Tuesday , 24 November 2020

R.I.P., Chainsaw, Poltergeist director, Tobe Hooper

Tobe Hooper, the hugely influential filmmaker behind the horror hits, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, had his lifeforce extinguished due to apparent natural causes on Saturday, August 26th at the age of 74, in Sherman Oaks, California. While those two films stand out as his best known and most successful works, Hooper had a prolific career in film and television that rarely strayed far from the horror genre we hold so dearly. He now joins fellow genre icons, Wes Craven and George Romero, as legendary horror directors we’ve lost over the past two years. Let there be no more for a long, long time!

Born in Austin, Texas in 1943, Hooper started out as a college professor and shooting documentaries before making the move to features, his first being the ‘hippie’ movie, Eggshells in 1969. It was his next film, the infamously titled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) which would put him on the horror map. Co-written with Kim Henkel, it was loosely based on notorious murderer and grave robber, Ed Gein (who also served as inspiration for Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs.) Gein was fond of making furniture and clothing out of human body parts (and unlike those who boast otherwise, his were American-made through-and-through!) In Hooper’s classic, a group of young people travel via van to visit an old family homestead, only to have the misfortune of encountering a deranged family of cannibalistic psychopaths, most notably, the chainsaw-wielding, human skin, mask-wearing Leatherface.

Eschewing blood and gore in hopes of obtaining a PG rating, Hooper utilized a variety of techniques, from flashbulb and livestock sound effects to coming up with creative camerawork with cinematographer, Daniel Pearl (like the under-the-swing, titillating, yet foreboding shot of Pam walking towards the farmhouse, and extreme eyeball closeups). Alas, the film was given an X rating initially, before a few cuts secured an R. It was the effectiveness of Hooper’s direction that made audiences think they were seeing more than what was actually occurring on screen. In fact, as Hooper notes in one of the home video commentaries, only about 2 ounces of blood were spilled in the entire film, and we only see the chainsaw cut through skin at the very end. Yet, the film’s intensity and realism depicting a very diss-functional family (“You’re just the cook!”) terrorizing a screaming Marilyn Burns made Texas Chainsaw one of the most controversial movies in history. That it came after Watergate and near the end of the Vietnam war only added to the film’s relevance. Despite being pulled from release in some U.S. theaters, and completely banned in other countries, the movie became a huge success, especially for such a low budget, independent film. It’s influence cannot be overstated – it began the horror conceit of ‘the final girl,’ as well as that of a relentless, masked killer, and the use of power tools as weapons. Along with Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972), Hooper’s Chainsaw ushered horror into a new age with those auteurs leading the way.

Tobe Hooper followed up the success of Chainsaw by featuring another backwoods-maniac, this time employing a killer crocodile, in the raw and gritty Eaten Alive (1977), starring Neville Brand, a young Robert Englund, and, once again, Marilyn Burns, with a script co-written by Kim Henkel. Next came one of the first adaptation’s of a Stephen King work, the 1979 TV mini-series, Salem’s Lot. Starring David Soul, and featuring one of the most unnerving, sinister-looking vampires since Nosferatu, Hooper’s version stands to this day as one of the best interpretations of King’s writing ever brought to life on screen. Hooper returned to the big screen with 1981’s enjoyable slasher flick, The Funhouse, his first for a major studio, before upping the ante considerably with his next film, 1982’s smash hit, Poltergeist.

Starring Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams, the movie took the haunted house thriller to a whole new level, using state-of-the-art f/x in bringing its visions and ghosts to life. As the film was co-written and co-produced by Steven Spielberg, who was working on his E.T. at the same time, there was, much like Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby with The Thing From Another World (1951), some debate as to how much credit should be divvied up between the two. While Spielberg’s touch is clearly evident throughout the film, Hooper’s depravity and grotesqueness is quite apparent as well. It would mark the biggest success of his career. After directing a music video for Billy Idol, the heavily featured on MTV, Dancing With Myself, Hooper helmed what can probably be considered his most out-of-this-world and outlandish production, the sci-fi/horror, alien/vampire/zombie hybrid, Lifeforce (1985).

It’s difficult to describe everything that makes Lifeforce so incredible other than that it pretty much has everything you’d ever want in a movie in it. Led by an unforgettable performance by Steve Railsback, plus a before Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart, and a very naked Mathilda May, the film was co-written by Dan O’Bannon of Alien fame and Don Jakoby, and featured special effects by the Academy Award winning John Dykstra. The film really has to be seen to be believed, so if you haven’t yet experienced Lifeforce, you need to see what your life has been missing. Hooper would team up once again with O’Bannon and Jakoby with a remake of 1953’s Invaders From Mars (1986).  The film’s premise is explained in the title, and featured up-to-date f/x, again supplied by Dykstra, along with another future Oscar winner, Stan Winston. Despite such pedigree, the film, like Lifeforce before it, was a box office disappointment. Perhaps that is why Tobe decided to return to where it all began with the sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986). Starring Dennis Hopper as an ex-U.S. Marshall hunting down Leatherface and his family after they’ve abducted a radio show host, Hooper took a more light-hearted approach to the material, while increasing the gore quotient. Hooper lets Hopper chew up the scenery while the cannibal clan chews up its victims once again.

After Chainsaw 2, Hooper returned to television, where he directed episodes of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, Freddy’s Nightmares, Tales From the Crypt and NBC’s excellent, yet short-lived alien invasion series, Dark Skies. In the 90’s, Tobe directed a number of features – Spontaneous Combustion (1990), with Brad Dourif, Night Terrors (1993), with Robert Englund, Body Bags (1993), an anthology film originally nade for television which he co-directed with another horror legend, John Carpenter, and The Mangler (1995), based on a Stephen King short story and starring his buddy, Englund, again. In 2002, Hooper directed an episode of the highly-rated Sci-Fi Channel’s alien abduction mini-series, Taken, before solidifying himself as one of the Masters of Horror (2005-06), directing two installments of Mick Garris’ anthology series for Showtime, Dance of the Dead, once again, with Englund, and a very young Jessica Lowndes, and The Damned Thing, both, interestingly, written by Richard Christian Matheson, the first, adapted from a short story by his father, renowned sci-fi/horror author, and NJ native, Richard Matheson. In 2003, after a couple of sequels he wasn’t involved with, Hooper co-produced a remake of his horror hit for Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, starring Jessica Biel. It’s success paved the way for a new wave of horror remakes, from Dawn of the Dead (2004) to The Hills Have Eyes (2006). Hooper also co-produced a prequel in 2006, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning. A seventh Chainsaw film, Texas Chainsaw 3D, a direct sequel to Hooper’s original, was released in 2013. During this time, Tobe took the directorial reigns by tackling killer reptiles again with Crocodile (2000), weapons of destruction with 2004’s remake, Toolbox Murders, 2005’s zombie film, Mortuary, and 2013’s supernatural frightfest set in the United Arab Emirates, Djinn, which sadly marked his last directorial effort.

It’s pretty near impossible to imagine what the state of horror would be today without the groundbreaking trail set forth by Tobe Hooper. He had a visual, visceral style all his own, and his impact and influence on other filmmakers is evident in the outpouring of support and remembrance from fellow masters of horror. Eli Roth called Tobe “an artist, a wonderful warm person, and as much as his films gave you nightmares the man Tobe Hooper just made you smile.” Clive Barker proclaimed, “the chainsaw is now quiet, but it will forever be heard.” Rob Zombie, whose uncompromising style has clearly been influenced by Hooper’s Chainsaw and beyond, told Rolling Stone that with Texas Chainsaw, Hooper “made something that would change the course of film history forever” and that it was a film “every bit as powerful as Taxi Driver, Jaws, A Clockwork Orange and The Godfather.” And John Carpenter, himself, said Chainsaw was “a seminal work in horror cinema,” calling Hooper “a kind, decent man and my friend. A sad day.”  Indeed it is, but we are left with Tobe Hooper’s impressive body of work, and all the countless works they inspired. Proving his legacy will carry on, a prequel to his 1974 masterpiece is due on October 20th, continuing the Chainsaw franchise with Leatherface, which was also the original title for Hooper’s classic before it was changed to the infamous one that started it all. The saw will always be family, as will Tobe Hooper.

— remembrance by Brian de Castro

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