by Benjamín Harguindey
The year of 2017 has claimed another Master of Horror: Tobe Hooper, director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), died yesterday at Sherman Oaks, LA. He was 74.
Born 1943 in Austin, Texas to theater owners, Hooper took to filming at age 9 with his father’s 8 mm camera. He took Radio-Television-Film classes at the University of Texas and studied drama in Dallas under actor Baruch Lumet, father of Sidney Lumet. Throughout the 1960s he would work as a cameraman in many documentaries and commercials.
His first directorial effort was the short slapstick film The Heisters (1964); in 1969 he released his feature film debut Eggshells, which prefaced his career in the experimental B-grade horror genre. But it wasn’t until 1974 that he created one of the most influential horror movies ever made, sparking the slasher flick to life and accruing hundreds of followers and homages: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Shot in 1973 over four weeks with unknown local actors and a low budget of $60,000, the film benefitted from Hooper’s documentarian background. Loosely inspired by the crimes of the infamous killer and body snatcher Ed Gein, the film was shot in a gritty stock, mimicking the unkempt feel of a home movie, and presented via intro narration (courtesy of John Larroquette) as a true crime story.
The plot followed a group of five teens who ran afoul of the deranged chainsaw-wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) and his family of cannibals in the Texan wasteland, being hunted down one by one before being reduced to final girl Sally (Marilyn Burns). The movie had a hard time finding a distributor due to its “R” rating and was banned upon release in several countries due to its violence and exploitative nature, even though it actually featured very little blood or on-screen gore.
Despite lukewarm critical reception at the time, the movie earned over $30 million at the box office and has gone on to achieve cult-classic status, being named as the best horror movie ever made by John Carpenter, George A. Romero and Wes Craven in a 2010 Total Film poll and frequently being voted as one of the best films ever made by magazines such as Empire, Time, The Guardian and Sight & Sound.
Hooper chased his movie with Eaten Alive (1977), also about a killer redneck; Salem’s Lot (1979), a made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King‘s vampire novel, and Funhouse (1981), a slasher flick set in a carnival. His second great hit, Poltergeist (1982), came from a script by Steven Spielberg and has achieved a similarly influential cult status among horror filmmakers. Abandoning the Texan wasteland for the Californian suburbs, the movie chronicles the paranormal activity at the Freeling family house, which has been erected atop an Indian burial ground.
Hooper then decided to team up with writer Dan O’Bannon – whose Alien (1979) script had been heavily influenced by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – and directed two screenplays about space invaders, Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders From Mars (1986). None of them fared very well, and Hooper has gone on to describe Lifeforce as “career murder”. Perhaps it’s because of this string of failures that Hooper retreated to his first hit and decided to recapture the magic with a sequel, but to no avail. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) did away with the true crime grit and that nasty 70s exploitation feel in favor of an overly stylized 80s urban rampage flick, not particularly scary or disturbing.
Hooper’s career into the 90s was marked by increasingly hokey and bizarre movies, entertaining but none of them really scary or disturbing. Spontaneous Combustion (1990) stars Brad Dourif as the punchline to a This Is Spinal Tap joke. I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990) is about a cursed Aztec cloak that turns Twin Peaks‘ sunny Mädchen Amick into a killer. Night Terrors (1993) stars Robert Englund as the Marquis de Sade, who leads a sadomasochistic cult in Cairo. In all, Hooper would direct 18 movies, as well as many TV episodes and other made-for-TV projects.
Towards the end of his career he helped produce the remake The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 2003, as well as a prequel in 2006 and a sequel the original movie in 2016. None of the movies were popular with the critics, but performed well at the box office; Hooper himself described the much-maligned remake as “effective in its own way”.
His final film was Djinn, shot in the United Arab Emirates in 2011 and only shown in 2013 in the film festivals of Berlin, Cannes and Abu Dhabi.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).