Tobe Hooper changed cinema forever with 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not only is the film one of the great films within the horror genre, but the title also entered the general lexicon, conjuring-up a million horrific images (even if the film shows very little violence). Hooper’s career may have been patchy, but boy did he deliver with his debut.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre came out of nowhere in 1974, terrifying audiences with its deranged characters and iconic villain Leatherface. Kim Henkel and Tobe Hooper’s film was loosely inspired by Ed Gein, the real-life killer who also served as the inspiration for Psycho and The Silence Of The Lambs. Henkel and Hooper keep things simple, as the film spirals towards its climax. The fast and loose vérité style of Hooper’s movie predates the now popular found-footage horror sub-genre. This faux reality makes the film even more horrific and the BBFC banned the film outright believing its overall tone was what made it unsuitable for audiences.
Hooper’s film helped launch the slasher genre of the ‘70s and ‘80s, kick-starting the trend for iconic horror films. Legal wrangles meant that it took over ten years for a sequel to reach the screen, yet despite the return of Hooper and Henkel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a poor relative to this classic, ditching the scares for black comedy. It appears that both Hooper and Henkel, like the many who would come after them, failed to understand the raw intensity that made their 1974 film resonate. It’s no coincidence that this film came in the middle of the ‘70s, a time when the US was still reeling from the Vietnam War, a war that showed reality was often far worse than fiction.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 is a great example of a filmmaker not understanding his own creation. It appears that Tobe Hooper believed that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a dark comedy, so therefore he upped the humour element for this sequel. The first film had some macabre humour woven into its DNA, but the film was a down and dirty horror – it was almost primeval in its scares, hinting at horror rather than showing it. This time around the great Tom Savini supplies the blood and gore but the film has none of the original’s nuance. Hooper and writer Kit Karson will tell you that the film is mocking the yuppie commercialisation of the 1980s but I find that hard to believe. It feels like the film (and the filmmakers) have attached themselves to the ‘80s maxim that more is better, as the film contains more violence, more humour and more noise.
On paper, Hooper’s 1977 film Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap) sounds great but the cartoonish tone and the over the top acting make it devoid of any thrills. Cinematographer Robert Caramico gives the film the look of a live action EC Comic book with the broad colours and set-bound stagings. If you look at it in that perspective then it’s probably a decent enough piece of entertainment. Hooper has stacked his film with an impressive cast – Brand is joined by Marilyn Burns, William Finley, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, Robert Englund and Carolyn Jones but they’re given little to do and they’re woefully underserved by an uneven screenplay.
Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was much more successful. This 3 hour mini-series from 1979 is one of the best adaptations of the King’ work and the running time lets the plot unfold at a leisurely pace. The David Soul starrer features genuine scares and wonderful character development. The film was so well regarded that a shorter, 2 hour version was released in European cinemas. It has a tremendous visual style for a TV movie and it pays homage to the likes of Dracula and Nosferatu.
For all the furore that followed Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s ironic that Poltergeist might just be Hooper’s most controversial film. Written and produced by Steven Spielberg, rumours abound that Hooper was just a front-man for the production and that Spielberg actually pulled the strings on set. Whatever the case, the 1982 film was a critical and commercial hit. Hooper’s later films include 2000’s Crocodile, The Toolbox Murders (2004), Mortuary 2005) and his final film was 2013’s Djinn.None of them were classics.
Tobe Hooper was never able to match the visceral power of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but if you’re going to be remembered for a film, then it might was well be a one of the best.
Tobe Hooper 1943 – 2017