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Remembering Tobe Hooper: Much More Than the MASSACRE

I don’t need to tell you how much influential filmmaker William Tobe Hooper changed the entire landscape of horror cinema with his 1974 feature THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE… nor do I need to tell you how much we’re all feeling the pain of this devastating loss to movie history.

It’s bad enough we’re still staggering from the demise of another pioneer in modern horror, George A. Romero, who passed away last month… but this is becoming too much to bear for those of us who (like myself) were inspired to create dark art in many forms thanks to the influence of groundbreaking creators like Tobe, George, Wes Craven and so many more who have departed this world.

How long should we spend reflecting on their legacies and influence? How personally did their films and other projects touch our lives and hearts? Each of us has their own unique answer to that… but let’s not forget, as I stressed with my tribute to Romero, that a true artist is more than just the sum of their creations.

THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)

Like Wes, George and their peers, Tobe drew more than his share of fan criticism for having “lost his mojo,” or otherwise fallen short of the incredibly high watermark he set for the genre with CHAINSAW. But you know something? I’ve been a fan of Hooper’s other, less-appreciated works for most of my life, and there are multiple Tobe titles I re-watch annually (or more) for many reasons — including their creative audacity, surreal ambition, and otherworldly atmosphere.

Therefore, dear readers, I’m going to tell you, very briefly, about some of my favorite Tobe Hooper films which, for various reasons, have been obscured by the long and ominous shadow of that 1974 classic (or by more influential directors, in one case), and why I love them dearly.

SALEM’S LOT (1979)

I’ve listed these in order of my own personal preference, by the way, so your results may vary… and probably will. But toss aside the judgmental bullshit for a few minutes, because this article is not a filmography (you can get that anywhere), or “Our Top 10 Tobe Hooper Movies” clickbait garbage. This piece is about nothing more than the reasons each these movies holds a special place in my heart.

I’d like to hear your reasons too… so we can honor Mr. Hooper together today.

POLTERGEIST (1982)

Okay, let’s shove the whole “who really directed it” shit-talk out of the way for once. I don’t care how much of POLTERGEIST was directed by Hooper or Spielberg. Yes, it feels very, very much like an E.T.-era product, and the constant close-up shots of “awestruck people looking at amazing offscreen shit” are pretty much the equivalent of watermarking a Spielberg joint. But I don’t fucking care. There are elements of skin-crawling, unnatural, dreamlike horror in this masterpiece that Hooper has summoned forth in many of his films, and the DNA of that horror is clearly incorporated into the darkest, most horrifying moments of this film. Sure, that Spielbergian flair often overpowers them, because… well, because Spielberg. But my horror sense can detect Hooper’s imprint everywhere.

THE FUNHOUSE (1981)

I have no idea why Hooper’s first studio film — not to mention his contribution to the slasher genre at its absolute peak — didn’t pull in major box-office. Because this film has everything a slasher needs: the sleaziest, grimiest, most exploitative traveling carnival since FREAKS; a PSYCHO shower tribute (with actual nudity); a hulking, screeching mutant whose unhinged sexual impulses result in murder; and a loony “prophet of doom” cackling “God is watching you!” Universal screwed the pooch on this one… but Hooper did a fine job.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986)

This one divided a lot of fans — mostly because of Hooper’s choice to sorta parody the film that put him on the map. But it’s one of the most entertaining, gory, insane, bizarre thrill-rides of the ‘80s horror boom, and adds even more personality to the Sawyer family, revealing how they manage to carve out a living (pardon the pun) with their own psychotic visions of marketing strategies while always staying one step ahead of the law, and somehow maintaining a bizarro version of an unshakable family bond. Hooper set out to make this murderous band of cannibals absurdly likable (“Lick my plate, you dog-dick!”), and I love the sheer fuck-off audacity of that choice. He also manages to poke gory fun at a lot of ‘80s trends along the way.

SALEM’S LOT (1979)

If you weren’t spooked by at least one or two iconic scenes from this classic TV miniseries — arguably one of the finest Stephen King adaptations on the small or big screen — then you should just skip over this paragraph, because I’m not wasting my time trying to reach you. Yes, it suffers a bit from the limitations of ‘70s television, but some of us happen to like that aesthetic. There are sites and books devoted to truly creepy TV horror movies… and this two-parter remains one of the creepiest of all time. Period.

LIFEFORCE (1985)

Okay, so maybe Hooper shouldn’t have hitched his wagon to the Cannon Group for as long as he did, because his three big-budget productions with that notoriously sketchy company — including the aforementioned CHAINSAW 2 and the not-worth-mentioning INVADERS FROM MARS remake — but you’ve gotta admit this adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel THE SPACE VAMPIRES is anything but boring… and inducing boredom is the only unforgivable crime a film can commit. Yes, it was mangled and mishandled by the producers… but Hooper’s original vision is still completely nutzoid, and oddly discards the most effective element of Wilson’s story: a very believable scientific theory behind the idea of psychic vampirism. Instead we get a hot naked lady vampire (which makes up for a lot, I’ll admit), practical effects showing bodies desiccating and exploding before our eyes, and Steve Railsback making out with Patrick Stewart. What the hell more do you want out of a movie? Come on, people!

EATEN ALIVE (1977)

Film historians and fans were baffled by Hooper’s choice to follow up  CHAINSAW with this surreal oddity — not that the subject matter was out of line with his previous work, of course; EATEN ALIVE is loosely based on a series of ghastly crimes committed by a Texas bootlegger who kept a pond filled with pet alligators. The weirdest aspect of this film (among many) was Tobe’s choice to shoot entirely on soundstages. It seems out of sorts for a director who used barren Texas landscapes to create an ambiance of hell… but that’s what I love so much about this film: it exists in a netherworld of unnatural colors, thrift-store costumes, scratchy country tunes, rubbery FX and set design swiped from a condemned Cracker Barrel… topped off by characters who act unlike any kind of normal human being. The result feels like you’re wandering through a local Halloween spookhouse after chewing a handful of magic mushrooms. (That’s a compliment, by the way.)

MASTERS OF HORROR: DANCE OF THE DEAD (2005)

Honorable mentions go to Hooper’s 2005 MASTERS OF HORROR episode DANCE OF THE DEAD (you know, the one everyone hated?), and… wait for it… 1995’s THE MANGLER. Seriously, how can you not love watching every second of Ted Levine – best known as THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS’s Buffalo Bill — as a bumbling detective with chronic indigestion, mumbling every line of dialogue through mouthfuls of antacid tablets? That’s just good cinema, folks.

All joking aside… in that wild, uncertain era of the mid-1970s, Tobe Hooper — like Romero did with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in ’68 — gave us something few filmmakers of any subsequent generation can ever dream to achieve: a game-changing masterpiece of modern horror that feels so damn real there are still people to this day who believe the events depicted in THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE actually happened.

As the infamous trailer below says: “Once you stop screaming… you’ll start talking about it.”

They certainly did… and over four decades on, we’re still talking about it.

Thanks, Mr. Hooper. We’ll miss you.

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