Tobe Hooper was (is?) a filmmaker that I always thought got a raw deal.
I think because I grew up having seen Poltergeist and Invaders from Mars before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I had the benefit of coming to Tobe Hooper without any preconceived notions.
Well, except that after Poltergeist, the name Tobe Hooper alone scared me for a while.
In 1983, parents had forgotten that Steven Spielberg was the kind of kid who used to get his kicks scaring his sisters around the house. We had Jaws 2, but Spielberg’s monster was in the hands of Jeannot Szwarc now, while the mad doctor was experimenting with other genres. With the exception of the broad comedy of 1941, Steven Spielberg was trading in wonder. Science fiction, adventure, and fantasy. Although, that kid who’d scare his sisters would still manage to find ways to slip the knife in.
Hellish infernos of orange just outside your front door in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Raiders of the Lost Ark with its spiders, snakes, and…Judeo-Christian God. Raiders was particularly scary if you were being raised as a biblical literalist, because holy crap, if the Ark of the Covenant is real, the Angel of Death can melt your face off by looking at you?
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial traumatized children with themes of divorce and mortality itself (ask anybody who saw the film at a young age about E.T. in the river.) So, what happens when Spielberg puts together a project with the sole intention of scaring the audience? And, what if he partnered with the man who’d made arguably the scariest American film to date?
Long story short, Poltergeist was, forgive me, a graveyard smash. It was 1983 by the time it got to me on HBO.
As an adult, I have strong opinions on the subject, but as a child, I didn’t know about any of the behind-the-scenes drama that would haunt Hooper for the rest of his life. All I knew was that the last name I saw before the scariest movie I’d ever seen started in earnest was Tobe Hooper.
I suppose that summarizes my feelings on the matter, after all.
You know the scares. The TV set. The tree. The meat. The face. The clown (probably the scariest thing in the movie to me, resulting in some particularly anxious bedtimes. For a few subsequent viewings, I’d actually avert my eyes once the clown turned until I could hear Robbie’s defiant shouts of “I hate you!” as he tore the foul thing to pieces.) The gravity-defying assault on Diane that pre-figures Tina’s death in A Nightmare on Elm Street. The closet. The Beast. The pool.
It knows what scares you. Yes, it does.
I’d watch all the horror films I could on network tv or cable, when I could talk my parents into letting me try one before we’d hit one too many instances of inappropriate material…meaning times I had to turn around for nudity or sexual content (or in the case of Creepshow and Adrienne Barbeau’s Billie, language came close to getting it axed.) Sexless, violent affairs like The Omen were fine. The Exorcist was not. An American Werewolf in London was a favorite, but it’s a small miracle that I don’t face a wall every time I hear the opening chords of “Moondance.” Local television stations showing Vincent Price movies on Sunday afternoons and Chilly Billy Cardille hosting special 3-D presentations of Revenge of the Creature and The Skull (make sure to get your glasses at your participating Stop-N-Go convenience store) were vital, nourishing experiences.
All the while, whether in a cable guide or newspaper, just seeing Tobe Hooper’s name would set my hair on end. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized that Hooper had been scaring the Hell out of me before I even knew his name, courtesy of ‘Salem’s Lot and the scratch-scratch-scratching of Ralphie Glick at the window. Even the minimalist TV spot for Lifeforce low-key freaked me out.
The pulsing synth score. That giant eye over the Earth. The intense voice-over, reminiscent of the Jaws trailer. I wouldn’t see that gonzo freakout of a film for some time, especially after my older brothers enthusiastically reported back from seeing it (and more importantly, Mathilda May.)
Not long after, I began to see trailers for Invaders from Mars. Hooper’s film dazzled my cinematic third eye with a kid’s-eye view of a psychedelic alien invasion (and happened to co-star Laraine Newman, who I’ve crushed on since I can remember crushing.) It’s the ultimate in pre-teen paranoia. Your parents have been replaced. You can’t trust your mean-spirited teacher. That stuck-up suck-up in class? The one who power trips when she gets to monitor the class if the teacher steps out? She’s in on it, too! The whole town is in danger, and you’re the only one who can do anything about it.
Outside of the concept, the script by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby was balanced enough between scares and laughs to keep things feeling more like a funhouse than the brain-frying terror of Poltergeist. Christopher Young’s dramatic, pulsing war march of an opening theme over Superman: The Movie inspired credits immediately pulled me in. I loved Stan Winston’s playful creature effects. The use of color seemed crazy to me. The only other film I could remember outside of Poltergeist using color in such a bold way was the aforementioned Creepshow.
Poltergeist and Invaders from Mars both went into heavy rotation at my house. We were on the cusp of the 80s horror explosion, and despite the strict religious influence coming from my father, I had a mother who would sneak me out to the theaters or would smuggle the videotapes home to me. I had been to Haddonfield, Camp Crystal Lake, and Elm Street. But, I hadn’t had a proper trip to Texas. Some movies were harder to come by than others, and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t ever on cable. I’d seen the horror documentary Terror in the Aisles, which featured a few choice cuts from Chain Saw including the Kirk hit, Pam’s hang-ups, dinner with the family, Sally’s fight with a closed window, and Leatherface’s dance at dusk. At the time, I thought that was enough.
After a decade of silence, the buzz was back.
First off, let’s talk about marketing. Particularly the home video marketing. An advertisement that gave my cousin, the daughter of a Wesleyan minister, nightmares. A few years after the film had been released on VHS, my cousins had come to visit and the sight of the classic “Breakfast Club” picture of Leatherface and his family I had clipped out from the cable guide and hung on my wall caused her to flee from my room in tears, leaving my aunt to explain that the original chili ad had got my cousin “to thinking about what had to happen to that person before that picture was taken.”
Again, I had the good fortune to experience a Tobe Hooper film with no preconceived notions and I absolutely loved it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 immediately hit with me, even if it might’ve been for reasons that Hooper didn’t intend, although some of those hit, too.
I loved seeing yuppie scum, or as I thought of them, “preppies” getting their comeuppance. Leatherface puppeteering a corpse to the strains of Oingo Boingo was a life-changer. With my Christian background, Lefty played almost straight for me. A righteous hero descending into the Underworld with two chainsaws in lieu of a flaming sword. I fell in love with Stretch and feared for her safety. Chop Top made me laugh, but scared me too, because it seemed equally likely that he’d tell you a joke or kill you, “like Death eating a cracker.” Drayton’s entrepreneurial speeches, which I can recognize now as Norman Vincent Peale by way of Charles Manson, always made me laugh and stuck with me through the years. “…the small businessman always, always, always gets it in the ass.” I wanted a third film set in ‘Nam Land. Like Evil Dead 2 would do shortly after, the film would redefine what I thought a movie was or could be.
Chainsaw 2 led to the video store getting a copy of the original, so I would finally see Chain Saw, and it would, like Poltergeist, scare the hell out of me. The sound design punctuating the photo flashes. The droning, clanging audio during the opening credits. The corpse sculpture. Pam’s ominous horoscope reading (probably why they got into trouble, you know, because divination attracted the attention of evil forces.) The full, unedited dinner scene was almost unbearable. If I was in the woods at night after that, I’d flash back to Leatherface coming out of nowhere to obliterate Franklin. Chain Saw’s dialogue would make it into the vernacular of my friends. If there was something we had to do but didn’t want to do, one of us would pipe up with, “Come on Franklin, it’s gonna be a fun trip.”
For years, those films, and the pilot of Freddy’s Nightmares, comprised my relationship with Tobe Hooper. I saw the “Miss Stardust” episode of Amazing Stories but missed his name in the credits. I saw Eaten Alive and was too young to appreciate it. Same with The Funhouse, because very little occurs that would qualify as “action” to a kid for the first hour and I got bored. Spontaneous Combustion was wasted on me. I watched Body Bags but was mostly focused on Carpenter. By the time we got The Mangler, I was a literary purist who was aggravated with all of the films (The Lawnmower Man, A Return to Salem’s Lot) taking liberties with Stephen King stories and churning out unrelated tales.
I’d like to note that my position on adaptations has loosened up considerably, and A Return to Salem’s Lot is a total gas and classic Larry Cohen.
I saw Hooper’s episode of Perversions of Science when it aired, enjoyed it, and forgot about it until this past Halloween.
Though I was an English major, I did a lot of film scholarship in college and could recognize the themes in the Hooper films that I’d already embraced. Rust, meat, and decay. Yuppie materialism. Sins of the fathers. The impact of industrialization. The fundamental lie of “Manifest Destiny.”
When I was a young filmmaker, my definitive horror dream project would’ve been (still is?) a Texas Chain Saw Massacre prequel about Grandpa’s final days at the slaughterhouse, complete with a John Henry-type killing race with Grandpa wielding sledge against a foreman using that no-good bolt gun. I ended up doing a lot of research into the brutal, bloody history of Texas, coming away with an understanding that makes me grit my teeth when I hear someone ignorantly slag the Lone Star state.
I’d defend Hooper’s Cannon films anytime someone claimed he was a one-hit-wonder (apologies) or disputed his directorial contribution to Poltergeist. Despite that, aside from Poltergeist or ‘Salem’s Lot, I never revisited the non-Chain Saw, non-Cannon films. Apart from Djinn, I hadn’t watched any of his feature films post-1999. I regret that now.
Mea culpa, Tobe.
After Hooper’s death, the only one of his films that I’d reevaluated was Spontaneous Combustion. I was blown away by the atomic age production design. The use of the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” juxtaposed with atomic energy years before Fallout would make the combination of the two iconic made my jaw drop. The film was patently Hooper. The individual valiantly struggles against forces they are powerless against, human and supernatural. The government is not to be trusted, even if they are clothing and keeping you. The psychedelic finale. This was an unfairly maligned film.
On October 15th, 2021, a panel discussion was held by the University of Texas Press to mark the publication of American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper, an academic review researched and edited by Will Dodson and Christopher Woofter. The panel included and was promoted by Joe Bob Briggs, legendary writer and “the world’s first drive-in movie critic,” who I’ve been following since, well, shortly after seeing Chainsaw 2 as fate would have it.
Joe Bob had elegantly eulogized Tobe Hooper during his “Dinners of Death” screening of Chain Saw on Shudder’s The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs. He spoke of Hooper’s craft and the rumors and slander that had “dogged him” and “brought him down” all his life. Briggs spoke with a lump in his throat. I teared up, too.
I immediately registered for the panel.
Stan Giesea, writer and collaborator of Hooper, offered insights into I’m Dangerous Tonight and (if I recall) Tobe Hooper’s Night Terrors. His comments on Spontaneous Combustion rekindled my interest, particularly the revelation of a longer workprint.
I think Julius Banzon, who has amazing articles and resources on the Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society, mentioned a workprint of Invaders from Mars with an extended opening and additional scenes.
I had heard a lot of Joe Bob’s thoughts on Hooper before (that’s not a knock, I’m just up on my Joe Bob.) He spoke about Tobe’s lack of desire to do the glad-handing that the more superficial aspects of the business require. Hooper wasn’t the kind of guy who would “go to the parties.”
What set my brain off like ten sticks of dynamite was Scout Tafoya’s recognition of Tobe Hooper as horror’s counterculture Orson Welles. Doomed to live in the shadow of his most famous masterpiece. Forever at odds with the Hollywood machine. Interfered with at almost every turn.
It hit me like Grandpa’s sledge. I owed a karmic debt to Tobe Hooper. I needed to see every single Tobe Hooper feature film I hadn’t watched and revisit those films and selected television programs that had faded in my memory.
2021 has been a banner year for Tobe Hooper scholarship. Not one, but two books dissecting the late director’s body of work, determined to secure the legacy of an artist whose catalogue had been unfairly dismissed. Scout’s book arrived first, and would serve both as my guidebook and the “friend I’d discuss the movie with post-screening.”
Cinemaphagy by Roger Ebert.com’s resident Don Quixote, Scout Tafoya, is an extensive survey of the director’s technical signatures, the very vocabulary of Hooper’s films, in addition to parsing its themes. Tafoya diligently reports on everything Hooper ever put on film or video, from his 1964 short film The Heisters to one-off television pilots, with an emphasis on Hooper’s crafting of each project. Scout is a filmmaker himself and his real passions lie in examining how Hooper applies the vocabulary of cinema, primarily in terms of camera moves, although Tafoya finds plenty of time to focus on sound and music design, frequently making references to Hooper’s Texan contemporaries and psychedelic freakout ensemble, Red Krayola. Tafoya’s meticulous nature can get the better of him while recounting the action in the films/shows he’s covering, but on the flip side of that, having Scout tell you the plot might be as close as you’re ever gonna get to seeing that rare episode yourself. You couldn’t ask for a better sherpa to lead you through the mountains of Hooper’s filmography.
That said, Scout, Chad Lowe may not be anybody’s favorite Lowe, but he is in Highway to Hell, with Kristy Swanson and C.J. Graham, which means he’ll always have a place in my heart. Second, I’m a firm believer that Drayton Sawyer is the eldest of four Sawyer brothers in Hooper’s Chain Saw films, and not father to Bubba and the twins (and to you super hardcore fans out there, I don’t care what the Jason Vs. Leatherface comics have to say on the matter.) The screen is canon. The Saw is Family.
What follows is my screening itinerary for #HooperHalloween2021, accompanied by the observations I made at the time. Of course, I have more thoughts on all of the films I watched, but I stuck with the ones that didn’t have as much overlap with Cinephagy, or what I can ascertain from American Twilight.
Spontaneous Combustion (Theatrical and Workprint.)
Invaders from Mars (Rough Cut)
Lifeforce (Director’s Cut)
Tobe Hooper’s Night Terrors
Perversions of Science, Episode 7, “Panic”
The Mangler (Theatrical)
The Toolbox Murders
Amazing Stories, Episode 2.21, “Miss Stardust”
I’m Dangerous Tonight
The Apartment Complex
Peter, Paul & Mary: The Song is Love.
I was being facetious, but The Song is Love is among Hooper’s most chilling films in the way that it takes on unpleasant truths about human nature. It is uncompromising in a similar way to Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass. Hooper’s examination of the time period is absolutely a pure expression of the ideas that he’d explore for the rest of his career. The end of the film speaks so completely to the director’s artistic identity, that I could immediately feel my throat close as tears pooled in my eyes. I was moved by the film I had seen, but also by how it presupposes Tobe Hooper’s entire legacy. A robust legacy that stands, in my opinion, shoulder to shoulder with any of the luminaries of 1970s genre cinema.
American Twilight arrived shortly before I was finishing the task at hand and I’m reading it now. It did get here in time for me to read the piece on The Song is Love, which beautifully illustrates exactly how Hooper’s film is almost a Rosetta Stone to his entire filmography.
Then, I jumped ahead to the chapter on Poltergeist.
A Tobe Hooper Film.