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.

Salem’s Lot

Released in 1979

A real landmark moment for Hooper fans for many reasons. If you caught this in your childhood, you never, ever forgot it. It proved that Hooper had an eye for real gut-clenching scares, and that they didn’t have to rely on gushes of blood or depraved acts. Although a theatrical “movie” cut is the most available version of this production (with some added gore but losing some important character beats), it is perhaps best enjoyed in its original format, a mini-series of 2 2-hour segments. Based on the best-selling Stephen King novel of the same name, this turned out to be one of the very best adaptations of his work.

Author Ben Mears (a surprisingly good David Soul) returns to his hometown in Maine (this IS King), the titular Salem’s Lot. It coincides with the creepy Straker (a chilling but genial James Mason) setting up a new antiques shop, and awaiting the arrival of his partner Mr Barlow. This is the catalyst for the disappearance of a local boy, swiftly followed by others, until the whole town starts to devolve into a nest of vampires that only Mears can seemingly stop…

Considering this was made for mainstream 80’s TV, it is bloody terrifying in places and it still retains the power to chill your spine even now! The combination of Hooper’s directorial eye for surreal horror, along with the scary source material pays absolute dividends. The Nosferatu head vampire and floating silver-eyed ghouls have become immensely influential on future portrayals of the blood-sucking dead. “The Lost Boys” owes it a great debt as do many other vampire films. In fact, Bryan Fuller even cited it as the inspiration for one of the kills in “Hannibal” as he sung its praises. For his part Hooper does a lovely homage to “Psycho” with the Marsten House and showcases his versatile directing style.

There was a sequel called “A Return to Salem’s Lot” from Larry Cohen, but it has nothing to do with the original really. There was also the 2004 “remake” miniseries with Rob Lowe, but nothing can really touch Hooper’s original. For this writer’s money, this remains a King adaptation that should rank alongside De Palma’s “Carrie” and Kubrick’s “Shining” for an effective translation of the writer’s words. Simply brilliant.

Defining Moment – So, so many great creepy moments in this, which is vaguely remarkable for a film made for TV in the 70’s. Barlow’s Nosferatu face popping up at the city jail, Mike Ryerson rocking in a chair and hissing “Loook at me” to the elderly teacher, we could go on… But for truly sleepless nights, it has to be the (still) disturbing sight of young Ralphie Glick floating at the bedroom window, softly scratching at glass to come in and drink his brother’s blood. Filmed in reverse to get that unnatural look, it is genuinely the stuff of nightmares and a testament to Hooper’s directing ability.

The Funhouse

Released in 1981

Sometimes known as “Carnival of Terror”, this was Hooper’s first major studio production after TCM and “Eaten Alive”, and it’s a more-than-respectable slasher film with a fun (heh) hook to it. Based on a book by prolific horror author Dean Koontz, it’s an unashamed exploitation horror with some nice touches and some decently depraved twists on the archetypical teen horror.

A group of asshole teenagers (except Amy who has “final girl” written all over her) visit a travelling carnival and dare each other to spend the night in the “Funhouse” (which is actually more of a “Ghost Train” ride). As they smoke pot and settle down, they see the masked ride assistant commit a horrible crime. Circumstance goes against them as the disfigured psycho pursues them as they remain trapped in the attraction, whilst he picks them off one by one…

The book actually has some serious theological and psychological moments to it. The film however, is a straightforward slasher with a great boogeyman and the expected teens-in-peril moment. But to be honest, it’s all the better for it. Hooper shows that he can still make top-drawer exploitation with the best of them (unbelievably though this was another one that got heat with the UK censors). It still has a slightly depraved and sleazy element to it (the “erotic” encounter that causes the first murder), but the production values are better and it feels slightly more accessible to some.

More than anything else though, and even with the gruesome violence, Hooper obviously intends people to have some fun with this. The opening scene satirises “Psycho”, the Frankenstein’s Monster mask hides a “real” monster, and even the film poster winks at the audience (it’s a rip-off of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). It’s not a classic, but it is a solid slasher and good fun.

Defining Moment – A honourable mention for the nasty demise of the hideous boogeyman Gunther, but for sheer Grand Guignol chutzpah it has to go to the unmasking scene where the monster-masked monster is unmasked … if that makes sense.

Poltergeist

Released in 1982

As you go through Hooper’s filmography, you get a handle on just how much some of his output has influenced modern genre cinema. After TCM and “Salem’s Lot”, here’s another iconic movie that affected another generation’s bad dreams. “Poltergeist” was of course, a massive and highly influential spook-fest, for all the talk of Spielberg vs. Hooper direction (there is plenty of evidence that Spielberg had a hand in most of the scenes, as well as writing and producing) and the unfortunate (but ludicrous) talk of the “Curse of Poltergeist” (where several stars of the movie met an untimely end IRL), this was a bona-fide classic, and Hooper deserves much of the credit for that. The film was the biggest hit of ’82 and constantly pops up in lists of “best-scares” and suchlike. And for good reason…

The Freeling family live on a new estate in Orange County, but start to experience paranormal activity (without found-footage) which seems to zero in on their youngest daughter Carol-Anne (a wonderfully natural performance from young Heather O’Rourke). The activity ramps up and the young girl goes missing, until all Hell (nearly literally) breaks loose and the reason for the hauntings is revealed.

God, this film is so ingrained on horror fans … Try and think of a reality where people don’t know what a high-pitched chorus of “They’re here!” means. Or know the phrase “Go towards the light”. Or wonder where that fear of clown dolls comes from. Or become worried that an otherworldly (and suspiciously sexually shaped) portal might be hiding behind a cupboard door. See what we mean? And it’s a PG-rated film in the US (it was before PG-13). In its purest form it’s just a collection of haunted house tropes, but it collects them together so damned well and with huge amounts of suspense and imagination.

Alright, the lightshows and clown/tree came directly from Spielberg, but you have to acknowledge that the darker moments (and they’re there in spades – some of those skeletons in the swimming pool are real!) are owned by Hooper. The subsequent sequels (and the recent remake) never got close to the same impact that this gem had on the public consciousness.

Defining Moment - Whilst you can attribute the clown doll, the possessed tree, and the spirit lights to Spielberg, we’re convinced that the really dark stuff came from Hooper’s imagination. The slow descent into the corpse filled swimming-pool is an absolute heart-stopper! But for our money, as shallow as we are, the moment where a researcher slowly rips his face apart in front of a bathroom mirror stills gives us the heebie-jeebies! Yes, it turns out to be a hallucination, and the effects aren’t great by today’s standards, but still … Blimey! Also, fun fact = the hands that do the ripping are allegedly Spielberg’s!

Lifeforce

Released in 1985

Heh. Yeah, we know. It’s not exactly a classic. But it is bloody great fun and surely on every genre fan’s list as a “guilty pleasure” or just “unmissable”. Based on Colin Wilson’s book “Space Vampires” (which would have been a more honest title really) this is sci-fi horror pulp at its enjoyable. The film was part of a 3-picture deal with Cannon films for Hooper, with the company throwing money at many projects with gleeful abandon. He was apparently second choice for director for this after Michael Winner (?!!! Can you imagine?). Basically Hooper took the money and source material, and went about making his own homage to “Quatermass and the Pit”. And it was glorious…

As Halley’s Comet passes Earth, a European space program (Bwah-hah-hah!!) journeys into the tail and finds an alien vessel. They secure three human-looking figures suspended in containers and return them to the UK. The female alien (played by statuesque French actress Mathilda May in one of her first roles … only ever known as “Space Girl” …and she’s nude throughout the whole film) recovers and escapes. It turns out that she is an entity that feeds on the life-force of humans. Yup, a space vampire. Unfortunately her victims become shrivelled zombies who must then feed on others, before they crumble into dust. So there’s a vampire/zombie plague and London is pretty much doomed then…

“Lifeforce” is simply brilliant, but it’s not necessarily “good” in the truest sense of the word. Earnest actors like Frank Finlay and Peter Firth emote in a po-faced manner, as if they’re in a cold-war spy thriller rather than a vampire/zombie flick. And the dialogue lacks any real wit or spark. Some scenes are unintentionally hilarious and it’s all taken so seriously that it becomes oddly surreal.

But none of that matters, because we have spectacular scenes of London filled with zombies, glowing “souls” zooming all over the place, May’s distracting state of permanent undress, and a narrative that never slows down and chucks ever more ridiculous events at the viewer. Frank Finlay’s “Here … I … go…” is worth the price of admission alone. Don’t expect a work of cinematic sophistication, but do expect unfettered enjoyment. We only wish that more film companies had given Hooper a bigger budget and carte blanche with the source material, because whatever your view of the film … it’s a real fun-ride.

Defining Moment – Ooh, hard to pick. So many choices; Patrick Stewart’s blood flowing from his face and forming into Space Girl, the surprisingly effective animatronic zombies, or a starkers Mathilda May being blandly offered a biscuit by a security guard to calm her down. But in the end, it has to be St Paul’s Cathedral being turned into a conduit for human souls. The great landmark is knee-deep in corpses and host to a destructive sky-beam (before EVERY bloody film had one) as London lies in ruins. Great stuff. We’ll take that over “London Has Fallen” or “Independence Day: Resurgence” any day!

Invaders from Mars

Released in 1986

The second film that Hooper made with Cannon and a definite change of pace for the director. It’s his first attempt at a remake (unless you equate “Lifeforce” with “Quatermass and the Pit”) and it’s a more wholesome affair. The original 1956 film of the same name is an underrated bit of classic sci-fi that played with the idea of a child’s imagination, and the way it could interpret real-world problems. Hooper’s version has a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon and some cool SFX from the great pairing of Stan Winston and John Dykstra. The plot is intentionally pure 50’s nostalgia.

During a meteor shower, David Gardner (Hunter Carson) glimpses what he thinks is an alien spacecraft land in a sand quarry behind his house. When his parents investigate, they come back … changed and decidedly hostile towards him (but only verbally we hasten to add). David suspects this is the start of an invasion, but of course nobody believes him … even when he’s obviously the hero of the story.

“Invaders” was a major box-office flop when it was released, making back only a fraction of its $12m budget. But in retrospect, the film is actually quite charming and an endearing love-letter to the 50’s invasion movies. The whole point of the film is that (like the original 50’s plot), the whole thing is quite possibly a flight of fantasy by the lead character and it’s all seen from his perspective. There’s some nice chemistry between Carson and the school nurse (not surprising because she’s played by Karen Black, who’s his mother in real life), and the sight of a young boy leading the US marines into battle is a great realisation of the whole narrative.

It’s not going to win any major prizes but it’s still entertaining and probably the closest that Hooper came to producing a horror movie that the whole family could enjoy. It’s also littered with great references for movie nerds. The town it takes place in is Santa Mira (from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “Halloween III”), the police chief is played by the same actor who played the boy in the 50’s version, and even genuine props from the 50’s film are shown in a storage room. If nothing else it shows that Hooper had a softer side and certainly knew his movies.

Defining Moment – Every time the sand pit swirls and it takes someone to an uncertain fate. The aliens are realised by some nice old-fashioned effects as well, even if they don’t look that realistic

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

Released in 1986

Now this was the film that the 3-picture deal with Cannon was really all about. And it was a sequel that horror fans were clamouring for. But maybe it wasn’t quite what they were expecting. For his part, Hooper never really saw the original TCM as just an out-and-out horror. He kind of viewed it as a bit of a “comedy”, which he frequently brought up in interviews. With that in mind, Hooper went for the jugular and the funny bone with a real vengeance in this movie.

After an earnest “Unsolved Mysteries”-type opening, it’s revealed that in the 13 years that have passed, the police have been searching for Leatherface and the Sawyer family members to no avail. When female DJ “Stretch” (a great performance from Caroline Williams) hears the slaughter of two victims during her show, she teams up with former Texas Ranger “Lefty” (the great Dennis Hopper, brandishing chainsaws like guns) to track down the culprits. But Leatherface and Co. don’t take kindly to people nosing into their affairs … or their strangely delicious chilli.

Cannon films (as detailed in the documentary “Electric Boogaloo”) were disappointed in the product that Hooper gave them here. But to expect another slice of rawness that existed in the first TCM is unfair. Hooper was in a different place now, as was the rest of the world, and this film is part black-comedy with splat-stick, but also a knowing reflection of the staid state that mainstream horror had become at the time. Hooper wanted to push the envelope in terms of what he could get away with in terms of blood and giggles. The film’s famous poster is even a rip-off of “The Breakfast Club”.

Hopper and Williams are great, as is Bill Mosley in only his second film role as the disturbingly unhinged “Chop-Top”, who eclipses Leatherface in terms of villainy and grossness. It was given a mostly negative reception when released, unrated in the US (kiss of box-office death in other words) and banned for years in the UK (*sigh*) and Australia. But looking back in hindsight, Hooper’s intentions and vision are much more defined now, with critics and the genre community embracing it. It’s certainly better than the other muddled and ill-defined sequels for a start…

Defining Moment – Lots of juicy little morsels here. Any scene with Dennis Hopper, Chop-Top’s habit of heating a coat-hanger and using it to eat bits of his own flesh, the dubious erotic moment between Leatherface and his victim. However, it really it has to be the opening scene where a furious Leatherface graphically chainsaws a victim whilst speeding across a bridge, all of which is captured unwittingly on a call-in radio show. It showed that the gloves were off in terms of blood and dark humour.

Freddy’s Nightmares: No More Mr Nice Guy

Released in 1988

Hooper actually did a lot of TV work over his career. From episodes of “The Equalizer” and “Dark Skies”, to more familiar genre territory in stuff like “Masters of Horror”, “Tales from the Crypt” and “Night Terrors”. But probably one of the highest profile TV episodes that he did was this one. When people speak of doing a Freddy Krueger “origin” film or reboot, we wonder how many of them realise that Hooper had already filmed one back in the 80’s. The pilot for an ongoing “Elm Street” series, it was filmed at the height of Freddy-mania, and told the definitive origin of ol’ Finger Knives himself.

The first episode retells the story we know from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (albeit in a syndicated, low-budget TV kinda way). Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund of course) is being prosecuted for a string of child-murders, but due to a mistrial he gets off scot-free. A mob of parents eventually corners Freddy in his infamous boiler room, leading to him being torched by a police officer. But he morphs into the familiar dream-demon that we know and takes revenge on the copper that killed him.

If you accept the constraints of small screen genre TV before the mega-budget days of HBO and Netflix, then Hooper does a pretty good job of realising Freddy’s inception. He keeps Englund’s pre-burn face in the shadows or obscured, and enables the actor to craft some decent scenes, like the moment where he tells the viewer; “It’s not your nightmare … it’s mine”. As a whole, it’s never going to win any Emmys, but this pilot isn’t an embarrassment to the Elm St legacy at least…

The show would eventually run for two seasons, which aired in syndication from October 1988 until March 1990, and Hooper only directed the pilot. The rest of the series was basically a horror version of “The Twilight Zone”, but did have the innovative gimmick of two tales overlapping into each other during each episode. But the idea of Leatherface’s “Father” directing Freddy is what draws most people to the opening story.

Defining Moment – Freddy aflame. The scene where Krueger is torched is pulled off pretty well for TV actually. And he goes to his end defiant, wisecracking until the pain eventually gets too much.

Toolbox Murders

Released in 2004

After “Invaders” this was the only other time that Hooper did an out-and-out genre remake, but he put his own twisted spin on it. The original 1978 movie was just a typical slasher of its time and had no supernatural or arcane elements to it, just a bloke using various DIY tools to Friday-the-13th his way through the cast. But Hooper’s version created a freaky new boogeyman and ramped up the kills.

Strange disappearances are occurring in the Lusman’s Arms, an ex-hotel currently serving as an apartment block. Nell Barrows (the brilliant Angel Bettis) is a tenant who starts to investigate her surroundings and finds disturbing secrets. The man who built it was a practitioner of the dark arts, and it harbours a twisted black-masked character that creeps out of his lair to kill and keep himself alive.

All credit to Hooper for proving that he could still provide an entertaining and offbeat fright film at this stage in his career. The movie isn’t a classic as such, but it is good rip-goring fun. And it’s refreshing to have a remake that could have been just another tired slasher re-tread, turned into an absolutely bonkers horror with a distinctive inhuman killer and an undercurrent of the esoteric. It subtly plays with the (anti)social relationships of tenants and better still … it teases that the killer is just another ski-masked psycho (like the original) until the big reveal.

Hooper was still pushing boundaries even at this stage, with the film originally getting an NC-17 rating before some cuts. The mangled character of “Coffin Baby” even nearly spawned a franchise, with a belated sequel being released in 2011 that starred Bruce Dern (accompanied by load of copyright issues), and there’s an often-mooted part 3 in possible crowd-funding. But this remains a good fun horror, which cements Hooper’s relationship with the grotesque and bloody innovation.

Defining Moment – The shock revelation of “Coffin Baby” or the death by power-tool (eat your heart out “Driller Killer”) are contenders. But it has to be the murder by nail-gun and its aftermath. A victim is pinned by successive nails drilled into the wall, before being finished off by one to the neck. And then when cops quickly check her apartment they can’t find the body … because they don’t look up and she’s now pinned to the ceiling!!

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