Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Film Appreciation - 25 Years in the Devil's Playground

Cody Hamman celebrates the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest sequels ever made, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, for Film Appreciation.

I've had the notes written for this Appreciation article for 5 years, but when I wrote them down I didn't have this purpose in mind. Kevin Smith is the reason I wrote them in the first place. He's a big fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and was going to do a commentary to be featured on the 20th anniversary DVD release, sort of like filmmaker Roger Avary did on the Day of the Dead DVD, but scheduling problems kept him from doing it. I figured somebody still needed to do a TCM2 fan commentary, it deserves it, so I should do it myself. I took notes but never got around to recording. I still haven't recorded a commentary, but the 5-year-old notes were finally put to use in putting together this article, which will at times be a bit more in-depth and scene specific than usual...

The film begins and the original distributor's logo appears. Cannon, the legendary and dearly departed studio. Cannon is remembered fondly by many these days, primarily for their action releases, but when I think Cannon, the first movie I think of is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

The first film's director Tobe Hooper had intended to just produce the sequel, but when he couldn't find any young horror filmmakers willing to take the directing job, he stepped up and returned to the director's chair himself. Disappointed that the original's dark humor had been largely overlooked, Hooper decided to amp up the humor this time and have some fun with it.

It was the perfect time for him to do this, because that's how the genre was going in the mid-'80s. The humorous Jason Lives was released around the same time, the one-liner spouting Freddy Krueger was hugely popular, and this came out right in between the awesome horror/comedies Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II. To me, TCM2 is one of the films that perfectly balances its humor with a strange horror atmosphere.

This atmosphere can first be felt during the title sequence, red letters on black, with the musical score by Tobe Hooper and Jerry Lambert playing over it. This score is far different from the rumbling noises and clanging metal that made up the score for the first film, this time the instrument of choice is a synthesizer and there's traces of Bernard Herrmann's Psycho music in there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is the only entry in the series so far to take a different approach to the story. Every other TCM follows a group of youths who encounter Leatherface and family after having some kind of trouble during a road trip. Fender benders, hitting cows, getting run off the road, crazy and/or suicidal hitchhikers in their vehicles, etc.

The first characters we meet in TCM2 are a couple youths on the road, but they aren't the characters who we'll be following for the rest of the film. These are a couple of jackass Yuppie teenagers out raising hell on their way to the big Texas/O.U. football game, shooting mailboxes and road signs and making obnoxious calls in to a small radio station.


The D.J. at that rockin' radio station, K-OKLA, is a girl nicknamed "Stretch". Actress Caroline Williams delivers a fantastic performance as Stretch and she has a perfect voice for radio. In his TCM3 journal David J. Schow describes her voice as a "honeydew meltdown".

Aiding Stretch is her tech guy L.G., played by the awesome Lou Perryman, who had also worked on TCM '74 as a crew member. L.G.'s a good, lovable guy and his deep affection for Stretch is very apparent.

The yuppie teens make a fatal mistake when they decide to play chicken with a pickup truck that they figure is being driven by some farmer. It's not.

While the teens are making another call in to Stretch, the pickup truck driver returns for revenge. Something about the fact that they're calling on a car phone makes it impossible for L.G. to disconnect them, so the ensuing carnage is recorded by K-OKLA.


The murder of the yuppie teens occurs on a two-lane bridge, the teens driving down one lane while the pickup speeds alongside them in the other, going backwards. Leatherface rises from the pickup bed with a desiccated corpse strapped to him and begins sawing into the yuppies' Mercedes. It's not a long bridge, but it takes 3 minutes for them to drive across. The teens never think to hit the brakes and let the pickup speed past them, they just keep pace with it. Because of this, some viewers will need to decide right here whether they're willing to take this ride or not, as one fact about TCM2 becomes clear: There is no real world logic to anything that deals with the chainsaw family in this film. Viewers will have to accept that or be lost. Me, I totally accept it.

During the bridge sequence, Leatherface is briefly portrayed by stuntman Tom Morga, who also played Michael Myers for part of Halloween 4 and was Jason Voorhees and his hockey masked copycat in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning. At a Q&A I attended, Morga called his moment as Leatherface, waving around a running chainsaw while standing on the back of a speeding pickup, the most dangerous stunt of his career.

After the teens have been wiped out, we're introduced to retired Texas Ranger "Lefty" Enright. The uncle of the characters Sally and Franklin from TCM '74, Lefty has been tracking the chainsaw family for more than a decade. Dennis Hopper plays Lefty, a role that allows him to both be an Eastwoodian badass and go over-the-top bugnuts. This was an amazing year for Hopper, in '86 he also appeared in River's Edge and Blue Velvet and gave an Oscar-nominated performance in Hoosiers.

Reading about Lefty's mission in the newspaper and seeing that the authorities are not cooperating with him, Stretch visits his hotel room with her audio evidence and offers to interview him on the radio to help get his story out. Lefty is not receptive, fearing that she'll just get in his way.

As Stretch takes an irritated walk away from Lefty's room, there may or may not be the remnants of a deleted subplot. It's not in the first draft of the script that I have, but somewhere along the way there was apparently the idea that Lefty and Stretch would be estranged father and daughter. There are conflicting stories on when this would be revealed. In his commentary, Hooper said that Stretch would find out that Lefty was her father later on. However, Caroline Williams says that Stretch already knew before this first scene together and what she's muttering as she walks away from the hotel room is that "mama always said" something about Lefty being a hardass.

Either way, they are not presented as father and daughter in the finished film, and I was surprised to hear that had ever been the intention, because I always thought that there was some kind of attraction between Lefty and Stretch during their second scene together, when Lefty stops by K-OKLA to ask Stretch to play the recording of the murders on her show. This is very dangerous for her because Lefty's plan to is to draw the killers out to the radio station with the broadcast.

Lefty's plan works. Stretch plays the murder tape every hour on the hour and when K-OKLA goes off the air at midnight, the killers arrive.

Bill Moseley gives a career-making performance as chainsaw family member Chop Top, and the entire film descends into the mad, unreal world of the killers as soon as he appears in the K-OKLA lobby.

Leatherface is played by Bill Johnson during the more dramatic scenes, but Johnson was not a fan of violence so he would hand the character over to be played by stuntman Bob Elmore during the scenes involving chainsaw action. Gunnar Hansen will always be the definitive Leatherface, but Johnson does a great job, as does Elmore.


It's during Chop Top and Leatherface's raid on K-OKLA that another subplot begins: TCM2 is a story of unrequited first love. As soon as he gets Stretch cornered, it's clear that Leatherface has a thing for her. The way she looks, the way she's dressed, the way she talks to him when she catches on to this - encouraging him, telling him he's good, he's the best - it makes total sense. Who wouldn't fall for her? Leatherface places his chainsaw between their crotches and does a little hump 'n grind, the re-starting of the 'saw accompanying his apparent ejaculation. He exits and leaves Stretch alive, lying to Chop Top about her demise.

In his TCM3 journal, David Schow mentioned that he wrote Leatherface in the third film as a sort of rebellious teenager. This makes it appear that there's a progression in the character over the course of the three films. In the first Leatherface is rather childlike, in the third he's meant to be like a rebellious teen, here he's like an adolescent just discovering girls and sex.

As far as Chop Top knows, their job at K-OKLA is done, so he and Leatherface leave, returning home to the rest of their family.

This time around, the chainsaw family has been given the last name Sawyer. Jim Siedow reprises his Cook role from TCM '74 and we learn that the character's name is Drayton. Siedow is absolutely terrific in this role, his character hilariously exasperated with his younger brothers Leatherface and Chop Top. This was Siedow's last movie role, and watching his performances in these films I'm disappointed that he didn't have the huge career as a character actor that he really deserved.

Also waiting at home is Grandpa, 137 years old and still alive thanks to his strict liquid diet of human blood.

For quite a while as a child, I thought Chop Top was the Hitchhiker from TCM '74 and the metal plate in his skull was the result of him being run over by a semi at the end of that film. In the first draft of the script, that was the case, but that plan changed when Hooper couldn't get Edwin Neal to reprise the role.

The Hitchhiker is still in TCM2, but just as the corpse, Nubbins, that Chop Top and Leatherface carry around.

Paying attention to some background dialogue, I did eventually figure out that Chop Top was a whole new character. He's the Hitchhiker's twin brother, a Vietnam vet who received a machete wound to the head during the war, resulting in the metal plate and his government compensation check being large enough to start up a new business for Drayton and buy property for the family to move in to.

Drayton's new business is the Last Round Up Rolling Grill, which has moved him up in the world from serving gas station barbecue to making croissants and award-winning chili for Dallas socialites.

The Sawyer family's new dwelling is the abandoned Texas Battle Land theme park. They own the place fair and square and have taken up residence in a vast underground maze of tunnels beneath the park. The exteriors of Texas Battle Land were filmed at the Prairie Dell Lake park, which was only open for a couple years in the '80s and closed by the time TCM2 shot on the property. The amusement park has since been replaced by an RV park, but I'd still like to visit the land someday.

Since Lefty never arrived to stop the killers at K-OKLA, Stretch takes it upon herself to follow them home. Turns out that Lefty has followed both vehicles back to Texas Battle Land, and before he can get Stretch out of there, she tumbles through a hole in the ground and into the Sawyers' subterranean lair.

It's like Stretch falls straight into Hell. The set design in the tunnels is spectacular and the amount of bodies/skeletons that the Sawyers have packed into them in insane. There's an impossible number of human remains down there, they've apparently murdered enough people to populate a small country. A little smoke room has been made for Leatherface with skulls filling in the walls like bricks... Like I said, the chainsaw family is not part of the real world, this is totally the logic of haunted houses and nightmares, it's like a visual representation of their dementia.

Lefty follows Stretch into the world below wielding his weapons, one that he carries and two that he keeps in hip holsters. Not guns. Chainsaws. Lefty is such a badass that he's looking to take on the Sawyers in a chainsaw fight.

He buys his chainsaws from the Cut Rite store in a great little sequence earlier in the film. Texas actor James N. Harrell (who played a gun store owner in Race with the Devil) works the register, argues with a woman over the phone about her wandering husband, and watches in amazement as Lefty uses his 'saws to go nuts on a log out in front of the store.

While Lefty saws down tunnels on his way to the Sawyers, Leatherface discovers Stretch in his smoke room and tries to keep her hidden from his family. When Stretch escapes into the tunnels, Leatherface gives chase and corners Stretch at a cave-in caused by Lefty. Desperate, Stretch brings out some classic break-up lines trying to let Leatherface down easy while telling him that this relationship isn't going to work. She uses every line in the book shy of "let's just be friends", then Leatherface's secret love is outed to his brothers when Chop Top and Drayton catch up to them. Chop Top mocks Leatherface with a typical older brother "Bubba's got a girlfriend!" chant while Drayton laments that he's gotten caught up in the swindle that is "S-C-E-X".

Stretch is taken back down to the main room to have dinner with the family, much like Sally in part 1, and eventually Lefty crashes the party and it's time for some chainsaw revenge.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is completely insane, and I get a lot of joy from this film's insanity. I love everything about it.

I think all the elements of the story are brilliant - the radio recording, the vengeful relative, Leatherface's first love - and they're delivered through an excellent script by L.M. Kit Carson, fresh off writing the screenplay for the critically successful Sam Shepard adaptation Paris, Texas. Carson's script is full of clever ideas and endlessly quotable dialogue which is frequently hilarious.

I can quote this film pretty much line-for-line, but the ones that have stood out as favorites for myself and friends and family that have watched the movie with me include: "Lick my plate, you dog dick!", "Oh, my achin' banana!", "It's like death eatin' a cracker.", and "I wouldn't wish this rotten life off on a one-eyed ferret with mange."

Appropriately for a movie with a DJ as the main character, the soundtrack is awesome, including songs by Timbuk 3, Oingo Boingo, The Cramps, Roky Erickson, Concrete Blonde, The Lords of the New Church, and Stewart Copeland. And by the way, if you're a TCM2 fan who hasn't yet heard the song "The Insanity of Drayton Sawyer and His Hallucination of Love Brought on by the Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2" by Nil8, I highly recommend that you check it out.

The movie's gore effects are great, which comes as no surprise since they were done by Tom Savini at the height of his career. His work led to the film being unable to receive an R from the MPAA, so it was put out unrated.

There are plenty of films that I love. Then there are a handful of films that are so deeply embedded in my movie fan heart that just thinking/talking about them can give me a giddy feeling. They're my "desert island" picks, the ones that I would forsake all other movies for if I had to. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of those films.

The original 1974 TCM is one of my favorites as well. I'll write about it more someday, I've written about my childhood (and on) obsession with it before and when Jay said in his Appreciation for it that the movie becomes "part of our lives and integrates its way into our own dialogue and daily activity", I totally knew what he meant and agreed. I feel the same about part 2.

Jason Lives and TCM2 were released to theatres just three weeks apart, on August 1st and 22nd of 1986 respectively, so they must've also reached VHS around the same time as well. Jason Lives' VHS release is what got me into horror, TCM2 had to also have been one of the first horror movies that I watched. TCM '74 was my favorite movie when I was in preschool and part 2 was right up there with it. All the time that I've been obsessed with TCM '74, it's been hand-in-hand with an obsession with its first sequel.

As such, I have a lot of memories tied to my many viewings of the film over the years. When I was a kid, my most frequent TCM2 viewing companion was my older brother. When I was 10, I had an all-night horror VHS marathon to show off the genre to my friends who weren't allowed to watch horror. TCM2 was one of the films chosen for that marathon. My father didn't want me watching horror movies either, but he's a trucker who's off on the road all the time and his viewing restrictions didn't matter when he was gone. I have a memory from sometime between the ages of 3 and 10 when my father arrived home when I was deep into a viewing of TCM2 - in fact, I even remember what scene I was at when he entered the house. It was at the 54 minute mark, when Lefty kicks a hole in a wall of the Sawyers' lair and a flood of guts falls out. I begged my father to let me finish watching the movie, I cried and jumped out and down, but he refused... Until the next day, when we finished watching it together.

Last year, I finally got to see TCM2 on the big screen at a 24 hour horror marathon at the Drexel Grandview theatre in Columbus, Ohio. I gleefully took in the experience while stuffing my face with Twizzlers to stay awake in the early morning of the second day, scratching another favorite off my theatrical bucket list.

In 2006, I was able to meet several cast members - Caroline Williams, Bill Moseley, Bill Johnson, and Lou Perryman - along with special effects artist Tom Savini at the Cinema Wasteland convention in Cleveland. The group participated in a really fun Q&A, after which I got them to sign my mini-poster. Some time later, I had Tom Morga add his signature to the poster as well.

Perryman was just hours away from getting on a flight to attend the April 2009 Cinema Wasteland show when he died. It was very sad and a terrible shame that he went out the way he did. He was a really great, nice guy to meet and very entertaining.

An explanation for Caroline Williams signing "F---ERS!": that's her opinion on whoever's responsible for Stretch not being on the poster. She stated this during the Q&A and seemed quite happy that I let her sign my poster that way.

Despite the lack of Stretch, TCM2's Breakfast Club parodying poster is one of my favorites. Just like TCM2 itself.


  1. Wow, coincidences come flying at you sometimes, don't they? I just sat down with the Gruesome Edition DVD of this, my first watch of TCM2 in probably 20 years. It was amazing; it always has been. I saw it at the Varsity theater in Carbondale Illinois in 1986 - I was blown away by the movie. My friends didn't care all that much for it. I nearly had to crawl up the slope to the exit, I was so drained. And L.G. as played by Lou Perryman jumped high on my All Time Favorite Movie Characters list. How I dearly wish there had been another movie with him, especially teaming him with the radiantly gorgeous Caroline Williams - something that would have teamed them as different characters - you know - like the double act James Karen and Thom Matthews got to do in two Return of the Living Dead movies? That would have been AWESOME. By the way - as an aside - I saw a picture of Caroline Williams in the photo galleries that nearly caused my eyes to explode. For some reason, I left the picture up last night and shot a photo of it right off the screen with my cell phone. (I don't know why!) But I decided to post it on Facebook to show off her beauty to anyone I could - and tagged Ms. Williams in it, as we are "FB friends." Guess whose photo is currently serving as her profile photo? Sorry, I tend to digress. Also, if I write a comment longer than the article, am I breaking a blog rule? Well, let's wrap up in any case - I saw TCM2 several more times across the next few years on VHS; then it was something I just hadn't seen in a long time. I picked up the bare bones first release DVD, but it hadn't even worked through my To Watch pile before I replaced it with the Gruesome Edition. I just watched it all the way through, finishing with the six photo galleries. I haven't listened to either commentary yet, saving those for another watch soon. I am pleased as punch that others love this movie as much as I do. Your overview/review is absolutely terrific, and I thank you for posting it!

  2. Glad you liked the article (and the movie). Thanks for the epic comment. :)

    - Cody

  3. Perryman, a great loss!I loved his review of the TCM Movie 2! This is my favorite movie! I have a chainsaw like the Leatherface!