Tobe Hooper-An Appreciation

Article by Anthony Francis

In the pantheon of great horror directors many names stand tall. Tod Browning, Val Lewton, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, George A. Romero, Dario Argento, Wes Craven and John Carpenter are all considered kings of horror and their respective bodies of work are full of classics that are toasted time and time again, with many of them having near perfect filmographies with only two or three “lesser” films. 

When naming the giant filmmakers of Horror, one name is not spoken near enough, Tobe Hooper. While he is certainly respected for his groundbreaking classic “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, he is considered to have “fallen from grace” too many times. Many have said that Hooper has never recaptured the brilliance of that macabre classic. It is true that he never made another film as powerful and frightening as “Chainsaw”, but this does not mean he never delivered another good or great scare film. In fact, he has made more than a few great ones that have seen varied degrees of success with horror audiences, but all are proof that Hooper kept himself alive and well in the horror game.

In 1974 Tobe Hooper (along with his co-writer Kim Henkel) changed the face of horror cinema with “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a relentless attack on our senses that scared filmgoers in ways they had never experienced. Released the year after “The Exorcist”, Hooper’s masterpiece managed to pull audiences into new levels of fear. His masterful direction was an onslaught that, once it began, did not stop until the final frame cut to black. Hooper’s camera took us through the horrific events like a documentarian filming war footage on the frontlines. Audiences had never been on such a darkly comedic yet massively frightful “horror coaster” such as that film. Tobe Hooper announced his presence to the horror and film world in a mighty way.

His follow up to the massive success of “TCM” was not well received but was still a very good genre film. “Eaten Alive” was another twisted, darkly comic, violent trip through the macabre. Neville Brand starred as a man who runs a hotel where his pet crocodile resides under the porch and disposes of the guests who are lined up as its victims. As with his previous film, Hooper gives this a gritty, creepy, feel. Trashed upon its 1976 release, it is now considered one of the director’s better works with Quentin Tarantino and other genre filmmakers singing its praises. 

This was the first instance of Hooper’s disgust with interference from producers. It is reported that he left the film in its final weeks of production in complete disgust. Even with studio tampering, the film plays very well and is full of Hooper’s trademark viciousness and twisted humor 

The director followed that film (or tried to) with a curio called “The Dark” from 1979, a strange sci-fi/horror film about an alien life form killing humans on Earth. It started out as a zombie film but producers stepped in and turned it to sci-fi. The interference angered Hooper, causing him to leave the production in the first week of shooting. 

He was starting to get a bad reputation, as this was the second time in a row he fought producers and left a film. Worries were that he was a “one hit wonder.”

Later in 1979, those fears were smashed as Hooper rebounded in a big way, with his television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot”. 

Armed with a big budget, the filmmaker brought the miniseries in under budget, on time, and the film earned the praise of both critics and horror fans. This time, he and producer Richard Kobritz got along perfectly. 

Hooper’s skills as a director were praised, as he made the film truly creepy and brought alive the best scares from King’s novel. Where “Texas Chainsaw” was in-your-face brutal filmmaking, “Salem’s Lot” created more atmospheric terrors. Hooper was quoted as saying the film was more “soft shelled” than his other films. This was Hooper’s first big budget Hollywood production and it was a massive success.

The next film was the old-styled creeper, “The Funhouse” in 1981. It stands as one of his finest films. As in the best horror films, there is a real monster in the funhouse and four teenagers must survive the night. 

However, the film is more than its surface description. It exists as another example of Hooper’s twisted, comedic, and dark edge. The set design is spot on as he uses dark reds and minimal lighting to induce our fear. This was the first time Hooper filmed in anamorphic Panavision which added to the fantastic look of the film. From the opening moments Hooper scares us and keeps us on edge for the rest of the film.  Once again, the director delivered the film on time and under budget. “The Funhouse” received good notice from critics and turned a small profit in theaters. However (and I will never understand this), the film was not considered successful. This was, most likely, due to the massive success of “Salem’s Lot”. Everyone wanted him to have another. “The Funhouse” was budgeted around 3 million and took in over 7 million at the U.S. box office. It was profitable and is considered by some to be a classic of the horror genre but Tobe Hooper has never received full and proper credit for the excellence of this work. 

In 1981 Hooper was to direct the horror thriller “Venom” starring a brilliant cast that included Nicol Williamson, Oliver Reed, and Klaus Kinski. Filming was to begin in London but, during pre-production, Hooper left the film due to creative differences with some of the cast and (surprise!) the producers. His reputation took another hit, but this freed him for what was to be his biggest success.

1982’s “Poltergeist” is one of the all-time classic horror films and box office champs. A smash upon release, it went to the forefront of haunted house films and took its place in both pop and horror culture. For the story of a family whose young daughter is tormented by ghosts, producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg turned to Tobe Hooper and together they made a financial monster. 

The reviews were great, the film was one of the top 10 box office hits of the year, and Hooper was nominated for a Saturn Award as Best Director. This was his step into big time Hollywood. 

However, Hooper would not fully receive the credit he deserved. For years, Hollywood insiders would say that it was Spielberg who really directed the film. Members of the cast have said how great it was to work with Hooper and how efficient he was as a filmmaker, but some claim that it was Spielberg who had the full creative control and final say. The film’s composer, Jerry Goldsmith, was quoted as saying that he “worked with Spielberg 99 percent of the time.” When the film is talked about these days, most of the credit still goes to Steven Spielberg. Both Hooper and Spielberg have jointly stated the film was a total collaboration between the two. Whatever the case, the film is credited as “directed by Tobe Hooper” and as such, stands as a horror classic and a masterfully directed film. It shows that Hooper can work well with a big budget and should have had the chance to do many more.

Alas, for better or worse, next came “Lifeforce”, the first film honoring Hooper’s three picture deal with Cannon Films. 

The story of its production is quite messy. The film went through cast changes, re-writes, and budget issues. When filming was completed, there were massive cuts and re-editing. Once again Tobe Hooper was burdened with a film that was sabotaged from within resulting in it being a massive failure that received poor reviews and is now largely considered a campy mess. The film is far from perfect but has some good moments, a great score by Henry Mancini, great special effects, and some solid scares. The film was cut by more than 40 minutes and re-edited without Hooper’s involvement. His cut (or as close as it can be) finally exists and it makes the already entertaining film much better. “Lifeforce” has merit and is enjoyable, but it failed and Tobe Hooper received the full blame.

His next film was the 1986 remake of “Invaders from Mars”. The film kept a modern horror slant to it while keeping it in the tone of the original ’50’s version. Everything was set and working in the director’s favor. The cast, (including Oscar winner Louise Fletcher and the great Bud Cort) was solid, the budget was big, and Stan Winston was handling the special effects. Sadly, the Hooper curse continued as the film sunk at the box office and received mixed-to-bad reviews. Truly, it is a good little film. Not great and full of issues but it plays well enough. Unfortunately, the film’s failure would begin a career slump for the filmmaker that some argue he never recovered from.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2” was a great idea that imploded on itself. Hooper wanted to go for less horror and more macabre humor, going so far as to refer to the film itself as his only “full-on comedy.” He felt the comedy in the original film had been lost amidst the violence. 

Once more he had a winning team in place with Jim Seidow returning as the family patriarch, Tom Savini doing the effects, Dennis Hopper starring, and Bill Moseley blasting onto the screen in a (cult) star making role as Chop Top. The budget was small but bigger than the original and Hooper was returning to the story that made him. The film earned a nice amount at the box office and recouped its budget but was misunderstood by critics and audiences alike. No one saw the humor of the piece, a strange thing since it has gained respect Uber the years and is now recognized amongst his fans as a Hopper classic. “TCM2” is very funny and creative with gruesome effects, good dialogue, and fun over the top performances. It was everything Hooper promised it to be, and he delivered.

After the failure of all three of the Cannon films, Tobe Hooper began his downward spiral creatively and critically. He did a so-so episode of the TV show “Amazing Stories”, a blah episode of “The Equalizer”, and a terrible episode of the terrible show “Freddy’s Nightmares”. He followed with two of his lesser films, although one works if you turn your brain completely off.

“Spontaneous Combustion” is astonishingly silly but star Brad Douriff and Hooper’s creation of a few frightening moments make it (kind of) work. The completely inept mess that was “The Mangler” is too awful to speak of and did nothing to restore Tobe Hooper’s rep. 

These misfires were followed with a Cannon film called “Night Terrors”. It barely registered on any level. More sporadic television work and a couple of horrible straight to video movies followed and Tobe Hooper had all but vanished from the horror universe that he helped reshape.

In 2004 Hooper began a small comeback. He co-wrote and directed a remake of “The Toolbox Murders”. This was a welcome return to form, as Hooper made great use of his tight location (an apartment complex) and peppered his cast with fine character actors led by the underrated Angela Bettis. The humor is dark and funny, and the murders are horror movie fun. Sadly, it went straight to video, but the quality of the filmmaking showed that Hooper hadn’t lost it. 

It did find cult following on video and, among the horror community, it is quite respected.

After the success of “Toolbox”, Hooper did another straight to video film called “Mortuary”, a creepy film about a family running an old funeral home which stands on haunted ground. The film is successful as a good popcorn-horror flick. The buildup is methodical, and the payoff scares deliver. It turned a small profit in the video markets and, by 2004, going straight to video was not the “scarlet letter” it once was. 

Director Mick Garris rightfully chose Hooper as one of ten directors included in his “Masters of Horror” series, giving the filmmaker more creative freedom than he had seen in years.

In 2005 Hooper directed one of the first season episodes of the great Showtime series “Masters of Horror”. His episode, “Dance of the Dead”, was one of the highest rated of the season. I confess that I did not enjoy it but it still announced that Hooper was on the comeback trail and working on the series gave him final cut, which Hooper hadn’t had in years. Season two began with his, “The Damned Thing” and it was one of the best episodes of the entire series. It was a great apocalyptic story of an evil force that attacks a small town that found comparisons to some of the best works of Stephen King, as a small-town sheriff tries to save his family and town from dark forces. Hooper directed with a terse style and the episode played extremely well. It was some of the director’s finest work in decades and received good notices, but it was to be the last season of the series and Hooper would have no more chances to sharpen his final cut-directorial blades on TV.

While his output over the last decade of his life was certainly hit and miss, it can never be denied that Tobe Hooper is one of the most underrated horror filmmakers. It isn’t fair that he always met with resistance from his producers and many of his films re-edited or finished by others. He shares this burden with another great filmmaker, Sam Peckinpah, who consistently fought uphill battles with his producers and studio heads. Years after his death, Peckinpah is regarded as one of cinema’s true geniuses. While I don’t feel that Hooper is a filmmaking genius, I find him to be one of horror’s best directors. Despite not having a perfect filmography, this man endured. Hooper survived bad press and years in television exile. 

In the 2000’s, his good reputation slowly returned. In 2006 an uncut edition called “The Gruesome Edition” of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was released with extra footage and commentary by Hooper explaining his true intentions for the tone of the film. The release was well received and saw resurgence in popularity for the film, which is now, officially, a cult classic. In 2002 Hooper directed the pilot for the well-received Spielberg produced miniseries “Taken” and the following year co-wrote the remake of his own “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” which became a massive financial success. 

His final feature, the paranormal horror film “Djinn” was an atmospheric film that showed Hooper could still scare his audience. It is very good but never saw a full theatrical release.

There have been many articles and documentaries discussing horror films and Tobe Hooper has been interviewed in a few, but the focus is always on the “big names” such as Carpenter, Argento, et all. He has gone down in history as a director on the outskirts despite having directed a few big budget studio films and being one of the groundbreakers of the modern horror film. For years he was known as the guy who directed the groundbreaking “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, a classic miniseries “Salem’s Lot”, “some” of Poltergeist, and then faded away. 

This is unfair and implies he was, basically, a one (or two) hit wonder of sorts. This man had talent and never stopped trying. There were hard times, but do we give up on Dario Argento or John Carpenter when they haven’t made great films in years? They are consistently referred to as masters of the genre and Hooper should be as well. His mark on horror cinema is forever and he gave us Leatherface, one of the most iconic killers in cinema history in a film that, to this day, is being remade and updated and watched. 

He frightened television audiences with his supremely faithful adaptation of King’s “Salem’s Lot” and followed with another instant horror classic. Controversy aside, he was the director of “Poltergeist” and helped to make it a worldwide phenomenon. 

In the end, he no longer had the “groundbreakers” in him but was still delivering good-to-great horror to genre fans. 

Hooper’s unique style was raw, and he never hid the scares. The terrors in his films were always in your face. The director could be considered one of the pioneers of “relentless horror”. 

Tobe Hooper is not a man forgotten just a man whose talents were set aside, save for a few films. The filmmaker deserves mention amongst the great Horror- meisters and more than earned his seat at the table. 

Without a doubt, Tobe Hooper is one of horror’s great filmmakers.