Tobe Hooper: Rodney Dangerfiel of Horror
By Michael Goth
A Profile of the legendary director of Poltergeist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot.
In his biography of horror director/writer Wes Craven, author John Kenneth Muir refereed to the legendary director of A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Last House on the Left and the Scream trilogy as “the Rodney Dangerfield of horror”. I questioned this as Craven’s films have generally been highly regarded by even mainstream critics and quite a few had been major box office hits. If the term “Rodney Dangerfield of horror” were to apply to anyone working in cinematic horror, it would be Tobe Hooper. Tobe Hooper is definitely a man who cannot get respect.
Despite having directed 17 motion pictures and an odd number of television projects over the last four decades, Hooper is best known for the groundbreaking 1974 indie classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (As well as its forgettable 1986 sequel.), the well produced 1979 television miniseries based upon Stephen King’s sophomore novel Salam’s Lot and the excellent 1982 Steven Spielberg produced and co-written Poltergeist.
With the exception of these three films, Hooper’s work has been written off by most critics and mainstream moviegoers, despite many of his films developing cult followings. Films such as Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars and The Toolbox Murders. Hooper’s most recent film, 2013’s Djinn, was never released in theaters in the United States and was not issued on DVD until late last year. It didn’t seem to matter that Djinn was Hooper’s most accomplished film in nearly 30 years.
William Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, Texas on January 25, 1943. He became interested in filmmaking at age nine and went on to study film and television production at the University of Austin. During the second half of the sixties and early seventies Hooper earned his living as a college professor while shooting documentaries on the side, including 1965’s short film The Heisters as well as the low budget Eggshells, a film on the counterculture that was given limited theatrical release. He also directed a documentary on the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
In the early seventies, Tobe Hooper was holiday shopping at Montgomery Ward when he suffered an anxiety attack in the power tools section. It was one of those holiday shopping days where the stores are so busy that one can hardy breath. Hopper imagined that he used a chainsaw to clear a path to the exit.
“Upon arriving home, Tobe began drafting a story outline for what would become The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Later fleshing out the script with friend Kim Henkel. The character of the chainsaw wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen), who wears a mask made from human skin, was based upon notorious serial killer Ed Gein, who was also the inspiration for Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a horror movie take on the death of the 60’s dream. On a steaming hot afternoon, Sally (Marilyn Burns), and a group of friends are out for a weekend drive when they come upon the family from hell, a clan of cannibals. Sally and her friends represent the 60’s generation and Leatherface and his brothers (And a corpse of a grandfather.) are essentially the Manson family. Charles Mason and his followers murdered actress Sharon Tate and several friends in a horrific event that helped end the idealism of the 1960’s and ushered in the cold, harsh reality of the 1970’s.
Produced on a budget of a mere $300,000, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a hit with audiences. Playing mainly in second run theaters and drive-in’s, the film would make about roughly $30,000,000 over the next three years.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a hit with many filmmakers and critics, while others were less impressed with the film. One of its champions was William Friedkin, the Oscar winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, who has on a number of occasions referred to Hooper’s low budget shocker as one of the only films that ever truly scared him.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has never been broadcast on television in America and has never been shown in England at all until a few years ago. The film has a reputation for being extremely gory, though in reality it is not a bloody film at all. Chainsaw’s attack is purely psychological, leaving viewers feeling they have witnesses much more than they actually have.
As it took three years for Chainsaw to earn its $30,000,000, at first Hooper did not find himself buried with offers to direct another film. When he was offered one, it was a strange little movie called Eaten Alive.
Eaten Alive is certainly not a worthy follow up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but as a low budget grindhouse film, it works. The mentally ill and drug addicted Judd (Neville Brand), is the owner of the run down Starlight Hotel. If the fact that the hotel is hanging by threats doesn’t keep customers away, Judd’s pet crocodile, which he keeps in a swampy pond off the hotel’s porch, will. Or maybe it won’t.
Tobe Hooper’s talent kept Eaten Alive from being a forgettable b-movie. This is a movie that is perfection in its pure campiness. Hooper also designed the movie so that it is never day nor night but always dusk. Eaten Alive also benefits from a very good cast, a mixture of television veterans like Stuart Whitman, Carolyn Jones, Mel Ferrer with horror icons Robert England, Kyle Richards, William Finely and Chainsaw’s Marilyn Burns.
If Eaten Alive didn’t serve as a rightful follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper’s next project would. Producer Richard Kobritz had seen Chainsaw and was impressed with Hooper’s talent and felt he was the perfect choice to direct the made for television miniseries based upon Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot in 1979. Unlike many big screen directors, Hooper had no reservations of working in television and the project came with a budget of $4,000,000, unquestionably his biggest to date.
Like many of Tobe Hooper’s films, Salem’s Lot revolves around the idea of an evil house and the sort of people such a place would attract. David Soul plays Ben Mears, a bestselling author who has returned to his hometown to write a book on the Marsten House, the site of many mysterious and horrible incidents. When residents of Salem’s Lot begin the turn up dead, Ben begins to suspect the Marsden House’s new resident, an English dealer in antiques named Richard Stracker, played very effectively by James Mason.
Salem’s Lot is a great film. Despite being a television movie, it is of motion picture quality. Infact, a shortened version of the film was released theatrically oversees. David Soul and James Mason are both terrific as is the rest of the cast which includes Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayers, Julie Cobb and Geoffrey Lewis. Not all of the novel’s fans liked the idea of Hooper and producer Kobritz changing Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nader), the suave vampire of the book into the more monster like creature in the film. You can’t please everyone.
Tobe Hooper’s third theatrical film, The Funhouse, was released in 1981 and was his best film to date. It was also his most difficult production. Rumors of Hooper’s cocaine addiction and a poor relationship with his producers plagued the filming of this really great film.
Though Universal Studios promoted The Funhouse as one of the many teen slasher movies that had come in the wake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), the movie was a clever blend of many different styles of horror movies woven together with plenty of humor-including parodies of Psycho and Halloween-and likable characters.
Elizabeth Berridge was very effective as high school senior Amy Harper who attends a funhouse with her best friend Liz (Largo Woodruff), Liz’s boyfriend Richie (Miles Chapin) and the James Dean like Buzz (Cooper Huckabee), a friend of Richie’s who Liz has set Amy up with.
The kids decide to stay overnight at the funhouse but their evening of fun turns to horror when they witness the death if Madame Zena (Sylvia Miles), a fortune teller and possible prostitute, by the hands of something that is not quite human.
The Funhouse received good reviews and the novelization by a young Dean Koontz (Which is still in print) was a bestseller but the film grossed only a little over $7,000,000. The Funhouse’s weak performance at the box office is likely more a result of Universal’s poor marketing of the film as it’s a great movie.
Hooper’s next project Poltergeist, promised to be the film that would break Tobe Hooper into the mainstream. The film had a then sizeable budget of $10,000,000 and was produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg.
Spielberg had originally planned to direct Poltergeist himself but a clause in his contract with Universal Studios prevented him from directing any other film while E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial was in any phase of production. Having admired Hooper’s work on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Spielberg hired him to direct Poltergeist.
Poltergeist was envisioned by Spielberg as being the flip side of the same coin as E.T.-The Extra Terrestrial. While one is the story about family who is visited by a friendly alien, the other is about a little girl who is abducted from her home by supernatural forces.
Poltergeist takes place in the same Spielbergian middle class suburban neighborhood as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In one of the homes, which is basically identical to the one on either side of it, lives the Freeling family: the parents, Steven (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (Jobeth Williams), their children, 16-year old Dana (Dominique Dunne), 8-year old Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little 5-year old Carol Ann (Heather O’Rourke). At first the supernatural spirits are friendly but then turn to evil, taking Carol Ann.
Poltergeist is one of the greatest films ever made and Tobe Hooper’s fully realized and polished movie. The film has a great cast, special effects that are still stunning and a mesmerizing score by Jerry Goldsmith. Poltergeist was a huge hit, grossing over $70,000,000 and ranking as one of the 10 highest grossing movies of 1982.
Directing the 8th highest grossing movie of 1982 should have been the triumph that would have taken Tobe Hooper’s career to the next level. However, it wasn’t. While still in production, rumors began to circulate that Hooper’s cocaine addiction had become so severe that Steven Spielberg had to unofficially direct the film himself. As to who really directed Poltergeist? It’s a topic still discussed by film fans to this day. It’s of my opinion that Poltergeist was a collaboration between Hooper and Spielberg and that the film is a product of both their sensibilities.
It would be three years before Tobe Hooper, now drug free, directed his next film, 1985’s Lifeforce. Lifeforce was the first in a three picture deal Hooper signed with Cannon films and for my taste is not only the best of the three films but second only to Poltergeist as Tobe Hooper’s greatest movie.
Lifeforce was based on the 1976 novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson and is the story of a space shuttle, the Churchill, that while exploring Halley’ Comet discovers an ancient vessel at the tail end of the comet with two naked males and one female in hibernation. Back on Earth, the three aliens attempt an escape with only the female (Mathilda May) surviving. She has the ability to take a person’s life force, or soul, and it is believed by Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay) that this alien race visited Earth in its distant past and is the source of the vampire legend.
Lifeforce is a brilliant film featuring a good cast that includes Steve Railsback, Peter Firth and Patrick Stewart, great visual effects and a driving musical score by Henry Mancini. However, as had happened with Tobe Hooper too many times before, Lifeforce was brutalized by critics and failed at the box office.
Hopper’s two other films for Cannon, Invaders from Mars and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, met the same fate. Invaders is actually an enjoyable if sometimes silly remake of the 1950’s film of the same name. Chainsaw 2 is an awful film and a horrible sequel. While the original film sacred its audience with psychological horror, the sequel is extremely gory for the sake of being gory. The humor in the film also fails and in some cases is offensive.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 marked the creative decline of Tobe Hooper. Over the last 30 years his cinematic output has consisted of such forgettable films as Spontaneous Combustion, The Apartment Complex, Crocodile and Mortuary. Though there have been a few exceptions like The Toolbox Murders and Djinn.
Despite these later misfires, from 1974 to 1986, Tobe Hooper’s star shined very bright. During this period he gave us such genre masterpieces as Poltergeist, Lifeforce, The Funhouse, Salem’s Lot and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For these films alone, fans of cinematic horror will forever remember the name Tobe Hooper.
This article is dedicated to my dad and to the memory of Heather O’ Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Marilyn Burns and Gunnar Hanson.