In the latest installment of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise –2022’s legacy sequel, aptly also called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – a group of pseudo-influencers are heading to a “ghost town” in Texas to revitalize and/or gentrify it, depending on your taste. At the beginning of their journey, they see a stranger who– because this is a film that really tries to gesture towards politics and social commentary while set in rural Texas–has a gun.
A member of this motley crew comments “who has such a small dick that they need to walk around in public with a fucking gun?” This gun-toting, potentially-small-dicked stranger, intentionally or not, creates a connection between this film and the slashers that came decades before it – both inside and outside of its own franchise – through the ways in which it connects weaponry and violence to sexual (in)ability.
The idea that the knives,clawed hands, and chainsaws that have defined slashers since the 70s are a phallic substitute is nothing new. On that note, neither is the idea that the violence visited on the countless teenage victims of your Freddies, Jasons, Michaels, and Leather/Ghost faces are being preyed upon because of their sexuality; after all, when Scream made the blueprint of the genre explicit, the first “rule” to be described was “do not have sex.”
It’s the slashers that are perhaps lesser known that take the traditional associations of sex and violence that have become ubiquitous with the genre and in strange new directions – making both the weapons and their weilders less straightforward examples of violent desires and instead exploring them through messy gender dynamics and the fragility of the male ego.
One of the things that makes The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) and its sequels unique among the slasher genre – especially in its infancy in the 70s and 80s – is the fact that the films are all directed by women. The female eye – particularly cast onto a genre that has been traditionally dominated by maleness and it’s violence directed towards women – allows the films to dive deeper into the gendered landscape that allows the killers, and politics, of slashers to flourish.
Both The Slumber Party Massacre and its 1987 Part 2 sequel feature scenes of men – boyfriends of the groups of girls; a high school basketball team in the first film, and a would-be-rock-band in the second – peeking into the windows. In both films, the women being spied on are engaging in a kind of softcore parody – in Part 2 they’re even stripping and starting pillow fights. It’s no wonder one guy turns to the other and says “we’re dead and this is heaven.” The first two Slumber Party Massacre movies feel more like direct descendants of the original Black Christmas – a film that’s more than willing to lean into the complicated relationship that these films have with gender beyond the simple equation that sex equals death – than any other kind of slasher.
By foregrounding a landscape where even the “good guys” are voyeurs and creeps, these films shine a light on the fact that their messy relationships with gender extend far beyond the killers that define franchises. Instead, the dynamics on display here show that while a killer like Leatherface, or the Driller Killer in the first Slumber Party Massacre might be extreme ends of the spectrum, they’re born from a world that leans into the perceived power of maleness, especially when it comes to how these men relate to the young women in the films – in Slumber Party Massacre Part 2, TJ (Joel Hoffman) is more than willing to complain that the girls are “uptight” while groping an inflatable sex doll.
With the broader picture of gender politics that these films paint, the highly sexual nature of the killers and their weapons makes more sense. Rather than just being a kind of puritanical backlash to “sinning” teenagers, these Driller Killers are instead embodiments of the kind of climate that creates the relationship between sin and retribution in slashers in the first place; the sexualized nature of their weapons and violence becoming more than just a shorthand for dicks, – in the way that the gun in the 2022 Texas Chainsaw Massacre is evoked – becoming something more complicated and politicized.
It’s through the scenes that don’t feature men that the Slumber Party Massacre films are able to illustrate not only the impact that the specter of maleness has on the groups of women, but also what it means for them to be free of it. The boyfriends crashing the slumber party – preceded by their voyeurism and the soft-core parody of a pillow fight – is what creates a noticeable change in the atmosphere, in terms of both the gender, and sexual politics for the remainder of the film.
When the Driller Killer is bested in the first Slumber Party Massacre, the camera lingers on the ways in which the tip of his drill is severed from the rest of the apparatus. This moment is gloriously unsubtle as it frames the drill as more than just a substitute for violent maleness, but as an extension of that maleness both in the individual killer, and the atmosphere that pervades the film as a whole.
There’s no moment like this in sequel – which is darker, more dream like; a riff on Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with a copy called Krueger – but the relationship between gender, desire, and violence is explored in a new way:by rooting so much of the terror in the subconscious of Courtney Bates (Crystal Bernard). She sees a leather clad rockstar in her dreams, wielding a guitar with a drill at its tip, who warns her “don’t go all the way,” in a moment that predates the “Rules” of Scream by almost a decade. It’s no wonder that this killer yells “I can’t get no… satisfaction” when he embarks on his killing spree.
This lack of satisfaction echoes in the unexpected directions that Tobe Hooper takes his own Texas Chainsaw sequel, 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It takes the ideas and symbolism so often associated with slashers – the overtly sexual framing of the drill in the first Slumber Party Massacre is a notable precursor – and turns them from a subtext into blunt, skin-crawling text instead.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 builds its world in a similar way to the two Slumber Party Massacres – it takes pains to establish the place that its female protagonist – radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) – is in an environment that is incredibly, aggressively, male. From the way that she’s talked – and talked down to – at the station, to the prank calls that she gets from two guys who end up becoming Leatherface’s first victims. It’s these fragments of maleness that are writ large in the personalities of slasher killers, from the emotionless silence of Michael Myers in Halloween to the complicated relationship between sex and impotence that stretches back to Norman Bates or the killer in Slumber Party Massacre.
It’s this relationship between sex and impotence – the fragility of ego and the explosive possibility of violence –that defines the most perverse and compelling sequences in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, when the eponymous weapon becomes an extension of a body that’s unable to do what it wants. When Leatherface corners and tries to kill Stretch, his inability to do so takes on an explicitly sexual layer of meaning; as he tugs frantically at his cord, and is unable to get his weapon to whir, Stretch capitalizes on this uncertainty by sexualizing it, saying to him “are you… Really good?” All while Leatherface prods his still and silent chainsaw up against the inside of her leg. The eye of the camera lingers, leers, films this scene that’s all about the possibility of the violence in the way that a seduction might be framed. Later in the film, Stretch begs for her life using the language that’s normally associated with a breakup or romantic rejection: “I’m trying to be open with ya. It’s nobody’s fault.”
For Leatherface, romantic desire and violence are inseparable from one another; after his first attempt to kill Stretch at the radio station, his brother talks about “getting her good” and offers Leatherface a high-five at the thought of his potentially having killed Stretch. This is what stops violence from simply being a puritanical punishment of sex; the violence in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is deliberately, explicitly sexual in nature (there’s even a moment in the 2022 iteration that trades in this kind of imagery).
Even as Leatherface’s twisted family tries to convince him to try and kill Stretch rather than ineptly seduce her, its when his father says “you got one choice, boy: Sex or the Saw” that reveals that it isn’t a choice at all, but rather two things that are permanently linked together – one an extension of the other.
The sexual politics of slashers have a tendency to be looked at particularly through the idea of consequence and punishment; the seemingly supernatural nature of so many franchise mainstays – even those that are ostensibly human like Michael and Jason – create the idea that they’re some kind of divine harbinger of puritanism. But what makes the more explicitly sexual connection between murder weapons, violence, and desire in films like Slumber Party Massacre and the second Texas Chainsaw takes these themes away from the abstract and roots them instead in something more complicated and embodied when it comes to the complicated gender politics that slashers have been grappling with for decades.
The idea of being sexually impotent in one way or another stretches back at least as far as Psycho – with a queerness that shows just how much gender impacts the politics of the slasher – and with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 taking it beyond the Freudian and directly into the real world. The killers in these films seem to be born of the wider contexts of their worlds – with the stalking of the killer in Slumber Party Massacre feeling like an organic continuation of a world where voyeuristic desire is the norm.
These ideas are an exploration of the confines that gender is forced to exist in in slashers, with the inevitable violence being unavoidably linked to this – the choice can’t be about Sex or the Saw when one wouldn’t exist in horror without the other.