Sunday, 27 August 2017

R.I.P. Tobe Hooper

Very sad to be posting again so soon on the death of a Horror icon. Tobe Hooper has died at the age of 74.

In the era following George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968) several groundbreaking Horror films emerged from different regions across the USA and Canada including Last House on the Left (1972), Black Christmas (1974), It's Alive! (1974), Shivers (1975) and Halloween (1978). Key among these films was Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), the film with which he will be forever associated.

The standard narrative on Hooper's career is that after a strong beginning his career trailed off and stalled. This assessment has rarely been altered or challenged but it's a view that I've always rejected. Many have lazily written off Hooper's career, even suggesting that Chain Saw was a fluke. While it's true that few films have come close to matching Chain Saw's assault on the senses, its eccentricity and unorthodox brilliance were very much in evidence throughout his filmography. He rarely enjoyed the same level of freedom or control that he had on his seminal shocker.  While mainstream success often eluded him and he became a more marginal figure his career developed in interesting ways. It was often fraught with battles with producers, distributors, studios and censors.

A lifelong film buff, Hooper saw Texas Chain Saw as a calling card to a Hollywood career. It didn't quite transpire that way but in the decade that followed he delivered what now seems like an extraordinary run of films, starting with the deranged, EC comics-style chiller Eaten Alive (1976). The remarkable TV movie Salem's Lot (1979), about a quiet New England town overrun by vampires was one of his greatest achievements and remains one of the best Stephen King adaptations. The Funhouse (1981) was a sly take on the burgeoning slasher film of the early 1980s. Hooper seemed to achieve the mainstream breakthrough he craved with the 1982 blockbuster Poltergeist. However controversy surrounding the picture remains to this day over authorship of the picture, with some attributing the success of the film to producer and co-writer Steven Spielberg and there were even claims that Spielberg unofficially directed the film.

A 3 picture deal in the mid-1980s with the Cannon Film Group seemed like a promising development but the deal would soon turn sour. The first effort was the extraordinary sci-fi/Horror Lifeforce (1985). Like many Hooper films it would later find its audience on home video and become a cult classic. It was followed by a remake of the 1953 B-movie Invaders from Mars (1986) and the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), a sequel that confounded many with its overt black humour, satire and notably more graphic violence than its predecessor. Working with larger budgets and crews these three pictures showcased some of Hooper's most audacious and imaginative work but sadly the fallout from these pictures would effectively mark the end of his career as a mainstream filmmaker.

To my mind the combination of hostility and indifference that greeted his later films does reveal an underlying conservatism amidst Horror fans. He had an "anything goes" approach to Horror and redefined the genre by subverting its rules or ignoring them completely. The films hinted at brave new horizons for the genre that sadly few chose to pursue. His use of framing, lighting and decor were all part of his strong visual punch that transcended the sometimes schlocky concepts behind his work. For me the film that best exemplifies this is 1990's Spontaneous Combustion which strikes me as one of his finest works, although it was inevitably panned on release. I was pleased to hear it being championed by Japanese Horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who included it as one of his selections for lacinetek.

Television work provided a refuge at several times in Hooper's career. Notable credits include the TV movie I'm Dangerous Tonight, episodes of Tales from the CryptAmazing StoriesNight Visions, Freddy's Nightmares and a segment of the John Carpenter anthology film Body Bags (1993).

After the career low point of Crocodile (2000) the 21st century would see a resurgence for Hooper. He reteamed with Spielberg for the opening episode of the TV show Taken in 2002. The 2003 remake of Chain Saw by Marcus Nispel (a passable slasher film) arguably helped raised his profile after years of neglect (Salem's Lot would be remade in 2004 and Poltergeist in 2015). He was also championed by a younger generation of Horror directors, most prominently Rob Zombie and Eli Roth. Hooper bounced back in 2004 with a remake (in name only) of the 1970s exploitation flick Toolbox Murders, a slasher film with supernatural overtones that had the benefit of a terrific cast including Angela Bettis, Juliet Landau, Marco Rodriguez, Greg Travis & Rance Howard. The atmospheric zombie film Mortuary (2005) followed along with two episodes of 'Masters of Horror' Dance of the Dead and The Damned Thing. He showed himself to be open to new challenges in the later stages of his career, writing the novel Midnight Movie and his final film Djinn (2013) was made in the United Arab Emirates.

His career trajectory, going from a notorious breakthrough work to Hollywood exile, earned comparisons with Orson Welles and there are some striking parallels between the two. Like Welles there are neglected works that have been rediscovered (thanks to some terrific special edition DVDs/Blu-Rays from labels such as Arrow and Shout Factory) and previously unavailable offerings such as his early short film The Heisters (1963) and feature debut Eggshells (1969) have been restored and made available to new audiences.

Hooper's films have meant a great deal to me at different times of my life. As a young Horror fan I had a poster of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on my bedroom wall. Having been a proud advocate of that film for many years it's been nice to see its reputation has steadily grown over time. I would frequently trawl through the video stalls at Leeds Market in the 1990s looking for VHS copies of Hooper's rarer work - an early 1980s precert copy of The Funhouse was a much cherished find, as well as two films he made with Robert Englund - Night Terrors and The Mangler. At the start of the 21st century when the DVD format revolutionised home entertainment one of the first discs I purchased was Lifeforce - the version featured was a longer cut than the one that had been previously available. In 2004 I made a special trip to London to see Toolbox Murders at the Prince Charles Cinema as part of Frightfest. As I've grown more accustomed to streaming films it was with great delight last year that I was at last able to see his final feature Djinn online more than three years after it was first screened.

Although he was often mentioned alongside fellow North American genre masters such as George A. Romero, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg and John Carpenter I feel he was in some ways closer to European directors such as Jacques Tourneur, Mario Bava, Roman Polanski and Dario Argento with his macabre humour, surreal flourishes and brilliant control of atmospherics. Hooper understood that Horror was as much about shadows, mist, broken mirrors and old dark houses as it was about monsters. He was a frequently maligned and misunderstood filmmaker whose reputation rested on a small quantity of his output but for me his entire oeuvre has been a source of endless fascination and rewards.

R.I.P. Tobe Hooper (1943-2017)