Nothing says subversive like a good horror film, and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) is as subversive as they come—and also one of those rare instances where a sequel is actually better than the original. This is an angry film that’s nothing less than a blistering attack on the decade in which it was made. It’s open season on yuppies, family values and Reaganism—not necessarily in that order, and housed in a movie that wisely never forgets it’s a horror picture. It’s a horror picture built on satire, but its horror is intense, its suspense is palpable and its gore and grue very red indeed—so much so that it went out unrated. And the cherry on top of it all is a nutso performance from Dennis Hopper that rivals his Frank Booth in the same year’s Blue Velvet.
Hooper’s film can be taken as simply a horror picture if the idea that it’s more than that bothers some viewers (and it will, I’m sure). It certainly is a horror movie—one that even a lot of horror fans thought went too far at the time of its release. But taking this view really sells the movie short. Truth is that Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was not exactly apolitical. Its depiction of the “Chainsaw clan” is similar to the one found here—a group of people forming a tightly-knit family group, mired in the past and unable to cope with the world at large to a point of depraved insanity. Chainsaw 2 merely ups the content—though “merely” perhaps understates the case.
Here we have the “perfect” family unit, espousing the capitalist American dream at every turn—and seemingly unaware of any disconnect between their murderous, cannibalistic ways and the world at large. They live in the subterranean ruins of a theme park gone to seed, which the Bill Moseley character—a seriously deranged Vietnam veteran—wants to revive as “NamLand” (“It’s what the public wants!”). Jim Siedow’s character speaks almost entirely in bromides and bumper-sticker slogans—and considers himself the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit, regardless of the fact that his product is chili made from human beings (“The secret is the meat”). And like so many politicians, the characters “live on fear,” something the film makes abundantly clear throughout. That the film satirizes its own era seems hard to miss.
But as horror—with a heavy helping of black comedy—it works, too. It has a solid atmosphere—despite its apparent small budget—and the production design is weirdly beautiful (and disturbing). The acting is first rate throughout—at least for the kind of movie it is; this doesn’t call for subtlety. Special mention should be made of Caroline Williams in the lead role. Not only is she excellent and believable, but this has to be one of gamest performances in any horror film. Hooper clearly put her through the ringer making the film and she took it all. Whether the film really goes too far is, I guess, a matter of taste. It certainly doesn’t shy away from anything. But compared to today’s torture porn, it seems almost mild—or maybe it’s just that it doesn’t present sadism for its own sake.