Why this might not be so easy
Tobe Hooper (1943-2017) retains a curious position in American genre cinema. He’s acknowledged as a master of horror by fans and fellow directors, yet beyond era-defining classics The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982) the Austin native’s filmography might look short on quality.
But digging deeper into his back catalogue is a worthwhile endeavour, which will give you a much clearer picture of the laconic Texan as not only a versatile craftsman (when opportunity arose), but a keen chronicler of the freaky side of the American national psyche. A self-confessed horror buff and an unabashed lover of shlock material and its surrealistic possibilities, he also had a penchant for oddball characters, narratives tinged with folkloric aspects and class warfare subtexts. Add to this a quirky sense of humour as dry as Texas scrub.
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He dipped his toe into television early on, directing the well-regarded Salem’s Lot miniseries in 1979. But a string of flops and setbacks led him to working in the medium almost full-time, overseeing episodes of The Equalizer, Amazing Stories, Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales from the Crypt, Taken, Dark Skies, to name just a few. The majority of his features of the 1990s and 2000s went straight to video.
From his little-seen stoner odyssey debut Eggshells (1969) to 2013’s swansong, Djinn, made in the United Arab Emirates, Hooper always strived to put his authorial stamp on material. Many projects were elevated by his attention to craft and vision, even if he was rarely afforded final cut privileges.
The best place to start – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
Given its lofty place in the history of cinema, there’s really nowhere better to start than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This comes with a caveat, mind you. The film has often been deemed the sole highpoint of Hooper’s career and something of a millstone around his neck. It doesn’t get any better, for sure, but it shouldn’t be used to attack or dismiss everything else he made. He was no one-hit wonder.
The story of 5 college kids who run out of gas in the middle of nowhere and end up (bar forever-traumatised survivor) on the dinner table of a cannibal clan, Hooper’s film took diverse inspiration from the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, the 1973 OPEC oil crisis and the mad crimes of Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein.
Hooper had received zero attention for Eggshells, which remained almost entirely unknown until its re-emergence decades later as a cult item. He knew had to make a mark with the next one, once describing his ambitious plan as akin to sending a rocket into the sky that would be seen in Hollywood.
Shot on 16mm with a $60k dollar budget cobbled together from local investors, the results represented a radical and infinitely darker shift in genre storytelling, akin to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). Romero’s iconic zombie apocalypse saga, especially, was an influence, with its documentary realism and rough look.
Few films can dream of such an impact on audiences, genre and future generations of filmmakers as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has had. As a publicity stunt, a 35mm print was sent to the New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. Today that PR move looks entirely correct. In 1975, it was selected to screen in the Cannes Film Festival sidebar, the Directors’ Fortnight, which also helped to bolster its artistic credentials.
Yet, in the UK, BBFC censor Stephen Murphy and his successor, James Ferman, refused Hooper’s film a certificate, on the grounds of it revelling in what the latter infamously dubbed “the pornography of terror”. In the US, Harper’s Magazine described it as a “vile piece of sick crap”.
Technically accomplished, juiced on primal fear, hilarious in a charcoal-black way, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s 83-minute journey from eerie and weird to waking nightmare remains a rites-of-passage experience for any horror aficionado.
What to watch next
With 1982’s Poltergeist, Hooper got to play with all the expensive toys a major studio had to offer, with Steven Spielberg on board as a supportive producer to keep the ship on course. Hooper persuaded Spielberg to darken the material significantly from what was originally pitched, enabling him to deliver the distinct visual and emotional intensity that had become his brand, while the ‘A Steven Spielberg production’ credit ensured the film’s mainstream appeal.
Still, the suburban smugness on display in the bland new-build Cuesta Verde neighbourhood, the double climax and slow-build to utter mayhem is more Hooper’s wheelhouse than Spielberg’s. Also, while The Texas Chain Saw Massacre famously contains an early example of the Final Girl figure (Sally Hardesty), Poltergeist serves up a rare instance of the Final Mom, in JoBeth Williams’ heroic Diane Freeling.
Next stop: 1981’s The Funhouse, a subversive take on the slasher that isn’t much interested in routine stalk-and-slash dynamics at all. For a good 40 minutes, Hooper devotes his creative energies to depicting an uncaring suburban class getting its rocks off at a carnival by gawping at deformed animals or acting uncharitably towards vagrants with mental health issues. It’s savage stuff.
After this, it’s time to reappraise the sci-fi yarns made for ill-fated Cannon Films. Lifeforce (1985) was an expensive flop notable for its excellent special effects. Less commented on is the clever gender switch, making Matilda May’s Space Girl the powerful and menacing Dracula character, while the traditional male hero, the astronaut Carlson (Steve Railsback), is transformed into the resourceful Mina Harker figure.
It was back to satire with Invaders from Mars (1986), a tongue-in-cheek ‘reds under the bed’ redo bemoaning cheap nostalgia and the lack of difference he saw between Eisenhower’s era and Reagan’s “It’s morning again in America” sentiments.
Of the little-loved and critically neglected later period, Toolbox Murders (2004) is the finest of the bunch. But also check out demonic-dress thriller I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990), underrated Stephen King adaptation The Mangler (1995) and Lovecraftian zombie flick Mortuary (2005).
Where not to start
Eaten Alive (1976) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) are a loony pair representing Hooper at his most gonzo and contrarian. One is a hicksploitation grindhouse marvel, made entirely on a soundstage drenched in febrile colours (blood red, gangrenous purple, shocking pink), about a serial-killer hotelier who feeds guests to his pet crocodile.
The eagerly anticipated follow-up to the 1974 opus, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of its grungy, sweaty, filth-bedecked predecessor, redesigning the material as a self-aware splatter comedy with pinball-machine lighting, daft one-liners and supremely gory special effects by Tom Savini.