Tobe Hooper collected many accomplishments as a filmmaker: there was Salem’s Lot, the miniseries that made kids soil their bedsheets at the thought of a vampire floating outside their bedroom window asking to be let in. He also directed Poltergeist, which some argued was directed by Steven Spielberg. Never bought it. Usually the Team Spielberg folks are morons who think Hook is a good movie. Who wants to associate with that demographic? [Editor’s note: We’ll let Emilio take the heat for this one.]
Perhaps Tobe Hooper’s greatest achievement is Lifeforce. Who doesn’t love watching Matilda May walking in her birthday suit towards a Mr. Skin Lifetime Achievement Award? That movie came out when you had to hunt for porn in the woods and pray that issue of Penthouse wasn’t a trap put down by a pedophile waiting behind a tree. Thank you, Tobe, a man who understood we could only masturbate to Phoebe Cates taking that red bikini top off so many times before it lost its stimulating effect.
Alright, so maybe some would argue Lifeforce isn’t Mr. Hooper’s most notable achievement. For that vocal minority I’ll devote this piece to the rebellious nature of two films involving a family of cannibals barbecuing corpses chopped up by their chainsaw-wielding loved one. The first film was quickly considered one of the most essential horror films. The follow-up was, for years, a bastard child until Scream Factory gave it a $30 Blu-Ray.
Follow along as I do my best not to regurgitate something genre nerds have been repeating for decades.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out when horror was transitioning as it followed the leadership of New Hollywood. Up until then, every horror film came from England and starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. By the end of their run, it felt like Hammer Horror had more entries than The Three Stooges. Another constant for this era outside Hammer was Vincent Price as an eccentric villain, usually in an Edgar Allen Poe adaptation. You had deviations from those tropes, but those two formulas were more reliable than the combo of machetes and bush in the 1980s.
But starting in the late 1960s, horror began to divorce itself from all that. Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead were both released in 1968. One depicts Satan raping Mia Farrow, the other has resurrected corpses feasting on flesh like Kobayashi on hot dogs. Both appealed to the younger side of the generation gap.
After that “hey mama, welcome to the ’60s” double feature, another horror film worth pointing out came out a year prior to TCM, The Exorcist. One notable scene involves 12-year old Regan masturbating with a crucifix and shoving her mother’s face into her bloody crotch while shouting “lick me!” To find a more shocking incident you’d have to find an abandoned gas station with a blood-and-feces-covered GG Allin singing “Bite It, You Scum.”
Before we move on, I just want to point out how William Friedkin doesn’t think The Exorcist is a horror film. A little girl gets possessed by Satan and stabs her cooter with a crucifix. If that was in a funhouse, I’d jump into the arms of the nearest clown who’d run in place before taking off like Shaggy.
Even with those boundary pushers warming up audiences, TCM still finds a way to be grisly in a way those films aren’t. One way of explaining its power is that TCM is undeniably a horror film. Unlike The Omen or something as recent as Get Out, there’s no way of saying “well actually it’s a social thriller.” A man wearing a flesh mask is wielding a chainsaw. When the chainsaw isn’t nearby, he’s playing whack-a-mole with a meat hammer, or tossing people on hooks. Sure, you can spout your pseudo-intellectual belief that this film is an allegory for the Vietnam War, but at the end of the day it’s an exploitation film mainly focused on freaking you out for ninety minutes.
The film’s brief runtime is another reason why it holds power over people. You’re following kids into the creepy Texas countryside, and before you know it, only one of them is still standing, covered in blood and hysterical while the killer does some bizarre dance interpretation in the middle of the road, never considering the possibility of becoming a highway pancake like his brother. God bless any movie that doesn’t feel obligated to stick around for two hours and fifteen minutes.
The illusion of what people believe they saw in TCM is always interesting. Because it’s a gritty low budget film seen by more eyes than most independent films, many are convinced they saw a snuff film. The belief that this might be a documentary is understandable since the first time you see The Hitchhiker, how can you believe he’s anybody other than some deranged heat stroke-suffering psycho flapping his arms in the middle of nowhere?
People think they saw gallons of blood being dumped, when in reality there’s sprinkles of it. When it comes to gore, TCM is tame. Yet with all that restraint, plenty of people have described it like they saw a tape Henry and Otis sent to America’s Funniest Home Videos.
The misery captured helps create that illusion. No film translates unbearable heat like TCM. Even without an Odorama card, you can smell The Sawyer House, the complete opposite of a traditional horror film’s Victorian mansion. The aroma of blood, sweat, and decaying corpses come wafting out of the screen.
TCM’s down and dirty atmosphere is unduplicated. A great example of the inability to recreate it is the 2003 remake. That one makes an aggressive attempt to be edgy, and the end result is a film that looks like every other big budget Hollywood film. Multiple times you see Jessica Biel in a shirt that displays her tanned and toned torso running through a beautiful forest set where the sunlight pokes out from the top of the trees. In the original, there’s an unrecognizable creepy country track scoring The Hitchhiker slashing his wrists. In the remake, one of the first things you experience is a “Sweet Home Alabama” needle drop, an overplayed track whose only purpose nowadays is reminding your dad of a one night stand he had with a girl who resembled Catherine Bach.
To this day TCM possesses a lot of energy because it doesn’t overthink its plot. There’s a chainsaw-wielding maniac raising hell, that’s it. Few films are this simplistic. Anybody else making this film would’ve killed the fun by explaining how The Sawyers are getting away with this, how Sally has the strength to get away, or taking a deeper look at how Leatherface is treated by his family. Any detail is a brief glimpse on this macabre rollercoaster. The thrilling intensity of this film screams punk, and if you don’t agree, try explaining what else inspired a whipped cream-covered Wendy O. Williams to carve up a Fender Stratocaster with a chainsaw on stage with The Plasmatics.
It can be difficult for some to see the rebellious spirit of TCM because so much has changed over the years. This once repulsive exploitation film that unsettled teenagers trying to get to third base at the drive-in is now considered what horror should be, even in the eyes of the dullest genre fans. I remember seeing someone tweet out during Joe Bob’s Dinners of Death marathon how they had their family over for Thanksgiving, put this on and everybody loved it, like that was a good thing. Who the hell wants a horror movie going over as well as A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving?
Don’t allow crap like that to interfere with this film’s legacy, though. TCM is equivalent to a Ramones t-shirt: a lot of boring people are known to wear one, but you still love and respect The Ramones.
However, a film that still has the capability of rubbing some the wrong way is Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It’s an intense escape from the format of the first film. While that one is a grim exploitation film, TCM 2 is like blending your favorite slasher with a few episodes of Pee Wee’s Playhouse.
The beginning of TCM 2 kicks off strong with cartoon yuppies speeding around in a Mercedes with the license plate “FAH Q.” After asking the local rock station to play “bright lights, big titties,” they encounter Leatherface on the back of a truck holding his brother’s corpse up like a puppet. The chainsaw he’s using is so big you could kill someone with it while following the Coronavirus social distance guidelines. Oingo Boingo’s “No One Lives Forever” scoring this moment is the cherry on top.
Soon enough, one yuppie has his head sliced up, and that single kill exceeds the amount of on-screen blood in the first film. Along with moments like Stretch dancing with Leatherface while wearing the face of a friend, TCM 2 shows the carnage detail you miss in the first film. Tobe Hooper rebelled against expectations. With the first film, he won over dull genre fans: you know the type; they say crap like “no on-screen gore compares with what the mind imagines.” In TCM 2, Tobe gives a middle finger to that prudish perspective, and has Dennis Hopper discovering a wall filled with nothing but blood-splattered guts.
Dennis Hopper’s presence is another key ingredient to the rebellious nature of this film because, well, talk about a guy who should’ve died face down in his own vomit in 1971. After helping kickstart the New Hollywood era with Easy Rider, Hopper fizzled out from substance abuse. Every so often he’d pop up in things like Apocalypse Now. 1986 was officially considered the resurgence of his career when he starred in this, Hoosiers, River’s Edge, and Blue Velvet. He’s also the only guy who can say he was cockblocked by Nicholas Ray. It was over Natalie Wood when she was 16 and Ray was 43. But maybe that’s a story for another time.
Dennis Hopper spends a majority of this film screaming while chopping shit down, and most of the characters operate at that surreal frequency. This version of Leatherface is far more animated with the way he stops in place to hold the chainsaw over his head while dancing from foot to foot. He also ejaculates in his pants while rubbing his chainsaw against Stretch’s crotch. Pre-mature ejaculation is a Tobe Hooper signature. Fans of The Funhouse will recall that movie’s killer starting his rampage after Sylvia Miles caused him to ejaculate pre-maturely, and tried charging him for a handjob he didn’t have the stamina to receive.
Drayton Sawyer is also more animated. After hearing chainsaws on the radio, he cries out to his sons “you coon shits, you fudge packers!” Even Grandpa looks a little more lively licking blood off a coat hanger.
The addition of Chop Top really adds a new level of charismatic energy to this franchise. The way Bill Moseley plays this warped Vietnam vet shouting “incoming mail” while bludgeoning a victim into an unrecognizable pulp is one of the most exciting performances in horror. L.M. Kit Carson wrote this script, and I hope he stopped and cheered after writing the line “lick my plate, you dog dick!”
TCM 2 is everything a sequel should be. It recognizes the absurd “ we want more money” nature of a sequel, and gives itself over to insanity. The gore is messy, the humor is morbid, and as an added bonus, you’ll find yourself taken aback by the incredible set design. I wish more horror movies ripped the stick out of their ass and had as much fun as this one does.
Both TCM films have their own unique boundary-pushing attitude. One was a more serious attempt to get horror far away from the worn-out Victorian mansion setting trope. Its follow-up had the feeling of speed-addicted punks taking over a playground. Both films were incredible contributions from Tobe Hooper that ensured some corner of horror would always possess a punk spirit, even if many filmmakers try watering the genre down in order to obtain the approval they do a poor job of pretending they don’t desire.