As I sit here, preparing to write this article on Tobe Hooper, I find myself watching one of the director’s critical and commercial flops, the Cannon Film’s produced Lifeforce on VHS. You may be asking yourself: Why on earth would you watch Lifeforce on VHS, especially after Shout! Factory put out such a stellar Blu-Ray just a few years back?
The answer is simple: Nostalgia.
After seeing all of the social media post over the weekend of the late Tobe Hooper; pictures of him on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, TCM2, Invaders From Mars, and the aforementioned Lifeforce, it reminded me of a time in all of our lives where men like Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and George Romero were raining kings of horror – all alive and well; producing horror movie after horror movie (some good, some not so good, and some that just took some time to find their audience). At that time, we were not thinking about the inevitable day when one of our favorite directors would succumb to the very thing that almost all of their movies were about – death.
So for me, a trip back to the 1980s – a time when video stores ruled, VHS players were in every household, and the world of adulthood had yet to fall on me – seemed right, seemed somehow…fitting for today as we all mourn the loss of Tobe Hooper.
Hooper was born in Austin, Texas on January 25, 1943. Before becoming a director, Hooper spend much of the 1960s as a professor and an assistant cameraman for documentaries. His first feature film was Eggshells in 1969 – Kim Hinkle was in the film, who would later go on to co-write The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with Hooper. The film was about a group of hippies who move into an old house in the woods, only to discover that there is a supernatural force controlling them. Eggshells is a product of the 1960s (a movie about love and piece) more than a horror movie. As of this writing, it appears that Eggshells has never been released on any format.
Hooper would follow Eggshells up with the Ed Gein inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper earned horror stardom. There has been enough spoken and written about the film over the years, including a book by Gunnar Hansen (who played Leatherface) called Chainsaw Confidential, that I’m not even going to write much on the film – what else could I add at this point that hasn’t already been said.
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper would go onto direct another “true crime” inspired movie called Eaten Alive.
This time the film was based loosely on the story of Joe Ball (also known as the Bluebeard from South Texas or the Alligator Man) from Elmendorf, Texas, sometime after Prohibition ended; who owned a bar with an alligator pit serving as an entertainment attraction. Several murders of women ensued and Joe Ball was suspected, but it was never proven that the flesh found in the pit was human. However, Joe Ball committed suicide at his bar on September 24, 1938 when he was about to be arrested by the police in connection with the murders.
Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap) starred Neville Brand as the murderous Judd, who owns a hotel and kills his victims in fits of rage, and then feeds them to his pet alligator that lives in the swap next to the hotel. Much like TCM, Eaten Alive feels cheap, dirty and raw and it is the closest that Hooper would ever come to repeating the style of TCM. Judd’s motel looks sleazy and grimy, with prostitutes hanging around and backwoods hick Buck (Robert ‘My name is Buck and I like to Fuck’ Englund) with an obsession for anal sex rounding out some of Judd’s unsuspecting victims. Mostly filmed on set with a relatively low budget, the film was plagued with behind-the-scenes conflict, including Neville Brands alcoholic benders and temper towards women, and production problems that eventually caused Hooper to leave the movie before it was finished, though he is credited at the films sole director.
In 1979 Hooper would be back behind the camera directing The Dark, though he was quickly replaced by John “Bud” Cardos (Kingdom of the Spiders). Thankfully, Hooper would go onto what many consider the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel.
That movie: ‘Salem’s Lot’
While the mini-series to Stephen King’s IT has gathered steam in recent years as horrifying audiences both young and old with mix results; Salem’s Lot did it first with positive reviews from almost anyone who’s seen it. The film is heavily atmospheric, downright terrifying (the vampire boy floating by the window has scared countless people) with likeable, well-developed characters and Hooper’s tight direction to the source material has cemented Salem’s Lot as one of the director’s best films. Salem’s Lot would also be Hooper’s first foray into television, a medium he would later find success in in the latter part of his career.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Hooper was looking for work, and his next movie was not one he originally intended to direct. Convinced over a forty-eight hour period to helm the film, he took the job to direct The Funhouse.
The Funhouse was a direct result of the 1980s slasher craze, which Hooper himself helped create. With films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Hell Night, The Prowler, My Bloody Valentine, and Prom Night cutting up the screen, The Funhouse puts a unique spin on these films, setting the murders in a funhouse, and committed by a mutated killer with a taste for human blood.
In 1982, Hooper would again have a huge hit with the Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist. Though it has been rumored that Hooper had very little to do on the film, and was more of a ‘ghost director’ for Spielberg who was working on E.T. at the same time and could not contractually direct two movies at once, so Tobe was hired to “act” as director. But I do think that Hooper had more influence on the film than what he’s given credit for in recent years. For people who say Poltergeist has more of a Spielberg vibe to it than Hooper’s normal flare, well, that is because Spielberg did write the script and was serving as producer – he’s going to have influence on the film. There have been interviews with the cast and crew that say Hooper was the sole director of the film, others say Spielberg. I do believe it is safe to say, at this point, that both of them deserve director credits. None-the-less, their paring created one of the best horror movies of the 1980s.
Following the success of Poltergeist, Hooper would direct Billy Idol’s Dancing with Myself video.
In 1985 he would sign a three picture deal with Cannon Films: Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2 would fill up his time for the next several years. Yet none of these films would make a killing at the box office, most of them actually flopped upon release. Lifeforce was heavily edited by Cannon’s producers. Invaders from Mars (a re-make; yes it was happening in the 80s too) was just bad (can’t sugarcoat that), and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2 was so drastically different from the first TCM that it didn’t scare up audiences, leaving both dismal critical reviews and lackluster box office appeal.
Now, years later, Lifeforce and especially The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Part 2 have gained a huge cult following and have found their success. Invaders from Mars has mostly been forgotten, though it did get a Shout! Factory Blu-ray a few years back, so it does have its fans.
Hooper would follow up TCM 2 with a few years directing TV, including the Spielberg produced Amazing Stories, The Equalizer, and even the first Freddy’s Nightmares episode called ‘No more Mr. Nice Guy”. The episode told the backstory of Freddy Krueger and starred Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger.
He returned to films with the 1990 mess Spontaneous Combustion starring Brad Dourif that not many people have seen or even know about.
For most of the 1990s, Hooper directed TV, only doing two features in that time (both starring Robert Englund) Night Terrors and another King adaptation, The Mangler – neither are good and nowhere near the quality of TCM or Salem’s Lot – Night Terrors is especially awful. In 1993 he would co-direct with John Carpenter a segment in the TV movie Body Bags called “Eye”, starring Mark Hamill. He would not direct another feature movie until 2000 when Crocodile hit the direct-to-video market.
In 2004 he returned to films with the remake of The Toolbox Murders with a degree of success and quickly followed it up with Mortuary in 2005. In that time, Hooper would also direct two episodes for the Masters of Horror series: The Damned Thing and Dance with the Dead – again starring Robert Englund.
In 2009 he directed Density Express Redux – little is known about this film and on IMDB there isn’t even a review.
Hooper’s final film, Djinn, would come in 2013 and wouldn’t even make a dent on the horror radar.
Over Hooper’s career he had seen both extreme highs and lows. Some say that he only has a few good films in his cannon; others praise him much higher, right up there with John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and George Romero. Though his films have a varying degree of skill: some are bad, some are good, some are awful, and some are outstanding, he will still go down in cinema as a masterful story teller, director, and the father of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
On August 26, 2017 Tobe Hooper passed away at the age of 74.
R.I.P. Tobe Hooper.