By Christopher Sharrett.

Tobe Hooper became a poet of the American twilight, of the dead American Dream warned about by any number of artists…. As I have noted elsewhere, Hooper immediately lets us know that his concerns are broad and deep.”

I recall my first screening of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the autumn of 1974, when I was living in Philadelphia, now a place that is long ago, far away, and almost totally desecrated by gentrification. The ads for this film looked interesting, but I was a wary of the hype that presented the film more or less as a documentary. (It is “based on fact” if we accept that its influence is the Ed Gein cannibal/murder case of the 1950s, which also is the foundation of Psycho [Hitchock, 1960].) I left the theater not “scared” (I had long since found out that people in everyday life, not works of fiction, were what frightened me), but shaken. I thought that what I had seen was indeed a step further in the advancement of the horror film. As I walked down the Ben Franklin Parkway to the place that was my home at that time, I mulled over the film. I felt that it had something in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s notion of cosmic horror, a horror that refuses all reason and points to the ultimate, meaningless void. The film begins with archival images of solar fire behind the opening credits, and concludes with Leatherface’s mad dance, alone on a highway at dawn, as the endless screams of Sally vanish in an abrupt cut to nothingness.

Figure 18.1. Original one-sheet for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, dir. Tobe Hooper (Vortex/Bryanston Distributing, 1974).

In a short time it struck me how important a film Texas Chain Saw is. The film became part of my doctoral studies, my first essay on it, written in 1979 and now immortalized, I suppose, on Wikipedia. This film, directed by Tobe Hooper – whose name I immediately noted, jotting him down as a person to follow – gives us something both material metaphysical, an image of a nation and world careening into total madness (and the indifference of the universe, per Lovecraft?) while also providing a quick, lunatic survey of American history, with the reasons why we became what we are. Robin Wood and Tony Williams looked into this in their seminal study of horror American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film (1979); they were soul mates without me knowing it.[1]

I am sure that my being unnerved by Hooper’s film could have happened only in the film’s moment, even as the film continues to shock. In 1974, my father left my mother after forty years of marriage, bursting whatever bubble I still had about family and home. But there were other things, on a larger and very consequential scale: Nixon left office that August after a crybaby speech to his staff, since he was facing impeachment and a trial (the possibility of the latter erased by his craven, corrupt successor, Gerald Ford), all of it assuring the members of the conscious public that American power was contemptible. The United States more or less ended its butchery in Southeast Asia in 1974, but butchery would continue elsewhere: the first oil “crisis” had begun the previous year, causing a rage in the populace that would sanction new military incursions in the Middle East. There was so much more.

Tobe Hooper became a poet of the American twilight, of the dead American Dream warned about by any number of artists, but emphatically by Hooper and his soul mates George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and not a few others. As I have noted elsewhere,[2] Hooper immediately lets us know that his concerns are broad and deep: as the credits roll at the opening of Texas Chain Saw, we hear radio transmissions informing us of catastrophe after catastrophe. The banal cruelties then start to unspool: the ignored roadkill; the scorn aimed at the fat kid brother, Franklin; the careless handling of his wheelchair as he urinates. Disparate, seemingly unrelated images push the story into darker territory: Sally’s interest in astrology (making her ask questions about “Saturn in retrograde”); the appearance of the hitchhiker; the shots of cattle slavering in the boiling sunlight; out of nowhere, John Henry Faulk, a prophet-martyr of the Cold War. We see buildings consistent with Hooper’s long-standing interest in creepy architecture: the crumbling mansion, with its nineteenth-century American Gothic associations; the clapboard house, with its abandoned, camouflaged cars; the swing set in the yard. The arrival of Leatherface and the rest of his demented family is incredibly apposite to our history, with the typical hectoring (“Look what your brother did to that door!”), the demeaning of the vulnerable because of ‘career’ failure (“You’re just a cook!”), or the inflating of reputations (the talk about Grandpa being the best in the slaughter business).

Hooper faced the kinds of resistance, including personal problems, confronting other radical artists such as Larry Cohen and Wes Craven in the post-1960s horror genre.”

So Hooper offers perceptive observations about us and this nation. But is he a social critic to rank with, say, George A. Romero, whose zombie films, along with the The Crazies (1973), Hungry Wives (1971; aka Jack’s Wife [1972] and Season of the Witch [1973]), Martin (1977), and several others, amount to the most radical art ever offered within independent genre film? Perhaps not, but Hooper faced the kinds of resistance, including personal problems, confronting other radical artists such as Larry Cohen and Wes Craven in the post-1960s horror genre. Filmmakers need to make a living and to be given working budgets large enough to allow for unfettered expression. But there are always problems with having money thrown at you. Craven made two remarkable films (Last House on the Left [1972] and The Hills Have Eyes [1977]) before creating two lucrative Hollywood franchises (A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984-2010] and Scream [1996-2011]) both of which became inscribed in pop culture, the first offering some thoughts about the family and the home, the second mostly a postmodern exercise. Like all franchises, both began to look tired and hackneyed very quickly, but Freddy remains relevant as a reminder that the monster of our times isn’t the Wolfman or Dracula, but the psychotic child killer, the abuser-murderer representative of the ill will of the community.[3]

Cohen gave us It’s Alive (1974) and its first sequel (1978), God Told Me To (1976), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), The Stuff (1985) – and I will include among his horror films Bone (1972) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), which contain key elements of the horror film, the former a Godard-like experiment about race in America, the second, as Robin Wood said, “the most intelligent political film ever to come out of Hollywood” (2003, 95). And he made two of the most important entries in the “blaxploitation” cycle: Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem (both 1973). Larry Cohen made important contributions, mostly unacknowledged save for a book by Tony Williams ([1996] 2014), to early television and the mainstream cinema.[4] His death, which produced important obituaries (as did Romero’s, Craven’s, and Hooper’s), at least brought Cohen to the public mind: I suspect he was mostly unknown to, or forgotten by, most audiences.[5]

My point is that Hooper, like these other men, was constrained by money, his greatness hampered by money issues – although his first masterpiece was as low-rent as one could imagine. Still, that kind of cinema, with its intelligence and wit, may thrive precisely because of its status in its day, a “poverty row” piece of lowbrow drivel never to be taken seriously except by a few nuts who like to overthink such things. Romero was indefatigable, both working in Hollywood, with its necessary concessions, and going back on his own, always persevering. Craven wasn’t a sellout as much as someone ready to compromise – Freddy saved a not-bad studio in the process. Cohen wanted to remain on his own, but when he genuinely needed assistance, he also went to Hollywood. By the 1980s, Hollywood had essentially become a set of financing agencies, but Cohen went with no trace of greed.

Figure 18.2
Figure 18.3

Figures 18.2 and 18.3. Multicoloured lights on the hotel set evoke a presentational quality in Eaten Alive, dir. Tobe Hooper (Mars Productions Corporation, 1976).

Hooper, made of more fragile personal stuff, was at times unable to discern weak projects. When money was thrown at him, he for the most part produced work where he was almost unrecognizable, Poltergeist (1982) being the most obvious example. But when he got hold of the right material, he was the equal to the colleagues he joins now in death (all dead within a three-year period, almost a cruel cosmic erasure). He followed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with Eaten Alive (1977), a film strangely the inverse of Texas Chain Saw, about an old hotel in a swamp (hotels/motels immediately conjure Psycho). The hotel and swamp are shot on a stage, with multicolored lights giving the set a remarkably bilious and presentational quality (Figures 18.1 and 18.2). A young prostitute,[6] fleeing anal rape in a whorehouse, seeks refuge in the hotel. The whorehouse madam is played by Carolyn Jones, a distinguished actor for decades who arrived at fame as Morticia on the TV sitcom The Addams Family (1964-1966), about a family whose members think they are monsters. (Their TV counterpart was The Munsters (1964-1966), monsters who think and act like the characters on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1966) these shows struck me then as now as dead on arrival.) This is lighthearted fare, but Hooper, for one, noted that we had to imagine the family as nothing but monstrous. (In interviews, he spoke of Thanksgiving dinners with “people who hated each other.”) We assume, without much evidence, that the young prostitute of Eaten Alive is fleeing her family. Before the madam appears, we hear the words “Name’s Buck, and I’m rarin’ to fuck,” as the camera shows a man, his midregion in tight close-up, opening his belt buckle; it is an utterly extraordinary scene, acted by Robert England, who a few years later will be Freddy Krueger. Buck wants to sodomize her, she refuses, and the madam fires her, making her run, Gretel-like, into the swamp and the hotel, where a madman named Judd, played by the decorated World War II veteran Neville Brand, hacks her to pieces with a pitchfork and feeds her to a crocodile.

Brand’s presence creates significant intertext. He is thought of as ranking just behind Audie Murphy as the most decorated soldier of the war (not accurate), and like Murphy, he was made a movie actor as his reward. Both men fell into addiction, Murphy dying an early death. Here, Brand plays an utter madman – his decorative military souvenirs reminding us of the refrain that a fine line separates heroes and madmen.

Eaten Alive falls apart because of Hooper having left the set after disputes with producers, the kind of habit that made his career difficult but spoke to his integrity. The film was to have no happy ending, the heroism of Judd/Brand (and the valorization of the military) made sport of by Hooper’s mise-en-scene. The film’s accomplishments are visible: heterosexual intercourse always seen as prostitution (and had Hooper seen Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom [Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975] by this time?), the domicile less a sanctuary for the tormented in modern America than it was in Dickens’s London, the military producing madmen. (At the time, I recalled a protest button from the sixties reading: “The Marine Corps Makes Oswalds.”)

Salem’s Lot (1979), part of Hooper’s television work, is to my mind the best Stephen King adaptation, although I do not by any means dismiss The Shining, the “epic horror film” (as then advertised) about the monstrous family, making the poster blurb fully legitimate as we observe Kubrick’s discerning, intellectual acuity, the amazing scope of the film even with its tiny cast.

Hooper’s projects would be hit-or-miss [in his later career], his innate pessimism often running afoul of producer’s aims…. horror is a bit more literal, with the predictable, too-glossy set pieces found in the larger-budget films that seemed to hamper the filmmaker.”

Hooper saw what was important about Salem’s Lot: not only the Terrible House but the Terrible Town. Indeed, this “New Jerusalem” says much about the new golden land, America itself. It is a place thoroughly evil, although the suggestions of pedophilia were modified for television. Even so, the repulsion-attraction that the writer Ben Mears has for the rotting Marsten House, where, in the words of the Wikipedia entry for the novel, Mears had a “bad experience,” is explainable only as a sexual attack. In the film, Mears stumbles through a description of his experience at the Marsten mansion when talking to his former teacher. The vampire’s emissary, Straker (the always-remarkable James Mason), is the intruder in the town, the suspect “queer” about whom “people are talking.” Barlow (the fascinating Reggie Nalder), modeled on F.W. Murnau’s Count Orlock, is a pure monster who doesn’t speak but growls. Barlow is single-minded in his destruction of the heterosexual bourgeois community – his first violent act is to smash together the skulls of the Petrie couple. The town will mostly vanish as Ben and the young Mark, now “queered,” are left on their own, trying to kill the vampires without good prospects.

Hooper’s projects would be hit-or-miss until his end, his innate pessimism often running afoul of producer’s aims. There were notable accomplishments, such as Lifeforce (1985), based on the Colin Wilson novel The Space Vampires (1976), which is to say, since Wilson was a Lovecraft aficionado, in the realm of the Cthulhu Mythos. This alien-invasion film is despairing even with a somewhat compromised ending; the aliens visit upon London near-total devastation, recalling the screenwriter Nigel Kneale’s masterpiece Quatermass and the Pit (both the BBC [1958-9] and Hammer [1967] adaptations). I mentioned the cosmic horror essential to Texas Chain Saw’s nullity. Here, that horror is a bit more literal, with the predictable, too-glossy set pieces found in the larger-budget films that seemed to hamper Hooper. Yet his sense of “end times” is visible here, in science fiction; the genre became radicalized in the 1980s, but Lifeforce is seldom accounted a contribution to the process.

There were modest films, such as The Funhouse (1981), which has the same scale but not the fervor of Texas Chain Saw. Still, Hooper returns to his essential concern: the perversity of the family, and its deformation of the nation itself. It is instructive that the “freak” wears a Frankenstein’s Monster mask. The tormented brother knows that his real kin includes this image, a monster who is actually a saint, or at least of far greater value than the normal people. Frankenstein’s Monster is the cinema’s most obvious incarnation of the Other, the thing mistaken for evil by an unthinking civilization.

Figure 18.4. The Monster wearing a Frankenstein monster mask in The Funhouse, dir. Tobe Hooper (Universal, 1981).

Although tempted by others for over a decade, Hooper refused to make a franchise out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Then, in 1986, he saw a reason to revisit that story – as satire. The cannibal clan is now a group of entrepreneurs mirroring the ethos of the Reagan era. Dennis Hopper’s born-again Texas Ranger is a response, quite obviously, to the dreadful triumph of the church-state union that occurred under the Reagan reaction. Chop-Top, the brother who returned from Vietnam totally insane, with a prominent steel plate making up half his skull, might be the cinema’s best accounting of what really happens to “our boys” in combat, as some feel compelled (out of bad conscience?) to greet them with “thank you for your service.” The cannibal clan is now entrepreneurial, like everyone else – although they make short work of their competition, the spoiled yuppies who show their basic savagery during football weekends. I’ve always thought that the amusement park that is the cannibals’ lair, based as it is on Texas myth and history, is Hooper commenting on some of the critical literature that appeared after the first Chain Saw. A mural showing Davy Crockett’s last stand at the Alamo falls apart under Lefty/Hopper’s prodding, giving us a cascade of bloody guts. It is a remarkably discerning, intelligent moment.

Hooper was as aware of the end of the American utopian aspiration as Romero, his greatest colleague. His ability to realize fully all of his visions was more limited than Romero’s, but what he did achieve is remarkable. His condemnations of the family, the town, and the nation are uncompromised and unrelenting. When we look at The Texas Chain Saw Massacre alone, we have a vision of America as self-created inferno, where the “decent values” of the nation’s self-image have revealed their true face.


[1] See also Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, [1986] 2003); and Tony Williams, Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi [1996] 2015).

[2] See Sharrett, “The Idea of Apocalypse in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, Revised Edition, eds. Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004), 300-320; and Sharrett, “For Tobe Hooper: 1943-2017,” Film International [filmint.], last modified September 2, 2017.

[3] Although Freddy becomes a comedian so quickly that he totally ruins his early relevance.

[4] See Tony Williams, Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker, Revised Edition (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014).

[5] Cohen was also one of the early drafters of a script for Salem’s Lot. See Tony Earnshaw, “Life in a Small Town: The Making of Salem’s Lot,” in Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot: Studies in the Horror Film, ed. Tony Earnshaw (Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2014), 17. Cohen eventually made the sequel, A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987).

[6] In keeping with the usage of the time, and the context of the film, we have opted to stick with this term over “sex worker.”

Excerpted from American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper edited by Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson, © 2021, published with permission from the University of Texas Press.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor Emeritus in film at Seton Hall University and a Contributing Editor for Film International. His latest book, on the series Breaking Bad, is available from Wayne State University Press.

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2 thoughts on “Tobe Hooper and the American Twilight”

  1. An accomplished conclusion to this very important book and great selection of images by Matthew. I had to travel down to London in 1975 specially to see TCM that was banned in most of the UK at the time. Saw EATEN ALIVE at a late show during the London Film Festival some years later that further revealed Tobe’s falir for comedy especially in Neville’s Brand’s deliberately outrageous performance!

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