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Tobe Hooper: A Retrospective of His Early Works

It’s easy to say that with his recent death a giant of horror movies has passed on. Somehow that seems to fall short in describing how Tobe Hooper changed horror movies in the 1970’s. Unlike other directors from the early seventies who seemed to go more for the shock value of the grindhouse horror/gore movies, Hooper managed to take the blood-soaked and often misogynistic sub-basement sub-genre of horror and marry it to the traditional horror movie formula of the golden age of Universal Studios horror. At same time, Hooper’s earlier work in movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist gave audiences a disturbing look into the America of early seventies and the early eighties. The result is something almost beautiful, if often hard to watch.

Born on January 23, 1943 in Austin, Texas, Tobe Hooper grew up around his father’s movie theater watching the movies that went in and out each week. At the age of nine, Hooper started shooting movies with his father’s old 9mm handheld movie camera. By his early twenties, Hooper was already a professor of film and television and teaching at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1965, Hooper made the short movie The Heisters. The film was initially well received and invited to be in the Academy Awards category for best short film. Unfortunately, Hooper was unable to complete the movie in time.

Hooper’s next project, Eggshells, was his first attempt to make a movie that both said something about the late sixties while at the same time establish his own film style and sensibilities. It was a quirky comedy about politics and alternative lifestyles. The film itself feels like a cross between Hitchcock’s subtitle cinematography and Dali’s dream-like visions in Un Chien Andalou. It was also the first time Hooper used the sharp cutaways that would be a signature of Hooper’s cinematic style. In some ways, Eggshells was a prototype for his next film.

By the early seventies, horror movies had begun to move beyond the classic monster movies that had marked the golden age of Universal Studios. Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf-Man, and The Mummy which had once terrified and thrilled movie goers through the thirties, forties, and fifties, became cliché and often comedic. By 1970, more people identified Frankenstein’s Monster more with Fred Gwynne’s buffoonish comedy character, Herman Munster on the TV show, The Munsters, than with Boris Karloff’s sensitive, abused and often times terrifying monster. Ironically, Karloff stopped playing the Monster because he feared that future Frankenstein movies would become parodies of the earlier ones. As Universal continued to make Frankenstein movies, Karloff was proven right.

Hammer Studios in England made several excellent remakes of the classic monsters, adding more blood and sex than had been allowed at Universal back in the old days. In America however, Frankenstein and Dracula were fighting it out with western icons in low budget movies like Jesse James meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1965) and Dracula vs. Billy the Kid (1966). It was as if both genres knew they were dying and were joining forces to save themselves.

At this time, the cowboy had been replaced by a grittier, hard-bitten hero who fought not on the plains and small cowpoke towns, but in the hard city streets of post-Watergate America. Horror movies followed suit, realizing that they needed new kinds of monsters to fit the hard-bitten landscape of 1970’s America. If cowboys were being replaced with detectives, vampires could be replaced by serial killers. After all, who needed Dracula and the Wolf-Man when real world monsters like Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, The Son of Sam, and The Zodiac Killer prowled America’s streets and college campus’?

It was at this time, Hooper started working on the movie for which he would be remembered forever.

As Hooper would explain to NPR’s Terri Gross in a 1988 interview on her show Fresh Air: “I don't think I set out to change the genre consciously. I was just - I was a movie fan, you know. I was a horror film buff. And I simply made a film that I wanted to see because I felt that at that time - and we're talking about something like close to 15 years ago - the horror films that we were getting, it had gotten, you know, very boring and totally un-scary and hokey and bad. I wanted to make something that worked again, that had chair jumpers in it, you know, that moved an audience. So, I really set out as a fan of the genre to do something that gave you your, you know, gave you your money's worth.”

Hooper was still working as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and was developing a horror movie idea that dealt with the concepts of isolation and darkness. During this time, Hooper became more aware of the growing sense of ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ in the news media coming out of places like San Antonio. Hooper also realized how people were becoming desensitized to the day-to-day horrors around them and began to incorporate this into his story. Man, in Hooper’s mind, had become the real monster.

Even Hooper’s decision to use a chainsaw wasn’t random. It was born of a dark idea everyone has from time-to-time. He was stuck in line at a hardware store one day and wanted to use a chainsaw to thin the crowd.

Hooper’s choice to base his monster on the serial killer, Ed Gein, seemed like a natural choice. Gein had already been the basis of the Robert Bloch novel, Psycho which was later turned into the Hitchcock film of the same name. But whereas Bloch and Hitchcock only skimmed the surface of Gein’s crimes to create Norman Bates, Hooper broke the icy taboos of conventional movies and dove right into the horrors of Gein’s world. When he was arrested in 1957, Gein had been linked to the murders of three women and numerous grave robberies. Like Norman Bates, Gein would dress up as a woman, but he didn’t just wear women’s clothing, he wore the skins of the women whose graves he had violated. Hooper decided to use that as part of his monster, a killer who wore human skin as a mask. Initially, the film was going to be called Leatherface.

Not long after, Hooper decided to change the name right before they went into production. The name The Texas Chainsaw Massacre invokes a feeling that Hooper wanted to capture. The early seventies were a time when the American people were no longer sure about their government after Watergate, the Vietnam war, the revelations about J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal wiretaps and rising oil prices and unemployment. During this time, people were writing books that pointed out discrepancies about the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. Hooper wanted to tap into that feeling of government cover-ups and sensational newspaper headlines. Hooper, being a true showman, marketed it as based on a true story.

The name ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ invokes a mental image of something that would be written at the top of a front page on a newspaper or tabloid magazine.

Production and filming began in June of 1973 in Round Rock, Texas, under some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. Because of the budget limitations, (the film was made for less than half-a-million dollars.) the cast worked up to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. On July 26th of that summer, the temperature hit 110 degrees at one point. The budget was so tight that Gunther Hanson, who played Leatherface, the main villain, complained that they only had one costume for him to wear during filming and Hooper didn’t want to wash it for fear of losing the bloodstains.

During filming, Hooper made the choice to use an Eclair 16mm camera during primary filming. The Éclair moved at a much slower speed than most other cameras at that time.

Also, it needed a much grainier film and more lighting than most cameras. The result was a stunningly nightmarish look, almost as if Hooper had somehow captured a bad dream from his own mind and put it onto film. The opening itself is enough to make some people rush from the theaters.

The film opens with the sound of wood breaking and the weird sound of metal grinding against metal. The lights suddenly come up and the camera pulls back to show a rotting corpse mounted to a headstone as the audience hears a radio announcer reporting the vandalizing of a local graveyard.

The rest of the film centers around a group of five 20-somethings who first go to the graveyard after hearing about the desecration's and then decide to visit the family home of two of the group’s members. When they arrive, they discover that the house and the property have seen better days. While exploring the property, two of the group, Kirk and Pam, discover a neighboring house.

Hoping to borrow some gas to finish their journey, they look around the house and are both killed by a large man wearing a mask that we soon learn is made from human skin.

One by one, Leatherface, kills each member of the group until the last person, a girl named Sally, manages to escape in the back of a pickup truck.

While the film is more gruesome than most previous horror movies, Hooper was very careful to keep it tied to traditional horror formulas. At one-point Pam, played by Terri McMinn, is reading a horoscope to the group as they ride in their van. Horror film fans can’t help but see a similarity to that scene and the scene at the beginning of Todd Browning’s Dracula, when Daisy Belmore reads to her fellow coach passengers about the Transylvanian legends of vampires.

Both scenes draw a foreboding and a hint of things to come. Hooper being such a fan of horror movies probably couldn’t resist writing that scene.

Another thing that stands out is in the scene in which Kirk and Pam find Leatherface’s house. There is a small alarm clock nailed to a tree, almost making the viewer think of the Dali painting of the melting clock faces. Only in this case, someone has nailed the clock to a tree, as if to hold time in place.

Leatherface himself even has his roots in traditional movie monsters.

The digging up of graves is not unlike what happens in Frankenstein, however while Leatherface might serve as both Doctor and Monster, his child-like innocence only enables him to make use of the bodies he digs up as simple arts and crafts projects rather than a serious scientific attempt at reanimation. But that’s where the similarities end.

There is a weird Americanness to Leatherface we had never seen before in Hollywood monsters. The early Hollywood monsters like Dracula and the Wolf-Man were taken from popular European literature. Leatherface is in many ways, the first American monster.

Leatherface also has no connection to the supernatural. Unlike the Wolf-Man, the Devil from The Exorcist or later monsters like Freddy and Jason, Leatherface is all too human. He can be hurt such as when the truck driver knocks him down and his own chainsaw cuts into his leg. And yet somehow, it’s his humanity that makes Leatherface more frightening. It’s as if Hooper is reminding us, wither we like it or not, anyone could become the next Leatherface.

But despite the gore and savagery of the movie, there is a noticeable lack of blood. To be sure, there is a good deal of blood spilt in Chainsaw and a fair amount of gore as well. But when one compares the blood and gore in Chainsaw to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the two don’t even come close. Hooper mostly implied that Leatherface and his family were cannibals, but we never actually see them eat human flesh right off the bone.

Whereas in Living Dead, Romero shows us zombies eating the dead remains of two of his characters who have just died in a fiery car accident in stark black and white. A decade later, Wes Craven would turn Johnny Depp into a blood volcano in Nightmare on Elm Street. Of all modern horror classics, only Hideo Nakata’s Ringu series has less blood spilt than Chainsaw does.

Part of this was Hooper’s attempts to save Chainsaw from an X-rating, but also Hooper wanted much of the horror in Chainsaw to be psychological. While there is a lot of gore and blood, so much of the terror the audience experiences, is from Hooper’s use of cutaways, dream-like lighting, the weird metallic grinding noises and the realism of his actors. This less-is-more approach causes a gestalt-like in the mind causing the viewer to fill in the blanks with their own imagination about how gory the film is, while at the same time giving the audience a scare that they may never have experienced before. The result is an imprint on the human mind that is never fully resolved or forgotten about.

While it would be years before Chainsaw would be considered a commercial success, Hooper had made a mark as a horror director. Though his movie was controversial, studios in Hollywood wanted him connected to their horror movies. In 1976, Hooper was tapped to direct a sci-fi/ horror film about an alien serial killer called The Dark, but left after a week over creative differences.

Not long after, Hooper agreed to make the television mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the story of a vampire named Barlow who comes to a small out of the way New England town where he begins to feed on the town’s inhabitants.

If Leatherface was Hooper’s Frankenstein’s Monster, Barlow is his Dracula.

In Hooper’s hands, Barlow became less like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee’s eastern European count and something more like Max Schreck’s inhuman-looking Count Orlok in Nosferatu. Barlow looks more like Orlok in appearance with his, bald head, misshapen face, and bat-like ears.

There is nothing sexy or alluring about him, making him the opposite of Dracula. Like Leatherface, Hooper’s Barlow is also ineloquent, often growling and hissing throughout the mini-series and though it is implied he is the master. Hooper instead let Barlow’s minion Straker, played by James Mason, do most of the talking.

Producer Richard Kobritz explained the reason for the change this way: “We went back to the old German Nosferatu concept where he is the essence of evil, and not anything romantic or smarmy, or, you know, the rouge-cheeked, widow-peaked Dracula. I wanted nothing suave or sexual, because I just didn't think it'd work; we've seen too much of it.

Despite the deviations from the original novel, Salem’s Lot was a hit for CBS, earning nominations for three prime-time Emmys and a nomination for an Edgar Award for best television presentation.

Hooper’s next project, Poltergeist, hit a new high and low in his career.

If Chainsaw was the definitive horror movie for the seventies, then Poltergeist was the definitive horror movie for the eighties. In the early 1980’s America was griped in a disturbing real-life nightmare, the abduction of children. Across the country, each news cycle seemed dominated by yet another report of a missing child. Families that had moved to the suburbs to escape the chaos and crime of the cities no longer felt safe, because the media made it sound like there was a child-abductor around every corner.

This was also a couple of years after one of the worst toxic waste disasters in American history.In 1978, it was revealed that developers who built homes in Love Canal near Niagara Falls, New York, had failed to properly clean up the site and lefts hundreds of people exposed to toxic chemicals that caused miscarriages and birth defects. If someone could build over something like that, was it really that much a stretch of the imagination that someone could build over a graveyard, exposing untold numbers to the wrath of the dead for a quick dollar?

As he did with Chainsaw, Hooper used real-life events as inspiration for his film to create a new kind of haunted house movie. This time, with a horror movie set in Suburbia.

Poltergeist centers around Steven and Diane Freeling and their children Dana, Robbie, and Carol Anne who live a quiet life in an Orange County, California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steven, played by Craig T. Nelson is a successful real estate developer and Diane works at home and looks after the kids. In many ways, it’s a traditional American family.

The family begins to notice weird things going on around their house, glasses and furniture moving around, cold spots, and finally one night the family is attacked by several unworldly phenomena at once culminating the abduction of their youngest daughter. Steven then turns to a team of paranormal investigators at the University of California for help.

In so many ways, this movie breaks new ground for the horror sub-genre of haunted houses. The Freeling house isn’t set at the end of a lonely dark-wooded road. It’s right in the middle of a sunny neighborhood full of nice neighbors. Also, the house isn’t an old mansion with a dark history, it’s a brand-new house with nothing that would lead someone to even imagine it was even haunted.

The premise of the film’s story was hashed out in a collaboration by Hooper and Steven Spielberg after the two sat down one afternoon and Spielberg asked Hooper what he’s next project was. Hooper was interested in doing a haunted house movie and Spielberg had an idea for one.

Poltergeist was released in the summer of 1982, almost a week after Spielberg’s own movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, hit theaters. Poltergeist went on to be huge hit as the eighth largest grossing film that year and highest grossing horror movie that year overall.

Unfortunately, the film led to a low point in Hooper’s career. Not long after its release, the Directors Guild of America opened in an investigation into who actually directed Poltergeist. Although it was no secret that Spielberg worked on the screenplay with Hooper, which of them directed the movie was in doubt. Spielberg and Hooper claimed it was Hooper himself who directed Poltergeist.

During the production of E.T., Spielberg was under contract not to direct any other movies until E.T. hit theaters. If it came out that Spielberg was directing a second film at the same time, it would have been a serious breach of the contract. It would have also cost Hooper his director’s credit for the movie.

In an open letter that Spielberg published in the Hollywood Reporter after Poltergeist was released, Spielberg tried to dispel the rumors. “Regrettably, some of the press has misunderstood the rather unique, creative relationship which you and I shared throughout the making of Poltergeist. I enjoyed your openness in allowing me... a wide berth for creative involvement, just as I know you were happy with the freedom you had to direct Poltergeist so wonderfully.

"Through the screenplay you accepted a vision of this very intense movie from the start, and as the director, you delivered the goods. You performed responsibly and professionally throughout, and I wish you great success on your next project.”

Whether Hooper deserved the directorial credit for the movie or not, the Director’s Guild never took it away from him. But things became difficult for Hooper. It would be another four years before Hooper directed movie again.

Sadly, Hooper never had the same level of success he had with Poltergeist again. After rumors that Steven Spielberg was the actual director of Poltergeist, Hooper didn’t get to direct another movie again for almost four years.

The films that he made in the late eighties through the end of his life lacked the intellectualism and subtitle social commentary that Hooper brought to Chainsaw and Poltergeist. But there was no denying that in his earlier work became a standard that other horror movies had to live up too.

Tobe Hooper passed away on August 27, 2017. Although controversial at times, Hooper’s original vision of horror stands the test of time. While there had been other slasher films prior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, an objective critic cannot deny that Hooper’s movie has real artistic value and stands the test of time and inspired a generation of horror movie directors around the world with his methods.

He might not have started out to change the face horror, but Tobe Hooper did just that as a bridge between the traditional roots of the genre while reaching out for the new horrors that inspired our nightmares in the last half of the twentieth century and beyond.

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