Tobe Hooper: 3 You May Have Overlooked
Tobe Hooper's passing has left the film world without one of its most underrated filmmakers. Known for always being kind and soft spoken, his absence will certainly be missed throughout horror circles.
There are plenty of tributes to his most well-known works, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and (debatably) Poltergeist, but I wanted to take a look at three of my favorite Tobe Hooper movies that never seen to get any love.
The closest thing to a straight-up slasher that Hooper ever did, The Funhouse has a surprising amount of character building for where the genre was at the time. The setup is simple: teenage Amy heads off to a shady carnival with her friends, against the wishes of her parents, and they become trapped in a side attraction with a murderous member of the carnival.
The film starts off with homages to both John Carpenter’s Halloween and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, then proceeds to give nods to the original Universal monsters. Being a Universal movie, it’s almost as if Hooper was implying a marriage of the two styles. We were about to see a return of the classic Universal Monster kneaded into the Stalk-and-Slash genre that had become popular after Hooper’s own Texas Chain Saw Massacre brought horror back to the mainstream and films like John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th solidified its place in theaters for the next 35-plus years. It works to great effect, letting the audience know exactly what they’re in for right from the start.
Hooper shot the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic, a process that added a significant enough chunk of change to the budget and was typically reserved for only the largest, most prestige of films. Filmmakers like Hooper and Carpenter, who had grown up in the golden age of Cinemascope, loved the idea of getting as big of a picture as possible, using it not only to establish environments, but also engulfing the characters in a large sea of black. It gives a large canvas for anything to pop out of and it’s used to beautiful effect here. Hooper gives us beautiful looks at the layout of the remote carnival as a whole, and particularly the titular Funhouse, which gives us a sense of hopelessness when the lights go out and they’re all alone with that creature that is desperately trying to eliminate the witnesses to his crimes.
A simplistic plot is elevated by beautiful cinematography, above average performances, fantastic Rick Baker effects, and a filmmaker that is clearly in love with what he’s doing. Next time you’re in the mood for a truly great, underappreciated gem, give this a watch. I can’t recommend it highly enough!
The Cannon Group producing a movie by Tobe Hooper based on a book called The Space Vampires. Seriously, what is there in that equation that you can’t love?
Lifeforce begins with a group of astronauts exploring Haley’s Comet as they discover something in its tail: an alien spacecraft housing some very strange, dead creatures and some clear sarcophagus-like pods containing three humanoid beings. The creatures end up back to Earth and, before long, they awake and begin sucking the life force from everyone they encounter and turn their victims into an army of sci-fi vampires who must repeat the process to stay alive.
This is Hooper fresh off of his highly controversial gig directing Poltergeist (it’s been postulated that Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, still finishing E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial at the time, wanted to direct Poltergeist but couldn’t because of Director’s Guild rules and hired Tobe Hooper to be the face of the film while he stealth-directed most of it behind the scenes), and he brings a lot of that flair to it. We get a world that visually starts in Ridley Scott’s Alien and moves swiftly into the Hammer Quatermass films once we’re back on Earth. It embraces its premise with the giddiness of a pubescent kid getting ahold of a pulp novel called The Space Vampires. This is Hooper saying, “Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus just gave me $25 million to make a sci-fi horror film. Let’s go have some fun!”
What is most surprising is that Mathilda May’s performance is most known because of the fact that she spends the vast majority of her time on screen nude, however she actually crafts a surprisingly intimidating presence that helps ground the film when it starts to veer too far into silliness. She’s not around for every occurrence, and that may present a challenge for some viewers as there’s no way to get around some of the more laughable elements (the BBC report toward the beginning has me chuckling every time).
While I would recommend The Funhouse to anyone with even a passing interest in horror, this one is a little tougher. It can get more than a little goofy at times and if the sight of on-screen nudity offends, this is most definitely not the movie for you. The more adventurous movie watchers will find a lot to love here.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2
Tobe Hooper is the man known for bringing us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and he is deservedly held up high for it. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the horror audience that realizes that he also did its first sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. It’s a shame too, because the second installment delivers the dark humor only hinted at in the original to an almost Evil Dead 2 level and is the last honestly great entry into the franchise.
After many false starts (including an attempt with filmmaker John Milius), Hooper was finally able to sequel-ize his most notorious film as part of a deal with the Cannon Group. Picking up thirteen years after the original, the Sawyer family narrowly avoided justice for the events of the first movie and have taken to hiding in plain sight, with Dreyton (Jim Siedow) working out of a food truck and winning chili cook-offs around central Texas. When two obnoxious college-bound Bros are killed while calling into a rural radio station by Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and Chop Top (Bill Moseley), the family sets out to destroy the evidence, and witnesses, of their crimes.
Many fans of the original were put off by the overt black humor injected into this film. Hooper clearly had no interest in going back to the gritty, cinéma vérité approach of the first film and instead opted for a more straightforward visual style. It’s a little flatter than much of his post-Massacre work, but Hooper lets the often hilarious script and Dennis Hopper’s terrific, loopy performance as a Texas Ranger and the uncle of Sally Hardesty, the only survivor of the original, pick up the slack. It’s a dark satire of the notion of intrusive government regulation bringing down the small business owner with Dreyton Sawyer just wanting to run his catering truck without those pesky anti-murder laws getting in the way. Jim Siedow and Bill Moseley truly revel in their roles, going as deliriously over the top as they can. Moseley in particular crafts one of the best characters in the series, almost eclipsing series stalwart Leatherface.
For anyone looking for a lot of humor mixed with some genuine scares, you cannot go wrong with this one. It would go great sandwiched between Slither and Evil Dead 2. Track it down and give it a watch, even if you’ve never seen the original.
All title available as Special Editions from Scream Factory.