I'm still not over the death of George Romero last month, and then we had to go and lose Tobe Hooper. Best known for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper is considered one of the fathers of the modern horror genre. But aside from Texas Chain Saw and Poltergeist, most people don't know much about Hooper's other works. This is where I come in.
This is not an exhaustive list of Hooper's films; rather, some of his better ones. The ones you need to see to round out your Tobe Hooper education. Not included are episodes of cult-classic TV series like Masters of Horror, Tales From the Crypt, and Freddy's Nightmares; nor did I include Hooper's sole novel, Midnight Movie (a meta tale about a blogger who discovers a long-lost Tobe Hooper film, and a long line of murders that take place surrounding the revival screening).
In honor of Hooper's passing, let's take a look at some of his most important films.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
A classic of the modern slasher genre, Texas Chain Saw was based very, very loosely on the story of Ed Gein, a man who, in the 1950s, killed two women, but is better known for grave robbing, and using pieces of human bodies to decorate his home and create clothing. In the film, a group of teenagers driving across Texas breaks down, and when they go looking for help, they are terrorized when they discover the psychotic Leatherface.
Made on a shoestring budget, the tales of the filming of Texas Chain Saw are legendary. Working 16+ hours a day, 7 days a week, in heat that topped 100 degrees daily, the cast grew to hate Hooper. Unable to afford more than one costume per character, none would be washed between shoot days. The infamous dinner scene was set with real food, including a chicken that was rotting away in the heat. Actress Marilyn Burns, exhausted, hot, and nauseated at the smell of the rotting food, always said her screams in that scene were genuine. However, it worked. The film is a masterpiece.
My favorite factoid is that the film was banned in multiple countries, including Britain, with it being named a "Video Nasty." Yet all the violence takes place off-screen. When you see Leatherface drag a girl into another room, hear the chainsaw and her screams, your mind fills in the bloody torture taking place. Hooper originally thought that because there was no on-screen gore, his film would get a PG rating. Instead, after its first submission to the ratings board, it was classified with an X rating. A few minutes worth of cuts got it down to an R rating.
Salem's Lot (1979)
Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, Warner Bros. picked up the rights to the book and tried unsuccessfully to get it made as a feature film. Several scripts by several different writers were turned in, but none were just right. Eventually, the rights were turned over to the television department, who decided a TV miniseries would better suit the material.
Salem's Lot follows a writer who comes home to find his town has been overrun by vampires. Hooper was chosen to direct when producer Richard Kobritz caught a screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While Hooper used gritty realism to terrify in the former, for Salem's Lot he relied on atmosphere, with homages to Alfred Hitchcock throughout.
The Funhouse (1981)
A favorite film of mine from childhood, this one sees a group of teenagers spend the night inside the funhouse at a creepy carnival. Unsurprisingly, their night goes poorly through a combination of poor choices on the part of the teens, and because there is a murderer in the funhouse, and the kids are locked in. The Funhouse made me love carnivals for the reason it was supposed to scare you: transient employees working in unsafe conditions in a garish neon wonderland that could disappear overnight. This was the third Hooper (after 1977's Eaten Alive) film to be banned under Britain's "Video Nasties" witch hunt, but many people now believe this was a mistake. The Funhouse was quite a bit tamer than the last two films, and at the time, the far more disturbing horror film Last House on Dead End Street was filming under the title The Fun House.
There has been a lot of argument over whether Tobe Hooper actually directed Poltergeist, or if producer Steven Spielberg stepped in throughout the film. The DGA even opened an investigation to see if the credit was warranted; obviously they saw enough to prove to them that Hooper directed the film.
The film follows a perfectly normal family who is haunted by a malevolent spirit that ends up taking youngest daughter Carol Anne and sending her to another dimension. The story is loosely based on a real family, who in the 1950s claimed to have been haunted by a poltergeist. The film also established an unfortunate rumor about the production itself being cursed. Dominique Dunne, who played the eldest sister, was murdered by an abusive boyfriend just after the release of the film. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died of an impacted bowel in 1988. And while the third child, played by Oliver Robbins, is still alive and well, an on-set mishap involving a malfunctioning clown apparatus nearly killed him.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
The sequel to Hooper's classic, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a far cry from the original. While Hooper maintains that there is humor in The Texas Chain Saw (though it is hard to see), Part 2 is an out-and-out horror-comedy. Hell, the movie poster even mimics that of The Breakfast Club, with members of the cannibalistic Sawyer family in place of the brain and the basket case. Part 2 sees Leatherface and family terrorizing a radio show host.
Hooper was originally only going to produce the sequel, but he couldn't find anyone to direct the film, given the extremely low budget. So, he did it himself. When it was submitted for a rating, the MPAA gave it an X. Hooper decided to release the film unrated. In Britain, where his films kept getting labeled as Video Nasties, the film remained unreleased until 2001.
Body Bags (1993)
This horror anthology was originally commissioned by Showtime to be a TV series to compete with HBO's Tales From the Crypt. However, the network pulled out and the three filmed segments were combined into a well-received anthology film.
The film revolves around a mortician sharing three stories based on three bodies in his morgue. The film is loaded with horror cameos, including John Carpenter (whose role as the mortician provides the wrap-around segments), Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, Roger Corman, and even Hooper himself.
The Mangler (1995)
The Mangler is utterly ridiculous: a possessed laundry mangle (an old fashioned device used to press water out of laundry) kills people. Based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, the film has two things going for it: high levels of gore, and the ridiculous storyline that is so bad it's almost good.