The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Back in 1974, Tobe Hooper changed the horror game when he made the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre as an independent auteur. However, like many of the horror wunderkinds who made their mark in the 1970s, Hooper eventually found himself working for The Man. In the mid-1980s, Hooper was under contract to mini-major The Cannon Group, for whom he had already made two box office disasters that saw more than their fair share of post-production meddling. Making a sequel that lived up to the daunting legacy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre would be difficult in any circumstance, but with Hooper now beholden to short-sighted corporate overlords, the task became impossible. Hooper tried, though. In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, he tackled (or attempted to tackle) such diverse topics as the socioeconomic landscape of 1980s America, the absurdity of family values, and the destructive effects of vengeance, all while trying to make a movie that Cannon would deem commercially viable. With so many different goals, it isn't surprising that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is uneven, a mish-mash of interesting ideas and missed opportunities, great moments and bizarre tonal shifts.
Since their original rampage in the mid-1970s, the cannibalistic Sawyer family has moved from rural southern Texas to an abandoned amusement park outside of Dallas. Drayton "The Cook" Sawyer (Jim Siedow) is now an entrepreneur, carting his award-winning chili ("the secret's in the meat") around in a food truck. Leatherface (Bill Johnson) helps procure supplies with the assistance of brother Chop-top (Bill Moseley), who has a plate in his head. Their new lifestyle is threatened, however, when a radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) overhears and records one of their murders during a request call. At the behest of vengeful Texas Ranger Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper), Stretch plays the tape on-air, which draws the Sawyers out of hiding. Now they must face an unhinged Lefty, come to bring his wrath down upon them. Turnabout is fair play, but when have the Sawyers ever played fair?
The economic undertones of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre become overtones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Previously, the Sawyers' cannibalism could be read as either reaction to or revenge against the economic depression that had overcome them after the slaughterhouse closed. Now, in the wake of the economic upswing in the early 1980s, they've taken what defined their poverty and parlayed it into new financial success with "The Last Round-up Rolling Grill", turning their customers into accidental cannibals in the process.1 Consequently, they've had to expand their operation, moving out of the family homestead and into a properly zoned business establishment (even if they have had to repurpose it significantly).
Drayton "The Cook" Sawyer has let this new prosperity go to his head. Moaning about then-President Ronald Reagan's economic policies ("Small businessmen get it in the ass every time"), he's shifted from the patriarchal figure of the first movie to more of a harried boss dealing with incompetent subordinates and stressful market conditions. His personal style has gotten bigger and louder in keeping with the image of success in this new decade; gone is the plain beige work shirt, replaced by a gauche blue plaid suit over a yellow polo shirt, topped off with an overworked Panama hat. He's become the image of the greedy 1980s profiteer. One wonders (and fears) how far he would get with less taboo activities like insider trading.
Leatherface and Chop-top have also changed to meet the demands of doing business in the 1980s. Since the rising demand for their product precludes waiting for random travelers to wander by, the two have to go out and seek fresh ingredients, commuting from the outskirts of town (read: suburbs) into the heart of the city to do business. This is actually where the economic theme frays a bit, because a large section of the movie devoted to a Sawyer family rampage/meat-procurement run was removed in post-production (either for pacing reasons, per the MGM "Gruesome Edition" DVD2, or second-unit ineptitude, per John Kenneth Muir3). What's left is a single sequence at the front of the movie where a couple of yuppies are slaughtered, but at least one of their bodies is left behind4, which goes against the whole point of hunting for foodstuff. Later in the movie, there are some dialogue references to going out for fresh meat, but nothing concrete to really tie Leatherface and Chop-top into their assumed roles, so the idea of a "family business" deflates significantly.
Even as they work together to make their business a success, however, the Sawyers are still a family and Tobe Hooper is still interested in the absurdities that can come from strict adherence to family values. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Sawyers displayed a group sociopathy, both as an effect of their isolation from "proper" society and as way for the family unit to survive their period of hardship. They saw their actions as another facet of living, as the Cook demonstrated when he said, "I just can't take no pleasure in killing. There's just some things you gotta do. Don't mean you have to like it." The mundane attitudes that the Cook, Leatherface, et al. took toward their aberrant behaviors were the source of some ghastly black humor in the earlier movie. Now, in the sequel, Hooper puts the family and their unique perspectives at the forefront of the action, resulting in a much heavier reliance on humor over horror. Indeed, much of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 feels like an extended, morbid sitcom, with the hard-working Drayton constantly being undermined by the fun-loving, mischievous Chop-top and the eager-to-please Leatherface.
Leatherface, in particular, comes under the spell of that particular obsession of 1980s comedy - hormonal teenage love. Yes, it takes some mental adjustment when you consider that the Leatherface of the first movie was a cross-dressing, hand-wringing worrywart, but Bill Johnson's interpretation of the character as a besotted manchild provides one of the great pleasures of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Leatherface discovers his special feelings when, sent to kill Stretch, he finds that he just can't connect his saw with his pretty victim. Instead, it lands in a cooler full of soda, sending sprays of sticky liquid into Stretch's face (it looks even less subtle than it sounds). He keeps gyrating his hips, jabbing the saw in and out of the cooler before it finally cuts out (prematurely, one might say). Stretch, who's noticed the sexual metaphors in the attack, tries coming onto her assailant to distract him, leading to an achingly tense moment when Leatherface rubs his blade against her bare thigh.5
Once Drayton discovers that Leatherface has been unable to kill Stretch because of his infatuation, he must, of course, give the Talk, Sawyer family style. Drayton dismisses love as "the ol' c**k and c**t swindle" (which may go a ways to explain why there are no living Sawyer women around), and then infamously skewers the Facts of Life:
"You got one choice, boy: Sex or the Saw. Sex is, well, nobody knows. But the Saw, the Saw is Family!"
Here a standard of "traditional" family values -- the idea of keeping sex education at home "where it belongs" -- is warped by exposure to the Sawyers. The survival of the family and its values have been predicated on their isolation. Therefore, a wild card factor like sex threatens the ability of the family to function, even as it curtails the ability of the family to grow. Family duty is therefore presented as an alternative to sex (the only viable one, in fact), giving rise to Drayton invoking what is, for all intents and purposes, a family motto ("The Saw is Family" would later be inscribed on Leatherface's chainsaw in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). Of course, the fallacies in Drayton's argument become apparent when you realize that the old man is inadvertantly (and ironically) using Leatherface's penis-analogue as a symbol for the triumph of family values over sex.
However, sometimes the humor overwhelms the absurdities it is trying to illustrate. As the Sawyers babble and banter and bark, their steady stream of talk becomes noise. In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, this noise added to the overall mood of despair and horror that Hooper created. In the sequel, it only distracts. This is particularly true whenever Chop-top is the scene. Considered separately from the film, the character is amusing, particularly because Bill Moseley commits himself fully to giving life to this hyperactive scumbag. However, he has a tendency to steal every scene he's in, even the ones where other goals are paramount. For instance, even as Drayton gives his "The Saw is Family" speech, Chop-top is jumping around in the background, yelling, "Bubba's got a girlfriend!" over and over. It sometimes becomes a chore to dig Hooper's themes out of the avalanche of what appears to be goofiness for the sake of goofiness.
When he moves away from the madness of the Sawyers, Hooper is able to take a more serious approach to family values in his consideration of Lefty Enright. Lefty's pursuit of the Sawyers stems from his connection to characters in the first film - he is the uncle of Sawyer family victims Franklin and Sally Hardesty (who are, respectively, dead and insane/catatonic). Lefty's years of dogged obsession have cost him his credibility and his job as a Texas Ranger. Desperate and with no other recourse left, he reacts to the harm caused to his family in the same way the Sawyers did when their existence was threatened all those years ago: the development of a lifestyle of violence informed by an isolated and skewed value system.
Unfortunately, this second and parallel cycle of violence is somewhat incomplete. The Sawyers became what they are as a group, which made continual reinforcement easier and gives them something larger than themselves to protect. Lefty is on his own; the people he's fighting for are already beyond his help. While Lefty clearly recognizes the need to become a monster to defeat monsters (demonstrated by the use of a chainsaw as his weapon of choice), he can't complete the transformation because he has nothing left, no-one to save - not even himself. He says to Stretch, "I got a perfect willingness to die. That gives me a moral on this bunch of mad dogs. They live on fear. They thrive on it. I ain't got no fear left." However, qualities like "morality" are largely beside the point in the lifestyle of violence; instead, it becomes a question of what will get the job done, something that the Sawyers have embraced. And Lefty is afraid of something: he's afraid he'll die before he finishes the job (as evidenced by his prayers to God during his assault on the Sawyer homestead). It's a legitimate concern: as a family of one, Lefty's quest for vengeance can never compete with the Sawyer family's thirst for survival.
This is actually another instance where post-production decisions took a lot of power out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The original cut of the film screened for producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus contained scenes that revealed that Stretch was, in fact, Lefty's illegitimate daughter. While such a twist comes across as a little contrived, it would have given Lefty someone to protect in the present. His berserker assault on the Sawyers would gain resonance, and Stretch's character arc would be more satisfying (especially given her final scene). However, Golan and Globus demanded that the film be recut to feature the Sawyers more prominently, which forced Hooper to lose that key character detail.6
As he appears in the final cut of the movie, Lefty feels like one big missed opportunity. On paper, he's a fascinating character whose all-consuming campaign against the Sawyers has a tragic bent to it. He's a man who once devoted his life to justice, but has clearly abandoned such lofty ideals for the gaudier goal of revenge. There are moments when this Lefty is apparent in the film itself. Look, for instance, at the hotel room conversation where a clearly drunk Lefty pathetically tries to turn away Stretch's help. Here Dennis Hopper brings the weight of remorse and self-loathing to his character. Later on, when Lefty goads Stretch into playing the tape of the murder over the air, an act that will make the DJ the unwitting bait in a trap for the Sawyer family, we get a full sense of a man willing to leave certain moral considerations aside to achieve his own ends.
However, much of the time, Lefty is a ridiculous caricature, strutting around in a ten-gallon hat and making obscure references to the Texas War for Independence. When he makes his assault on the Sawyer's lair, all hope for depth of character is lost. With one large chainsaw brandished in front of him and two smaller ones strapped to his belt like six-guns, he hollers and bellows like a little boy playing at war. Really, the closer that Lefty gets to the Sawyers, the harder it is to take him seriously. How could anyone? He's a man on a serious quest, up against a band of over-the-top nutballs who don't take anything seriously. Worse, he's been robbed of additional character motivations that could help him hold his own in the war of clashing tones. Even as Lefty chainsaw duels with Leatherface, he seems a small, unimportant character, one who's kind of funny, but only because he isn't in on the joke.
Hooper had a lot of different masters to please in the making of this film, but as uneven as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is, it's eminently watchable. It departs significantly from everything that made the original film work, but it logically continues the narrative, provides us more of the cannibal family we know and love, and maintains a certain feeling of chaos (even if that chaos is more accidental this time around). Unlike the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre, however, it's kind of charming (and, also unlike TCSM, infuriating as hell on occasion). As much as I would love to live in a world where Golan and Globus had trusted Hooper and let him release the movie he wanted to make, I'll accept the movie that exists in the world I'm in, warts and all.
This review is part of our Texas Chainsaw Massacre event running throughout October 2010.
- This may not be the first time, either, since Cook was serving up barbeque at the gas station back in the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre. However, if the meat that Sally Hardesty and her friends ate was meant to be human, the film itself doesn't ask. (back)
- "It Runs in the Family". The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2: The Gruesome Edition. DVD. 2006. MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2006. (back)
- Muir, John Kenneth. Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre. McFarland and Company, 2002. (back)
- Lefty, after having examined the aftermath of the murder, accurately describes the state of one of the victims. (back)
- Hooper and Johnson gleefully overemphasize the subtext to the point that it becomes text, and one can only sit back and admire their cajones for it. (back)
- "It Runs in the Family". (back)