Tobe Hooper & Wayne Bell “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
 Johann Strauss II “The Blue Danube Waltz”
Ordinarily, nothing pleases me more than to celebrate filmmakers who have played a significant part in my cinematic development. However, it’s a great deal less alluring a prospect when you’re required to mention their names in past tense. Barely six weeks have passed since horror lost one of its most treasured forefathers, George A. Romero, and the impact of that particular loss is still impossible to measure at this point. Yet I find myself here again, attempting to sum up in a couple of thousand words what another elite member meant to me personally when I’d happily swap that dubious honor for still having him around. Tobe Hooper sadly passed on the 26th of August, aged 74 and, for the second time in as many months, horror finds itself in mourning.
This friendly faced native of Austin, Texas, clocked up a fair few dozen credits over a career spanning six individual decades and, while his output has lessened in more recent times, he had my full undivided attention as far back as the year of my birth, 1974. To be honest, I was ten-years-old before being granted the exclusive pleasure of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and had the mainstream media to thank for making that one way road trip. I say one way as there was to be no coming back from this particular expedition, at least, not with any remaining slither of innocence. Hooper put paid to that by crafting a motion picture so utterly unrefined and grimy in its depiction of terror that no single other movie has been able to emulate it since.
While never actually banned in the United Kingdom, copies of Hooper’s film were seized by police and promptly disposed of. Moreover, its name became synonymous with the term “video nasty” and its already intimidating reputation skyrocketed. The greatest irony is that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was almost entirely bloodless and left our imaginations to do the legwork, as opposed to pummeling our senses any more than it already was. When it comes to gore, I traditionally hail from the school of thinking that believes more to be more and less, less. However, that simply isn’t applicable here. You see, Hooper and his co-pilot Kim Henkel knew the audience’s weak spots and applied their pressure swiftly and decisively without the need for vivisectionist splatter.
One well-placed swipe of the mallet, a death rattle or two, and the godawful sound of that rickety sliding door slamming shut was all it took to encourage a metallic taste in the back of my throat that stayed with me long after the film had unspooled in my toploader. I used to pride myself on being kind enough to rewind and, considering I worked in a video store throughout my entire adolescence, it came as naturally to me as breathing. Even basic respiratory function was proving an issue after witnessing Sally Hardesty’s exhausting cross-country pursuits so my clean rewind record stood absolutely no chance. Not all of the films in my slipstream can boast of activating a bona fide memory in their honor, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre can. Oh boy, does it trigger a doozy.
In order to attain perfection, a film must be able to stand in its place and time and be counted. While I may have spent the majority of 1974 gestating in a sac, it didn’t take a great stretch to see that Hooper’s film cut all-comers down to size and, over forty years down the line, it still hasn’t surrendered an iota of that raw edge. When you consider that it positively screams seventies from every frame, the fact that it remains timeless to this very day becomes all the more astonishing. I’m not altogether sure I can recall a single other movie that has possessed that kind of staying power. Of course, this did present something of a problem with expectation so through the roof for his next project.
When Eaten Alive arrived in 1977, the initial response was some way from encouraging. Indeed, even now, it seldom receives the credit I feel it deserves. Filmed entirely on a sound-stage, there was something undeniably theatrical to this bizarre little movie, although I would argue that it’s all the more surreal and nightmarish as a result. Looking like it had originally been shot in black and white and the print colorized at a later date, Hooper’s use of deep red alone ensured that our nerves could never settle. Coupled with a gloriously deranged turn from Neville Brand and an early run-out for young rapscallion Robert England, there was a certain Southern charm to this movie that is impossible to deny. Marilyn Burns even made a return, like the poor girl hadn’t already been through enough.
Next up, Hooper was hired to direct a television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and, while Paul Monash’s screenplay took a number of liberties with the source fiction, it worked out decidedly well. This should give you a grin – I watched this and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre within twelve months of one another and, while the latter had the raw terror side of things covered, the sight of a ghoulish Ralphie Glick scratching away at his brother’s window pane in the dead of night provided a similar level of consternation. For a two-part mini-series, it punched well above its weight and you could argue that it helped pave the way for the glut of eighties vampire movies that bared their incisors towards the tail-end of the decade. It was starting to become apparent that Hooper knew a thing or two about chilling the blood.
He was at it again in 1981, this time looking to capitalize on the slasher trend kickstarted by Friday the 13th the year previous with his fairground themed fright flick, The Funhouse. The film turned a reasonable profit theatrically but is perhaps best remembered for landing itself on the BBFC’s video nasty list as a result of mistaken identity. It just so happened that Hooper’s film shared its name with the alternative title of Roger Watkins’ 1977 sleazefest, The Last House on Dead End Street and was taken to task for being unfit for public consumption. Ironically, there was precious little gore to be discerned, and instead, Hooper focused on extracting as much tension as possible from his carnival location. The result was an above-par stalk and slash flick with an abundance of atmosphere and an excruciatingly tense finale. Interestingly, Hooper actually turned down an offer from Steven Spielberg to direct E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial on account of this movie but it wasn’t long before the pair would join forces.
Poltergeist was a resounding success both critically and financially, pulling in over $120m in box-office revenue and finding its way onto many a best of 1982 list. However, the media took an off the cuff comment made by Spielberg and ran with it, suggesting that Hooper had very little to do with the creative process. It has since been the subject of great speculation but I still believe it to be Hooper’s film, regardless of widespread opinion to the contrary. The thing about Tobe is that he was never any less than humble and certainly not one for throwing his weight around willy-nilly. Yes, Spielberg’s inimitable razzle-dazzle style is there for all to see, but I don’t believe he could have delivered it to the kind of dark places that his team buddy could. Anyroad, the kicker to all this was that I was now terrified of rickety sliding doors, little vampire children tapping on window panes, and fucking clowns!
You’d think his career would have gone into orbit at this point but regrettably the phone stopped ringing around the same time his credentials were called into question. However, all was not yet lost as Cannon Films offered Hooper a lucrative three-picture deal to helm two big-budget sci-fi B-movies and a hugely anticipated sequel to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. First to land was Lifeforce, an effects laden extravaganza based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires. With a cheque for $25m burning a hole in his pocket and a wonderfully goofy screenplay co-written by Don Jakoby and the great Dan O’Bannon, it looked like he was in on a winner. Using Quatermass and the Pit as the ideal reference point, he opted to shoot a 70 mm film evocative of the Hammer of old and, to a certain extent, succeeded. That didn’t stop the baying wolves savaging the film upon its release and ensuring it struggled to recoup even half its extortionate outlay.
There’s much to love about Lifeforce and two good reasons were nestled either side of the sternum of Parisian beauty, Mathilda May. Despite only actually being on-screen for a grand total of seven minutes, our Space Girl made one helluva lasting impression and it was nigh-on impossible not to fall under her trance. Granted, the film was a little all over the place, likely due to being heavily trimmed for its theatrical unveiling. But Hooper succeeded in one key area and it happens to be something of a game changer for a fun-loving guy such as I. You see, it was ludicrously entertaining from harebrained start to preposterous end and deserved far better than the mauling it received on arrival.
Meanwhile, his remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 science fiction favorite, Invaders from Mars, didn’t fare a great deal better. Once again, Jakoby and O’Bannon were on screenplay duties and, once again, the film was treated a little too harshly for my liking. While admittedly I cannot excuse its failure to ignite entirely, there was plenty of fifties-themed fun to be had. With the likes of Karen Black and James Karen putting in shifts, there were far more reasons for cheers than sneers and the spaceship sets were a marvel of interstellar engineering. Unfortunately, the film’s poor reception left Hooper on rather shaky ground and all eyes were on the third in his trinity to turn his fortunes around.
Hooper was aware just how difficult it would be catching lightning in a bottle twice, thus The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 took an entirely different approach from its predecessor and brought black comedy to the forefront. Despite receiving a mixed response from both critics and audiences alike, the sequel still turned a profit theatrically, before continuing to reap dividends on home video. However, while some fans celebrated Hooper’s attempt at satirizing Reagan era excess, others felt that it squandered everything that made the original so unforgettable. With a much larger budget at his disposal and a recognizable name headlining in Dennis Hopper, it’s a far more cinematic experience than the original, not to mention considerably gorier, and makes no bones about it either. Time has been particularly kind here as it has aged remarkably well and gone on to amass a cult following all of its own, rather deservedly I might add.
It was four years before Hooper’s next project came to fruition after his post-Cannon detox and, by the time Spontaneous Combustion burst onto the scene in 1990, horror was all but dead and buried. Featuring the ever-watchable Brad Dourif in the leading role as a man who discovers he has the power of pyrokinesis, it may be the most misunderstood of all his works and its meditation on the effects of nuclear testing are perhaps more relevant today than ever. However, despite a typically wild-eyed turn from its lead and some impressive visual effects, it was ultimately undone by repeated interference from the studio who constantly moved the goalposts. It’s a shame as, while not one of Hooper’s better works, it is one of his more intimate and therefore more than worthy of revisitation.
Alas, its failure to create any real buzz signalled the beginning of the end for Hooper as a creative force and, like so many other great genre filmmakers of his era, his nineties output was largely middle of the road. He still continued to work, with Night Terrors, made-for-TV anthology Body Bags, and The Mangler, all appearing in the first half of the decade, but evidently the state of the scene in general and his troubled tenure as a filmmaker were beginning to take their toll. Indeed, other than a perfectly functional but unmemorable remake of Dennis Donnelly’s low-rent 1978 exploitation flick The Toolbox Murders in 2004, he seldom returned to the director’s chair again. That said, when you cast an eye over his oeuvre, there can be no denying that Hooper was an incredible talent and visionary to boot.
He may not have been a “take-charge sort of guy” but I understand this better than most as I’m cut from precisely the same cloth. Some folk simply aren’t cut out for shouting the odds and stamping their feet, but that doesn’t mean their vision should be taken any less seriously. Tobe’s humility and wicked sense of humor made him an incredibly affable character, while his ability to tap into our deepest, darkest fears so effortlessly resulted in many a sleepless night from this particular cinephile. Then of course we have the small matter of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie that single-handedly raised the bar for raw terror and inspired a whole generation of filmmakers in the process.
The state of Texas is currently making headlines for the most heartbreaking reasons, with Hurricane Harvey running rampant and rainfall at an all-time high. I shall refrain from speaking in any great length about this devastating turn of events here as that’s not the purpose of this exercise. That said, somebody dear to me made a comment that I simply have to share, suggesting that “it is as if the skies cried over his passing”. Tobe Hooper was born and raised in Texas and, while he died in California, his heart and soul will reside there forevermore. Thanks to his generosity of spirit and clarity of vision, a small part of me will always reside there too. Eventually the storms will pass and, when they do and that first ray of sunlight bursts through the Texan clouds, I take considerable comfort from the thought that this wonderful man will have something to do with that.
Tobe Hooper (1943–2017)