If ever there was a director who was dedicated to the horror genre it was Tobe Hooper. Whilst others like Wes Craven and John Carpenter moved around film types, or like the two Davids, Cronenberg and Lynch, used horror to make commentaries about humanity, Hooper was purely trying frighten us.
Maybe this was because he hit the ground running with one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Having seen the effect it had on audiences, maybe he just wanted to stay in that well.
If you look at the one sheet poster for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre you are hit with multiple statements, both true and false. The tagline “Who will survive and what will be left of them?” along with a victim hanging from a meathook, whilst Leatherface revs up his chainsaw, may make you think that this will be the most shockingly violent film ever made but the truth is that the gore is fairly limited. What is true is that when you watch the movie even the lack of guts and dismemberment doesn’t stop the violence being absolutely terrifying. This is mostly because it is sudden and cold like the real violence American audiences were seeing on the news at that time.
The poster also claims that this story is true which it isn’t in the slightest (although Hooper was inspired by serial killer Ed Gein amongst others) but being in a time when it was harder to check facts (and why would film makers even lie?) many people thought it was based on fact. In reality Hooper was making a statement. He saw America was becoming a nation of liars, led by their commander in chief and arch liar Richard Nixon. Oh how times have changed.
Ultimately what really made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster so shocking was the title itself. It suggested a modern wild west so twisted by violence that young people were being torn apart by petrol driven power tools – the machine was grinding them into meat, and indeed that’s exactly what the visceral, dynamic picture showed. It wasn’t through explicit blood and guts but through it’s sheer intensity and the poster said it all. No wonder the film was banned in so many countries across the globe.
These bans didn’t stop it from becoming a raging success and although it only had mixed reviews at the time it’s influence, as with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead before It, is unquestionable. What is often is forgotten is what a beautiful and well made movie it is, from the stunning cinematography to the clever and haunting sound design.
This high level of filmmaking didn’t quite make it across to Hooper’s next movie. Eaten Alive feels like an expansion of the dinner scene from Texas with more screaming and a crocodile instead of Leatherface. Having the emphasis more on the deranged killer (who manages to run a motel where he kills ALL his guests and somehow gets away with it) makes the studio shot film less accessible than Chainsaw but also way more crazy. This would be a trait in many, many of Hooper’s films that followed.
Before he really started to make some of the maddest films in horror cinema, Hooper dipped his toes into television with Salem’s Lot, easily one of the best Stephen King adaptations and the cause of millions of kids making sure their curtains were closed at night. A handsomely mounted production, Salem’s Lot starred one of the biggest names in TV at the time, the great David Soul, and a star of yesteryear, still giving it his all even as a sidekick to a vampire, in James Mason. They added extra class to an already classy movie, but what really made it work was it’s incredibly creepy horror imagery that only Tobe Hooper could have created. From the design of the Marsden House to the black rag in the middle of the kitchen floor that turns out to be the vampire Barlow, these are images that burned into the viewer’s psyche. None more so than the vampire Glick boys scratching outside the bedroom window, begging to come in. This image scared a whole generation of children.
The underrated The Funhouse came next which had the cheek of having the monster hiding in a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. Maybe it was this film that grabbed Steven Spielberg’s attention leading to their collaboration on Poltergeist. Obviously slicker, more expensive and with classic Spielbergian traits, Poltergeist was still packed with great, well, Hooperisms: close ups of rotten meat, eccentric characters and weird toy like faces (the clown scene has many shots almost identical to shots in The Funhouse). This combination of the father of blockbuster cinema and a master of horror hit paydirt and went on to be one of the year’s most successful movies, and made as bankable as the brilliantly left-field Hooper was ever likely to get.
This barn storming success led to lots of offers for Hooper and lots of false starts (he almost directed the classic Return of the Living Dead but that’s a story for a parallel universe) before he finally came into the radar of the Canon Film Group’s uber producers Globus and Golan. After years of making what most people saw as low rent trash Globus and Golan were desperate to move up into the big league with expensive movies that everyone took seriously. For some bizarre and wonderful reason they saw Hooper as the key holder to this brave new world of the blockbuster. For some equally bizarre and wonderful reason they decided that Lifeforce was the film to make this happen.
Lifeforce is the story of a crew of British astronauts (aboard the space shuttle Chuchill) who discover an ancient spaceship stuck at the back of Halley’s comet and end up bringing back to Earth three space vampires who cause havoc and destruction in a way that only producers throwing money at the screen could do. To star in this epic Hooper cast Steve Railsback who had not only not had a hit in years but was what could best be described as an unhinged performer for whom the word subtle is very, very foreign. Maybe in a sign that an audience could only cope with so much Railsback he disappears from the film all together for about half an hour for no reason I could work out. More importantly (to the 14 year old me who saw this in the cinema) the female lead was one Matilda May who may be the bravest actor ever to walk the silver screen. She spends the entirety of this big budget madness naked. Plus they must have filmed in autumn or winter in London because May is clearly showing signs of being extremely cold.
Lifeforce is one of my favourite films but even I could have told you that it was going to be hated by critics and bomb hard. This didn’t seem to stop Hooper or his friends at Canon who next dived into a big budget remake of Invaders From Mars for which the kindest reviews frequently used the term “ill advised.” Clearly a passion project of Hooper he took the 1950s reds-under-bed sci-fi sorta-classic and updated it with all the eighties monster effects and spaceships he could throw at it. Some extremely variable acting and the same hokey story as the original (even down to the it-was-all-a-dream-or-was-it? ending that seemed old hat in 1953) doomed Invaders From Mars to the same fate as Lifeforce from the previous year. However Hooper still had one more Canon film to make and this turned out to be a good one.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is a great film almost despite of itself. Tonally it couldn’t be more different from the first movie. Instead of raw intensity we are presented with a blackly comic slice of family life… a mad, cannibalistic, victim-face wearing family but a family nonetheless. Hooper claimed he always wanted the original Texas to be a comedy but was forced into darker territory by the producers. Clearly Globus and Golan had no such problem. Or maybe no time to disagree… they were still shooting it in August 1986 and the film was in theatres by September. It’s surprising it was successful as it was.
Well… successful is a relative term. Having no time to even argue with the censorship board, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was released in the US with the kiss of death NC17 rating and duly failed to light up the box office. In the UK it never got released at all.
After this spectacular triple bill of flops with Canon Hooper disappeared from the cinema for a long time. During this period he worked on TV which in lesser hands might have been just for the pay check. But Hooper made the last ever Amazing Stories for Steven Spielberg and the best, or indeed only good, episode of Freddy’s Nightmares. When he finally did get a movie off the ground, Spontaneous Combustion, it was sadly met with indifference. Many of the projects over the remaining years of Tobe Hooper’s life were similarly ignored, but maybe now there will be a reappraisal.
For example, the early nineties were a boom time for Stephen King adaptations. Misery, It, The Stand and The Shawshank Redemption were all hugely popular in Western culture (okay Shawshank took a while to get seen) and Hooper making a new take on one of King’s stories seemed like a logical step. Unfortunately Hooper made The Mangler into a movie. The short story, which appears in Night Shift, is a spiritual cousin to King’s Christine, again about an object possessed by a demonic force. However instead of a car, which can, you know, move, The Mangler itself was a laundry folding machine. This, of course, is a crazy idea. Somehow King managed to pull it off in written form, even at the end of the story with the possessed presser stomping down the town high street it somehow managed to be unsettling. Not so the movie. The trouble with evil inanimate objects is that in order to be killed by them you have to go near them (see for example Death Bed). So every victim has to actively go out of their way to get crushed by The Mangler. It is patently as ridiculous as it sounds. However it you give the film a chance it is also hugely entertaining. Much like Lifeforce and Eaten Alive before it, The Mangler’s bizarre casting, energy and general madness drive the plot forward. Casting Ted Levine, fresh off his twisted turn as Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, as the heroic cop is just asking for trouble. The there’s Robert Englund as the factory manager whose performance flies so fast past over-the-top it’s almost a new art form. Also it’s a terrific looking movie which Hooper clearly had a passion for making, a twisted misguided passion but a real one nonetheless. Watched in the right frame of mind The Mangler is quite something. Like all his best films it is like something you’ve never seen before. It just happens to be about a murderous pressing machine, something not many people want to see.
Until he died Hooper continued doing what he started out doing: making (or sometimes just trying to make) low budget horror movies. Of his later films probably his best is his remake of The Toolbox Murders. A significant improvement on the original film, it is typically full of weird characters and crazy moments of violence and has Hooper’s busy, bonkers fingers all over it.
Tobe Hooper may have only had a short time in the Hollywood studio system and mainstream success but to horror fans he will always be seen as one of this genre’s favourite fathers. Poltegiest, Salem’s Lot and Lifeforce (suck it non believers) are classics and then there is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Really, when any film maker STARTS his or her career with a film that good it is surprising he could ever make a film even half as good as that ever again. Hooper did it multiple times.
Thank you Mr Hooper for all the fear, and fun, you gave us.