On Chainsaws and Massacres
Remembering Tobe Hooper
by Inci German
The recently deceased Tobe Hooper will without doubt be remembered firstly as the director of the staggeringly nasty, terrifying and one of the most difficult to watch horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). In only an hour and a half he awoke the revolsion, agony, dread and deepest fears of a whole generation while bordering on hilarity and insanity through utmost exageration and bluntness, concluding in the deepest of reliefs. Didn't you too get uneasy at the gas station scene or shout in disbelief "Oh no, don't do that!" when they entered the crazy butcher family's house or cried in shock and firmly closed your eyes when Leatherface first appeared and grabbed Jerry, shutting the door - panicked and yet relieved because you didn't see what he's doing to him? And yet wasn't Leatherface's lipsticky face for special dinner occasions in the slightest sense somewhat cute? Did you laugh incredulously at that insane scene where the ancient Grandpa tried to suck Sally's blood out of her finger or tried to hit her on the head with the sledge hammer, missing repeatedly, leaving you repeatedly aghast? Hooper surely knew his craft.
There are arguably few other directors, even in the genre, who can grab you as tight as Hooper can. Above all, he contrives to confront his spectator with the major anxieties and fears of his time - something especially the horror genre can achieve in a uniquely metaphorical way. The coming oil crisis and the American fear of running out of gas, the mass murderer Ed Gein who made lampshades and seat covers from the skin of his victims (and whose legend was told to many baby boomers as children to keep them in order) and even his personal aversion against family gatherings... He takes all these elements and meshes them in an extreme way into a distinctive work. I would argue that Hooper's prime achievement was to create a true work of art that appealed and still appeals to the masses, despite initial rejection and banishment.
Although you wouldn't think it from all the half naked girls being chased around under the hot Texas sun and the overtly misogynistic nature of the cannibal family, TCM is indeed pretty gender aware in the sense that Sally can save herself (even though with a huge strike of luck). Following the movements of its time, this is indeed a breakthrough compared to the Hitchcockian (who also tremendously influenced Hooper) image of the woman screaming and waiting to be murdered without resistance. Which leads me to the much less popular and much less estimated second part of the franchise, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), for which I have a weird sort of affection.
Opening and closing with each a monumental secene, TCM2 is basically a parody of its predecessor. I agree that it cinematographically falls short compared to the first part but it's all the less dark, all the more theatrical and lighthearted, almost funny that is. More gore, more laughter and more chainsaws - that's what Hooper offers in TCM2.
Many many spoilers ahead
Investigating a suspicious car crash, Texas Ranger Lefty Enright (Denis Hopper) stumbles across the infamous cannibal Sawyer Family (made me chuckle that last name. Even funnier is that they're now into the chilly business, yuck!) who have destroyed his family a decade ago. He tries to track them using a radio DJ, Stretch (Caroline Williams), as bait, who got involved in the case because she witnessed and recorded the said car crash on her live broadcast show. After Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and his brother Chop Top (Bill Moseley) pay an expectedly brutal visit to the radio station, Stretch ends up in the terrifyingly decorated underground lair of the family (they sure have improved their cozy home since last time) where Lefty has followed them. He saves Stretch from being further tortured by Grandpa Sawyer (who apparently treats every woman the same) and gets killed, along with most of the Sawyer famiy in an explosion. Only Stretch and Chop Top survive and in the presence of the mummified GrandMA Sawyer embroil in an epic chainsaw fight, which Stretch wins.
Much that is only subtly hinted at in the first part is being driven to the extreme in TCM2: the black humour, the image of woman as a powerful individual, the reversal of conventional gender roles, Hitchcock's influence on Hooper's work, just to name a few.
While the sexuality of the Sawyers was never ever mentioned before, we now see Leatherface liking and even falling in love, resulting in him not wanting to kill as much as he's used to. Stretch, a great, strong and very likeable woman, leaves nothing to chance, as maybe her antecessor Sally did. She sees the danger, faces it and conquers. While Lefty, a white, middle aged cop with a history that justifies him being violent (features of the conventional "hero") proves to be a somewhat conniving liar who endangers Stretch for his personal purposes.
Then there is Grandma Sawyer - or what is left of her. Anyone who saw or read Psycho can't miss the connection. Her decaying body sitting in her throne in the skies with her ancient chainsaw! It is a true slap in the face of the misogyny represented by the Sawyers and even Lefty, that Stretch remains the sole survivor of this second massacre by fighting with ole' Grandma Sawyer's chainsaw. Brilliant!
Adorned with plenty of gore, many comical moments that ease the tension of the overall picture and lo-o-o-ts of references to the first part, it's kind of a shame this movie hasn't reached the popularity it deserves. Both thumbs up, watch it immediately!