Hooper: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
So much happened in horror between 1974 and 1986 that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, also directed by Tobe Hooper, seems to belong to a different cinematic universe from the original. To its credit, the sequel is just as intense and, in its own way, just as visionary, even if it couldn’t possibly reprise the impact that Hooper had the first time around. By this stage in horror, the hickcore that Hooper established was well and truly part of mainstream culture, meaning that Massacre 2 unfolds against a broader, perkier and campier sense of Texas. We start with a pair of teenage hooligans shooting out signs at the Alamo, the cannibal family emerges again through a Texas-Oklahoma Chili Cookoff, and the action climaxes in and around the “Texas Battlefield Amusement Park,” a space that reimagines the naturalistic landscapes of the first film as a series of lurid simulacra, in an echo of Hooper’s The Funhouse.
All of that is to say that the postmodern 80s percolate through every facet of Massacre 2, starting with the extraordinary MTV manifesto of the opening sequence. Here, as in the original, we follow a pair of hooligans who are hunted down by Leatherface, but this time around the entire experience is live streamed to a local DJ, Vanita “Stretch” Block, played by Caroline Williams, who mixes it into her regular music selection. Not only does this broadcast the murder as an MTV event, but it means that the crime is also accompanied by Vanita’s playlist. As the hooligans play the radio that is broadcasting their own experience, Leatherface stands in the car next to them, and circles his chainsaw round in round in response to the escalating feedback loops, while contorting his body into bizarre movements, as if trying out his own angular New Wave dance signature. This entire sequence plays out to a propulsive beat, which continues into the main body of the film in a variety of ways, such as the cannibal family’s acquisition of a truck grill, which they rumble around Texas in search of prospective victims, as well as the forensic peccadilloes of Detective Loude “Lefty” Enright, played by Dennis Hopper, who listens to Vanita’s tape over and over again before accepting her story.
Whereas the original film took place in a self-contained backwater, a space that was well and truly off the grid, Massacre 2 brims with a media porosity that collapses the distinctions between rural and urban Texas. Rather than unfolding in the boondocks, Hooper’s screenplay now takes place in the broader Dallas-Fort Worth area, as Leatherface’s victims shift from hippies to yuppies. There’s a pervasive anxiety about exurban encroachment, a fear that the abject figures of Hooper’s cult vision will make their way to the city, and be absorbed seamlessly into the Hollywood machine that he was trying to resist. Against the occult singularity with which Leatherface wielded his weapon in the first film, we’re now presented with a chainsaw store, on the very fringe between city and country, where a hundred different Leatherfaces can buy their supplies. As a result, Leatherface starts to feel more mercurial, more of a presence or prescience than a distinct figure, which in turn inflects Massacre 2 through the slasher renaissance that had taken place in the last twelve years. Rather than Leatherface lying in wait for hippies who delve too far into remote Texas, Leatherface now comes into the exurbs, and transgresses exurban thresholds, in order to chase down yuppies.
One of the odd results of that shift is that Massacre 2 is both the first film in the franchise to introduce police officers, and the most pessimistic about their ability to handle Leatherface. With such a porous media ecology, and in the midst of exurban connective tissue, Hopper’s police officer can never get a hold on the case, or even extricate himself from Leatherface’s own insane energy. At the chainsaw store, the quilting-point for all these thresholds that once kept Leatherface buried in the backwaters, Lieutenant Lefty finally goes crazy, sawing at a log with solipsistic abandon, and this is what constitutes his character, if it can even be called that, for the rest of the film – trying to outdo Leatherface from within, by adopting his mannerisms even more drastically than he does himself. By the end, Hopper’s Lieutenant has gone from an ostensible protagonist to a weird side ripple of the film, caught in a freak of his own that makes him feel like yet another of the simulacral Leatherfaces on the near horizon.
Put bluntly, then, nobody and nothing in Massacre 2 seems capable of escaping Leatherface’s mediatised image, including Leatherface himself. As with The Funhouse, Hooper’s sequel becomes a reflection on the shift from real to hyperreal spaces over the course of the 80s – that is, from spaces that were grounded in New Hollywood naturalism to spaces that brimmed with their own imminent remediation as video cassettes, soundtracks, amusement park rides and other blockbuster paraphernalia. In sharp contrast to the abjectly naturalistic house of the first film, Leatherface and his cannibal family now live in an amusement park, where they have connected all the rides into a web of rooms and chambers – one of the “cocooned” spaces that were so often used throughout 80s cinema to evoke a new networked future. The moment we enter this space, Hooper rebels against it, trying to return us to a putative real with some of the goriest and most gruesome footage in the franchise, the 2000s torture remakes included. In fact, this may be the very moment when 80s prosthetic grotesquerie segues into nascent torture horror, as Hooper subjects us to all the gritty details of Leatherface skinning a victim’s face, forcing Vanita to wear the mask, and then departing as the man wakes up, and gazes up in horror to see his face adorning that of his fellow prisoner.
Yet this renewed revulsion only enhances the fantasmatic dimensions of the space, and makes it seem even more hyperreal, if only because it strays so far from our realistic concepts of bodily endurance. That agon between real and hyperreal space produces an even more flamboyant vision of the first film’s obsession – namely, the hick rituals of longevity and propagation that comprise the body politic of an American heartland disavowed by coastal elites. For the scope of the cannibal family is much larger, more horrific and more parodic this time, encapsulated in the enormous pullback to show Vanita bound at the head of a table that stretches way beyond the naturalistic coordinates of the first film into a gigantic space that eventually becomes coterminous with that of the amusement park itself. This is, in effect, the amusement park figured as a single space, and within that space we return to the grandfather, even more desiccated twelve years later, and even more abject as well. The first time around, this grandfather bit on Sally’s fingers, as if trying to extract her generational lifeforce, her countercultural essence, but now he’s reduced to chewing maniacally on a coathanger as his eyes, face, fingers and other bodily extremities are dissociated into so many revolting textures by Hooper’s camera. The patriarchal continuity he represents is even more fragile twelve years later, and so needs an even more baroque mise-en-scene, and an even more flamboyant commitment to its own inherent disgust, to retain a semblance of vitality.
Unlike the original film, however, Massacre 2 doesn’t end with the grandfather. Instead, Hooper expands more on one of the most notable things about the original family – namely, that it didn’t include a woman, meaning that Leatherface had to pretend to be a woman, and dress in female clothes, even as he rallied his chainsaw ever more volubly in protest. In the sequel, Vanita does come across the matriarch, who lives at the very top of the amusement park cocoon, where she has become entirely absorbed into the architecture, along with a chainsaw that is sticking out of her crumbling corpse. If the first film galvanised horror from the space between the contradictions of the counterculture, and of those who opposed it, that vision is distilled even further here – to both a horror and reverence of women, what they might become, and how they might make men feel, with enough power and liberation.
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