The entire family philosophy can be understood and internalized by the dialogue Drayton says. He calls his brothers “fudge packers” and lazy while complaining how hard it is for the small business owner to make it in the eighties. He tells his brothers the dangers of women and tries to bribe Lefty, mistaking him for a competitor. Does this suggest his competitors do the same thing?
The comedic aspects also play up the idea that Leatherface isn’t the real monster in the family. This is an aspect easily lost in the original film, as the promotion and idea of the film stems directly from the audience’s innate desire to not be chainsawed to death. He’s a scary guy on the surface, and if you don’t try to see the family dynamics you’ll end up begging for more of him so he can murder more people and you’ll get some really, really bad sequels. He’s certainly a terrible person, but he’s also not the one to blame. His unique relationship with Stretch makes him sympathetic. Perhaps this is another reason why the film failed, because nobody wants to see a guy wearing somebody else’s face be sympathetic. That’s why Face/Off (1997) is the worst movie ever. I assume.
The exaggeration is a form of horror in its own way. Exaggeration is escalation, and the natural extension of using human bones as lamp shades and chandeliers is to have the skeletons pose in artistic statements and comedic poses. What else is Chop-Top gonna do cooped up in there? The skeleton riding an atomic bomb in reference to Dr. Strangelove (1964) might be pushing it though.
The sound design is also on point here. This time, it utilizes the rock soundtrack as mentioned earlier but also has a much more eighties feel to the general score. It starts with distinct eighties synth and snare drums. The decade’s excess practically leaks out with the score and leaves no mistake for the setting. The actual moments of fear within the walls of the Sawyer compound are a little more traditional, or even non-existent, for the sake of sound effects, yet you’re instantly reminded once it cuts to the credits. The Sawyers themselves also give much more expressive vocal performances, their timing and delivery really sell the new characterizations and tone more than anything.
And it’s not like audiences should’ve expected otherwise going in. Canon wasn’t eager to put this out, but the promotional material for this film certainly treated it like a comedy, its most famous poster imitated John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985). This film wanted to be laughed at, it wanted to be satire. Dark humor is a great thing to think about and enjoy, but it’s a hard thing to sell.
Sally Hardesty of the original Texas Chain Saw was an easy example of the “final girl” trope. That’s a trope based on the survivor of the horror film being female. Go figure. She’s iconic in her own way, but she’s a weak character in the horror pantheon. A major criticism of the original film was Sally’s poor character and the film’s exploitation of female pain whilst giving men quick and easy deaths. I think Stretch meanwhile is uniquely underrated as a final girl, and a horror protagonist. She’s independent and resourceful, she’s well acted, and she’s emblematic of an entirely separate theme for the film that is a direct response to those criticisms of Sally.
She’s the victim of the world as much as she is of Leatherface and the Sawyers. In her introductory scenes, she’s harassed sexually by men at multiple points. Callers want to see her breasts, passersby ogle her, even her sympathetic and mostly nice coworker is wishing to spend some personal time with her. She’s striving for her own career and love of music, but is challenged every step of the way. She is treated as a child to be ignored when first meeting Lefty, which is its own kind of sexism. These aren’t criticisms of Stretch as a character because it’s clear that the film is intentionally critical of the men around her.
So by the time Leatherface is putting a chainsaw on her groin, it’s unavoidable that she is sexualized. She can’t avoid what the world is forcing upon her, and she utilizes it to save herself from danger. Her parallel to Leatherface being a product of his environment is appropriate. So appropriate given all the context that the ending of the film is her brutally murdering Chop-Top with a chainsaw owned by grandma (who I assume was the big mama matriarch of the family) and dancing like a maniac, just like Leatherface did in the first film. This ultimate artistic comment provides possibly the greatest statement a sequel can ever give: the world cannot avoid The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the world is becoming it.
The world fell in love with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and didn’t want a sequel that challenged it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 wasn’t disrespectful, but it was everything a die-hard fan of the first didn’t want. Marketing, time, and a million other factors just added up to a film that didn’t match audience expectations. Contrast the two films with, say, the Halloween franchise, which does drastically different things with characters or settings but never truly diverts from consistent tones and themes. The single time the Halloween franchise did divert everything it ended up in a very similar scenario to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The answer for them was to switch gears and go back to what worked. Other horror film franchises that pursue a lighter comedic tone and succeed contain a hint of absurdity within their original classic as well. Nobody’s shocked when Chuckie from Child’s Play (1988) gives up on Andy chasing and becomes a killer quip machine. Films like that or the Evil Dead franchise start with and heighten those elements with a clear series progression. The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre offered no true avenues for sequel progression.
So with that being considered, were these artistic choices for the best? Is a film like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 a better or worse sequel for what it tries to do than its contemporaries? Looking at the initial reception and how other franchises flourished while this floundered, it’s hard to say the film is anything good. Looking at how it’s grown critically after all these years and knowing how devout the fanbase is, it’s impossible to say the film is anything but great. Perhaps a sequel shouldn’t worry about expectations to match the original’s identity. Perhaps the best kind of sequel uses its own identity to elevate the franchise. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 enables audiences to return to the original film with a sharper perspective. The comedic exaggerations of the sequel highlight the original’s subtext and adds new dimensions organically. It cements the Sawyer family as the true monsters of the franchise and in our hearts and our minds, not just the guy wielding the chainsaw.
Without The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the franchise’s legacy would take its concept and creativity for granted. The worst of the subsequent sequels went for unrelated themes or focused on Leatherface. The best of the sequels focused on these core themes and experimented with the supporting cast of psychopaths within the family. Hooper didn’t create a universally beloved masterpiece with the sequel, but he culturally preserved his personal vision of what the franchise means. The film’s pretty funny too.