The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has been called everything from “a geek show” (Roger Ebert) to “a satirical classic” (the Guardian). Brothers, sisters, why are we fighting? Can’t it be both? To be sure, a lot of the intended satire ended up cluttering the editing-room floor. The Reagan era was in full metastasis, and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson wanted to feed yuppies into the meat grinder. In the finished Chainsaw 2, we get a grand total of two dead yuppies — obnoxious students, speeding into town for the Red River Shootout, the traditional Texas-OU football game. The rest of the yuppies were to have done their last cellphone-fondling during a night run in which the Sawyer family — the Cook (Jim Siedow, returning from the original), Chop-Top (Bill Moseley), and Leatherface (Bill Johnson) — drive around looking for fresh meat to put into their award-winning chili. Depending on which account you prefer, director Tobe Hooper (the mad genius who’d shepherded the first Chainsaw) either cut those scenes for pacing or was forced to trim them by the film’s generally nose-picking distributor Cannon.
What’s left of Chainsaw 2 plays less as a satire than as Ebert’s geek show, a goony paradox of slickly photographed disgusting things, like an Annie Leibovitz tour of a slaughterhouse. Yet Hooper does let a few arrows fly. The aforementioned students introduce themselves to Texas by shooting holes in the signs marking various historical landmarks. These kids have no respect for history, and they should die. The Cook, who sells his chili out of what looks to be a modified ice-cream truck, is always going on about money and how the small businessman suffers. The ghastly cannibalism of the first film, where barbecued human meat was sold as a sideline from the Cook’s gas station, has flourished into a thriving going concern. Perky porkers at the chili contest have no idea what’s in their food and don’t care. Chop-Top, a ‘Nam vet who has an exposed metal plate in his scalp from “a gook with a machete,” appears to be Hooper’s critique of the media’s contemporaneous treatment of the men who served in that war — whether “heroic” (Rambo) or not, they’re all regarded as ticking-timebomb psychopaths. “You want a psycho ‘Nam vet?” Hooper seems to say. “Here’s one right in your face.”
It’s tempting to look for more in Chainsaw 2 than is there, because it’s simultaneously more plot-centered than the first one yet kind of thin plot-wise. It’s top-heavy with set-up, but at the halfway mark just flips into a prolonged retreat/fight sequence. This, I thought while rewatching it, might have been Hooper’s middle finger raised to Steven Spielberg, whose Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has a similar structure; Hooper slyly parodies shot after shot from that film during the climax, when gutsy DJ “Stretch” (the invaluable Caroline Williams) and vengeful uncle Lefty Enright (Dennis Hopper) make their way through the garishly festooned lair of the Sawyers. Spielberg was the king of ’80s fare — so much so that to this day, people believe that he, and not Hooper, directed Poltergeist. So it makes some sense that Hooper would take the opportunity to lob a little spit Spielberg’s way.
Stretch is a feminine (i.e., not crudely “ass-kicking”) but, I would say, solidly feminist heroine. Hooper never defines her by her sex or sexuality. She has a friendship with (and unspoken love for) her helper at the radio station, L.G. (Lou Perry), who never sees her as anything other than a buddy and co-worker. When the two idiots at the beginning are killed while calling in to Stretch’s show, Stretch takes the tapes of the event to Lefty, who at first demurs but then agrees to accept her help. Most famously, when Stretch is cornered by Leatherface — who uses the tip of his chainsaw to insinuate his warped, nascent sexuality past Stretch’s boundaries — Stretch uses dog-training language on him (“No! Good!”), which amusingly works. If all you see when you look at a woman is a crotch, you’re a slobbering, skronking dog right up on the screen there — that’s Leatherface as you — and you should be corrected. Stretch corrects Leatherface, and thereafter he is protective of her, which still isn’t ideal but is at least a step up.
The original Chainsaw was noted for how much gore and violence it merely suggested; the sequel, with prince of splatter effects Tom Savini on board, leaves little to the imagination. The violence, though, isn’t brutal-cool in the mode of most slasher flicks of the day, even the ones Savini worked on. It’s painful and repulsive. A man is skinned alive, then rises up to try to talk through what’s left of his face, while the person he’s talking to is wearing most of the rest of it. It’s sick and bizarre and probably very intentionally off-putting. It’s also funny, but the jokes all have a subtext of agony and mutilation. It’s the sort of gallows humor you’d expect cattle to make while waiting for the sledge.
Chainsaw 2 at times feels stuck together by goo, sweat, Karo syrup, and sheer fucking will power. It skitters along to its climax as though shrugging and accepting that this is what successful movies have to do now (“now” being 1986). Lefty and Leatherface, twin madmen with opposite demons (Leatherface protects his family, Lefty is avenging his), go at each other with chainsaws while Stretch flees from the cackling Chop-Top, the walking shame of a nation. Chop-Top, who says he loves music and trashes the record archives at Stretch’s radio station, really is like a daisy-cutter dropped onto the smug, self-regarding Boomer nostalgia of the ’80s, with its white-liberal fetish for Motown and its uneasy relationship to Vietnam vets. (Oliver Stone finally united the two — former flower-power protesters and guys who were in the shit — in Platoon, which came out a few months after Chainsaw 2, and a grateful, relieved Hollywood buried Stone in awards. Hooper got nothing for his work, though the supremely less comforting Chop-Top speaks for the madness of My Lai and Kent State far more vividly, I’d say, than does Stone’s Manichean stoner-Christ/jock-Satan construct.)
I didn’t like Chainsaw 2 at first, and it’s still a difficult film to “like” — you have to make yourself a bit callous for a couple hours, because how else would you be able to laugh at a bubbly-voiced skinless man breathing the perfect last Texan words: “Aw, sheeit.” It truly is nihilistic, waiting-for-the-sledge comedy. Tonally, it veers so completely from the first Chainsaw that fans of the original might resent the sequel, even question if Hooper really made it. Well, no; the same Hooper who made Chainsaw did not make Chainsaw 2. Twelve years separated the two men, twelve years spent in indie films, then in Hollywood (where, for his troubles, everyone condescendingly assumed that he couldn’t have directed a big mainstream hit), then under the thumb of Golan and Globus. There’s a lot of contempt rattling around in Chainsaw 2, not only for the easy Reagan-era targets of “yuppies” and “businessmen” but for the entertainment we were in 1986 expected to swallow without question. A famous deleted scene from Chainsaw 2 sees Joe Bob Briggs himself spilling the beans on how guys like Savini achieve the saw-fu, and damned if the whole meta-satire isn’t complete if you imagine the Joe Bob scene stuck back in, the ultimate Texan Chainsaw-friendly movie critic telling us that what we’re watching, or rather what we’ve been watching the past few years, is fake shit, an explodin’ titty just as plastic as ever’ other titty in Hollyweird, man. No wonder Leatherface doesn’t know what to do with his saw.