In my Fangoria reading youth, there were two constants: Texas Chainsaw Massacare was the scariest movie ever and Tom Savini was the master of gore. If you put that chocolate into that bloody peanut butter, what would you get? And in a world where Freddy, Jason and soon, Michael Meyers would all get sequel after sequel, why not Leatherface?
Two failed films into his Cannon Pictures deal, one would assume that Tobe Hooper felt the same way. And even though Chainsaw 2 would double its slim $4 million dollar budget, it wasn’t considered a success by audiences and critics for years — similar to how Halloween fans just could not see Halloween 3 as a great film until the last few years.
Whereas Chainsaw seems to be a nuanced film based on dread, mood and cinema vérité, the sequel is in your face, replete with tons of gore, overwhelming screams and saw noises and near slapstick moments. Maybe it’s because Tobe Hooper, unlike nearly every other human being on the face of the Earth, saw the first film as a black comedy and this was just the next logical progression. For me, I saw Chainsaw 2 as a middle finger, a fuck you to the expectation that the film needed to be just more of the same. Ironically, Rob Zombie seems to have fallen in love with this film so much that he’s filmed variations of it several times and even used some of the cast.
Tobe Hooper wasn’t the only person in need of some redemption here.
Dennis Hopper’s Hollywood career –actually, his entire life — had gone off the rails. That said, Hopper’s career should have ended numerous times. After appearing in two films with James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant, Dean’s passing impacted Hopper so greatly that he had a blowup on the set of From Hell to Texas where he forced director Henry Hathaway to do over eighty takes, leading to Hathaway claiming that Hopper would never work again. After leaving for New York to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio and star in Night Tide (alongside Marjorie Cameron, the Whore of Babylon as prophesied in the Book of Revelations, no shit).
Yet for years, Hopper could find no work in Hollywood. Because he was the son-in-law of Margaret Sullivan, John Wayne gave him a break and talked director Hathaway into using him in 1965’s The Sons of Katie Elder. He also appears alongside Wayne in 1969’s True Grit — a film on which the two actors became friends. In both of these films, he dies and says his final words to the venerable screen icon.
Within months, Hopper was in two blockbusters in a summer (and had appeared in Cool Hand Luke the year before) — the aforementioned True Grit and Easy Rider, the film that made his name to so many. Stepping into the director’s chair, Hopper won kudos for his improv style and innovative editing (the truth is, he nearly had to be physically removed from the editing bay), but the film arose out of chaos — Fonda and Hopper had creative differences, Hopper was in the midst of a divorce and drugs, drugs and more drugs. Hopper even pulled a knife on actor Rip Torn during casting, a story that he told on The Tonight Show but placed the knife in Torn’s hands — a storyline switch that cost him nearly a million dollars.
The problems of Easy Rider would continue — minus the success — on his infamous next effort, The Last Movie. Hopper would say — when speaking of Easy Rider— that “the cocaine problem in the United States in really because of me.” With a $1 million budget ($6.4 million in today’s money) and free reign, Hopper went to Peru to make a movie that had been his pet project since the early 60’s — a meditation on fact versus fiction and how cinema struggles to be real. It’s also a batshit crazy film, not helped by the aforementioned drug usage (Hopper had film cans full of coke and women at the ready while editing), a little longer than a week marriage to co-star Michelle Phillips and a year plus of editing inside Hopper’s home studio in New Mexico. This entire process was documented in The American Dreamer, a documentary by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson (who perhaps not so coincidentally wrote Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the movie that we should really start talking about soon). Hopper finally created a straightforward cut of the film that was much more conventional before showing it to Alejandro Jodorowsky, who told him it was a piece of shit and urged him to break new ground. Hopper destroyed that edit and the resulting film made him persona non grata in Hollywood for another decade.
Hopper went to Europe, where his drug intake increased, but he appeared in roles in films like Mad Dog Morgan before 1979’s Apocalpyse Now brought him back to the mainstream. He also stepped in to direct and act in 1980’s acclaimed Out of the Blue, but his old habits came back hard. His behavior on the set of Human Highway delayed the film and Hopper was up to 3 grams of coke a day, plus 30 beers, weed and assorted other substances.
So what did he do next? He staged a suicide attempt by blowing himself up in a coffin with 17 sticks of dynamite at an art happening, then later disappearing into the Mexican desert. Oh yeah — he also went to rehab in 1983.
But the successful mainstream comeback — and this time, he would stay — that happened after David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (Hopper begged for the role, telling Lynch that he was Frank Booth) was far away when Dennis Hopper would step into the cowboy boots of Chainsaw 2‘s Lieutenant Boude “Lefty” Enright. The uncle of Chainsaw’s Sally and Franklin Hardesty, he’s spent the last 13 years searching for the Sawyer clan, hoping to bring them to justice.
There’s finally a lead — thanks to two dumb jocks on the way to the OU vs. Texas Cotton Bowl game. They call DJ Vanita “Stretch” Brock’s (Caroline Williams, who Rob Zombie would later cast in his remake of Halloween 2) radio show and won’t hang up. She keeps them on the air long enough to hear them get attacked by a passing pickup truck. Leatherface appears, the old side of Texas coming roaring back to decimate the new Texas, cutting off part of the driver’s head in a horrific spray of gore and crashing their car, killing both of the boys.
However, Stretch made a tape of the attack and Lefty asks her to play it. He’s old Texas, too. A lawman who has been on a quest for over a decade, one that’s cost him so much (originally, Lefty was intended to be Stretch’s absent father).
This leads to Leatherface and his family attacking the radio station, with Chop Top (Bill Moseley, who Hooper found in a satire of his film called The Texas Chainsaw Manicure. Hooper’s son William would also feature this character in his unreleased film All-American Massacre. You can also see Moseley as the Deadite Captain in Army of Darkness, the 1988 remake of The Blob and in every Rob Zombie movie, just about) leading the charge. A Vietnam vet (which explains his absence from the first film), Chop Top got his massive head wound from a machete, leaving him with a metal plate in his head. He also tends to heat up a wire hanger and burn the skin at the edge of the plate to eat. He’s used his government disability checks to purchase Texas Battle Land, a decrepit theme park that his family now lives in.
Leatherface corners Stretch and slides his chainsaw between her thighs, sawing his way closer to her as her screams more and more moans in a really discomforting scene. Unable to take the sexual tension, Leatherface runs, telling the rest of the clan that he killed her. They take her co-worker L.G. back to their amusement park home, which has been decorated with skulls, bones and dead bodies — it’s a stunning achievement in art direction for the budget.
Lefty soon arrives and gets himself ready for battle with his own chainsaws. He goes shithouse on the place until finding Franklin’s dead body.
Stretch is discovered by the besotted Leatherface, who gives her her own mask — that of L.G.’s face. He ties her up and leaves, but miraculously, L.G. has enough life in him to help her escape…until she’s found by Drayton Sawyer (who played the same role in the original), the cook. Seems that Drayton has set up a big business, winning chili cookoffs with his special recipe. The family brings her to dinner — Chop Top treats Leatherface as one would bully a little brother — before Lefty saves her. A huge battle ensues, chainsaw versus chainsaw, before a grenade that was pinned to the corpse of Chop Top’s Hitchiker twin brother goes off, probably (but hey, I was ready for a sequel) killing everyone.
Chop Top and Stretch survive, battling up a rock tower. I mentioned this scene a few weeks ago in my tribute to Hooper. It’s amazing — both a reference and a reversal of the ending of the first film.
Hooper didn’t even want to direct this film. He originally intended to produce it. Then, there was the idea that the movie (to be written with original writer Kim Henkel) would be about an entire town of cannibals — playing off Motel Hell, itself a satire of chainsaw — with the crazy title of Beyond the Valley of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Cannon hired new writers for the massive changes they envisioned and with the budget hacked (sawed?) down, Hooper got back in the director’s chair.
Dennis Hopper would go on to achieve more mainstream fame after this film than the counterculture fame that got him there, appearing in films such as Speed, Waterworld and Super Mario Brothers. He said at the time that Chainsaw 2 was the worst film he’d ever been in, but one would have to assume that he said that before those films.
If you’re thinking — hey, this is a comedy — be prepared. The film never was released in England, was banned in West Germany and Australia, and was rated X before being released unrated in the U.S. Tom Savini was at the top of his game here (and there are even more gory scenes that didn’t make the…err…cut (there it is again), like the clan decimating football fans).
This is a film filled with excess that comments on excess. It’s filled with ridiculousness to combat the banal nature of 80’s ridiculousness. It’s also a popcorn film that could make most folks puke up said popcorn.
It’s a shame that this is the last Hooper movie to see a true cinematic release. When this played at the Drive-In Monster Rama earlier this year, I was struck by how well it holds up, as well as the supreme level of onscreen gore. It’s a film that does that rare trick — it’s humorous while being horrific, never descending into banal parody like Scream or a Troma movie. It’s the closest movie have come — other than Creepshow — to getting the aesthetics of E.C. Comics on to the silver screen.