When it comes to horror royalty, few are as highly regarded as Tobe Hooper. Known best for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper built a decades-long career out of groundbreaking genre filmmaking. But, even if he’d stopped filmmaking altogether after Chainsaw, his legacy would have been secured. He didn’t stop, however, and his filmography is now a catalog to be treasured. It is with heavy hearts that we Cinedelphians mourn his passing.
The first proper horror movie I ever saw remains one of my favorites. I’m referring, of course, to Poltergeist, the haunted home (not ‘house’ — home) movie that managed to blend scares and adventure with eye-popping technical wizardry in such a way to create a truly timeless experience. Many amongst us will not hesitate to declare the film’s not so hidden secret, namely that is was the producer, Steven Spielberg, who directed the film, while Hooper was more of a placeholder. While this is shades of true, I think this factoid is often misinterpreted as meaning Hooper didn’t do any of the directing work at all. But anyone familiar with his visual stamp will see more than a little of it shining through in perfect symbiosis with Spielberg’s magic touch. Yes, the family and adventure elements pretty much scream “from the makers of Jaws” but that scene where the paranormal investigator rips his own face off in the mirror? Pure Hooper.
It wasn’t until I was a bit older that I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I’ve seen it at least 50 times since, and each time its impact remains the same as it was on my inaugural viewing. If ever a film was defined and refined by its limitations, Hooper’s absolutely punishing depiction of a human slaughterhouse needn’t a studio, an effects budget, or an A-list cast to burn some of cinemas most disturbing iconography into the brains of iron-stomached viewers worldwide. In fact, John Larroquette, who reads the opening title card, claims he was paid with a single joint of marijuana to record the voice-over. Did you know that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is what caused Guillermo del Toro (and likely many others) to become vegetarians? Well it did, and it’s easy to see why.
Leatherface predates Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Pinhead, Freddy Krueger, and Chucky. All of these beloved killers spawned decades of franchise entries, but it’s Leatherface who retained his purest, most horrifying essence, and it’s not as if he’s completely divorced from comedy either. Case in point: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. This bonkers sequel (12 years belated) is one of the earliest examples of a true horror comedy. Made under the notorious umbrella of Cannon Films, whose claim to fame was making a profit off of schlock, this strange genre hybrid wasn’t always beloved, but as time passed it’s grown to be revered and respected. Dennis Hopper claimed it was the worst movie he’d ever made … until he made Super Mario Brothers. No matter, as these things go it’s clear that Tobe Hopper was once again ahead of the curve.
And that’s really why this weekend’s loss is that much more tragic. Hooper was pushing the envelope and making new things happen in genre film, setting the stage for endless imitators.
If I don’t stop myself from rambling in adoration, I will be here all day. Instead, enjoy some bullet points:
– The Mangler is one of the strangest Stephen King adaptations ever made, and without proper direction, it could’ve been bland as hell. Instead, it’s a lovingly made piece of batshit gruesomeness.
– Salem’s Lot is one of the best King adaptations ever made, and it remains the best made-for-tv movie I’ve ever seen.
– Lifeforce exists because of Tobe Hooper. If you haven’t seen this one, you won’t know why this is such a big deal. If you have, you know that it logically shouldn’t exist, and are likely thankful that it does.
– The Toolbox Murders is a movie which was never at risk of being remade, but Hooper did it, and did it miles better than most slick remakes of the time (ca. 2004).
– The music video for Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” —you guessed it — directed by Tobe Hooper.
– Unlike so many horror filmmakers who chose the genre as an entry point to the business, Hooper never entertained any notions about breaking from it. His body of work is almost entirely sci-fi/horror.
So, dear reader, as you and I continue to consume our media of choice, let us do so with the knowledge that, despite working within a limited scale, Tobe Hooper’s influence stretches well beyond it. He was a brilliant mind who always found a way to make the strangest stuff work with minimal resources while blazing a trail for genre films, independent films, and even sci-fi television. He may be gone from this world, but he has unquestionably attained immortality.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.