By Christopher Sharrett.
Some weeks ago I wrote a brief eulogy for George A. Romero, forthcoming in the print edition of Film International (15.4). Now I get word that Tobe Hooper is gone, so we lose almost all of the major figures of the horror film’s renaissance in the 60s and 70s – there are important people still with us, notably Larry Cohen.
Hooper’s genius was lost on many. His masterpiece, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), is dismissed out of hand by many, very wrongly categorized as a “slasher” film, made fun of for its lurid title (Carol Clover made sport of it, in my view, in the title of her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws). It is now a commonplace, for serious people, that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre makes use of little bloodletting. Hooper’s first major horror film left me unnerved (not “scared”), since I felt thrown into a world where reason had collapsed, a world produced by American myth and history, and its basic assumptions about the family, capitalism, and uses of power. The cannibal family, even more than Bates and family (and the “extended” family, including Marion, her boss and Sam) in Psycho (1960), seemed not at all aberrations, but the logical products of the nation. We note that on the van radio, before the appearance of the cannibal clan, we hear of disasters, apparently an unending list, characterizing America in the final quarter of the twentieth century. Many films of the mid-70s contained anxiety over Vietnam and Watergate, representing in their moment the delegitimation of authority in America. Reactionary gestures were basic to films like The Exorcist, and genres like the vigilante film and the disaster film (although the latter, at its best, conveyed the impossibility of recuperation). Hooper’s film was uncompromising in its portrayal of disintegration, but, like Pasolini’s Salo (1975), Texas Chainsaw refused any nihilism; rather, it posited a nation and world that could not continue under the accepted order of things.
Despite audience interest, Hooper never built a franchise; it would be over a decade before he created, with L. M. Kit Carson, a sequel, which satirized the first film as well as Reagan’s America. In this film, Leatherface and his cannibal clan are good entrepreneurs whose products are savored by a nation nutty with born-again religion and the simple compulsion to consume – only Dawn of the Dead (1978) would pursue the latter with greater intelligence.
Hooper’s career can be called “spotty,” but how many people produce even a handful of distinguished work, certainly after the corporatization of American cinema, as intelligent as Hooper’s films? Eaten Alive (1977) contains ideas from Chainsaw, but offered with a very presentational, almost Brechtian strategy, the studio set made obvious with his garish primary-color lighting. Perhaps most crucial is the presence of Neville Brand, one of the great postwar character actors who happened to be another Audie Murphy, a highly decorated soldier of World War II (like Murphy, Brand was rewarded with a Hollywood contract; unlike Murphy, Brand was craggy-faced and deep-voiced, but we might keep in mind that in his day Murphy was called “the baby-faced killer from Texas,” letting us know how America renders its heroes). But this film is the opposite of a celebration of the “greatest generation.” Brand’s character is a veteran, his abode decorated with war memorabilia, but he is totally mad, and wields a scythe, coding the soldier-hero as embodied death.
The daily media that noticed Hooper’s death mentioned, of course, Poltergeist (1982). Some of Hooper apocalypticism is present in this film, but it is noticeably a Steven Spielberg production, with the consolations and assorted juvenilia associated with this person. A better encounter with the industry is Lifeforce (1985), an adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires (1976), and therefore necessarily Lovecraftian. The influence of Lovecraft shows in Hooper’s production for the Masters of Horror television series, The Damned Thing (2006), an accomplished, overlooked film about a moribund patriarchal civilization.
We can go through Hooper’s complete filmography, arguing perhaps that he was hindered by a struggle with addiction. But his genius is always available, if in fragmentary form. A film I always revisit is Salem’s Lot (1979), Hooper’s adaptation of the 1975 Stephen King novel. I never cared for King; he assumes that his readers are children, but given his many followers he may be right in the way he addresses us. But Hooper and Kubrick (1980’s The Shining) did great service to King, showing extraordinary perception in adapting his novels. King’s virtue is his interest in children; their victimization is a major topic of his best books. Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, made for television, treaded carefully, but child abuse and pedophilia are in the background (not to mention the degenerate town whose name alludes to the Bible), the latter unfortunately associated with gay sex (the James Mason and Reggie Nalder monsters). The trauma of the adult abuse victim is perceptively rendered by the David Soul character, under Hooper’s direction. The character is obsessed with his childhood and the Marsden House, where he saw and heard terrible things – but cannot fully verbalize his personal trauma.
Child abuse is fairly pervasive in Hooper. It took me some time to realize that Leatherface, the ostensible monster of Texas Chainsaw, is actually the kid brother of the Hitchhiker (Edwin Neal, wonderful) and the Old Man (Jim Siedow, an extraordinary stage actor), who is actually the eldest rather than the patriarch, although he assumes that role. If we watch with focus, some of the real horror is the incessant tormenting of the terrified younger brother, with very familiar language (“Look what your brother did to that door!”). Is the insanity of the younger man based on trauma as common as this? – certainly Freud’s title The Psychopathology of Everyday Life continues to resonate, and reminds us of the roots of mental illness in the family. Similar abuse is at the foundation of the narrative of The Funhouse (1982), where the deformed (mentally and physically) child wears a Frankenstein monster mask, suggesting the banality of Hollywood horror when we see what is waiting (repressed) underneath.
We would do a disservice to Hooper to remember him simply as a “horror director,” not that there is a thing to make the genre disreputable – bad works appear in any form, especially in these times. Hooper pushed the genre, showing how we, in our basic assumptions, are the real horror, and monsters are made by us.
Tobe Hooper was above all a sensitive and erudite man, a product of the vital society within Austin, Texas, an island of creativity in a state filled with the stuff that Hooper so perceptively savaged in his vision of horror. Austin gave much to film culture, which Hooper acknowledged, along with the city’s youth culture of the 60s, in his first feature, Eggshells (1969), a work of celebration that also saw the era’s fragility.
The current U.S. cinema, or that of the future, is unlikely to give us another Tobe Hooper. We should treasure him.
There are sumptuous Blu-ray editions of Hooper’s two Texas Chainsaw films now on the market. TCW 2 is released by Arrow on an especially deluxe edition, including the mostly unseen Eggshells.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor to Film International and Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University, USA.