In all the genres of film, I feel that horror and comedy sit at the closest intersection to one another. Both are designed to elicit a very specific and often vocal response from their audiences. When you look at dramas, romances, or thrillers, the viewer response tends to be more subtle and internalized. They might feel intellectually engaged by a social message or elated that the couple got together in the end, or their pulse might quicken during scenes of tension, but for the most part the audience will keep these reactions to themselves (unless they’re the obnoxious kind of theatre-goer that feels the need to say every thought that comes into their head).
But if a comedy is working, you’ll find yourself snickering, chuckling, or even full-on belly laughing over the course of the film. In an effective horror film, you may catch yourself jumping, gasping, or screaming as the situation demands. When you decide to watch a film in one of these two genres, you are doing so with the explicit understanding that it should trigger such a reaction in you.
A Blend of Emotions
So, what happens when a filmmaker decides to “cross the streams” (get it?) and give you a horror-comedy? On paper, this pairing would seem to be disastrous. Surely jokes would undercut any atmosphere or tension from the horror side of things. Surely jump scares would spoil the fun that’s being generated by the comedy side. And yet, when the tonal balancing act is achieved, the two can actually find themselves in service to one another.
Films like The Cabin in the Woods and Shaun of the Dead use humor to explore the tropes of the horror genre in ways that might not work as well if they were played straight, while entries like Ghostbusters and Zombieland will use the scarier trappings as colorful set dressing to bring dimension to what might otherwise be a fairly routine comedy. These movies tend to find the most success when they know how to manage audience expectations. The viewer can have any or all desired reactions as long as the film either comfortably jives with or satisfyingly subverts what they were anticipating going in.
Which brings us to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. When it arrived more than a decade after one of the most iconic horror films of all time, with the return of director Tobe Hooper no less, audiences in 1986 were under the reasonable assumption that they were in for another terrifying night of power tool-related violence and cannibalism. And while they certainly got that, they were also treated to franchise mascot Leatherface falling in love with the protagonist, Dennis Hopper running around screaming about “the devil’s playground”, and the Sawyer family’s modest country home swapped out for a nightmarish underground theme park that features body parts and Christmas décor hung around with equal abandon. This film is weird as hell, and I absolutely love it.
But Is It Too Weird?
Audiences at the time were not on board. The film was critically reviled and largely dismissed until years later, where it found itself a cult following that could appreciate Hooper’s absolutely gonzo vision. It seems he very much took the same route as Joe Dante would later follow with more success in Gremlins 2, where the director of a well-loved and influential horror classic returned to helm a sequel, apparently under the condition that he be given free rein to essentially turn it into a parody of the first film.
This was admittedly an easier transition for Dante since the original Gremlins already had a strong comedic bent, so the left turn into spiders and strippers and well-spoken versions of the titular creatures was a bit more digestible, if no less outlandish. While Hooper has maintained that the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre contained more than its fair share of black humor (most notably in the infamous dinner scene, which is replicated here to far wackier effect), the tonal shift for fans of the original remained jarring.
Horror fans, especially when it comes to long-running franchises, can be a notoriously prickly bunch, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t embrace the more outsized aesthetic on display here. But taken on its own merits, as an over-the-top homage to the original that forges its own bizarrely delightful path, I find myself enjoying it almost on the same level as the original, albeit for very different reasons.
What I find most effective, and why I consider it to be one of the greatest horror-comedies ever made, is just how thoroughly intertwined the aspects of both genres are. Rather than using the comedy to dissect the horror or vice versa, the film links the two until they’re barely recognizable from one another. The horror sequences produce laughter, while the comedy produces terror. It’s so strange and unwieldy and feels like it’s about to topple over from the weight of its own absurdity at any moment, and yet it works.
Samples of Strangeness
Take the opening sequence: we are introduced to a pair aggressively unpleasant Ivy League frat boys on their way to a big party of some kind. One is casually firing a handgun at various signs and mailboxes. The other is drinking and driving while wearing the ghastliest yellow sweater I’ve ever laid eyes on. In short, they are the worst, and within moments the film has already primed us to anticipate their inevitable demise.
Late into the evening, they’re still on the road, calling into a local radio station hosted by our heroine, Stretch (played with intense vivacity by Caroline Williams). Since it’s the ‘80s, they use one of those bulky corded car phones, a touch that’s both ahead of its time and instantly dated. While they’re crank calling to scream obnoxiously about nothing in particular, a pickup truck they drove off the road hours earlier has somehow gotten ahead of them on a bridge. Driving in reverse alongside them, the truck bed reveals itself to contain a large man disguised in a black cloak.
Stapled to the front of this cloak? The body of the hitchhiker that got run over at the end of the first movie. It’s an image that’s just as ghoulish as it is comical, and we’ve only just begun.
The man is naturally revealed to be Leatherface (one wonders why a man who already disguises his face with other people’s faces would feel the need to wear a further disguise on top of that, but logic doesn’t really have a place in this scenario) who proceeds to run the yuppies off the road by slicing the driver’s head in half.
So right off the bat, we’ve got incredible amounts of silliness blending nicely with some top-notch gore effects to set the tone that is to come. At the behest of Dennis Hopper’s Lefty, who is retroactively revealed to be the uncle of two victims from the first film, Stretch decides to play back the recording of this murder on the show, which brings the attention of the Sawyer clan to her station.
Fear From Humor, Humor From Fear
It’s here that we’re introduced to the film’s most memorable new character, Chop-Top (in perhaps a career-defining turn by Bill Moseley) a Vietnam vet with a plate in his head that he can’t stop scratching with a hot poker. The scene that introduces him is a masterclass in building tension, as he seems at once hilariously clueless and clearly dangerous. Stretch does her best to get rid of him by offering a tour of the waiting room (making sure to highlight such innocuous items as the Rolodex and rubber plushie on the desk), while he continues to overstay his welcome and invade her personal space.
As the menace reaches a fever pitch, he casually flips on the light to the records room to reveal Leatherface, who seemingly pops out of nowhere and charges at Stretch. It’s a truly effective jump scare, only made possible by the surreal suspense that builds up to it. Which makes it even more fascinating that the film then decides to reveal that Leatherface, the primary source of terror in the preceding entry, is actually going to be one of the sequel’s primary sources of comedy.
While obviously posing a physical threat, he’s also developmentally stunted and seems downright child-like. He has a hilarious dance that he likes to do while swinging his chainsaw over his head and shuffling around, which he does at least a dozen times through the movie. His interactions with Stretch take on an intriguingly romantic tone, with his chainsaw serving as a none-too-subtle representation of his manhood.
Despite appearing in eight films to date, I feel this is the only one where we really get to know Leatherface as a character (despite at least two of those films purportedly serving as origin stories). We see the pressure he is put under by his overbearing brothers, his yearning for companionship, his heartbreak at realizing that any kind of relationship with Stretch will never be able to work. He even gives her a new face mask for herself to match his (made from the skin of her coworker, natch). Underneath all the murder and mutilation, he’s really a big softie at heart.
I could go on and on about this movie. I could talk about the scene where Dennis Hopper purchases a trio of chainsaws from a vendor who appears far too aroused when seeing his customer test them out on a nearby log. I could talk about how he spends more than half of his screen time running around the Sawyer’s home base screaming bloody murder and slicing up every support beam he can find, before eventually fighting Leatherface in a chainsaw duel that’s just as ridiculous as it is awesome.
I could talk about the late Jim Siedow (the only returning actor from the first film) as Drayton Sawyer, who somehow wins first place in a chili-cooking contest despite the judges finding human teeth in the mix—who appears to be ad-libbing the vast majority of his dialogue, which makes the increasingly incoherent conversations between the brothers feel even loopier than they already are. I could talk about how Sam Raimi really missed a trick by never working with Caroline Williams, considering how much he likes to feature unholy shrieking in his filmography.
But I’d like to wrap this up by lamenting how we really don’t get films like this anymore. It’s most certainly a product of the ‘80s, and specifically a product of the now-defunct Cannon Films, whose insane methods and even crazier output are the subjects of a very entertaining documentary (Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films), which is certainly worth checking out.
Your modern horror comedies have a certain polish to them; they still feel like real movies delivered by professionals. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 comes from an era where true insanity was allowed to run rampant in the studio system, where such an outrageous experience could be cultivated and allowed to let its freak flag fly. But more than anything, it manages to be both funny and scary without sacrificing one for the other. So if you’re looking for a great horror-comedy and can handle some aggressive weirdness, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.