“Who will survive and what will be left of them?”
This is the tagline for an independent horror movie called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You might have heard of it before. Go on, look it up.
When TCM was released to drive-in’s and theaters throughout the world in 1974, nothing quite like it had been seen before. Prior to TCM, most horror movies had been set in gothic European castles or locales that were at the very least far-removed from most people’s everyday lives. Psycho and Night of the Living Dead had trod a similar ground (Psycho being loosely based on Ed Gein, much like TCM), and Last House on the Left had certainly left its mark on weary drive-in viewers, but TCM was different. TCM was so strange, sadistic, brutal, darkly funny, and bizarrely absurd, that it pretty much created (along with John Carpenter’s Halloween 3 years later) its own genre: the slasher film. For those interested in a grand retelling of the making of TCM, check out The Shocking Truth documentary that is included in the special edition DVD set. The behind the scenes madness is almost on par with what went on screen.
TCM was not considered to be a classic upon release, though. Some critics and audiences ‘got it’ but it was too jarring for most. It really wasn’t until the 1980’s that it started to gain a more positive reputation. The film was successful enough in Hollywood to get the film’s director Tobe Hooper more work including the massive hit Poltergeist in 1982. With the advent of VHS, TCM gained an even greater popularity and in 1986, 12 years after the original burst into theaters, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was released to a confused public. And now, I’m going to tell you why it’s better than the original.
“After a decade of silence…the buzz is back.”
The first time I saw TCM 2 was when I was seventeen. My friend and I had decided to go rent a movie and, per usual, we had decided on a horror movie. I had seen the original TCM at this point and liked it but much like Last House on the Left, it wasn’t a movie I could watch regularly. I honestly figured TCM 2 would be fairly similar, and boy was I wrong.
I will admit that my first viewing was probably like most peoples. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Should I laugh at these scenes? Are they meant to be played straight and they fail? Is there really a chili cook-off subplot with human meat used in place of beef?
Eventually though, I went with it. After multiple viewings over the years and talks with other like-minded individuals I came to see TCM 2 as not only superior to the original, but what the original was probably shooting for in the first place. It was a very dark comedy featuring absurd characters that don’t really exist in the real world, and that’s kind of the point.
What the original did so well was atmosphere, but I tend to lean more towards that being accidental for the most part. Things like not having a traditional score helped it but that was probably born more out of necessity than anything else, and although the setting was definitely creepy, I truly believe that the sweltering heat and long shooting days the cast had to put up with gave the movie just as much of it’s weird nightmare like quality. The choice of the house and the decorations inside however was a stroke of genius, and I give the filmmakers all the credit in the world for that.
TCM 2 on the other hand had a much bigger budget. This allowed it to branch out as far as locations went and, in the case of Dennis Hopper, get a name talent in the movie. I’m not going to bore you with a synopsis of the movie itself. IMDB and Wikipedia will be more than happy to do that. Instead, I am going to give you five reasons why TCM 2 is superior to it’s older sibling.
5. Dennis Hopper
When the original TCM was released, it was just five years on from Easy Rider and Dennis Hopper was still a fairly known star. By the time TCM 2 came about however, he was fresh out of rehab and struggling to get his career back on track. I would hate to say that he took TCM 2 for the money, but it probably played a part. Speculations aside he gives the part of a vengeful uncle his all and makes the movie a hell of a good time.
4. Tom Savini
Although Leatherface looks much creepier in the original, literally every other effect in the movie is light years better, and that is thanks to Sex Machine himself, Tom Savini. The film doesn’t have quite the gore effects that Savini brought to Dawn of the Dead or Day of the Dead, but they work great in the context of the film. The opening sequence with Leatherface holding up the body to the frat-boys is worth the price of admission alone.
The Texas that Tobe Hooper and the crew bring to life in TCM 2 is like a psychotic version of Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket. Every single thing about it oozes menace and an unhinged psyche. Just watch the scene where Stretch comes to see Lefty in his hotel room. All the men in the room across the hall appear to have two things on their mind: raping and fighting. And I’m pretty sure they don’t care if it’s a man or woman on either of those accounts.
Not to be outdone, fast forward just a few minutes to the scene where Lefty buys the chainsaws and tries them out. Watch the shop owner in this scene. That’s either some of the best acting I’ve ever seen or he is actually giddy about those chainsaws cutting things. You be the judge on that one.
2. L.M. Kit Carson’s screenplay
As good as the original TCM was, it was very obviously a movie made on the fly. There is a looseness to it that is pretty neat but at the end of the day it’s not going to win any awards for its writing. The main non-cannibal character Sally spends more time screaming than speaking, and although the same could be said of Stretch in TCM 2, the characters surrounding her are a lot more interesting as well. The supporting cast in TCM is really just a plot point waiting to be used. In TCM 2 they are more entertaining and serve a greater story purpose.
Most of these changes can be attributed to a solid script from L.M. Kit Carson. Known primarily for co-writing (with Sam Shepard) the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas. Carson brought a much needed brevity and ridiculousness to the story of a cannibal family in Texas. What the film lacks in seriousness it more than makes up for in eccentricity and general craziness. And this point segues very well into the main reason that I believe TCM 2 to be superior to the original…
1. It Made it Okay to Laugh at a Slasher Movie
Now I know there had been humorous horror movies before. One of my favorite movies is The Night Stalker starring Darren McGavin which originally aired in January of 1972, and it is very much a horror comedy. However the 1970’s had been such a serious time that it seemed the majority of horror movies released through the early 1980’s, and the slasher subset specifically, were pitch-black. This of course worked for some (Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and TCM) and not so much for others (Friday the 13th, Sleepaway Camp), but by the time TCM 2 came out the tide was starting to turn.
By the early 80’s a new crop of horror movies started to come around. 1982 saw the release of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, followed in 1985 by both Fright Night and Return of the Living Dead. These movies took on different aspects of the horror genre and lampooned them while also being genuinely frightening. It is much easier to view TCM 2 in the context of these films than with its predecessor. TCM 2 skewered the very genre it was a part of and gave a knowing wink to the audience at the same time.
TCM 2 reset the series. It breathed a new different life into it and was quite a bit ahead of it’s time. In its humor you can see the beginning of the new track slasher movies would go in, for better or worse. Without TCM 2 Freddy and Jason probably wouldn’t have become the icons that they are but instead might have fallen to the wayside like so many other slashers. Go watch Jason Takes Manhattan or Freddy’s Dead and tell me that they don’t owe a huge debt to TCM 2. I would wager that TCM 2 at this point in time has been just as influential to the slasher genre as the original TCM but in a wildly different way. And without TCM 2 who knows what Rob Zombie would be up to. He has basically built his whole movie career off of it.
A lot of people will disagree with me and that’s okay. I’ve fought this battle before and I will fight it many more times I’m sure. All that I ask of anyone is that they go into TCM 2 with an open mind and understand ahead of time that it is very different from the original. Watch it for Dennis Hopper, watch it for the crazy opening scene where the frat boys meet the family, watch it for the weird amusement park lair, watch it for Bill Mosley playing one of the most bizarre characters ever put to film, but most of all, watch it because it’s crazy cool and there’s not been anything else quite like it since. And did I mention there’s a chili cook-off where human meat is used?