Tober Hooper: What the Hell?

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*In the early 1970’s young, fresh faced, Tobe Hooper was out shopping one evening for Christmas gifts at a hardware store. The crowd was thick, loud and unruly, as is often the case at that time of the year, and Hooper became agitated. In that moment (in what im sure occurred mentally as several Brian DePalma-like slowly zooming close ups) a fit of desperation and anguish overtook him. Hooper’s mind began to race. His eyes darted about the increasingly annoying room… Then he spotted a nearby chainsaw… It is then that Hooper imagined himself wielding the mighty metallic weapon. Firing it up, it’s engine purring like a beast from hell, and carving his way through the endless lines of holiday shoppers, just so he could escape the Holiday fueled, claustrophobic nightmare and pay for his stocking stuffer Caulk Guns sooner…

(*Some portions of this story may have been embellished for dramatic purposes.)

It is of course this little incident of Holiday black humor and daydreaming that ended up birthing…

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Written By Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel
Directed By Tobe Hooper
During a brutally hot summer, on a budget so low (rumored to be between 60 and 120 Thousand) even Sam Raimi would say “Screw this. I’m going home.” Tobe Hooper and his not-so-merry band of local actors, artists and townsfolk branded together (and tortured themselves) to create a true horror classic.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for those of you not in the know, tells the story of a group of young friends (led by Sally Hardesty, played by Marilyn Burns) traveling across the back roads of Texas to make sure their families graves hadn’t been ransacked (in a freak mass un-burial/act of odd vandalism) and to visit their old homestead. Along the way they pick up a deranged hitch-hiker and then run out of gas in the middle of nowhere. It is in this desolate countryside that the bodies start to pile up, the terror is amped to the max and its unrelenting nightmare assault on the cast AND audience really ratchets up.

Aside from the insipid antics of the semi-retarded Franklin Hardesty (most likely in the film to give it SOME even minor relief from soul numbing horror) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as pitch perfect a fright flick you will ever come across. And why is that might you ask? A whole bunch of boobies? A pile of gore? A massive body count? No. No. And also no. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a film that relies solely on mood, tone and atmosphere to create a disorienting sensation of absolute, utterly realistic and believable dread in it’s audience.

I’ve often said (since I first viewed the film as a YOUNG child) that what allows the movie to get under even my horror hardened skin is that it looks (and sounds) like some grainy home movie; a real document of carnage that someone just happened to find in some serial killer’s attic and decided to release as a film. Whether or not it was a conscious decision, or just the fault of the low budget (probably a combination of the two) the very look of the faded, scratched film stock the movie was shot on is roughly half of where the mood exists. Don’t get me wrong, this is no amateur production (even though… it was) the camera work is stylish without being obtrusive (the clichéd “fly on the wall” phrase comes to mind) and it is edited and paced with a masterful eye. But still, it’s very cheapness (even it’s lack of traditional score) makes it all the more haunting and realistic.

There is no explicit gore or sex in the film. No naughty language. It at first starts as some slightly bent road trip film and ends with a psychological and physical assault on its leading lady so intense that you’re left as drained (but probably not quite as unhinged) as she is. It is not your average “slasher film” in any respect. The scripted scares seem random and impulsive. And the kills are delivered with a quick, brutal nastiness that happen so fast and so realistically that there is almost no time to process them. No one is safe in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Even up until the final moments of the film when she has narrowly escaped death, you expect, somehow, for Sally Hardesty not to make it out alive.

Hooper and team truly did craft a masterpiece out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, more than worthy of its status as a classic. But, just how much of the film is Tobe Hooper?

Is Tobe Hooper a genius director whose talents and skills ended up getting beaten out of him piece by piece by the Hollywood system, or is he a mostly talentless hack who ended up being in the right place at the right time a few times more than the average Joe?

This is what I’m dissecting today.

After Texas Chainsaw was released in the Summer of 1974 it made a lot of money, critics were divided on it at the time though, it’s classic status not coming until MUCH later. But it was a major financial success (in fact the highest grossing Independent Film of all time until Halloween surpassed it 4 years later) and gave Hooper a big boost in status. However, no one who went through hell to make the film, saw a dime of the film’s profits. Hooper and company you see got royally screwed over by the (extra shady, mafia run) distribution company that handled the release of the film.

So, broke and depressed, but still with much name recognition, Hooper decided to reunite much of the Texas Chainsaw crew and do another backwoods horror film (this time with a bigger salary and budget), thus came..

Eaten Alive (1977)
Written By Kim Henkel, Alvin L. Fast and Mardi Rustam
Directed By Tobe Hooper

A young prostitute is dismissed from her “duties” at a redneck brothel, after refusing to service a lecherous yokel. After a short trip through the woods the hooker finds herself at the decrepit “Starlight Motel”, run by it’s crazed proprietor “Judd” (played horribly by Neville Brand.) Naturally the prostitute is attacked by Judd with a scythe and then fed to the pet Alligator he keeps out back. The rest of the film is essentially the same thing happening, repeatedly to various other people until the tables get turned on Judd and he too is devoured.

Now, don’t mistake my haphazard and lackluster description of the film’s plot to mean that I dislike Eaten Alive, because I don’t. But, is it a good movie?… No. Does it work as a horror film? Not really. Is it scary, suspenseful or terrifying in the slightest…? If you’re a five year old girl who is easily frightened by over acting, then yes, it’s a classic masterpiece, otherwise, not so much.

I love the setting of the film. The Starlight Motel looks great in a “cheap set” sort of way. It’s grungy and nasty, but still you can tell it isn’t a real place, which lends the film a sense of dreamlike disorientation. Secondly I love the “Mario Bava-lite” lighting of the film. Seriously, every shot, even the exteriors are drenched in at least 5 different colors at ALL times. Primarily reds and yellows, but they make the most of blues, purples and greens too. Granted, all of the weirdo lighting doesn’t work in any way with the whole “gritty realism” thing, so it just makes the film look VERY odd. Third, the film has a great, more than capable cast of horror veterans, Marilyn Burns is back from TTCM, Robert Englund is there, as is DePalma stalwart and world class creep-o William Finley. Unfortunately, each one of the actors (especially the ones not mentioned) acts in such an unrealistic and over the top fashion (this from a fan of over the top acting) that it all becomes ridiculous to watch.

And yes, those three things I just mentioned are the BEST parts of the film. The Alligator that eats everyone alive is patently fake looking (serviceable I suppose, but still.) The gore is plentiful, but poorly shot and also excessively fake (think Italian “paint blood” but redder and more liquidy.) On top of that the kills themselves are all awkward and badly staged (yeah, yeah I know, I should try and have all of a horror film’s death scenes take place on a back porch with only a scythe and Alligator as weapons sometime.) And the lather, rinse, repeat nature of the plot (ie bunches of people randomly showing up at this motel that no one would ever stay at only to be almost instantly slaughtered and fed to an alligator) is more humorous than it is terrifying.

I will concede that there is one scene in the film that retains a bit of the classy nastiness deployed in TTCM, in which Judd turns the alligator loose under the motel to chase after a little girl he can’t reach himself, which says Hooper was at least halfway on the job. But the rest of the film, overall, is a wildly mixed bag of uneven tone and mishandled execution that never quite comes together. It’s like Hooper got his hands on a real budget for the first time and didn’t know what to do with it…

But, is this the case? Is the so-so nature of the film ACTUALLY Hooper’s fault? According to most sources, No. The Producer/Co-Writer of the film, Mardi Rustam was supposedly a real hard driving bastard whom Hooper didn’t much get along with and essentially after a couple weeks on the film Hooper either walked off all together or was pretty much lorded over at every step. So, naturally the film would turn out to be a mess in that case.

In the end Eaten Alive is a FUN mess and compulsively watchable. It proved a modest hit at the drive-ins and Grindhouses and certainly made back it’s budget, so Hooper was left relatively unscathed (in the recognition department.) While the film is a directorial failure, it did not slow his career. In fact the next step Hooper would take (even though it was into the world of Television) would be his biggest up so far…

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Written By Paul Monash
Based on the Novel By Stephen King
Directed By Tobe Hooper

Salem’s Lot is Stephen King’s inversed homage to the Dracula (by way of Bram Stoker) legend.

A mysterious Antique Dealer, Richard Straker (James Mason), moves to the small town of Salem’s Lot to set up shop, “accompanied” by his frequently unseen business partner Kurt Barlow. At the same time a former resident of Salem’s Lot, author (and King surrogate) Ben Mears (played by David Soul) comes back into town to write a novel about the creepy, supposedly haunted old house the antique dealer has moved into. One night a crate arrives at the house (containing super-vampire Mr. Barlow) and the people of Salem’s Lot begin to vanish one by one (ie become vampirized.) Initially a suspect in the disappearances, but eventually the only one who knows what’s going on, Ben Mears must race to stop the fiendish Barlow and his demonic takeover of the small town before it’s too late…

Salem’s Lot is an excellent exercise in made for TV horror (the simultaneously shot, re-edited and shorter European Theatrical Version is even better) and it shows Hooper back at almost the top of his game. The film is atmospheric, relying as TTCM did, on the unseen or the un-showable and its visual style to pack most of its punches. Not to say that Salem’s Lot is not without its “lurid” shocks; Barlow with his Count Orlock like pale-white visage, double fangs and glowing yellow eyes is one of the great screen vampires (especially so in the scene where he is first revealed.)

Once again, as with TTCM, Salem’s Lot is exceptionally well acted, although this time the cast is made up of veteran’s of the screen as opposed to local students. A talented group of people, who clearly loved what they were doing and wanted to make the best film they could got together on this one, in front of and behind the camera. And while the film does suffer a bit in the pacing department at times and the middle section can be a tad plodding, it is over all a fine example of a mood-oriented horror film.

And now, we are at the beginnings of a pattern it would seem… When Hooper is surrounded by talent and removed from outside pressure/interference he can pool all of the pieces nearby together and craft a damned fine film. This would be the mark of a good director, yes? I think so. But still… It has remained to be seen whether or not this is actually Hooper pulling the strings, or are the strings just making Hooper look good?

His next film doesn’t help us decide that too well…

The Funhouse (1981)
Written By Larry Block
Directed By Tobe Hooper

A group of horny teenagers decide to spend the night in a “Funhouse” that is (naturally unknown to them) over seen by a demented “family” of psychotic, deformed, carnies… varying amounts of sex and murder occur there after.

Once again, my lackluster description of the film’s plot (as with Eaten Alive) would seem to imply that I dislike The Funhouse. And, as with Eaten Alive, I do not. The Funhouse is a good slasher film. That goodness however is measured against ONLY other slasher films, not actual movies in general… If that was the case, then…well…

The Funhouse is nice and dark, with moody camera work and lighting. The deformed carnies make for great villains and Hooper’s dark sense of humor really comes through on this film (even if it gets a TAD close to camp at times.) And as I said, as far as slasher films go, this one is right up there with The Burning and The Prowler in terms of enjoyment. So, whats my problem with it?

In the grand scheme of things (ie my Tobe Hooper dissection) it’s just a run of the mill movie. “Auto-pilot” comes to mind. It’s just another, halfway decent, “horny teens getting murdered by horrible people with pointy weapons” movie. There’s nothing truly distinct about it. Nothing that says Tobe Hooper was trying to do anything amazing. It is just a serviceable horror flick. That’s not bad of course, but it doesn’t help me determine Hooper’s deal. Even when Brian DePalma (and yes, I mention him a lot, get over it. He rocks.) is just a “director for hire” he makes the most of the situation and leaves a distinctly DePalmian film in his wake (seriously go watch Mission Impossible and compare it to the shit tastic 2nd one and the mediocre 3rd.) But with The Funhouse, if it didn’t have a “This is a movie by Tobe Hooper, you know, the guy who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” tag over it, you’d never be able to tell some random nobody didn’t make it.

And, worse yet, if The Funhouse doesn’t help us learn what we’ve come to learn, the next film isn’t going to do anything but confuse us more…

Poltergeist (1982)
Written By Steven Spielberg (yes, THAT one), Michael Grais and Mark Victor
Directed By Tobe Hooper (Maybe)

The Frielings, your average suburban family, are visited by some spiritual forces. At first the apparitions and events are fun and cute, but eventually they turn nightmarish when the unseen spirits kidnap the Frielings young daughter Carol Anne and all hell literally breaks loose right under their feet. The family must then work together, with the help of a few parapsychologists and a strange mystic to rid their home of it’s poltergeist and save Carol Anne before she is lost forever to the other side.

Poltergeist is an excellent horror film. In fact, it is a beautiful horror film. It is stylish and haunting and a true emotional power house in the performance department (I’ve always felt Jo Beth Williams deserved an Oscar nom for her role.) The camera work and special effects are pitch perfect. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is at times both angelic and deeply disturbing. And (especially for a PG film) the movie doesn’t hold back on it’s punches in any way… It is a scary movie. Just, in a nutshell, everything in front of and behind the camera is top notch, resulting in yet another classic to bear Hooper’s name…

But, Poltergeist definitely doesn’t feel like a Tobe Hooper film. I mean, how do you jump from the style (and rudimentary nature) of The Funhouse to the glossy perfection of Poltergeist? Well, according to most people Tobe Hooper was merely a mask and the director of Poltergeist was actually it’s writer/producer Steven Spielberg. Whether or not that is true (and it has LONG been debated, even before the film was released) Poltergeist looks, sounds and feels like a Spielberg film.

From the focus on a normal family forced to overcome a horrific (and implausible event), to having a plucky kid as the lead character, the maudlin sentimentality, the stringy orchestral score, the over abundance of lens flares and slow moving reaction shots. Poltergeist is the quint-essential Steven Spielberg film (and yes, he used to could do scary. It was just after this when he lost his nerve.) The only scene in the film that one MIGHT attribute to Hooper is the bit when the parapsychologist rips his own face off (but then you find out that it was in fact Spielberg’s own hands ripping the gore from the fake dummy you realize that you’re probably wrong.)

In any case, we have no REAL proof that Hooper didn’t direct Poltergeist. Spielberg himself has long maintained that Hooper did the work (granted Steven was under contract and HAD to say that.) So, we’ll say this… If Hooper did indeed direct Poltergeist then he’s doing quite well to have two bona fide classics and one minor classic under his belt, and he is the wasted genius we hope him to be. If he did not direct Poltergeist and it just happens to bare his name… then… well… The rest of his career has an explanation.

In the mean time however we are moving on to Tobe Hooper’s biggest budget so far and the start of his boffo three picture deal with the “biggest” film production studio of the 80’s… Cannon Films…

Lifeforce (1985)
Written By Dan O’ Bannon and Don Jakoby
Directed By Tobe Hooper

While investigating Hailey’s Comet a group of astronauts come across a massive, excessively strange alien ship. Once inside the vessel they discover something even odder… hundreds of desiccated long dead bat like creatures, and a trio of attractive, naked people (two men and one woman) who appear to be either dead, or in stasis. The explorers decide to take the nude “aliens” back to Earth and then… essentially… the apocalypse happens. You see, the lovely naked aliens were actually soul sucking space vampires.

I love Lifeforce, always have. Not everyone does though (especially during its original release.) I mean, how can you go wrong with a Cannon Film produced, giant budgeted film about naked space vampires that eat souls, with script by the men who brought you Alien and special effects from the guy who did Star Wars, right? Apparently VERY wrong, but was it Tobe’s fault?

Lifeforce is an odd bird. It has a VERY complex plot (as if they were reaching for 2001 A Space Odyssey by way of Alien) with a lot of very intelligent ideas (but not so much great execution.) It is stylish, once again without being obtrusive. The special effects are excellent (particularly the live action and gore shots.) The dialog is witty and well informed (as is the typical for Hooper black humor.) And, the acting is top notch from all involved (save from a bit of blandness on Steve Railsback’s part.) But, the film is also a mess. There is so much going on in it that it is very easy to get lost and never find your way back. And, as seems to often be the case, this was not Tobe Hooper’s doing, but the “Go-Go Boys” themselves, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (ie the big wigs at Cannon Films.)

Supposedly Hooper’s original cut of the film is an epic masterpiece of the highest order (star Patrick Stewart has claimed Lifeforce as his favorite film in which he appeared and has much lamented the lack of release of it’s original cut.) The film that was eventually released featured some heavy post production tampering by Golan and Globus (even the longer European Cut is still heavily edited) and was rendered quite incoherent in the process; fun, almost awesome, but definitely incoherent.

Ultimately, as is the case with MOST films drastically eviscerated by their studios, Lifeforce was a failure at the box office (in America at least) and Cannon heavily cut the budget for Hooper’s next film for them…

Invaders from Mars (1986)
Written By Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby
Directed By Tobe Hooper

A young boy named David Gardener witnesses a meteor crash one night. The next day David notices that something is wrong with his father… He seems different… Especially when he downs a boiling hot cup of coffee that he just filled with two cups of sugar and starts taking people over the hill to “visit” the meteor crash site… After this, one by one, everyone around David becomes… strange. David must then convince the school nurse that he isn’t crazy about all the weird happenings, uncover the truth behind the crash site and stop the Invaders from Mars from taking over Earth!

Once again, as with Lifeforce, I love Invaders from Mars. I think it’s a great little sci-fi film and a pretty damned good remake. Stylistically Hooper seemed to be trying (and mostly succeeding) to redo the Poltergeist feel (both visually and in that the film is centered around a child and his family.) The visual effects (once again by John Dykstra) are great (the Invader’s ship appearing in a very Close Encounters-like volley of flashing lights) and the live action/creature effects are quite inventive and exceptionally well done (as they should be, considering they were created by the maestro himself, Stan Winston.) The acting is solid (even if it dips into a very strange bit of uneasy campness that seems out of place) particularly from Hunter Carson and Karen Black. And the plot is a pretty tight, if clichéd, “we’ve got to make someone believe us about the implausible horror and stop it before it’s too late” type story.

It isn’t an astounding film, but it certainly doesn’t warrant the cold shoulder it gets from most people. However, in my opinion, despite the budget cuts and the bad blood between Hooper and the Cannon producers I do think Invaders from Mars’s short comings ARE plainly Hooper’s doing this time. The main thing that hinders Invaders from Mars is Hooper’s sort of middling direction. Shots go on too long, the middle section and just a lot of the editing in general seems sloppy. The tone of the film varies quite a bit from scene to scene. Even the camera work (and desire to show off ALL of the money on display) are a bit too “big” (over indulgent) for their needs. And, the attempt at a kicker ending just sort of stops things on a sour note.

Invaders from Mars, despite being a mostly decent to good film ended up being a flop and a critical failure. And yes, seven films into my dissection and we finally have one who’s failure (even though I very much like the flick over all and it is by no means a bad movie) I would directly attribute to it being a Tobe Hooper film.

Now we reach the final of his three films for Cannon, the last film I am going to directly cover and the end of Tobe Hooper’s career as a big league director. And a fitting end it is, considering the film is…

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Written By L.M. “Kit” Carson
Directed By Tobe Hooper

The film opens with a couple of yuppie college kids making annoying phone calls to a small town Texas Radio DJ named Stretch (Caroline Williams.) During one of these crank calls the yuppies are accosted by a chainsaw wielding maniac with a familiar “leather-face” and subsequently slaughtered while live on the air. Using the recording of this call (and her desires to become more than a small town DJ), Stretch tracks down a semi-crazed, ex-lawman named Lefty (Dennis Hopper) who has been tracking the insane family of cannibal, chainsaw killers since his nephew, niece (Sally and Franklin Hardesty) and their friends had been attacked 12 years before. To quote the tagline from the original film… “Who will survive and what will become of them?”

I should note, before I go further, that despite that sounding like a pretty great idea for a horror film plot (and it is) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a comedy (albeit a moderately disturbing, gore filled, very BLACK comedy.) And, since it is a comedy sequel made over a decade after it’s totally serious and horrific progenitor, most people despise it. I, however, do not. I think it is Tobe Hooper’s best and most personal film. And, it is my favorite of all the Texas Chainsaw flicks.

It was as if Hooper knew his career was coming to an “end” and he just said fuck it, let’s just do whatever the hell we want (a deleted scene involving the murderous family slaughtering movie goers speaks VOLUMES to Hooper’s mind frame.) Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is everything the original isn’t: It’s visual style is very slick and polished, with great tracking shots and lots of “Hollywood” trickery. It’s set design (especially the killer’s underground labyrinth at an abandoned amusement park) is over the top and anti-realistic. It is chock full of (Tom Savini) gore from moment one til the very end. And it features everything, in abundance (aside from sex and nudity) that most critics found repugnant about horror films of the day. It is a horror film that gives it’s audience everything it wants, while simultaneously making fun of them for liking that sort of thing… And that is precisely why I love it so and everyone else hates it.

All of Hooper’s, (more apparently visible) Hooperisms (by that I mean the things that show up in each of his films that just MUST come from him) came full force in this film; the pitch dark (but oh-so-silly) humor, the weird Mario Bava by way of Alabama visual oddness, the over the top acting and the semi-disorienting incoherent nature of a film packed so full with stuff it cant hold it all, all come into play. But this time, unlike with Eaten Alive and The Funhouse, they work, with striking results.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a horror film made by a man sick to death of not only horror films, but of having to make movies within the Hollywood system. It’s a cynical, scathing indictment of Hooper’s own career and that is why it packs such a punch.

On a just general level, I also commend TTCM 2 as both a horror and a comedy. I think a certain person could easily watch the film and be scared or disturbed by it. I also think a certain person could find it JUST funny. And, certainly, some people will find it a mixture of both as the makers intended. Technically it is well put together and shot. The plot is tight, the dialog is good. And even though the acting hits the stratosphere by all involved, it works, quite effectively. Tom Savini’s gore effects are, as always, a beautiful sight to behold. The film was a labor of love (and amusement) by those who made it and it is a fitting end to Tobe Hooper’s career.

But, wait you say. Tobe Hooper has made over a dozen films since then and is still working to this day. Yes. This is true. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was his last grasp at something even approaching quality. His next film (while epically watchable, for all the wrong reasons) Spontaneous Combustion, was, I believe, his last theatrically released film (and a brief run at that.) All of his subsequent efforts have been mediocre to horrible direct to video horror flicks made solely off of the name Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist” Hooper.

So, finally, we must answer our original question…

Is Tobe Hooper some misbegotten genius, who got his life sucked out of him by the soul less Hollywood vampires? Or is he an excessively lucky, talentless guy whose well eventually ran dry?

My personal opinion, a bit of both; Hooper is a competent filmmaker, who, when left totally to his personal excesses will create either a bloated mess of a film or just a bad one, but when reined in and surrounded by lots of other talent he can turn chicken shit into chicken salad (so to speak.) Starting his career with a masterpiece, such as he did, landed him in some lucky spots and positions, but in the end, his time as a major force in the industry ended as in the manner he deserved as he really didn’t have the true talent, luck (and love) to go on to bigger and better things.


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