The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II

Sometimes psychos just need a little motherly discipline
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1986
Director: 
Tobe Hooper
Starring: 
Caroline Williams, Dennis Hopper, Bill Moseley, Bill Johnson
The Setup: 
Family from the first film terrorizes a woman.
Discussion: 

This was another movie that shot to the top of my list after being heavily discussed in Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, and rightly so, as this one is much more about gender than it is about anything else. The gender stuff also makes up almost all of the interesting content as well, the rest running the gamut from the bizarre to the pedestrian.

We open with a narrated scroll that is read in a ridiculously inappropriate voice. It sounds like the guy is trying to run through it too fast, and only did one take, thus robbing it of the ominousness it’s going for. Then we are introduced to these two hot-rodding morons driving through Texas shooting mailboxes and signs. One of them is identified as “Rick the Prick,” a title he handily earns during his short time on screen. They call—on their futuristic mobile phone—Stretch, the young DJ of some local radio station. She listens as they play chicken with a scary-looking truck, because for some reason she can’t drop the call until they hang up. Seemingly hours later these hooligans are STILL riding around, and encounter the truck again, this time playing chicken with them. They are chased along this bridge which is apparently 3-5 miles long, and finally chainsawed. During this time they are once more on the phone with Stretch, and she records the whole thing. The real Leatherface makes his entrance from within the body of a fake leatherface, and takes a ridiculously long chainsaw to the car and the driver’s head. Viewers looking to be educated in human anatomy will discover that the entire human brain only contains four working arteries.

We are then introduced to Dennis Hopper as Lieutenant Enwright, whose brother’s kids were killed 14 years ago by the Sawyer family, which comprises Leatherface, Chop-Top, and Grandpa. Hopper makes the local police—who want to brush the whole thing off as just goons out partying having a good time—publish an article in the newspaper asking for evidence. This leads Stretch to show up at Hopper’s hotel [with her Rather Large Handbag—what, was she threshing wheat just before?] and offer him the tape. For some reason which I suspect may be simply to pad out the movie’s running time, he refuses to hear the tape or listen to her seriously. Uh, why? Here’s some of the evidence he was supposedly looking so desperately for. The only plausible explanation here is that it’s because she’s a woman with a huge handbag, and he doesn’t take her seriously, but the movie as a whole just kind of hopes you won’t think about it. Stretch sees this as her big opportunity to move into the ranks of the big-league investigative journalists.

Then we see Grandpa run into town to accept first place in the local chili cook-off, which he claims is because of his meat, which we are to understand is human flesh. This floats the idea common to certain movies that human flesh is just so indescribably delicious [see also: Grizzly]. Anyway, the whole tone of this scene and several others have been enough at this point to make you really wonder what this movie is about. The tone of these first scenes is so satirically comical, in a somewhat broad way, that one has to conclude that this sequel is consciously attempting to go in a completely different direction. It’s not long before it returns to the expected, however, though even that is presented through several twists to the original film.

Anyway, so Hopper finally decides he cares about Stretch’s tape and wants her to play it on the radio station every hour for some reason. Now, this tape contains nothing but a bunch of screaming and chainsaw noises and lasts at least five minutes, so when you hear that she’s playing it once an hour from afternoon all the way to midnight [then back to the cheesy pop rock!], you’re like “WHO owns this radio station? Isn’t ANYONE in charge?” but no, apparently not, and just after closing Stretch finds Chop-Top, played by Bill Moseley, in the station. This section is a bit like the van scene from the first film, in terms of generating scares by being trapped in an enclosed space with a total nutjob. Moseley fits the bill nicely, with a wire hanger with hook sharpened into a point, that he keeps scratching his scalp with then eating it—and we later see he is scraping at the flesh covering this steel skull plate in his head!

SPOILERS> > >
Then Leatherface shows up out of nowhere and attacks stretch, ramming his chainsaw repeatedly into the huge ice bucket between her legs [?]. His chainsaw dies, and he runs the blade up Stretch’s thigh, then presses the tip against her vagina through her shorts. She asks “How good are you? Are you good?” making it seem as though she’s turned on, then says “Oh, you ARE good. You’re the best.” This confuses Leatherface, and she is then able to speak to him in a motherly tone of discipline when she chastises him with “No! No good!” later. Obviously this is all fairly sexual on the surface—no more hiding the whole chainsaw-as-penis thing in the subtext! Carol Clover, in her aforementioned book, makes a big deal out of the fact that Leatherface’s chainsaw sputters and won’t work after Stretch compliments his sexuality and calls on him to “prove” himself, though she doesn’t mention that a second later his chainsaw comes back to life and he tears up the studio! But he does let Stretch live, even going so far as to lie to his brother and tell him that he killed her. This is, of course, after humping his raging chainsaw at her [while held protruding from his groin].

During this whole time Hopper is “late.” Now, if it were me and I was just a civilian who had just had my genitals nearly shredded by a power tool and only survived by making sexual come-ons to a creepy psychotic man-child wearing another person’s skin on his face, I think I’d be ready to call it a night. Go home, take a nice long bath, maybe watch a movie. I would not CARE if other people might be brutally murdered in the future by this family, and I would think, well, if Hopper cared so much about capturing them, he could drag his ass out of that drive-thru line and get to the station on time. My work is done.

But, obviously, I’m not Stretch. She hops in her car and FOLLOWS the psychos, pulling into their creepy haunted amusement park with her headlights on [hasn’t she read even ONE Nancy Drew mystery?], soon after which it is revealed that Dennis was using her as bait in order to find out where the psychos live—which assumes he knew that she would follow them to their home like an insane person. His idea of saying “Hey Stretch! It’s me!” is to run her down with a car for about five minutes. So things are going well. But uh-oh, she falls down a trap door and ends up in the Sawyer basement.

Down there, she hides while Leatherface carves off the face of her co-worker [who somehow lived through the brutal bludgeoning?] and, hearing Stretch hiding, goes and makes her wear the face of her friend. This does not please her, but she does her “No good!” routine again and it’s clear that Leatherface has taken somewhat of a shine to her. She is wearing the co-worker’s face and his hat when he wakes up [still alive!] and sees her. So she has been sort of transformed into this man, which thematically fits with the reversal-of-the-sexes content that follows. Meanwhile, Hopper is still making his way inside, though one suspects he’d be a great deal more helpful to Stretch [who he doesn’t seem to care a whit for anyway] if he wouldn’t attack every beam and column he sees with his chainsaw in rage.

Stretch is discovered by the rest of the family, the father of whom says “Bubba [leatherface] had to go learn about sex. But you have to make a choice: sex or the saw. And the saw is FAMILY.” Given Leatherface’s looks and social comportment, I might advise him that the saw might provide more sensual satisfaction as well. Anyway, there’s a lot of running and screaming [that Stetch sure can scream!], and finally Hopper comes down and impales Leatherface, but what’s interesting is that Stretch is chased by Chop-Top up to this sort of shrine where their dead grandmother lays, old chainsaw in hand. She pulls it out of his hand, and after a long struggle [you know, Stretch, you don’t NEED to start the chainsaw, you can just try to push him off or something] she starts the chainsaw and assumes it as her phallic weapon. She cuts what is basically a big vagina in his abdomen, and he falls. She then dances in triumph, chainsaw overhead, in a conscious evocation of Leatherface’s triumph in the last shot of the first film.

So it seems that there’s all this content about gender. First Leatherface uses his chainsaw as a cock to play with Stretch’s pussy. Stretch get around this by stopping the expected screaming and being sexually aggressive with Leatherface. She then adopts a scolding maternal tone with him, and he reacts like a child. Like a child, he throws a tantrum, waving his sexual organ [chainsaw] at her, but ultimately this display is just a childish taunt, as he lets her live. Stretch then reverses sex with her friend, taking on his face and hat. By the end, she has fully reversed her gender as she takes on the phallic chainsaw and uses it to create a vagina in Chop-Top. The shot of her blade at his wound [above] consciously echoes the shot of the blade at Stretch’s crotch, then in the final shot she assumes the dancing triumph and power that was Leatherface’s at the end of the first movie. So there you are. I’m not sure it means much beyond the whole “the heroine becomes more manly as she becomes more aggressive,” but there it is, and it is certainly consciously placed in there by the writer and director.

As a scary horror movie one might want to watch, this whole thing is considerably less successful. Really only two people are seen killed, and it seems that we have reached the climax by 30 minutes in. Then it just seems to go on and on and on and on. I have mentioned some of the problems with Hopper’s character, but there are also some doozies with Stretch [her spontaneous decision to go after the killers seconds after being horribly terrorized, for one] that also put one off from these characters. There’s also the issue that the Sawyer’s just aren’t really that scary once we’ve spent some significant time with them and seen how all-round goofy they are. Sure, they still seem dangerous, but they also seem human and like they can be controlled. Add to this the zany satirical tone of some of the earlier scenes [like the ridiculous chili cook-off], and you think “Okay, I can respect that this movie is going off in a different direction,” but it’s a direction that leaves you staring at the screen wondering what you’re watching rather than being down with it. In this vein, one of the original posters for this film showed the Sawyer family arranged in the same pose as on the famous poster for The Breakfast Club.

One thing that was a surprise to me was how much The Devil’s Rejects took from this film. I mean, I knew it was sort of a melange of 70s horror movies, but many things here are lifted wholesale, most notably the goofy bickering family of redneck psychopaths with a kooky old man as its leader, the policeman who is out to avenge the death of a relative from the previous film, and the idea of a person being forced to wear another person’s sliced-off face. And the somewhat meta-tone of being both a grisly thriller and a satire OF grisly thrillers. It makes Devil’s Rejects a bit more interesting, as one would think this movie was a little too satirical and second-rate to be included in its list of influences. Not interesting enough to get me to sit through it again, though.

Overall, interesting for the reasons I’ve detailed, and quite gory and horrifying like the first movie, but also somewhat cheesy and unsatisfying, especially for following 14 years after the first one. It’s not a revelation like the first one was, it’s kind of a different riff on that idea.

Should you watch it: 

If you’re interested in it for the gender-fuck and satirical aspects, go for it. If you want to watch a good horror movie there are others I would check out first.