2018 Film Essays

Sex or the Saw: Impotency and Masculine Posturing in ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’

TRIGGER WARNING: This essay discusses sexual aggression and threatened sexual violence.

“You have one choice, boy: sex or the saw. Sex is, well… nobody knows. But the saw… the saw is family!” — Drayton Sawyer, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Tobe Hooper examines a displaced working class by recreating the aesthetics of the slaughterhouse and bringing its horrors onto human flesh. Phased out by modernized technology, the Sawyer family turns their trade on people. Within this abject world, and filtered through Hooper’s sublime and confrontational cinematic grammar, hell is externalized. This manifestation of hell is most present through Sally, the sole survivor of the film’s events.

With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Hooper subverts the brutal iconography of his first masterpiece, making a distinct film in conversation with its predecessor. This dialogue engages with a number of ideas thematic and narrative, visual and aural. Nowhere, however, is it more contentious than with its deconstruction of male aggression and sexual frustration brought on by impotency, and contextualized by a female gaze. The film is almost entirely framed around phallic symbols and visual metaphors for sexual aggression, and suppression.

Within this framework, Hooper recontextualizes the titular object of murder from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, enlarging and emphasising the chainsaw as an extension of man, and his frustrations. In TCM, the saw represents a device of slaughter turned on the modernized community, and fundamentally modernity itself as a means of expressing anger, and to keep the family trade alive. In TCM 2, it is a direct stand-in for the phallus, capturing the lunacy of male posturing and its terrors.

Hooper’s subversions are first perceptible and most explicit in playful visual conceits. A large steel door that punctuates the first kill scene from TCM is now used as a tense bait and switch, as well as a winking visual inversion. The door is a clear visual reference point, and yet its reveal of nothing in TCM 2 toys with the audience and their knowledged anticipation. Beyond this, the door opening instead of closing suggests Hooper’s direct challenging of his masterwork. Here, he makes it clear he has set out to make a film in the same world, but with different intentions.  Practically speaking, it builds tension, and establishes geography that will reoccur.

Similarly, where a burst of violence in TCM is shocking and simplistic, a jump-scare in TCM 2 is at first startling, then subverted by Leatherface’s own frenzied incompetence. Where Hooper’s original is sweaty and sparse, his sequel is coated in colorful frames and absurdly ghoulish set design. In many ways, it feels like Hooper made Texas Chainsaw 6.

The propagation of Hooper’s original iconography as it relates to chainsaws is first presented when renegade police officer Lefty goes to a hardware store in search of a weapon. He enters a room where a light is turned on, to reveal him surrounded by a litany of chainsaws. Hooper notes the significance of his quintessential imagery, then laughs at it by upping the ante to outlandish heights. Indeed, Lefty seems to groan with pleasure before handling a saw.

However, it quickly becomes clear that Hooper’s concerns go beyond cheeky subversion into extreme observation and deconstruction. A striking and horrific scene of threatened sexual violence sets the stage for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2’s thematic focus. In her broadcast station, Stretch is menaced by Leatherface and his brother, Chop-Top. At the sequence’s peak, Stretch cowers above a tub full of ice, as Leatherface extends his chainsaw, perfectly leveled as a visual extension of his phallus.

It is threatening and sexually violent. Stretch is traumatized. Leatherface thrusts into the ice below her, and the thrusts are intercut with Chop-Top bludgeoning a man to death with a hammer. Then, his saw stops running. He goes limp, so to speak. Stretch taunts him by saying, “how good are you?” She’s fully aware of the stakes in this delicate situation, but also of the power she holds.

Stretch creates a power-dynamic wherein her sexuality can be used to mitigate and redirect Leatherface, ensuring her survival without sacrificing her physical safety. Her taunts question his self-imposed fears of impotence, further pacifying the violence of the situation by turning Leatherface’s focus inward. It is not the last time in the film she will have to wear a mask to survive.

Already, Hooper comments on male posturing as a means to cover fragile egos and the inherent violence born from that, along with the ways women must try and navigate its fickle but overriding hegemony. By intercutting Leatherface’s sexual frustration with Chop-Top’s act of violence, he visually and ideologically links the two as one. Indeed, the sequence begins with Leatherface’s saw not working for a first time, until he sees the act of violence begin. Now, he is aroused! It is absurd and yet acute.

Still, Hooper goes further. Through Stretch’s provocation as a survival mechanism, Leatherface cannot restart the saw in front of her, and so he cannot finish the act. Leatherface’s thrusts into the ice are sexually aggressive, but not enacted on the desired subject. So, repression, too, is tied into posturing and impotency in one big ball of male sexual confusion and violence.

Unable to perform, Leatherface tears apart the recording studio in a fit of angst at his repression and self-imposed weakness. This sequence serves as a paradigm for Hooper’s observations around impotency and male aggression, and also establishes the film’s absurdist tone; while the content is dark, it is also darkly comic, and brimming with glaring sexual innuendos and phallic humor, all at the expense of men.

Truly, phallic symbols are everywhere! As mentioned earlier, Lefty plans to take down the Sawyer family, so he buys three saws. One big, two small. He holds the big one just like Leatherface does, elongating his stature to ensure, or perhaps just purport his dominance.

The patriarch of the Sawyer family, Drayton, is also guilty of brandishing a saw this way. Indeed, all the men in TCM 2 want everyone to know just how much harm they can do by a puffing of their metaphorical chest, and an extension of their metaphorical phallus. This posturing can be contextualized by Leatherface’s sexually-repressed aggression toward Stretch in the radio station: it is all built around compensation for impotency, or fear of being unable to perform. Along with Leatherface’s inability to fire up while with Stretch, there are further limp and impotent visual jests peppered throughout the film.

Along with the chainsaw, the hand is also used as a visualization of impotency. As Stretch dangles over a pit, Lefty holds out a skeletal hand to save her. It breaks, and she falls. Lefty inspects the hand, and it goes limp. A symbol of failed heroics through the male lens.

This limp hand gesture is a motif, repeated when Stretch’s friend L.G. dies; death, the final gesture of male weakness. Yet nowhere is this more clearly pictured than with Grandpa Sawyer. The patriarch of Sawyer yesteryears is somehow more grotesque than in TCM, a further glimpse of Hooper’s assault on his own iconography. When Drayton gives Grandpa a hammer to hit Stretch, he swears Grandpa can still perform; he says Grandpa would always do it in one swing. That’s the sign of a man: his ability to handle his member.

Yet Grandpa cannot perform. He repeatedly drops the hammer, in favor of licking a silver spoon. They egg him on, telling him he’s “the best” and assuring him he never misses. They physically assist him, as well as verbally build him up. Then, he can strike her. Unlike Leatherface, whose competence is brought into question by Stretch and the Sawyer family, intensifying his impotence, Grandpa is able to perform with the aid of aggrandizement and a stroking of the ego.

Throughout almost every instance of fatuous posturing and biting commentary in TCM 2, Stretch is present. In fact, many sequences are cut around her gaze; this too is a callback to TCM, and yet while Sally was a beholder to sheer horror, Stretch is a witness to the asinine nature of men that manifests in stupid, violent ways. Leatherface menaces her, Lefty postures in front of her as much as he does to the Sawyer’s. Drayton wants Grandpa to perform on her.

Truly, Hooper’s labyrinth of vein-splitting posturing-as-compensation and aggressive sexual repression is one Stretch must navigate at every turn. It is exhausting. For much of TCM 2’s runtime, Stretch is forced into horrific scenarios, and yet she manages to leverage her intellect over her male counterparts’ fixations.

A visual and narrative evolution over their initial encounter, Leatherface finds Stretch hidden in a human-butcher’s room. Here, he fixes a mask fashioned from the face of L.G. onto Stretch, then dances with her.

Once again, Stretch is cognizant of the dynamics at play, and while she is traumatized, she maintains her composure with the knowledge that she holds sway over Leatherface’s physical urges. Their power dynamic is tenuous, but she has some control. Her literal mask now recalls the performative elements she has had to employ to survive, allowing thematic and visual ideas to congeal.

At the film’s climax, Stretch is able to gain more overt agency, and enact her revenge. While Lefty craves the downfall of the Sawyers, he is too obsessed with crazed posturing to be too effective. Despite his eventual maiming (or murder) of Leatherface, he first engages in a chainsaw battle which beautifully distills and visualizes a measurement competition between men.

Stretch walks where Lefty talks. In her confrontation with Chop-Top, Hooper visualizes violent aggression toward women before depicting its reversal. Chop-Top repeatedly cuts Stretch with a razorblade, while she desperately tries to start a chainsaw. His brutal slashes harm Stretch, but also compel her to finish the job. After a series of attempts, Stretch ignites the saw while being assailed.

Unlike Leatherface, whose impotence was disbanded by witnessing a violent act as some sort of perverse mixture of sexuality and aggression, Stretch is able to start the saw for a simple reason: survival. His is for twisted aggression, while hers is survivalist. Stretch wields that saw like butchery runs deep in veins, and guts Chop-Top before brandishing the weapon in a stance of victory. Instead of dropping the saw upon completing the act, Stretch swings it high above her head as she screams with pure release.

This image functions in multiple ways. It is a direct visual reference to the final frames of TCM, where Leatherface does a similar saw dance. Yet it is also a visual and thematic inversion: while TCM has Sally in the bed of a pickup truck, victorious but confused, triumphant but traumatized, Stretch is now fully in control. Furthermore, Leatherface dances in crazed frustration and mania, while Stretch moves with complete supremacy. She brandishes the weapon of the patriarchy, the instrument of their worries and psychosis, the tool of their posturing and their impotency, and brings about their end. Further still, Lefty postured as a means to suggest dominance before attacking his enemy. Stretch goes right for the guts, and only allows herself a display of superiority upon actually succeeding.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is wrought with sexual innuendos and commentary on the innate absurdity of masculine posturing. It also carries over Hooper’s slaughterhouse idology from the first (with the Sawyer’s feeding the masses their literal selves), as well a further presentation of the affluent and privileged belittling the poor. Vietnam lingers here, too, going so far as to suggest the governmental compensation for injury Chop-Top sustained while at war now bankrolls the Sawyer’s spree of cannibalism and murder. It is packed full of ideas — a true gonzo masterpiece.

By filtering male anxieties through Stretch’s perspective, Hooper is able to posit an astute observation on the nature of male aggression when they just cannot get it up. Even when they do, it is often for violent or unsolicited means, all to quell or control their crazed urges. After having my revelation about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and its perverse phallic imagery, I listened to Amy Nicholson talk on her podcast, “Halloween Unmasked.” In one episode, she states she wrote a college paper about how TCM 2 is essentially “‘one big dick joke.” That’s as good a finish as any.

Reference Note: For this piece, I read (and re-read) Cynthia A. Freeland’s essay “Feminist Frameworks for Horror Films,” wherein she engages with Carol Clover’s investigation of the slasher in her seminal work “Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film.” Freeland references another seminal work, that of Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” which presents the concept of the male gaze, among many others. It is a stunning work. Beyond this, Freeland uses frameworks proposed by French philosopher Julia Kristeva in her book “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection,” whose thoughts were adapted specifically for screen studies by professor and scholar Barbra Creed in an essay on Alien as well as in her own book, “The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis.” While Creed’s readings differ from Mulvey to some extent (as well as, perhaps, to her source, Kristeva), Freeland posits that all three women are primarily concerned with the theoretical apparatus of psychoanalytic and psychodynamic readings of cinema and more specifically for this purpose, horror. These involve the oedipal complex and even the pre-oedipal complex, castration anxiety and boundaries (the threat of them, and the need to transgress them), among many others. I cannot summarize it all here, and I strongly suggest a reading of all the above works, as they are illuminating and very engaging. Agree, disagree, grapple with! Needless to say, I extend a warm thank you to the genius and fascinating minds I read for this essay. They served less as a direct reference, and more as a jumping-off point and framework for some of my thoughts. I love that Clover discusses the final girl temporarily adopting masculine traits (and brandishing masculine objects) for survival, but then reverts back to a feminine stature at the end, while in Texas Chainsaw 2, the final images are Stretch spinning a chainsaw and screaming crazed victory. Regardless, my words and thoughts most definitely pale in comparison, and I am delighted to study and utilize these frameworks for my own investigations.

Michael Mazzanti (@BeTheGeese) is a filmmaker and writer who is frequently published at The Film Stage, where he proudly holds the title of Resident Genre Enthusiast. Along with Vague Visages, his reviews have also been published through CineVue. He is a lover of the outre and the everyday, and is currently based out of Washington, D.C. For more information, you can see his film work on Vimeo (https://vimeo.com/michaelmazzanti), and follow him on Letterboxd (@RidleyScotch) and Instagram (@lionsgatepictures).

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