Monday, October 4, 2010

Shocktober Director of the Day: Tobe Hooper

In 1974, former college professor and budding filmmaker Tobe Hooper directed and co-wrote a low budget horror movie that took audiences by storm, terrifying millions without showing any actual on-screen violence. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced audiences to Leatherface, the first seminal horror villain since Norman Bates. Of course, the two characters share more than instant recognition - they were both based on real-life maniac Ed Gein. Relying on sound effects and the audience's imagination, TCM was an underground hit and audiences swore they saw way more than Hooper ever actually filmed. TCM tells the story of a group of teenagers on their way to visit their grandfather's grave who pick up a rather hysterical hitchhiker and end up in the clutches of a family of cannibals. Hooper's $83,000 film has so-far grossed over $30M and has been since remade with more gore and less critical acclaim.

Hooper's next movie, 1977's Eaten Alive, about a psychotic Louisiana hotelier who has a penchant for feeding his guests to his pet alligator was not quite as successful, but still has an off-kilter sense of the bizarre which makes for an interesting, if not quite as scary, ride:

In 1979, Hooper got a big break with the TV adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, about vampires invading small town America. Horribly miscast and employing 50 year-old visuals, Salem's Lot ultimately fails (as do most King adaptations) due to it's silliness factor. While King may terrify on the page, his works don't always lend themselves to the screen, and that's very obvious in Hooper's ambitious but un-scary version:

Hooper made another silly monster movie in 1981, The Funhouse in which a deformed circus freak terrorizes a group of teens who are dared into spending the night in a carnival dark ride. Depressing and poorly acted, The Funhouse is probably one of Hooper's worst films. It would be followed the next year by one of his best -- and certainly his most successful film, 1982's Poltergeist, a movie Uncle P and his sister can quote almost line for line and which Uncle P can tell you exactly what's happening just by listening to it's soundtrack. Stephen Spielberg served as producer and his influence can be seen in shot after shot, but the tension and terror are pure Hooper:

Hooper then made the under-appreciated "Vampires from Space" zombie movie Lifeforce and an ironic remake of the 1950's Sci-Fi thriller Invaders from Mars, before making hat I think is his best and most terrifying film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. A sequel that's better than the original, TCM2 is one of maybe three films that made Uncle P feel like he was a part of someone else's nightmare. Set mostly in the underground tunnels of an abandoned amusement park, TCM2 features more disturbing performances and images than anything in recent horror history. It it also one of the few films I cannot bring myself to see a second time:

Since then, Hooper has made a string of rather unremarkable films, including Spontaneous Combustion; The Mangler (another lame King adaptation); the poor "X-Files" clone "Dark Skies" and The Toolbox Murders, a film which many horror fans love, but I find to be rather derivative and beneath his best works. I do, however, have high hopes for Tobe's upcoming adaptation of King's From a Buick 8, a novel that figures among King's alternate universe stories found in "The Talisman" and "The Gunslinger."

Hooper's prolific career as a director has certainly had its ups and downs, but he will always be remembered for at least two of the genre's best films. And that's why he's included in this Shocktober's list of Best Horror Directors.

More, anon.

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