A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
An artist who found ways to mine his obsessions late into his fraught career. Those who agree will find American Twilight indispensable.”
With George A. Romero garnering posthumous accolades, thanks to the release of his long lost The Amusement Park (1973), now is an ideal time to revisit another underappreciated genre master: Tobe Hooper. Just as Romero is often pigeonholed as “the zombie movie guy” – a label which overlooks some of his best films, like Martin (1977) or The Dark Half (1993) – Hooper will always be “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre guy.” This association is understandable, if not justified; the 1974 classic is far and away his best work. But to write the prolific writer-director off as a one-hit wonder would be to ignore a subversive and fascinating body of work, one which is given its due in editors Kristopher Woofter and Will Dodson’s American Twilight: The Cinema of Tobe Hooper (University of Texas Press).
At first glance, Hooper’s filmography appears wildly inconsistent, in terms of both genre (exploitation, kid-friendly horror, science fiction, creature features) and quality (from Spielberg-backed blockbusters, to direct-to-video schlock). But as Woofter and Dodson persuasively argue in their introduction, a number of recurring thematic concerns lend his oeuvre a surprising cohesion: “landscape and architecture…as metaphors for fragile psychic and bodily states” (xix), “the absurdities that lie at the center of the American family” (xix), and “male anxieties in an increasingly diversified America” (xx). Many chapters similarly address what Tony Williams calls Hooper’s “Gothic perspective on American history – in which official, memorialized history doesn’t necessarily tell the true story” (44). Though concerning Salem’s Lot (1979), these words also apply to one of his most controversial outings: 1982’s Poltergeist.
Fans will likely know the rumor plaguing what should have been Hooper’s mainstream breakthrough: that Spielberg – who co-wrote and produced – was the true director and that Hooper’s role was minimal, even nonexistent. Joan Hawkins makes a compelling counterargument in “Poltergeist: TV People and Suburban Rage Monsters,” claiming that “Hooper’s love of the surreal…permeates the film, along with his recurrent treatment of a horrific capitalism, his interrogation of the displacement of original populations…and his sometimes pessimistic view of American history” (17). Hawkins’ discussion of the film’s famous opening shot – a slow pull-away from a television broadcasting the “Star-Spangled Banner” – suggests a much bleaker suburbia than Spielberg ever portrayed, one which “underscores a connection between the soporific effects of the [television] medium and a nation that has perhaps been lulled to sleep” by Reagan-era consumerism (19).
Nevertheless, part of the collection’s overarching agenda is to look beyond the director’s well-known works, so it’s exciting to encounter entire chapters dedicated to the likes of Eggshells (1969), Salem’s Lot, Lifeforce (1985), Toolbox Murders (2004), and Spontaneous Combustion (1990), the latter of which is the focus of standout entry “Bad Touches: Spontaneous Combustion in the Aftermath of the Nuclear Family.” Its author, Alanna Thain, deftly acknowledges that a “profoundly messy, even embarrassing film” (135) can challenge, excite, and inspire viewers willing to approach it with an open mind. One such viewer is Japanese auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “who cites it as an inspiration for his techno-thriller Pulse (2001)” and “sees Hooper’s film as an ‘impossible romance’ in a world saturated by nuclear testing” (141).
This juxtaposition between some admittedly cheesy films and their serious thematic undercurrents can be jarring, and nowhere is this effect more evident than in Mike Thorn’s “Lizard Brain Ouroboros: Human Antiexceptionalism in Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive and Crocodile.” These films are not the director’s best by a longshot (although the former, his 1976 follow-up to Texas Chain Saw, has enjoyed a cult following), but Thorn skillfully dissects how they illustrate “the [triune brain] theory…that human cognition’s roots can be traced to the nonhuman animal world” (106). The boundary separating these worlds dissolves, and viewers may find themselves rooting more for the so-called “monsters” than the oblivious humans exploiting them.
Of course, Texas Chain Saw looms so imposingly over Hooper’s career that it’s all but impossible to ignore it in a critical assessment of his work. Wisely, Woofter and Dodson dedicate only one chapter to it: J. Shea and Ned Schantz’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Begins,” which wonderfully explicates the film’s pre-credits sequence. Other editorial choices, however, may raise a few eyebrows. Two essays focus entirely on the notorious The Mangler (1995), which you may know as “the killer laundry machine movie.” These pieces are well done; the authors’ assertions that Hooper packaged the Stephen King adaptation as a critique of “American labor conditions, moral compromise, and profit at any cost” (56) or of “the American film industry as machinery that swallows up the careers of artists” (205) are convincing and lucid. But I couldn’t help but wonder why The Mangler gets two chapters, while The Funhouse (1981) – Hooper’s second-best, for my money – doesn’t get one (though some contributors address it).
Many chapters similarly address what Tony Williams calls Hooper’s Gothic perspective on American history – in which official, memorialized history doesn’t necessarily tell the true story’ (44). Though concerning Salem’s Lot (1979), these words also apply to one of his most controversial outings: 1982’s Poltergeist.”
The book ends with “Tobe Hooper and the American Twilight,” a personal narrative by Christopher Sharrett. The essay’s placement is fitting for two reasons: it brings the text’s discourse full circle, since Sharrett’s earlier 1984 analysis of Texas Chain Saw was “one of the earliest scholarly essays not only on Hooper, but also on horror cinema more generally” (xix); and it demonstrates how Hooper used horror as a vessel for exploring not just American life, but the nature of the universe itself. Reminiscing about his first time seeing Texas Chain Saw, Sharrett connects its raw impact to “H.P. Lovecraft’s notion of cosmic horror, a horror that refuses all reason and points to the ultimate, meaningless void” (229). Indeed, the film’s (still terrifying) dinner scene grapples with inexplicable mayhem on a level most directors dare not reach.
Inspired by this collection, I finally watched the last feature Hooper completed, before his death in 2017: the United Arab Emirates-produced Djinn (2013). Though far from a lost classic, it’s undoubtedly the work of an artist who – lacking unlimited Hollywood resources – still found ways to mine his obsessions late into his fraught career. I’ll take that over soulless money grabs like The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) any day. Those who agree will find American Twilight indispensable.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.