Meat Hanging & Head Banging in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2'
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Meat Hanging & Head Banging in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2'

Nov 29, 2023

In a 2010 interview with Tobe Hooper, filmmaker Mick Garris boiled down the insanity of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to a nice, gelatinous phrase: red humor. According to Garris, "wetness" is what distinguishes the film from straight-up satire or black humor. Though gore is scarce, Hooper never ceases to remind the audience that they are just sweaty hunks of beef on a hook.

Previously I covered how the 1974 film digs into the audience's subconscious with its sound design. Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper manipulate the viewer with an unnerving sensory experience, forcing them to reconcile the film's images with the equally harsh reality of the world outside. The film also features tracks from local artists that help sell the true crime illusion of the opening crawl in tandem with the handheld 16mm aesthetic.

Of the original, Hooper has said that he drew inspiration for its sense of isolation from the lean times that people were forced to endure. The portrayal of a rural Texas community hampered by gas shortages and gentrification was not a product of dystopian fiction, and the extent to which the Sawyers are sympathetic characters is part of its appeal. The constant state of panic and agitation that characterizes Leatherface, for example, is more relatable in the context of food and housing insecurities than if he had just been a mindless hulking monster running in the background. In the heat of various chase scenes throughout the film, however, that's exactly what he is and you’d be a liar if you claimed not to find that scary as hell.

For the most part, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 scraps "chair jumper" moments in favor of satire. This time around, the Sawyers are not only in good public standing, but they’ve also managed to build a solid business out of Drayton's (Jim Siedow) famous chili–the contents of which you can surely guess.

The 1986 film is one of those rare sequels that functions as a glimpse into some of the worst human instincts and as a bitchin’ party movie. Its sleek neon palette and progressively Boschian set design ease the transition from low-budget shocker to sleazy, rock-n-roll excess. It is also cheeky to a fault. This is exemplified by the iconic artwork centering on the Sawyers, which parodies the poster for The Breakfast Club.

Its synth score also takes the piss out of the main Psycho theme, perhaps illustrating how far slashers have strayed from the film credited with birthing the entire thing. Some of the best background jokes that don't involve murder include the infamous "butcher cover" that adorned The Beatles’ Yesterday and Today and the Fine Young Cannibals poster displayed at the K-OKLA radio station where part of the film takes place. Appropriately, diegetic music energizes the film from the moment it begins until we reach the Sawyers’ flesh lair. Boasting a line-up of solid bands mostly on the I.R.S. roster, the soundtrack trades experimental ambiance for punk bravado.

The opening set piece of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 warps all perceptions of space and time, lending itself to a variety of mood-setting tunes. Following the title credits sequence, we’re introduced to two of the most unpleasant Reaganite butt-munchers ever to curse a movie screen as they ride around shooting road signs and harassing our Final Girl, Stretch (Caroline Williams). Timbuk 3 might have caught a stray bullet by association but it doesn't take away from the quality of their deep cut, "Shame On You", making its way onto the radio.

The band's laid-back groove segues nicely into Torch Song's "White Night" and Williams delivers a convincing performance as the exasperated DJ trying to fend off a couple of bozos tying up her phone line. Prior to its inclusion in the viral scene from Wednesday, The Cramps’ "Goo Goo Muck" appears briefly over an atmospheric shot of the station as the sun sets. I see this lone image as a much-needed breather before things really go off the rails.

As though Hooper and writer L.M. Kitt Carson were taking notes directly from the audience, a hard reckoning befalls the pair of snot-nosed travelers. Unfortunately for them, one of the truck drivers they decide to play chicken with happens to be Chop-Top Sawyer (Bill Moseley). And riding alongside him is big bubba Leatherface (Bill Johnson) himself. The longer the scene goes on, the more it plays like a Loony Tunes short straight out of hell. And it doesn't make things go down easier to hear Oingo Boingo's menacing dance track "No One Lives Forever" follow the victims to their early grave.

One of the men in question gets his head sawed through the middle, leaving the better part of his forehead flapping in the wind. The splatter effects (arranged by horror maestro Tom Savini) serve a heaping plate of yuppie meat and leave nothing to the imagination. Williams sells the horror brilliantly and, despite the outlandish nature of the violence, hearing the immediate aftermath of the car crash as it is transmitted live on air is one of many harrowing moments in the script. No love is lost in the deaths of two annoying preppies. But here, Hooper and Carson prove that their film is a "geek show" with an artful flair for the macabre.

Released just before the tipping point of mainstream slasher fatigue, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 presents a critique of capitalist greed by literally feeding its worst perpetrators back to themselves. The gimmick relies entirely on the red humor of the original, and it cranks the wetness up to the point where viscera can't help but start pouring out of walls.

Following up one of the most ingenious head trips in modern horror with a sequel that emphasizes glossy production and carnal mayhem is certainly jarring. But Hooper and Carson play this card purposefully. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 introduces a more aggressive, predatory Sawyer clan. In doing so, it flips the script on its predecessor by shifting the motivation of the family to reflect their ravenous appetite for the American Dream. The Sawyers, once casualties of a recession, now wield their saws in defense of their newfound petit-bourgeois lifestyle.

To sum up using Drayton's own words: "It's a dog-eat-dog world. And from where I sit, there just ain't enough dog." Less contemplative than Paris, Texas, and more cartoonish than his Breathless remake, Carson's script nonetheless retains the writer's sardonic humor. In Hooper, the writer finds a director who (in his words) was "methodically unsafe" and untrustworthy to the viewer. That makes for exactly the kind of partnership that could ever grasp this kind of material.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 gives the audience what it wanted, and thought it saw, the first go around. But at a price. Hooper and Carson were maligned by critics when the film came out and not even Stretch is morally exempt from indulging in the exploitation of a couple of shitheads’ murders to advance her own career. Nor does Dennis Hopper's vengeful Texas Ranger character, Lefty, get to relish in hitting the Sawyers where it hurts without killing himself in the process. Live by the saw, die by the saw.

This is not a subtle film. Like the original, it sends you on a rollercoaster of emotions and makes feeling bad a part of the draw. The gag where Stretch and her producer LG (Lou Perryman) take turns putting on his flayed face earns laughter until the very end. But, it still leaves you with the mental scars of certain details pertaining to his mangled body and the sound of his agonized cries.

The filmmakers are not playing a game of moral entrapment with the audience, however. They’re just able to see through the puritanical arguments that have hung around slasher films like a nasty stench from the beginning. Defiling an arthouse classic like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre must’ve just been the cherry on top. This is a sequel you bop your head to, not wring your fists at. And it's easy to do so with the likes of punk rock supergroup The Lords of the New Church and alt-rock outfit Concrete Blonde on the soundtrack.

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