One of the pervading mysteries of the horror genre is the career of filmmaker Tobe Hooper, who directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the greatest and most influential of all American movies, only to follow it up with a long string of listless mediocrities. It’s not that Hooper’s subsequent films are bad, though many of them are; it’s that their tediousness represents a pointed 180-degree turn away from Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s ferocious aesthetic. Where that film is lean and mercilessly precise, much of Hooper’s oeuvre is flabby and self-consciously unconvincing. An aura of contempt lingers over Hooper’s filmography, as if the horror maven resents himself for setting the bar so high on his first outing, damning whatever follows to linger in his masterpiece’s shadows. There’s often a sense that Hooper’s making bad films on purpose, deliberately trying to flush his career down the toilet.
This impression is especially stifling in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In theory, the idea of Hooper returning to his most prominent creation at least arouses curiosity, as it’s akin to the possibility of Alfred Hitchcock making a second Psycho. How does one top, match, or even complement thrillers that are so inherently rooted in the shock of the bottom falling out from underneath the characters, and, by extension, us? Hooper immediately and disappointingly sidesteps this concern by staging the second Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a flip comedy, which scans as a way of evading comparison with the visceral legacy of the first film while hypocritically cashing in on its reputation.
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Hooper renders the first film’s countercultural subtext text, congratulating himself for attempting to mount some sort of bloodbath with incoherent Reagan-era resonances. The first film imparted its classist meanings formally, allowing us to understand the horrible clan at its center as a symbol of the disenfranchised, barely employed portion of the so-called red states, and their prey as hippies who thought they were entitled to go anywhere they damn well pleased. In the sequel, the villains are continually stopping the film cold to tell us what they represent, particularly Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), who’s always picking at the metal plate (with a hot coat hanger, in the film’s best and sickest touch) that’s in his head because of the injuries he sustained during his military service in Vietnam. Chop-Top frequently namechecks controversial battles of the Vietnam War while torturing victims, encouraging us to anticipate a metaphor or juxtaposition that never comes into sight.
The film defensively deconstructs itself, encouraging a reading of itself as a satire of 1980s-era excess, of commercialism, sexism, the gun culture, and so on—and audiences have embraced it on these terms over the years. And there are memorable flourishes, such as the chase that opens the film, the irrational set design of a radio station, which has a steel door that looks exactly like the one in the dilapidated house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the entirety of Dennis Hopper’s parodic macho performance. But this reappraisal is largely a case of horror cinephiles missing the forest for the trees—of wanting so badly for a film to be something that they will it to be so, regardless of the evidence in front of them. To consider The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as a satire is to embrace a watered-down interpretation of that word; it’s really failed camp. The film’s lifelessly scattershot and conceptual—a mess of undigested tones, intentions, and symbols.
For instance, there’s an embarrassing moment in which the deranged, dead-skin-clad Leatherface (Bill Johnson) corners the heroine, Stretch Brock (Caroline Williams), in a radio station. For reasons that don’t warrant elaboration, Stretch finds herself with her legs wide open over a cooler of beer, in an image that intentionally recalls countless numbers of commercials objectifying women. Transfixed, Leatherface approaches her with his chainsaw hanging between his legs, gingerly touching her with it. The scene parodies the sexual frustration and emasculation that often drive slasher movies, but Hooper prolongs the confrontation until it grows shrill and interminably obvious. Much of the film, like Hooper’s other Cannon productions, finds the assorted characters dwarfed by pointlessly huge, elaborate, and fake-looking sets, struggling, in this case, to wring meaning out of long stretches of uninspired killer-hillbilly vaudeville.
Yet, as passive-aggressively lousy as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is, it occasionally achieves a tone of anarchic luridness that’s proved to be significantly influential on better horror films. The mix of brash comedy and beautifully gaudy, surreal, EC-comic-infused cinematography has inspired Rob Zombie’s career as a filmmaker, particularly informing The Devil’s Rejects, which plays as a vastly superior remake of Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, emulating specific plot points while providing a better role for Moseley. And elements of this film are all over Quentin Tarantino’s career, most clearly Kill Bill, Vol. 2 and Death Proof. Which is to say that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is more diverting to discuss and contextualize than it is to actually watch, and one wonders if Hooper might take that observation as a compliment.
This package includes two versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The first is a new 2K HD scan from the "interpositive film element," and its beauty redefines the film. The images have an epic sense of color and depth that was never apparent on the VHS copy that this critic first saw as a lad preoccupied with 1980s-era horror. Colors are even more lurid than before, boasting a painterly sleaziness that’s particularly apparent in the scenes at the radio station. Reds, blues, greens, and velvety black shadows sporadically conjure a dread that suggests the better film that might’ve been. The sound tracks are rich and bass-y when they’re supposed to be (such as when they’re rendering the chainsaw effects) and intentionally chintzy at other times for comedic effect. The second version, an original HD master supervised by director of photography Richard Kooris, comparatively shows its age, boasting a slight softness and even a murkiness that suggests early-era DVDs. Grain is also more pronounced on this version. It’s nice to have both prints in one package though, particularly for the horror aficionado who wishes to simultaneously own a show pony while honoring historic prosperity.
The featurettes assembled here, some new, many ported over from prior home-video releases, are substantially more involving than the film they supplement. The best one-stop-shop item is "It Runs in the Family," a feature-length documentary on the making of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 that outlines, in detail, a chaotic Cannon Films production that was severely compromised in terms of budget and final cut. The screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, hot off Paris, Texas, wrote a satirical script that similarly concerned an estranged family—an arc that would thematically rhyme with the story of the cannibalistic barbeque enterprisers from the first film. The executives at Cannon were uninterested in ambitious parallels, however, and demanded "more monsters." Much footage was scrapped, and the script was continually rewritten on the humid set. Some cast members claim that Carson was the dominant auteur on the set, at least in terms of coaching the performances, while Hooper was the recessive mastermind concerned with visuals. "It Runs in the Family" handily contextualizes the film’s slapdash incoherence, featuring interviews with virtually everyone involved, many of whom are amusingly unimpressed with the film itself.
The three audio commentaries unavoidably echo much of this information. The new commentary, with director of photography Richard Kooris, production designer Cary White, script supervisor Laura Kooris, and property master Michael Sullivan, is skippable, punctuated as it is with vast silences and minor observations. Hooper’s commentary, from a prior edition, has its moments, but is similarly hesitant and unremarkable. The commentary to hear features actors Caroline Williams and Bill Moseley, as well as make-up effects maestro Tom Savini. They unpack quite a bit of the film’s in-jokes with appealingly conversational relish. There’s a host of other goodies: deleted scenes, an alternate opening credits sequence, still galleries, trailers, and a variety of other interviews with cast and crew that paint a vivid portrait of how a disappointment was reborn as a cult classic.
Shout! Factory has refurbished this camp dud with a transcendently beautiful and informative new home-video release that should be catnip to every Fangoria-reading nerd, regardless of whether they admire the film in question.