Tobe Hooper, 1943–2017

Tobe Hooper, whose 1974 shocker The Texas Chain Saw Massacre “became one of the most influential horror films of all time,” as Pat Saperstein puts it in Variety, has passed away at the age of seventy-four. Saperstein: “Shot for less than $300,000, it tells the story of a group of unfortunate friends who encounter a group of cannibals on their way to visit an old homestead. Though it was banned in several countries for violence, it was one of the most profitable independent films of the 1970s in the U.S.”

The second film to come to mind when we think of Tobe Hooper is, of course, Poltergeist. “In the summer of 1982,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips just a few days ago, “one movie imagined with eerie accuracy the film medium’s most persistent and successful competitor—television—as a supernatural force fighting for control of American hearts and minds.” Thing is, “Poltergeist was in truth co-directed or, depending on various accounts, even primarily directed by Steven Spielberg.”

As Clarisse Loughrey reported for the Independent last month, those rumors “have now been more-or-less confirmed by one of Poltergeist’s own crew members, John Leonetti. A director now in his own right, behind 2014’s Annabelle, Leonetti worked as first assistant camera on the film and revealed the truth to the Shock Waves podcast. . . . ‘Steven Spielberg directed that movie. There’s no question,’ he stated. ‘However, Tobe Hooper—I adore. I love that man so much.’”

Whomever history decides to credit for Poltergeist, no one would dispute the lasting impact of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. As Gregory A. Burris wrote in the Monthly Review in 2010, critic Robin Wood

argued that this gruesome tale was not just a bloody exercise in senseless brutality and nihilistic spectacle; instead, it was an attempt at artistically rendering the state of human relations under the pressures of late capitalist society, and it therefore represented a far more significant social statement than anything offered by those more polished Hollywood horrors, The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), The Sentinel (1977), and the like.
For Wood, it was no coincidence that director Tobe Hooper chose to portray his film’s macabre family of cannibals as former slaughterhouse workers who had been replaced by more modern methods and machinery. Out of work as a result of the callous and morally indifferent logic of capital, the family continues practicing their butchery upon human victims, thus reproducing the rapacious, dog-eat-dog conditions of capitalism quite literally.

Hooper, who was born in Austin, had a long and close association with the city’s alt-weekly, the Chronicle. Editor-in-Chief Louis Black spearheaded the rediscovery of Hooper’s first feature, Eggshells (1969), “very much a slice of life and rare record of Austin circa 1968,” as Black wrote in 2009. “Eggshells makes explicit what many have long assumed—that Hooper's sense of cinema is the defining characteristic that makes Chainsaw great. Eggshells is a true 1968 film, psychedelic and political; it seems clear that Hooper had watched more than a film or two by Jean-Luc Godard. The film celebrates alternative lifestyles and politics and people and an odd, kinky semimysticism that is grounded more in humor than the supernatural.”

“The influences in my life were all kind of politically, socially implanted,” Hooper told the Chronicle’s Marjorie Baumgarten in 2000. Chain Saw, he said, came to him “in a matter of literally seconds, literally under thirty seconds . . . The structural puzzle pieces, the way it folds continuously back in on itself, and no matter where you’re going it’s the wrong place. That was influenced by my thinking about solar flares’ and sunspots’ reflecting behaviors. That’s the reason the movie starts on the sun. It’s amazing how it all kind of zeitgeisted into my head so quickly.”

Updates: “Hooper wrote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre script with Kim Henkel,” notes Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. “They based it loosely on the horrific crimes of Ed Gein, a murderer whose influence would also be felt on a latter horror classic, The Silence of the Lambs. While initially banned in some countries, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre held up as a great horror film in that, much like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (also inspired by Gein), most of the violence was implied.”

“Hooper continued to direct into his later years but was never able to match the success of his early work,” writes Gwilym Mumford in the Guardian. “His later films included monster movie Crocodile, released in 2000, a 2004 remake of crime drama The Toolbox Murders and the 2005 zombie film Mortuary. Hooper’s final film was 2013 horror Djinn, which was funded by and set in the United Arab Emirates.”

In a feature for Texas Monthly that ran in the November 2004 issue, John Bloom caught up with just about everyone involved in the production of Chain Saw: “The more you learn about its making, the less it seems the invention of a screenwriter or a director or an acting company than the product of Austin itself at the end of the Vietnam era.”

“Perhaps it was Wes Craven who offered the definitive comment on Tobe Hooper’s macabre masterpiece,” suggests the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “Craven called it ‘Mansonite’ and in a spirit of dark humor he applied the adjective as much to the film’s creator as the thing itself. The director had invaded our minds with this diabolically horrible film and very much moved the furniture around in our skulls.”

Glenn Kenny didn’t see Chain Saw “until 1977 or ’78,” but he’d wanted to “since having seen Johnny Rotten wear a ‘I Survived The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ t-shirt.” The film was “in my mind inextricably tied up with punk rock, which I was also heavily into at the time. There was Johnny Rotten’s t-shirt but there was also the fact that the Ramones had a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired song on their first album. The Ramones’ first two albums and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were to me standard-bearers of a certain kind of American art: cheaply made but not amateurish, fast, brash, loud, unsettling, pop but intellectual, intellectual but pop, and also in some not insignificant way, very free.

Last October, Noel Murray, writing for Musings, noted that, over twelve years, “from Chain Saw to Chainsaw 2, Hooper directed eight movies that collectively are as daring and visionary as [George A.] Romero and [John] Carpenter’s output in the same era. These films are often heavily flawed, but charged with a fervid intensity, and guided by a purposeful mind.”

J. D. Knapp (Variety) and Michael Nordine (IndieWire) are collecting tweeted tributes from the likes of William Friedkin, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Sean Baker, Kevin Smith, James Wan, Scott Derrickson, Elijah Wood, and Kumail Nanjiani.

Surveying the career for, Peter Sobczynski pauses a moment when he reaches Lifeforce (1985), “a jaw-dropping sci-fi/horror extravaganza in which a trio of space vampires (who suck energy rather than blood) found in the tail of Haley’s Comet are inadvertently brought to London and get loose, infecting the population and threatening the entire world. One of the most genuinely batshit crazy films that you will ever see, this heady cocktail of wild special effects, cheerfully hammy performances and straight-up weirdness is one of those rare films that starts up already cranked up to 11 and somehow manages to sustain the lunacy throughout.”

Back to Chain Saw for a moment. “Its score, a low-budget, experimental work constructed by director Tobe Hooper and his musical aide Wayne Bell, comprises a complex layering of percussive, organic and electronic sounds to create a chilling, unsettling ambiance,” wrote Stephen Puddcombe for Little White Lies last year, noting that the emphasis is “on subtly shaping the atmosphere, and of provoking a feeling of dread and disorientation that washes over the audience despite often barely even noticing its presence.”

Updates, 8/29: “If any two films could stand in for the scabrous and undervalued genre work that made up the bulk of the late Tobe Hooper’s career, it would Eaten Alive, a tawdry and deranged Tennessee Williams grindhouse item that appears to have been filmed inside a lava lamp, and Spontaneous Combustion, his baby boomer nuclear-pyrokinesis movie,” argues Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “Both imperfect and implosive, both in the Hooper-ian vein of horror as twisted parody.”

“Hooper’s best films spoke to his weird, bitter sense of humor,” writes Simon Abrams at “Hooper would try, in a handful of post-The Texas Chain Saw Massacre efforts, to confirm what many fans of that earlier film already knew about that darkly comic 1974 horror show of pitiless post-Vietnam disillusionment: everything is a joke because nothing is funny in a world hell-bent on its own destruction.”

Variety’s Owen Glieberman argues that “the ultimate reason that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre emerged as such a landmark movie, one that just seemed, somehow, to have appeared, is that it was made with a precision and suspense, a luridly exacting reverie-of-fear quality, that was nearly classical in its execution. And that was all because of Tobe Hooper.”

“Mr. Hooper said that as a young man he loved the horror genre, but found that the films in it had become boring,” writes Neil Genzlinger for the New York Times. ‘I figured I was paying two bucks a ticket, a dollar and a half a ticket, and I was getting about 10 cents’ worth of scare,’ he said in Masters of Horror, a 2002 documentary. Then a friend steered him to Night of the Living Dead, the 1968 film by George A. Romero (who died last month). ‘I walked out thinking, “O.K., that’s the way to do it,”’ Mr. Hooper said.”

In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey notes that fans of Chain Saw “included Ridley Scott (‘It shocked the hell out of me’), Stanley Kubrick, who bought his own print, and William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, who said it ‘transcended the [horror] genre.’”

For Yahoo Movies, Nick Schager writes about “scary greats he directed after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

At IndieWire, William Earl, Michael Nordine, Chris O'Falt, David Ehrlich, and Eric Kohn write about “Hooper’s Best Films.”

Updates, 8/31: Hooper and Henkel “called the manner in which they constructed the story of Texas Chain Saw ‘nightmare syntax,’” notes Sean Fennessey at the Ringer. “It’s a flashing, strangulating style that created a template for thousands of horror filmmakers, but was never replicated. Six years removed from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, a movie he adored, and five years out from his flop feature-film debut, Eggshells, Hooper set about to make something pulpy, furious, claustrophobic, and family-oriented. And successful. Growing up in Texas and Louisiana, Hooper told the journalist Jason Zinoman in his horror history Shock Value, ‘Those family dinners can go very wrong. I saw some things growing up that were bizarre and weird.’”

Fresh Air has posted Terry Gross’s 1988 interview (7’33”).

Update, 9/2: “If you want to understand Tobe Hooper’s relationship to and impact on the horror genre, you could do worse than watching one of his very finest films, 1981’s The Funhouse,” suggests Nick Pinkerton, writing for Sight & Sound:

After an opening credits overture of creepy, chattering midway animatronics, we move into a young horror buff’s suburban bedroom, decorated with Halloween masks, posters celebrating the Universal Studios monsters, and rubber spiders. This is just the beginning of Hooper’s piling on of horror clichés: there’s a stalker POV that leads to a buxom young woman in the shower, à la Psycho, resolved as a harmless prank assassination with a rubber knife, and then a lot of business revolving around a visit to a fun fair and a carnival dark ride—all as if to say “Can you believe anyone used to get spooked at this kids’ stuff?”
But then one of the carnies loses his rubber Frankenstein mask to reveal a cleft-palated homicidal abomination beneath, and suddenly the movie loses the tired trappings of the classic horror and becomes a horror film in the Tobe Hooper mould, which is to say an excruciating ordeal, a predator-versus-prey fight for survival that is totally, terribly absorbed in the adrenaline-fueled, propulsive panic of the moment.

“Hooper’s first major horror film left me unnerved (not ‘scared’), since I felt thrown into a world where reason had collapsed, a world produced by American myth and history, and its basic assumptions about the family, capitalism, and uses of power,” writes Christopher Sharrett for Film International. “The cannibal family, even more than Bates and family (and the ‘extended’ family, including Marion, her boss and Sam) in Psycho (1960), seemed not at all aberrations, but the logical products of the nation. We note that on the van radio, before the appearance of the cannibal clan, we hear of disasters, apparently an unending list, characterizing America in the final quarter of the twentieth century. . . . Hooper’s film was uncompromising in its portrayal of disintegration, but, like Pasolini’s Salo (1975), Texas Chainsaw refused any nihilism; rather, it posited a nation and world that could not continue under the accepted order of things.”

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