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Depth of Field: The Quick Rise and Spectacular Fall of Tobe Hooper

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Sunday, Oct 22, 2006


As part of a month long celebration of all things scary, SE&L will use its regular Monday/Thursday commentary pieces as a platform to discuss a few of horror’s most influential and important filmmakers. This time around, how Tobe Hooper, one of post-modern horror’s most promising filmmakers, became a monster movie pariah.


How did it happen? Where did he go wrong? In a perfect world, Tobe Hooper wouldn’t be a fright film pariah. He’d be considering his next creative decision, mulling over dozens of derivative Hollywood scripts in a coy cat and mouse game that he, naturally would end up winning. He would have taken the success of his amazing 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and parlayed it into a non-stop stream of genre defining and redefining efforts. There’d be no question about who directed Poltergeist (screw a certain Steven S.), and past films like The Funhouse and Eaten Alive would be seen as minor missteps instead of the last likeable efforts from one of the medium’s most misbegotten masters. Sadly, this is not a perfect world, and as anyone who’s tried to sit through many of Hooper’s more recent efforts, he is definitely not a perfect filmmaker.


So how did it happen, actually? Where indeed did Tobe Hooper go wrong? There are some rather ardent supporters who still believe in his ability to scare people, holding out hope that he’ll eventually right his derailed directorial canon. They will overlook outright junk like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile, The Mangler, and his most recent reject, Mortuary and still claim that prior to becoming a Hollywood hack for hire, Hooper was still a vital filmmaker. They may have a point. Looking over the films he’s made in the 12 years between the two signature Saw films argues for an artist still trying to be viable in a filmic category that was slowly swallowing its own soul. As the Devil gave way to the slasher, Hooper helmed unique and uncompromising movies that said more about who he was as an idealistic individual than the current state of macabre.


No one could have predicted that a little slapdash exploitation film made to grind some bucks out of the still viable drive-in demographic, based loosely on the life of Wisconsin’s notorious Ed Gein mythos, would end up being one of terror’s tent pole experiences. Through a combination of inspiration, invention and outright karmic happenstance, what could have been a minor monster movie became an unsettling work of art. Take away all of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre‘s violence and brutality – the final shot of Leatherface dancing in the rising sun of a new day is one of the most compelling images ever captured on celluloid. It made Hooper an instant icon, and secured his place as one of the pioneers of terror. It also opened doors for the former college professor and documentary cameraman that perhaps he shouldn’t have passed through.


There were also signs early on that all was not well in Hooperville. Right after his killer alligator epic Eaten Alive, the filmmaker was hired to helm The Dark, an oddball extraterrestrial invasion film that looked and felt like an attempt to jump on the about to be hot Alien bandwagon. At some point in the production, Hooper went head to head with the producers, and was fired. John Cardos was brought in to finish the project. It wouldn’t be the last time that Hooper was removed from a movie. Aside from the rumors surrounding Poltergeist, he quit the British snake thriller Venom, sighting “creative differences” with the main moneymen. Among the many reasons a filmmaker can fall in the tripwire town of Tinsel, failing at the box office is creative crime number one. But standing right besides said fiscal flopping is the “difficult reputation”. Whether or not his reasons for rejection were viable, Hooper had been labeled. And after his next three films, he’d more or less cemented his professional unacceptability.


After that notorious suburban spook show hit, Hooper was handed a number of possible projects. Unfortunately, he fell in with the infamous meddlers Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan of Canon Films. While they promised financial support, they delivered no guarantees when it came to final cut, or eventual distribution. Three years came and went before Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires arrived in theaters, minus 15 of its original 116 minute running time, and with the lamentable title change to Lifeforce. More sci-fi than scary, and missing much of its internal logic thanks to the editing, the film was viewed as a failure by even the most ardent Chainsaw supporter. Even those who came to appreciate the movie in later years were mainly responding to the recovered “director’s cut”. It was a stunning blow for a man that, up until this UK jive, was considered a fabulous fright master.


His next step didn’t endear himself to anyone. Hooper had always loved 1953’s Invaders from Mars, and wanted to modernize the cheesy matinee classic. Unfortunately, while the situation looked new, the effects were as retro as a trip back to the Eisenhower era. The decision to maintain the look and limits of the old b-movie style of monster made this intended update more funny than fresh, and fans just didn’t get the rationale behind revisiting what appeared to be a standard shoddy creature feature from the past. Lost for a novel next step, Hooper appeared to become desperate. His next move would baffle even his heretofore strongest followers.


Depending on who you listen to, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2 is either a wonderful cinematic satire, on par with the scathing social commentary found in George Romero’s work or the last bullet in the creative gun that helped Hooper commit career suicide. There’s no meaningful middle ground on the project – fright film mavens either love it or LOATHE it. Purposefully the polar opposite of everything he did in the 1974 original (tense atmosphere, documentary stylizing, maintenance of an air of authenticity) this full blown farce had our antihero Leatherface as a hyped up horndog. It presented the previous sinister Cook as a non-stop one liner dropping Bleak chorus. It even introduced a new clan member into the mix, the metal plate sporting Chop Top, whose sole purpose seemed to be egging on his power tool wielding brother while dropping deranged pop culture references.


Time has definitely treated this instantly dismissed title rather well. Even disparate elements like Dennis Hopper’s Method acting madness, or the entire Vietnam-based abandoned amusement park now seem like part of one artistic madman’s personal cinematic purgative. A great deal of the time, Chain Saw 2 plays like Hooper’s final statement on the entire Massacre phenomenon. He kids himself, and his fans, even adding a scene where Drive-In critic Joe Bob Briggs comments on the manner in which Leatherface slaughters some random babes. Golan and Globus had wanted another dark, disgusting exercise in dread. What they got was an aggressive, Airplane! like lampoon where the only thing taken seriously was Tom Savini’s autopsy-quality F/X.


It was apparently the straw that finally broke the fear fans’ benevolent back. The original movie is considered by most to be one of the best ever made. The revamp came and went without anyone much mentioning it afterward. Canon closed shop, leaving Hooper to wander through a few tame television efforts before trying his hand again at the big screen. Spontaneous Combustion was certifiable proof that his outright genre rejection shown in Chain Saw 2 was not just some one-time Hooper experiment. A stupid story involving nuclear weapons, genetic defects, and one man’s ability to immolate people made absolutely no sense when it finally found its direct to video home, and the disdain and contempt for the audience was obvious. Hooper no longer wanted to connect with viewers. He was merely going to give them what he saw fit. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take his fright.


It has been all downhill from there. When the best thing you can say about a recent Hooper effort is that it had some pretty good gore effects (the only interesting element in his otherwise pointless Toolbox Murders remake), you know you’re dredging the bottom of the boo barrel. Having long since given up on this journeyman turned joke, most fans find his current canon to be as laughable as it is lamentable. His production credit on the two new Chainsaw updates also causes the faithful to cringe, again considering the status the first film has in the annals of the genre. And yet, none of this really explains why he’s now such a non-entity. Scholars could compile as much research as possible and still not be able to figure out how or why Hooper finally fell.


It’s possible that, like Chain Saw 2, or Eaten Alive, the movies that many consider to be horrid examples of Hooper’s oeuvre will find solid support upon future reevaluation. After all, his masterpiece was considered quite the abomination at the time of its release. It is conceivable that something like Night Terrors will be hailed as a classic, or Invaders from Mars seen as something of a sci-fi highlight decades from now. His career could also be a clear case of the almost unavoidable horror one hit wonder paradigm. Maybe Hooper only had one good movie in him, and the original Black and Decker epic was it. It could also be that Hooper was stereotyped by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Perhaps he saw himself as a far more varied filmmaker, capable of dabbling in any and all cinematic categories. Unlike Sam Raimi who found a way out, Hooper got stuck being a terror titan – and it effected everything he did thereafter.


Of course, one can’t discount the Poltergeist factor. The 1982 film was such a huge hit that individuals on both sides of the situation obviously understood the power of being linked to such a box office behemoth. The power play against Hooper – the persistent if still unproven rumors that, once again, he had been replaced and that the end result was more a Spielberg style scare film – hounds him to this very day. It leaves people with questions, allowing them to think that there is more truth than professional sour grapes behind the undying creative control gossip. And maybe it became too much. Maybe playing the Hollywood game and getting your otherwise appreciated name dragged through the meaningless motion picture mud has scarred Hooper forever.


It sure does appear that, after the Poltergeist poisoning and his inability thereafter to reproduce it’s success, Hooper simply gave up. Nothing post-Chain Saw 2 has had the pure horror chutzpah of the movies he made in the ‘70s. Even his TV miniseries version of Salem’s Lot and the carnival as killing floor fiendishness of The Funhouse can’t find a comparative contemporary equivalent. It’s as if this director just stopped trying once 1986 ended, and the last 20 years have been an endless ramble toward complete cinematic insignificance. It’s already working. Many younger film fans think the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a meek, mild effort when compared to Marcus Nispel’s balls to the wall reimagining, That a true horror milestone can be made unimportant reflects very poorly on the man who made it. If he’s not careful, Tobe Hooper may discover that it’s too late to save his already addled legacy. And that’s more terrifying than anything he’s done in decades. 

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