A Reagan-Era Splatterfest: ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Blu-Ray)’

The original 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sounded the tocsin that a new kind of horror had clawed its way into American film. It’s a film probably best understood alongside Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left as announcements to horror audiences that all bets were off, that seeing one of these movies meant putting yourself in the hands of directors that might show anything to you, that might do anything to you and to your dreams.

Director Tobe Hooper brought to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a deeply cynical view of the American past and present, a distrust of the hoary past and the elders that guarded that past. His rage at American society seemed more or less confirmed by the malice of the Nixon administration, the reports of American atrocities in Vietnam, and a recalcitrant American silent majority that seemed determined to resist the civil rights movement, second wave feminism and any possibility of the thorough transformation of American society that Hooper’s generation so desperately wanted.

And so, in the first of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre series, the rural Sawyer family became America. Former employees of a slaughterhouse that tied them to the American fascination with meat and murder and meat as murder, they lived in a rural fortress that recalled the Jeffersonian homestead and the legacy of frontier heroes like Davy Crockett. Amidst the animal skulls are human skulls and the frontier décor includes lampshades made of human flesh, the American frontier as Auschwitz, the American dream as a nightmare of brutality, insanity and cannibalism.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, recently released on blu-ray, shares little of the original’s urgent power and never quite succeeds in equaling its aesthetic of tormented American history. The symbolism is less subtext and more overdetermining metaphor. It’s bloodier than the original but the terrors it inspires are less intelligent even as they aim to be more didactic and cerebral.

And yet, it’s also a film that deserves second viewing and something of a second chance. Suffering from poor box office returns and in the shadow of its predecessor, it’s easy to overlook it as just another horror sequel. In fact, it fully develops some of Hooper’s ideas from the original and, best of all, gives us an incredibly insane performance by Dennis Hopper that’s not to be missed.

In Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 the patriarch of the family (simply called “the Cook”) has become a entrepreneur whose business is running a barbeque van in Dallas (“this town loves its meat”) especially aimed at Reagan-era yuppies and frat boys at football games. Meanwhile, the Sawyer family has relocated to a labyrinthine lair beneath the ruins of an abandoned, Frontierland style amusement park that feature horrifying looking statues of historical figures. Called “Texas Battle Land” ,it’s a surreal set that places the madness and mayhem of the Sawyers against the backdrop of American history, suggesting that both are dripping with blood.

Dennis Hopper’s Lieutenant Enright is a former Texas Ranger (a fairly clear reference to the “Lone Ranger”) seeking out the Sawyer family for revenge since he is related to one of the victims from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hopper becomes more or less insane himself along the way, a lawman who chooses the weapon of the maniacs.

The whole thing becomes a surreal fever dream, so utterly different in tone from the brutal, almost documentary style of the original. And yet it’s a kind of commentary on the original, a bad dream one might have after watching the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The extras include director commentary by Tobe Hooper who is joined by filmmaker David Gregory. Hooper makes a number of points about the way in which the sequel reflects its ’80s context, particularly the way he hoped that placing the Sawyer family amidst yuppie dreams of affluence might make this horror film into a running satire on ’80s cowboy capitalism.

At the same time, Hooper had enormous difficulty getting the sequel greenlit in this era since, despite the success of the original, its controversial nature made many studios nervous about having their name attached to it. This latter fact shows the power of the original, how it really did tear into the central nerve system of America with a chainsaw. When this film was being made in the mid-’80s, slasher films remained triumphant in the wake of Friday the 13th and similar bloodfests. Texas Chainsaw Massacre disturbed on a different set of levels and financial backing proved hard to find.

Finally, this track delves a bit, but only a bit, into the bizarre relationship between Leatherface and Stretch, the female protagonist of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 who fights the monster to the death. Not unlike the disturbing relationships between monsters and women in classic horror going back to Nosferatu, Stretch also has a strange link to the monster in a way that seems to crib all the naughty bits from Freud.

Gregory and Hooper have a somewhat strained exchange on this subject during one of the film’s weirdest moments, Leatherface’s symbolic rape of Stretch with a chainsaw.They really do not explore the misogynistic implications of this scene or even bother to suggest that a point was being made about sexual violence. In another strange commentary track moment, Hooper more or less ignores a question about why he did not bring back Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface, giving a daily awkward answer about not “really knowing why” and that maybe they “were out of touch.”

A second commentary track features actors Caroline Williams and Bill Mosely, joined by make-up wizard Tom Savini. This is a much lively discussion though a bit less detailed. We do get a good discussion of set design, so important for this film that’s design feels like a pop-art nightmare. A long documentary (that runs a bit too long really) and a short set of deleted scenes (in very bad shape) complete the special features.

One major quibble I have actually has to do with the packaging. I would have loved to have seen the infamous poster for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on the cover, given that it actually satirized the poster for the John Hughes teen comedy The Breakfast Club. This would have both captured the dark comedy of the film and placed it back in its ’80s context without which, really, it’s a lot harder to understand.

Revisit Tobe Hooper’s twisted Texas and twisted take on American history in this hi-def splatterfest. In fact, watch it as the perfect election season/Halloween mash-up, a classic from a director who’s spent a career looking at the things under America’s bed… or filmed them as they come screaming out of the darkness with a chainsaw.

RATING 8 / 10