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TOBE HOOPER REMEMBERED
A Tribute to a True Master of Horror
By the Staff of CinemaKnifeFight.com
Tobe Hooper is not a director I immediately associate with subtlety; however, there are layers to his works. Whether his pictures were big or small, his images were often brash, shocking. I was not surprised to learn that he got his start in documentaries because there is a straightforward, documentary style to THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), EATEN ALIVE (1976), and SALEMS LOT (1979). Unforgettable bits that happen fast but linger in the mind: Leatherface appearing in the door to drive a hammer down on a lad who has gone where he never should; the grinning Glick boy floating out of the fog to scratch on a window pane; or Leatherface delivering a nubile young thang onto a hanging meat hook. The shots are memorable because they are so uncluttered. Delve a little deeper into the mise-en-scene and the subtext and you find plenty of subtlety, often in the form of black humor. When he had a good story, Tobe Hooper could work magic. When he did not . . . well, there are pictures like CROCODILE (2000).
I am a staunch supporter of his overshadowed works from the eighties to the oughts. I adore LIFEFORCE (1985) because it is truly gonzo and overflowing with strangeness and wonders. It’s five movies in one. There are flaws, but there are moments of mastery. Genius, if you will. If the director’s original vision were available instead of the Cannon Films’ mangled one, I believe we might have a truly special picture there. I can make do with the European cut, which is supposed to be closer; however, I harbored hopes it might receive the same, loving restoration treatment Clive Barker’s NIGHTBREED (1990) has. I am a fan of TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) because it is akin to Carpenter’s THE THING (1982): that is, it is a remake that has little to do with the original picture and manages to deliver something interesting and entertaining all its own. Angela Bettis’s performance is wonderful as always, and the film exudes a delightful creepy vibe. I enjoy the practical effects, moody lighting, and visuals in THE MANGLER (1995), though it loses a lot of steam when the CGI takes over.
THE FUNHOUSE (1982) is a special case for me not for what it is but for what it made me hope to see. For the longest time, I held the belief that Tobe Hooper might be the perfect (perhaps the only) director to bring the works of the late Richard Laymon to the screen. I entertained myself musing over Tobe Hooper versions of “FUNLAND“, “BITE“, “THE CELLAR“, or “THE TRAVELING VAMPIRE SHOW.” In fact, the latter of these would play to both his shock horror side, as well as the lighter Steven Spielberg part that gave us POLTERGEIST (1982) and INVADERS FROM MARS (1986). THE FUNHOUSE stands as the most Laymon-like fright flick ever released, and it leaves me thinking about the sorts of things Hooper might have done with other, meatier properties. Alas, we will never know now. Another master has left us.
PETER N. DUDAR
It almost seems cruel, after the recent passing of horror legend George A. Romero, that we should lose another beloved screen icon so soon. And not just an icon, but one whose career was dedicated to the fine art of scaring the crap out of people. The names Tobe Hooper and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE are revered by horror fans around the world, and rightly so. In all my years of watching horror films, I’ve never once come across a person who didn’t rank that movie among the top five most-important genre films ever made. Like Romero, Tobe built his masterpiece on a shoe-string budget; far away from Hollywood and the normal conventions of filmmaking. The mythology of the film’s production and distribution has taken on a life of its own, and since his death this past Tuesday, I’ve seen it trotted out once again on Facebook and the usual media tributaries that feed it. But that’s not what I came here to tell you about.
I want to tell you about a seven-year-old boy who discovered horror on the night that his father let him stay up and watch Part One of the CBS miniseries SALEM’S LOT.
My older brother Joe and I saw the commercials roughly a week before the made-for-television adaptation of Stephen King’s novel aired, and we begged our old man to let us stay up and watch it with him. I remember vividly how my mother admonished him over and over NOT to let us watch it; that we were too young and too impressionable to be seeing that kind of stuff. She warned of us having nightmares and not being able to sleep by ourselves in our upstairs bedroom (their bedroom was down on the first floor). Moms are wise about such things and should probably be listened to. Dads never see it that way, and mine was no exception. He wanted to watch it, and he wanted to spend time with us, so it was a done deal. While mom and our little brother Will watched “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” in the bedroom, we brave men parked our asses on the living room couch and watched the horror unfold.
What made that movie frightening, what filled me with dread in the pit of my belly, was the fact it involved children our own age falling victim to the sinister henchman Straker, and the Nosferatu-esque Kurt Barlow. When you think of the 70s, you’re apt to think of safer things like “Happy Days” and “The Muppet Show.” But when Danny and Ralphie Glick are taking the shortcut path home and the younger of the two is ambushed in the shadows, it’s horrifying. Hooper got away with a lot in that miniseries, and just like his formula in shooting TCM, he stuck with less-is-more. Scenes ended abruptly, with fade-to-black offscreen violence blending into commercial breaks. Musical cues that sounded eerily reminiscent of DRACULA’s (1931) suite form the soundtrack to the siege and fall of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine. And, of course, the bedroom scenes…the one where the vampire version of Ralphie Glick floats in the mist outside Danny’s bedroom window, scratching his fingernails on the glass and smiling that terrible, fanged grin. That scene gets repeated later after Danny’s death and transfiguration leads him to Mark Petrie’s window, but that first time was enough. It broke me. I spent the remainder of part one with my fingers laced over my eyes and peeking through fleshy slits to see what came next.
Barlow, by the way, never even appears in part one.
My mom was right. I was too terrified to sleep upstairs. I had nightmares. And when part two aired, my mother had an absolute fit that dad let us watch the rest of the movie. What I want to tell you about Tobe Hooper is this: in all the years I’ve been sharing this story about SALEM’S LOT, about how it planted the seed for my love of all things horror, I’ve never confessed this last part. When Barlow DOES finally appear in the film—that moment when his purplish-green, bald-headed, pointy-eared, rat-tooth visage pops up to drink the blood of Ned Tebbets in his jail cell, that was THE last thing I saw of that movie until its VHS release years later. That scene scared me so badly that I lost sleep for probably two weeks. When the videocassette WAS released, that same sense of dread returned in my belly as I waited for THAT moment in the film to arrive. Because that’s what Tobe Hooper was good at: creating THAT moment. It happens in TCM, the first time Leatherface appears, and bashes in Kirk’s skull with the hammer, drags his body behind the metal door, and slams it shut. It happens several times in POLTERGEIST, particularly when that menacing clown doll disappears from the chair, and then ambushes the little kid. It happens all throughout Hooper’s oeuvre…that moment where you cross from “it’s only a movie” to “shit just got real.” Tobe Hooper knew how to scare people. Even in his less-popular titles, you can find that moment of frisson, and that’s what keeps us horror freaks coming back for more.
Tobe Hooper inspired a LOT of filmmakers, writers, and artists with his visionary work. He elevated the genre with his usage of bizarre, unsettling sound effects and color pallets. He knew how to tell a damn good story, enough to convince us that the macabre can be beautiful and that madness and reality can be the same damn thing. He’ll be missed, and his works will remain as immortal as that creepy old vampire who nearly scared a seven-year-old boy to death.
Tobe Hooper was one of the biggest influences on my decision to write horror. At the tender age of nine, I saw POLTERGEIST at a friend’s sleepover party. It terrified the turds right out of me. To this day that movie makes me shudder.
As an adult, when I decided to take a break from writing humor, I found myself struggling to find something—anything—to write instead. Then I thought, What kind of a sicko rents POLTERGEIST for a group of nine-year-old girls? It was a germ of a story that has since turned into a rather pleasant career mucking about in the horror genre.
So thank you, Tobe, for traumatizing a child so much that even as an adult, she still says a little prayer before opening a closet door. You’ve done wonders for my creative life . . . and my therapist bills.
THE TEXASCHAIN SAW MASSACRE is the greatest, scariest horror film ever made. I first saw it in 1981 in a rerelease shortly after FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2 came out. I was in junior high at the time, and no film before or since has made me feel the way it does, and even after what must be 40+ viewings, it still makes me nervous, disturbed, and keeps me on the edge of my seat despite knowing what’s about to happen.
Tobe Hooper was responsible for creating what I consider to be an absolutely perfect film. Had he quit directing after it, I’d still consider him one of the greats in the genre. While he made many more films, not one of them even came within the same universe as CHAINSAW. I may not be a huge fan of his later work, but I will always hold him in the highest regard for creating what, to me, is the epitome of horror cinema.
Rest In Peace Tobe.
I have mixed reactions to several Tobe Hooper’s movies. A lot of them, especially later efforts, weren’t great, but even in his worst films, Hooper always had a few great moments—an excellent horrific image, perhaps—that stuck with you. When I heard a Tobe Hooper movie was coming on cable or showing in a movie theater, I was still eager to check them out. Because it was Hooper.
When I first saw THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (imdb.com lists the word Chain Saw as two words, and I’ve seen it spelled both ways on movie posters) as a teenager, on a VHS tape in a friend’s living room, I had no idea what I was in for. For some strange reason, what I had heard about it was that it was a campy movie. I have no idea why that was, but I sat down expecting to see something silly. I should have been more discerning about where I got my word-of-mouth information. CHAIN SAW was intense, powerful, and genuinely scary. That first time we see Leatherface, pulling open the door to his killing room, ramming his hammer into the skull of his surprised victim, and then pulling the body inside and slamming the door, has stuck with me to this day. And little details, like the way the body trembled in its death throes as the guy died. I’ll never be able to relive the moment I first saw that scene—it will never again have the same impact it did that first time—but I have just enough of the vestigial sensation left to know I saw something very special. About as far from campy as a horror film could be, I was both pleasantly surprised and enthralled by this flick. It dazzled my imagination as much as any of the Universal horror classics I’d been obsessed with as a younger kid. When it got to the dinner scene (yes, there is some humor in the film, but it is pitch black), and then that final, iconic scene of Marilyn Burns getting away in the back of a truck while Leatherface dances around, whirling that chainsaw, I was dumbfounded. As Nick Cato said earlier, TCM is the perfect horror film. I’ve seen it many times since, and it still retains most of its power, and ability to shock. And it’s true that you think you see a lot more than what’s actually shown.
What an amazing movie.
Not long afterwards, I saw THE FUNHOUSE as part of a drive-in triple feature. I miss drive-ins, and Tobe Hooper films were perfect for that medium. No matter how flawed FUNHOUSE was, I loved the hell out of it, with its crazy-looking monster and carnival setting. And Mr. Robichaud is right, the movie does have a Laymon-esque feel to it.
I’ve seen most of Hooper’s ouvre, with movies like LIFEFORCE, SALEM’S LOT (which I may have seen on TV before I saw TCM!), EATEN ALIVE (1976), and even TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (with Dennis Hopper in a cowboy hat having a duel of chainsaws with Leatherface, I made sure to see it on opening night in 1986, and even though it was disappointing, there are parts I love, like the chili cookoff in the beginning) standing out. I still haven’t seen Hooper’s first full-length feature, EGGSHELLS (1969) or his last, DJINN (2013), but I’ll have to correct that.
I also read his novel, MIDNIGHT MOVIE, in 2011 and Nick Cato and I even reviewed it here, and I thought it was a lot of fun.
Like George A. Romero, I just took it for granted that there would keep being more Tobe Hooper movies. That these guys would be around forever. Clearly, that’s not the case. But they’re movies will be around forever.
Like other people here, I think I’ve been as influenced by horror films as much as by other horror writers, and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is right at the top of the list of movies that inspired me growing up. Movies that have stayed with me. I’m glad. I never want it to leave me.
Farewell, Mr. Hooper.
© Copyright 2017 by Daniel Robichaud, Peter N. Dudar, Stacey Longo Harris, Nick Cato, and L.L. Soares