On August 22, 1986, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was released, 12 years after his original. The first film is still one of cinema’s most shocking, gruesome classics; while its sequel is just as grisly, TCM 2 has its (severed) tongue firmly in its (rotting) cheek with a joke that starts the instant you look at the movie’s poster—a macabre cannibal family posing exactly like the Brat Pack stars on the poster for 1985's The Breakfast Club.
While TCM 2 is primarily a black comedy, it also takes the time to dig into certain themes and story points that come up only briefly in the first film, though they provide important background and motivation for those characters (and would be further explored in subsequent Texas Chainsaw films, especially 2006's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). Famously, of course, the family at the center of the film—in part two, they’re given a name that suits them perfectly: the Sawyers, yuk yuk—once made a living working at the local slaughterhouse. While the details are inconsistent from film to film, the lore always includes the fact that the family’s livelihood was taken away when the slaughterhouse embraced automation rather than letting actual humans do the dirty work.
In the first film, we see how that change caused the family to isolate themselves, roaring forth with those animal-killing skills only when provoked by a group of road-tripping kids who blunder onto their property. But in TCM 2—written by L.M. Kit Carson, whose other credits include co-writing Wim Wenders’ 1984 Paris, Texas with Sam Shepherd—the Sawyers are way more out in the open. One of them is an actual celebrity: Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow, in an expanded version of his Texas Chainsaw Massacre role), proprietor of the Last Round-Up Rolling Grill, a prize-winning catering business. Early in the film, we see a grinning Drayton announce “This town loves prime meat!” while accepting first prize (for the second year running) at a Dallas chili cook-off; later, he hustles his family through their own dinner, because “there’s a lot of hungry football fans to feed!” The implication, of course, is that the Last Round-Up has made unwitting cannibals out of anyone who’s devoured its delicious wares.
Though the movie is sprinkled with jokes that emphasize the Sawyer family’s unique approach to Texas barbecue (“Get that eyeball paté working!”), it’s almost possible to let that surreal nugget sink into the back of your mind. At least until the film’s third act when the Sawyers’ corpse-and-guts strewn base of operations is revealed. No longer are these guys living in a rural farmhouse; they’ve taken over an abandoned roadside attraction—the “Texas Battle Lands Amusement Park,” an appropriately violent monument—with underground caverns that allow Drayton to prepare the bodies that Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and Chop Top (Bill Moseley) hunt down. It’s part of the movie’s humor that this is how the Last Round-Up harvests its protein, and that law enforcement—aside from Lefty, Dennis Hopper’s revenge-minded character, a former Texas Ranger related to some past victims of the Sawyer family—just sorta shrugs off what’s presumably an epidemic of missing people. From what we can tell, the Sawyers delight in feeding their customers basically...people just like their customers.
In TCM 2, the first killed are a pair of tipsy college kids who decide to “play chicken” with an incoming pickup truck, not realizing who’s behind the wheel—or rather, who’s in the back of the truck wearing a corpse-skin mask and wielding a chainsaw. Once again, the Sawyers are reacting to being provoked, but you get the sense that while they do more “hunting” to keep up with Drayton’s supply needs, they’re also thrilled to take out obnoxious rich bros speeding around in a Mercedes (the license plate reads “FAQ Q”), firing random bullets at the roadside while prank-calling the movie’s eventual final girl, radio DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams). “Coked-up pencil necks,” Drayton calls them, and it’s hard to disagree, or to feel sorry about who’s being made into the mystery meat that’ll fill “a ton of croissant sandwiches.”
But though the Last Round-Up has earned a certain amount of regional fame, there’s a melancholy to Drayton’s operation that echoes back to the reason he’s driving a food truck in the first place. This is underlined when Grandpa Sawyer (Ken Evert in majestically decrepit old age make-up, courtesy of Tom Savini) shuffles into the action and we get a little bit of exposition. The family was “raised in meat,” but when the slaughterhouse automated its business, it was the beginning of the end. “The electrified cages, the cold-steel chutes, the air-powered head hammers...that drove Grandpa crazy,” Drayton explains to a terrified Stretch. “One morning, Grandpa just quit going in. It was the shame.”
Now, there’s pride to what the Sawyers have accomplished, but they still long for the glory days of the slaughterhouse. As Drayton emphasizes throughout the film, running a small business is no picnic, what with all the people he has to please, the nitwit brothers he has to manage, and the endless taxes he has to pay: “Small businessman gets it in the ass every time!” When Lefty bursts into the Sawyer lair wielding a chainsaw, Drayton’s first thought is not of the people his family has killed over the years, it’s that Lefty was sent by a rival business to sabotage his operation (“Who sent you? Those sissies over at Del-Mar Catering? That chickenshit burrito-man bunch?”). Instead of preparing to fight back, he digs into his wallet for cash to buy off the intruder.
TCM 2 is delightfully absurd, something a casual viewer might not pick up on initially thanks to its wealth of quotable lines and scene upon scene of operatic gore—not to mention a few genuine scares. It offers a weird (but also weirdly poignant) take on how the idea of the American dream evolves across generations, with nostalgia for the past often insisting on clinging to the present. And while the first Texas Chainsaw movie dangles this possibility, its wackier sequel hammers the point home: if only that slaughterhouse had kept things old-school, the Sawyers could have kept using their talents and expressing their urges in a way that wouldn’t involve quite so many dead human bodies. Probably. Maybe? On the other hand, Leatherface sure does love chasing people around with that dang chainsaw.
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