I keep a list of themes that I want to write about, movies that I feel group together well. Over the last few months, I’ve been sketching out a series about Tobe Hooper.
No hyperbole — I’d compare his career to Orson Welles, at least within the horror genre. His introduction to the world was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (not his first film — he had made a short called The Heisters and another called Eggshells in 1964 and 1969) is quite literally the Citizen Kane of new horror — a film that is pure menace, able to convince viewers that it is full of gore while remaining quite bloodless. It’s also pure terror on celluloid, able to elicit scares 40 plus years later while other slashers only get chuckles. It’s a first shot that may be the best thing that he ever did — much like Welles, who would forever struggle for the same freedom and validation.
Not to say Hooper didn’t get the opportunity to do more or that he didn’t create some great films after. Eaten Alive and The Funhouse both have their merits. Salem’s Lot elevates the material it is based upon to create moments of sheer dread, such as when Danny Glick levitates outside Mark Petrie’s bedroom or when Mr. Barlow makes his first appearance. That’s even more shocking because Hooper was working in the constraints of television!
Then came the movie that gave Hooper the most money — it led to his Cannon Films deal — 1982’s Poltergeist. Even as recently as last month, on the Shock Waves podcast, it’s been discussed that Hooper was at best the second unit director for the film. It even led to Steven Spielberg placing this ad in Variety:
According to the great article The Failed Career of Tobe Hooper by Adam Simmons (you can read the whole thing right here), “Hooper allegedly had a substance abuse problem at the time which likely led to his dismissal from The Dark and 1982’s killer snake opus, Venom. Some reports say that Hooper entered an in-patient rehab facility immediately following Poltergeist. Whatever the facts are, it would be 3 years before Tobe Hooper made another movie and his career never really recovered.”
Following this, Hooper entered into either the most fruitful or strangest period of his career — three films in a row for Cannon. Lifeforce, Invaders From Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 are all unique and insane films. Lifeforce was originally called Space Vampires and made a third of its budget back — it’s a bombastic effort dominated by special effects and the nudity of Mathilda May. Invaders from Mars is a remake that has a unique charm (and is one of Becca’s favorite movies). The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of my favorites — an audacious fuck you to expectations, made in June for an August release, the only one of the three films to make any movie. It’s a Three Stooges-like Grand Guignol that features a man that snacks on his own scalp, a gigantic house made from the skeleton of a closed theme park and dead bodies and a scene where Leatherface basically fucks someone with his chainsaw (who even seems to like it, stranger still). The ending is literally a giant middle finger on the screen. Instead of the girl being catatonic and Leatherface alive to dance with his saw, it turns the tables, with Vanita “Stretch” Brock taking out the main killer of the Sawyer family and doing her own version of his dance — gloriously alive, having risen above simply screaming and now roaring, as the Texas flag flies high.
After this, Hooper’s career was mainly on TV, producing the endless remakes of Chainsaw and directing movies that never played theaters, such as 1995’s woeful The Mangler (again, one of Becca’s favorite movies). He showed some return to form with Showtime’s Masters of Horror and ended his career with 2013’s Djinn.
My dream over the last few years as that Hooper would make one more film — something to cement his legacy and the promise of his other work. I’d debated making the articles biting and sarcastic at times — The Mangler still upsets me for how bad it is. But with his death, I’m taking a step back and will not concentrate on his decline, but on the films that I feel best encapsulate why he was such an influence.
Rest in peace, Mister Hooper. Thanks for inspiring so many of us. Your films took me from a chubby 15-year-old teen who dressed as Leatherface for art school haunted houses all the way to the chubby 45-year-old man who obsesses over film today. Thank you.