***/**** Image B+ Sound B- Extras B
starring Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley
screenplay by L.M. Kit Carson
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Walter Chaw If the first film is about living with malevolent ghosts--the sins of the father made flesh and leather, if you will--then the second is a cunning piece about the Reagan '80s: the fantasia, the nostalgia, the delusions of grandeur, the inflationary monomania, and, finally, the decay of actual values in a society believing itself to be the illusory City on the Hill. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is also a highly sexualized film, the American Psycho of its day, mixing sex with money until the two are indistinguishable from the great gouts of blood, bluster, and designer suits used in their acquisition. The picture's smart enough to be a commentary on its time while its time is still unspooling. Undeniably, there's something bankrupt about the morality of this story told in this context--the rise of corporations in the McDecade skewered as the monster Sawyer clan of the original launches a successful man-meat chilli business with affable, no-longer-reluctant Cook (Jim Siedow) as its clown pitchman. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 can be read as every bit the product of its era as the following year's Wall Street and Predator--a science-fiction of regression and animalism that is not entirely unlike its star Dennis Hopper's Blue Velvet, also from 1986. It feels like the twelve years separating source and sequel (just like the ten that separate the first two George Romero "Dead" movies) mark director Tobe Hooper as a sharp sociologist when painting with this very specific brush, evolving the tumor of the Vietnam War manifested as a pair of lumpen bogeys on a young girl's back into this florid bloodbath erected on those conservative tent poles of mass media, mass consumerism, and misguided phallic projection. No accident, either, one supposes, that its central avenging angel is a dim-witted, swaggering cowboy figure, ambling in from the 1950s to win fights we've already lost.
DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) has the fortune to record the death rattle of a pair of frat-boy archetypes during an Oingo Boingo-scored chainsaw sequence (wherein Leatherface (Bill Johnson) dons literal body armour) that may be the single most viscerally exhilarating moment in any of the six films bearing the "Chainsaw" brand. The scene announces early and loudly that this sequel will be a different animal from its progenitor: Tom Savini's cheesy make-up effects by themselves stun with their intention, if no longer much with their proficiency. I'd wager that the purpose of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 isn't really to frighten (though an early jump-scare, until this year's The Descent, was the model for such things) so much as to slop outside the lines of what was permissible even in the anything-goes genre carnival of the 1980s. It's a reaction to a lot of social issues, no question, but moreover it seems a reaction to the culture of macho brinkmanship inspired in no small part by the actually-quite-chaste The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and the similarly reserved Halloween). I wonder if I don't sense a goodly portion of disgust in its own Guignol--a large portion of self-satire that stands in stupefaction at the legacy of grue erupting in its wake. It's arguably embarrassment of a legacy that developed a shambling half-life of its own that ties Hooper to other exploitation directors tapping the vein in the 1970s (and here I'm thinking of Wes Craven post-Last House on the Left); The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is Hooper's own Scream.
Stretch's quest for the truth gels cozily with what one supposes is a nice ratings spike for her radio show as she plays the murder tape on a continuous loop, thus attracting the attentions of both the cannibalistic Sawyer clan and disgraced Texas Ranger Lefty (Hopper). Lefty is somehow related to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's Franklin and Sally and has been on a decade-long hunt for their murderers/torturers, developing, somewhere along the way a fondness for power tools with which to wreak poetic Black & Decker justice on his quarry. Though Hooper, bless his heart, pays it off with a chainsaw duel between Lefty and Leather atop the Sawyers' legendary dinner table, the showdown with meat in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 involves Stretch and Leather as the bogey dips his tool in a bucket of ice and is unable to restart it until Stretch affirms his manhood and desirability while stroking the implement of her own ostensible destruction. (Carol J. Clover dissects this scene in detail in her fine genre deconstruction Men, Women, and Chain Saws.) For me, the fascinating thing about the entire exchange--after the literalization of all that theory about the rape/penetration, gender politicking, and odd sexual prudishness/punishment of the slasher genre--is this thought that Stretch is trying to arouse her own murder's weapon in an act so loaded as to become almost opaque. Is the suggestion here that Stretch is trying to avert her rape by making it a sexual act? And if so, what does that do to the contention that rape, as it invariably involves penetration and climax, is already intrinsically sexual?
Rather than provide a clear answer, the scene cements a kinship between Stretch and Leatherface that will pay off when Stretch slides, Alice-like, down a hole into the now-underground lair of the Sawyers. The transformation from a provincial/rural haunt to a subterranean one speaks to a transition in the culture under scrutiny from one that equates forgetfulness with its fringes to one that pushes its shadow to the subconscious. Should its predecessor be read as what it means when a culture first comes to terms with the lessons of its past, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is what happens when you wilfully forget the lessons of the past and assume the mantle of monster-hood. The final shot of the film of Stretch victorious and in the killer/Leatherface aspect is appropriately ambiguous: she's not the last-girl-standing of the slasher mode--she's the heir apparent to a legacy of vengeance and bestial brutality (as Lefty was before her), predicting the avatar trend that slasher films take with the seventh instalment of the Friday the 13th series, Bernard Rose's tremendous Candyman, and now the third Saw film. Society is restored as before, but it's a society based on victims and victimizers. De Sade rewrites Darwin.
Undercurrents of interest aside, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is presented as a farce that's self-aware but perhaps fatally disgusted with itself. It doesn't think its satire is important, and its edge is dulled against that belief of its own inconsequence. Hooper appears to resent being back behind the wheel of this vehicle of his, rendering the cheese of its dialogue and the excess of its carnage with a certain smugness and moral superiority. There's a thrill undeniable in seeing Hopper swagger out of a chainsaw store armed with a couple of foliage-clearing devices wielded inappropriately (a little like Christopher Walken dancing with an axe in The Funeral), yet tied to that image and instinct to capture it is camp so knowing that, as an audience, you almost begin to feel stupid for having wanted to see it in the first place. Compare the reverence of the next year's Evil Dead II against the irreverence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (both sharing an appreciation for Three Stooges gags and Bugs Bunny shorts) and find in a nutshell the difference between a cult classic and a semi-respectable curiosity.
After a long, sundry trail of home video releases, MGM collects The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in a "Gruesome Edition" that compiles all of the fabled elisions along with a fresh batch of supplementary material. The deleted scenes, running a little over twelve minutes in total, include an alternate opening credit sequence with different score (it's terrible: just credit and a moonscape that harks back to the original's cyclical theme, I guess, but plays like a cheapo, found-footage insert); a bit where more yuppie scum are butchered in a now-infamous underground parking garage sequence (notable for a nice bit involving the re-stitching of the taxidermied corpse of the Hitchhiker from the first film and for its attack on the rise of sports culture); and of course that scene where Joe Bob Briggs gets the money shot. These trims haven't been remastered to any appreciable extent (one presumes they didn't survive in negative form) and look a lot like the old bootlegs that were floating around. Sound isn't completed in the slaughter sequence, though the folks at MGM have deployed yellow subtitles as a stopgap measure for the missing dialogue. A punchline wherein a severed hand flips the bird reminds that gore guru Savini, unfettered, is a little like splatter's Robin Williams. (See also the lamentable seltzer and pies-to-the-face and blood-pressure cuff gags of Dawn of the Dead.)
The first of two film-length commentaries features Tobe Hooper in a track mediated by the ubiquitous David Gregory, finding Hooper in his usual laconic, informal, and informative style. Gregory scores major points by recalling that the original poster art, sadly abandoned for this release in favour of a Saw pastiche, mimicked The Breakfast Club's, but on that point, what I wanted to hear was Hooper express some embarrassment at how broad and exhausted the satire actually is. I wonder, actually, whether the picture doesn't work better now that the inanities of the '80s are more historical than broadside. The permissiveness of the decade is remembered fondly and because Hooper doesn't appear in the accompanying documentary, his presence here is welcome, even if his anecdotes, especially for Chainsaw fanatics, are familiar. The second yakker, recorded with Bill Moseley, Williams, and Savini, is ripe with bonhomie but too full of things like "I love that!" and "How funny, remember that?". Not only do I remember it, I'm watching the fucking thing for the third time. With all the laughter and a few picks at continuity errors, the track veers perilously close to an MST3K snark session. The point of sniping at a farce is lost on me--imagine a derisive track for Airplane!, for instance.
The six-part "It Runs in the Family" (90 minutes in toto) is in-depth and respectful, confirming for no one that the film was, indeed, made with a satirical bent, which has the misfortune of likewise confirming that yuppies are to satire as fish are to a barrel. Sections detail the prosthetic illusions, the inclusiveness of the lair-set (built on an old newspaper printing plant ('86 also the year that sequel Aliens built a hive nest--what is it about the mid-'80s and hive insects?)), its casting (again, sans contribution from Hopper, alas), and, maybe most interestingly, a "requiem" section that has the cast and crew reflecting on the picture as though it were a "Rocky Horror"-style phenomenon. It isn't, of course, but twenty years later, it ain't bad. A theatrical trailer for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 fetishizes the saw in a way more compelling than the "Excalibur" trailer for the second sequel does while an exhaustive stills gallery rounds out the disc. The whole shebang is slid snugly into a worthless cardboard slipcover that replicates the abysmal keepcase art, although the 1.80:1, 16x9-enhanced transfer is clean--that is to say free, unlike the previous DVD, of moiré problems in the record stacks and haloing in the neon-clock background early on--and sharp without edge-enhancement artifacts; the lightly-grained, filmic quality of the decade's pictures is preserved with fidelity. The Dolby 2.0 Surround audio is the same as before, i.e. largely restricted to the front channels. For the record, this disc contains the same unrated version of the film that MGM misidentified as the R-rated theatrical cut on the back of the 2000 DVD. Originally published: November 8, 2006.