TOBE HOOPER: 10 OF THE BEST

It’s a sad fact of life that as we gallop through the years, many of our heroes and oldest serving bastions of genre cinema are being lost to us. It’s been almost exactly two years that Wes Craven passed away, and George Romero departed not much more than a month ago. Now we’ve just had the sad news that Tobe Hooper has also died from natural causes.

Although the famed director’s last film was back in 2013, his reputation and indelible influence on horror cinema has never diminished in stature and certainly can’t be underestimated. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” alone terrified a generation and stamped itself on modern culture in a way that only mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters have been able to do since. It’s a sad coincidence that a modern prequel based on the iconic character of that film (“Leatherface”) is now just premiering as we write this article, but that also points to the impact that he made. How many other 43-year old films constantly inspire reinvention and new interpretations?

This writer has fond memories of seeing Hooper being interviewed in person at London Frightfest in 2010. A softly spoken and humble man who was honest, and yet still entirely baffled by the negative reactions and censorship that “Chainsaw” had originally caused (especially in the UK). This fondness has been echoed in many of the tributes from the industry, from people like John Carpenter, Stephen King and Edgar Wright. These are fellow nightmare-makers who have acknowledged his influence on their lives, and have sung his praises on social media.

He was a talented filmmaker who was too often underestimated by Hollywood and never really got the recognition in the mainstream that he deserved. Nevertheless, genre fans were devastated by the news of his demise and all film sites reported it with the appropriate gravitas.

So here we reflect on 8 films and 2 TV excursions, where Tobe Hooper produced something special and rocked our world. Some are classics, some are guilty pleasures, but all are memorable and we’ll probably never see the like of them again. R.I.P. Tobe Hooper, you will be missed.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Released in 1974

Unlike many directors, Hooper’s first major theatrical film was arguably his best and became the benchmark for which he was measured by for the rest of his life. It was actually his third production after the short film “The Heisters” and the experimental film “Eggshells”, but TCM was a cathartic and exemplary project born of many ideas. The plot was partially inspired by the cannibal crimes of the notorious killer Ed Gein, and partly a response to the strong feelings invoked by many regarding Watergate and Vietnam. The behind-the-scenes stories about the funding and production are legion, and endlessly documented in various forms. But we’ll just concentrate on the important stuff….

A gang of naïve teenagers visit their old family homestead in the middle of nowhere. They unfortunately stumble upon a family of misfits who prey on lost travellers, and even eat their flesh. The hulking and simple-minded “Leatherface” (so called because he wears a mask made from the skin of his victims) is the most threatening of the family, mainly because he carries a dirty great chainsaw … and he’s not afraid to use it.

Nowhere near as blood-spattered as its reputation has it (especially in Britain where it was censored and marked as a video nasty for years), this was (and still is) an unnerving classic of the genre. There’s a fierceness and uncompromising attitude that you rarely find in cinema today. From the nasty opening (accompanied by the weird camera-flash whine) with corpses perched atop gravestones, to the charnel house imagery, to the no-one-is-safe narrative (a paraplegic is mercilessly sawed to death!), to the disturbing ending, it’s just quintessential horror.

“Leatherface” became arguably the first pop-culture boogeyman of genre cinema, and umpteen sequels and “homages” followed. That plot might look over-used now, but it’s only because of Hooper’s masterful depiction of it, that it became such a trope in slashers and thrillers. Basically, we can’t do justice to the phenomenon that this film became in a couple of paragraphs. All we’ll say is that if Hooper never made another film after this one … his name would still be remembered today for its influence on cinema and culture. And that’s one hell of a legacy to have…

Defining Moment: - It’s a grimy and atmospheric experience from start to finish, but TCM “virgin viewers” are often surprised at the lack of gore in the film. However, it’s what you feel that makes it nasty. Leatherface bursting from a hidden door and dragging a victim to their doom is shocking. But the defining moment is the end where (*Spoiler*) Sally escapes by the skin of her teeth, only to collapse laughing/screaming manically due to her trauma, possibly becoming insane. Meanwhile, in an extraordinarily poetic scene, Leatherface “dances” in frustration, swinging his roaring chainsaw wildly whilst silhouetted against the sun. Quite remarkable filmmaking.

Eaten Alive

Released in 1976

Hooper’s follow-up film to TCM was basically more of the same. It’s another grimy low-budget horror, and is also known by several different titles, like; “Death Trap”, “Starlight Slaughter” and “Horror Hotel”. If TCM was a darkly ferocious and humorous attack on society and horror itself, then “Eaten Alive” was a much more straightforward grindhouse horror. And if TCM was based on Ed Gein’s worst attributes, then the lead character here was (very) loosely based on another depraved serial killer from the 1930’s called Joe Ball. This gent had a very unusual way of getting rid of his evidence, and it’s exploited to the hilt in Hooper’s film.

Mentally unstable Judd (a barnstormer of a performance by Neville Brand) runs the “Starlight Hotel”, deep off the beaten track in the swamps of rural Texas. Suffering from sexual frustration and a barely held sense of reality, Judd periodically attacks his clientele. No-one will ever find a body though, as he secretly keeps a crocodile in the vicinity of the hotel, and feeds anyway who crosses him to it … be they dead or alive.

After the relative background chaos of TCM, “Eaten Alive” was the film were Hooper started to really earn the respect of the actors that he worked with. He coaxes a wonderfully eccentric performance out of Brand, as well as Marilyn Burns (who returned from TCM) and a brilliant early appearance from Freddy himself, Mr Robert Englund as Buck (“My name is Buck, and I’m a-raring to ….”). Other well-known character actors such as Stuart Whitman, Carolyn Jones, and Mel Ferrer create good unwholesome fun.

It’s not as deep or ground-breaking as TCM, but it has a lovely mixture of the surreal and grindhouse gore. Once again it drew the ire of censors in the UK (we are deeply ashamed of our homeland occasionally), but it was a decently depraved scare-flick which does exactly what it says on the tin with some real gusto. It also marks Hooper as a consistent genre director with a sense of innovation and determination.

Defining Moment? – Anytime that Brand loses the plot and goes loopy basically. But the sight of him running around with a bloody great scythe or (*spoiler*) falling victim to his own pet, sums up the whole film in its inspired 42nd Street lunacy.