Tobe Hooper 1943-2017

tobehooperThis hasn’t been a good summer for masters of horror films. First George Romero last month, and now Tobe Hooper. (Note: We will return to regularly scheduled reviews next time. As you’ll see, I couldn’t let this death — this life — pass unremarked upon.) The Austin-born filmmaker could be said, fairly or not, to have peaked in the ‘70s. That was when he delivered his two best-known undisputed gems of film fear: 1979’s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and, of course, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I consider the greatest American horror movie. If Hooper had done nothing else, he could take credit for directing and co-writing a masterpiece of terror, one that everyone who hasn’t seen it expects to be bloodier than it is. As with Psycho, misdirection and editing do half the work; the other half was accomplished through sheer sweat and atmosphere.

Hooper was born in 1943 and, like so many of his generation, got started making movies at age nine playing with his dad’s 8mm camera. Chainsaw wasn’t his first feature; that distinction belongs to 1969’s Eggshells, an unabashed experimental “hippie film” of which I could only endure about 45 minutes. His second, Chainsaw, revealed a master of mood and menace; by all accounts the movie was hell to make, and it looks it. (Several of the surviving cast members responded to Hooper’s death with polite silences or terse statements. He put those actors through the wringer.) After that he helmed two grindhouse flicks that have their fans — 1977’s Eaten Alive and 1981’s The Funhouse (also his first for a major studio). The creepily effective Salem’s Lot introduced him to a new audience of millions, scaring the stuffing out of a generation of kids with such scenes as the one in which a recently vampirized boy pays a visit to his friend, floating outside his bedroom window, asking to be let in. And then, in 1982, came Poltergeist, perhaps Hooper’s most controversial film.

Ever since it premiered, rumors have persisted that Hooper didn’t actually direct Poltergeist — that its co-scripter and executive producer, Steven Spielberg, really did the bulk of the directing. This narrative was harmful to Hooper’s reputation throughout his career; some who worked on the movie insisted Hooper called the shots, others swore Spielberg was the main man and had various explanations as to why. (Spielberg himself has always maintained it was Hooper, as did Hooper, but why listen to them, right?) I have always seen Poltergeist as a Hooper film with very vivid Spielberg fingerprints, owing to Spielberg’s being new to the executive-producer game and perhaps a bit overbearing. Certainly the most frightening moments — the clown doll, the parapsychologist hallucinating tearing his own face off — read to me as more Hooper than Spielberg, in execution though not in conception.

After that, Hooper drifted into the clutches of schlock studio Cannon, for which he directed 1985’s Lifeforce, 1986’s Invaders from Mars, and 1986’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. All of them are fun, though Chainsaw 2, as over-the-top gory as the original Chainsaw was restrained, requires a strong stomach and a dark sense of humor. The 1990s, for Hooper, were a blur of less-than-memorable work made for TV or sent direct to video, though I never miss an opportunity to talk up his segment of the 1993 horror anthology Body Bags. Hooper’s bit, “The Eye,” starred Mark Hamill as a baseball player who loses an eye and gets a transplanted eye from a serial killer, which makes him see things he’d rather not see. Hamill, around the same time he started a new career for himself voicing the Joker for TV’s Batman: The Animated Series, gave an astonishing manic performance (he paid his respects on Twitter, saying that Hooper was “so kind” to him — maybe Hooper mellowed with age).

Hooper’s final films were decreasingly well-attended or well-received. I avoided them, not wanting to let them cloud my admiration of his early work with sadness at his later spiral. (His swan song, 2013’s Djinn, won such praise as “an unmitigated disaster.”) And there were dispiriting allegations back in June that his girlfriend, almost 40 years his junior, had physically abused him. Whoever directed Poltergeist, and whatever compelled Hooper to use up energy on stuff like Crocodile and a remake of The Toolbox Murders, only one man directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Salem’s Lot, and I can’t think of a filmmaker worth his or her viewfinder who wouldn’t be happy to have made those. So here’s to you, Mr. Hooper. You done good. You rest now.

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