Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’
by Ben Martin
Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
You know the adage, “Everything’s bigger in Texas?” Well, there’s one big, twisted franchise that — for better or worse — is synonymous with that sprawling state. I’m, of course, referring to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise; a series of films that spans nearly fifty years, nine entries, and a myriad of tonal shifts. Does it all work, or is it messier than a big plate of TX BBQ? We’ll find out by taking a strange, sun-roasted journey though the series. This time around, will see what happens when the horror of it all takes a comedic turn with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)!
Despite covering The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise for this column, many horror fans would argue that the original 1974 film should have never become one. After all, many folks — myself included — find that first film to be a perfect one. Heck, I feel the same way as the fans sometimes, considering how bad some of the sequels in this series have been (the latest is a prime example). More than anyone, though, the original movie’s director and co-writer, Tobe Hooper (1943–2017), considered a follow-up unnecessary. That opinion changed, though, when he signed a three-picture deal with the king of the schlockmeisters, Cannon Films (1967-1994). As part of this deal, the indie distributor required one of Hooper’s projects be a sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Luckily, this obligation to make a sequel could still be met, even without Hooper in the director’s chair … or so he thought. Thus, Hooper had only intended to be a producer and co-writer on the sequel. By this point, the original TCM had garnered a reputation as a true horror classic, and Hooper knew darn well that it would be unwise to rehash that first film. On the contrary, he wanted to take things in a more fantastical and comedic direction. It was an approach that would fly better in the 1980s than any other decade as horror was booming in all its subgenres.
Logically, the first person Hooper approached about the sequel was Chain Saw co-creator, Kim Henkel (who would later return to this series with his opus, 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). As luck would have it, Henkel had an idea for a sequel that involved a whole Texas town filled with cannibals. The intent was to parody Motel Hell (1980), which itself was a satire of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While I feel Henkel’s idea would’ve been a hoot, Cannon Films ultimately rejected it, at which time Henkel chose to exit the project. Undeterred, Hooper then presented the notion of Chainsaw 2 to the acclaimed screenwriter of Paris, Texas (1984) — and a native of The Lone Star State — L.M. Kit Carson (1941–2014).
The screenwriter immediately cottoned to the idea of writing something fun and subversive. Thus, the pair pitched Cannon Films with the following: “In the first one, the family was killing hippies. In this one, they’ll be killing yuppies!” Not thinking about the more profound commentary or tone in this notion, the studio approved the story on the spot. As part of the deal, the sequel would go into production in May for an August 22nd release. Mind you, that’s less than most films get for any phase of production.
As a result, Carson began writing the screenplay as fast as possible. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a tale of revenge and BBQ, just like any other good story. Following the deaths of his niece, Sally (Marilyn Burns), and Franklin (Paul A. Partain) a mere thirteen years prior, Texas Ranger Lieutenant ‘Lefty’ Enright (Dennis Hopper) has come out of the woodwork seeking vengeance. Although it took him over a decade, he has finally tracked the cannibalistic barbecue cookers and killers, now known as The Sawyers. As fate would have it, the ranger arrives just in time to help local radio DJ Vanita ‘Stretch’ Brock (Caroline Williams), who recently became the Sawyers’ target.
Meanwhile, Texas shooting locations were scouted while Hooper began interviewing potential directors for the sequel. For better or worse, though, up-and-coming filmmakers considered this follow-up to be a career killer. Thus, with no one else to take the helm, Hooper assumed the reins once again — and, really, he’s the only guy who could make a sequel like the one in review. Carson continued to pound away at the screenplay while all this was going on.
Casting for the film commenced around this same time. Considering the tonal shift of this sequel, it’s no surprise that only one cast member from the 1974 original returned to the fray: Jim Siedow (1920–2003) as “The Cook” — renamed as Drayton Sawyer, the head of the cobbled-together cannibalistic Sawyer family.
Along with Siedow, the original Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen (1947–2015), was offered the opportunity to reprise his role. However, due to the financial debacle of the original film when it came to salaries, Hansen understandably wanted a significant increase in pay as a sort of restitution for his monetary losses from the first Massacre. Unsurprisingly, though, the actor was only offered scale pay plus 10% as a salary. In turn, Hansen politely declined the part. In Hansen’s stead, Bill Johnson (who previously worked with half the TCM cast in 1985’s Future-Kill) stepped in to hide his visage. Unlike Hansen before him, though, Johnson played Leatherface as a teenager with both homicidal and pubescent urges. Despite the new angle on the character, a new family member steals the show from ol’ Leatherface!
Enter genre favorite Bill Mosely (The Devil’s Rejects, Prisoners of the Ghostland), who landed the role as Chop-Top thanks to a short parody film he made and starred in entitled The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. In this short film, Mosely provided his humorous take on Edwin Neal‘s infamous Hitchhiker character from the original ’74 film. As fate would have it, The Texas Chainsaw Manicure made its way to Hooper, who was so impressed with what he saw that he invited Mosley to come in and audition for Chop-Top, a role that would launch the rest of his career. He largely re-created it with a dash more vitriol in his turn as Otis Firefly in House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), but what’s interesting about Chop-Top is that he could easily be the whacked-out post-Vietnam version of The Hitchhiker, as the two characters are very similar. Well, that is if The Hitchhiker wasn’t revealed to be a corpse affectionately referred to in the family as Nubbins, of course. No matter who you interpret Chop-Top to be, though, one thing is for sure — Mosley steals every scene in which he appears.
Unlike its predecessor, the protagonists in the sequel are just as colorful as the antagonists. First and foremost, there’s the legendary Dennis Hopper (1936–2010) as the avenging uncle of Sally and Franklin. While I generally hate the trope of heretofore previously unmentioned relatives of characters from a previous entry in a franchise, I’m able to largely disregard my distaste for it in Lefty’s case because Hooper is so darned entertaining in the role. Sure, he’s playing at eleven on a ten scale, but this whole movie does that; it’s just so fitting! It’s also worth noting that this was a significant role for Hopper, even if (as it is rumoreded) he felt this film was beneath him. The actor had just gotten clean thanks to a rehab program and he was reviving his career following his disconcerting performance in Blue Velvet (1986). Thus, every part Hopper could get noticed in was helping to rebuild his reputation and career in the industry. And boy, oh boy, you notice him in TCM2.
But Hopper’s Lefty certainly wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without his relationship with ‘Stretch,’ masterfully played by Caroline Williams (of the upcoming Renfield). While I still have yet to go to Texas, I can say one thing for sure: as someone who’s always lived in the South, her performance as ‘Stretch’ is pitch-perfect with just the right amount of twang. See, ‘Stretch’ epitomizes a specific type — the Southern gal. She is very much an independent, charming, and fiercely determined lady. I know such personality traits aren’t exclusive to the Southern U.S., but the delivery of that personality just comes across differently in the South, which Williams captures. Beyond all that, she and Hopper have fantastic on-screen chemistry.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Stretch’s radio show producer and sidekick, L.G. McPeters, played by character actor Lou Perryman (1941–2009). Being pals with Hooper and a Texas native, Perryman had also worked as a crew member on the original Massacre. But by ’86, Perryman had a lot more screen time under his belt. Hence, the director offered him the comic relief role of L.G. Like Williams, Perryman also manages to bring an authentic Southern personality to life. In this case, it’s the Southern gentleman who also might be a bit of a redneck. As with Williams’ female counterpart, I’ve known countless guys like L.G. They’re always likable as hell.
Even more so than most movies, this cast is, perhaps, the most crucial component. The characters and the people who play them ultimately make the satirical insanity that is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 hang together on the proverbial meat hook as well as it does. If you’ve seen more than one interview with Hooper regarding the original Chain Saw, you know he saw the film as a dark comedy. I’ve never been able to identify with that sentiment. TCM ’74 has a few moments of shadowed levity, but I find it much more horrific than humorous. But in TCM2, Hooper manages to make the horror-comedy that he envisioned the first to be.
Alas, like many horror fans, the first time I saw what he brought to the table with Chainsaw 2, I didn’t get it at all. This flick was not what I wanted at all from a TCM sequel. But I was drawn back to this movie after a few years away. During that time, this follow-up gained an unquestionable cult classic status. Often, when the reputation of a movie shifts dramatically in the horror community, I’ll go back to re-evaluate it. Such was the case with Chainsaw 2, where I fell in love with the characters on my second viewing. Moreover, I finally understood and appreciated why Hooper and Carson felt the need to make a sequel that deconstructs its predecessor.
As I noted earlier, this sequel was pitched as being about “killing yuppies!” Folks, I think that pitch goes deeper than any executive at Cannon Films realized at the time! If the original film is a reaction to The Vietnam War (1955-1975), then Chainsaw 2 is a reaction to the decade of consumerism and indulgence that was the 1980s. More to the point, it is a commentary on what the horror genre had become during the era. In the 80s, horror was more popular than ever. So much so that new horror flicks were released on nearly a monthly basis, much like comic book movies are today.
During this decade, the most popular horror genre was, of course, the slasher — a subgenre that reached its ridiculous apex by 1986 and one which I’ll feel Carson and Hooper are ultimately commenting upon. Despite Hooper’s career in horror, I think he had tired of it. He knew he shouldn’t remake the original, nor could he top it. So, he went full-bore and made the horror-comedy he wanted the original to be all while poking fun at the 80s and the genre itself. Generally, I don’t enjoy deconstructivism in a sequel, but this is an exception. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a rare film that shows you a version of what its predecessor could have been. And in doing so, it is a Franchise Expansion by taking the series in a completely different direction. One that arguably proves one should not try to sequelize the original film more earnestly.
From the beginning of this sequel, it is clear that it’s a satirical, comedic effort. It’s not like the cast-and-crew here were trying to fool the audience. Whereas the original film was produced in a documentary style, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is the polar opposite. Aside from the Texas charm, there’s not a pound of reality on screen. On the contrary, Chainsaw 2 is designed, lit, and shot like a 1980s comedy and in a garishly beautiful fashion. (Keep in mind that comedies did have a filmic style to a certain extent three decades ago.) Every crew member did a great job on Chainsaw 2, particularly the combination of the cinematographer Richard Kooris (Mongrel) and the production designer Cary White in his feature film debut.
This sequel was realized to its fullest degree, even if it does suffer from significant pacing problems. The first two acts move well enough, even if it was at the sacrifice of a subplot that involved Stretch being Lefty’s illegitimate daughter (which would have added to the narrative). Unfortunately, though, it was cut from the screenplay at the behest of Cannon Films, who were intent on keeping the movie’s runtime between 90-100 minutes to squeeze in more screenings per day. That aside, from The Texas Battleground amusement park forward, the film somehow feels chaotic and a slog at the same time.
Between the nearly suffocating schedule and difficulties of working with the notorious studio that was Cannon Films, it is a minor movie miracle that this sequel exists. Love TCM2 or hate it, Hooper and crew somehow managed to get a movie made and released in four months, which is impressive by itself. Moreover, the movie was released theatrically as an Unrated film, which is a big deal. Unsurprisingly, Cannon was more concerned with hitting their release date than securing a more widely-releasable R-rating for the movie. Even so, the film still managed to double its budget in theatrical grosses. Following that, the film sold and rented well on home video, despite most viewers not taking to its comedy at the time. Over the years, though, The Texas Chainsaw 2 has proven that “the saw is family” as the horror community embraced this sequel for what its director intended.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) is currently available on Digital, Blu-Ray & DVD.
On the next Texas trip, we’ll explore this franchise’s (first) attempt to return to its roots with Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990)!
Other Texas Attractions:
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)