Bright Lights Film Journal

Experimenting with the Horrific: A Reappraisal and Retrospective of the Films of Tobe Hooper

Price Carson in Mortuary. Photo courtesy Echo Bridge/Photofest

Hooper’s interest in horror articulates itself primarily in formal invention: how can the frame be used to incapacitate viewer expectations?

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Tobe Hooper’s most recent feature film, Djinn (2013), has struggled to obtain wide release, and the limited reactions it has received have been largely dismissive. Unfortunately, this is a common response to the works of Hooper; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) aside, the director’s work has been frequently ignored, laughed aside, and scorned. Even his well-regarded Poltergeist (1982) has long suffered from accusations that its high-profile producer, Steven Spielberg, ghost-directed its majority. This phenomenon is not necessarily specific to Hooper. It’s symptomatic of reception to horror auteurs at large, specifically those whose work saw infamy or controversy in the 1970s and ’80s. John Carpenter, for example, commonly receives widespread accolades for the majority of his ’70s and ’80s output (especially Halloween [1978] and The Thing [1982]), but it’s much harder to find praise for his equally interesting later works (In the Mouth of Madness [1994], Village of the Damned [1995], and Ghosts of Mars [2001] spring to mind as specific examples). The same might be said for Dario Argento, George A. Romero, Stuart Gordon, or even Wes Craven (although Scream found great success in the ’90s, you’d be hard-pressed to find in-depth reappraisals of My Soul to Take [2010] or Scream 4 [2011]). My interest here, however, is not in the symptom: the auteurs I’ve mentioned have uniformly singular and particular filmographies, and to lump them together would be to deny them their singularity. While ageism certainly plays a role, affecting reception of aged filmmakers at large, what interests me in addressing this symptom is the broader issue of genre reception. The “old masters” of non-genre cinema are not unanimously reduced to such temporally limited moments of celebration (taking the New Hollywood group as example, one thinks immediately of the accolades given to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln [2012] or Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street [2013]). There’s no doubt that context and individual directors present exceptions to this argument, but horror has consistently denied its celebrated auteurs the opportunity to branch out, expand, or diversify in their late careers.

This brings me back to the particular focus of this article: Tobe Hooper. Returning to Djinn, I see that film, like almost all of Hooper’s works, as a remarkably stronger work than its reputation would suggest. In some senses an old-fashioned domestic ghost story, it shows Hooper in typically precise form: actors’ relationships to space, lighting, and cinematic perspective remain consistently engaging and unusual throughout. Its high quality is hardly a surprise. Djinn is yet another demonstration of Hooper’s formal attentiveness, and of his unprecedented ability to rise above standard genre material. What I seek to do here, then, is not to provide a film-by-film rundown of an unheralded filmmaker’s career. Instead, I aim to highlight and discuss specific works, with the intention of celebrating a creative voice that has been unfairly regarded for far too long. What I have found in his work is not an explicit repetition of methods, but a provoking and developing philosophy that underpins his form. Hooper’s interest in horror articulates itself primarily in formal invention: how can the frame be used to incapacitate viewer expectations? How can the particulars of genre broaden our understanding of the moving image at large? His films persistently incorporate point of view into these formal conceits (frequently specific to characters, but sometimes indicative of disturbing authorial intervention). What persists is the urge to make us see differently, to make us feel the familiar in a way we’ve never expected. In this respect, the outlooks in The Mangler (1995) and Mortuary (2005) are every bit as sophisticated as that of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, if not even more so. This is an auteur who grows, and who makes no apology in doing so. To experience his work is to experience the recklessness of an artist who digs at the very roots of cinematic form. No bullshit, pure instinct. With these observations in mind, I’ll look first at his avant-garde debut, Eggshells (1969), before turning my attention to two select films from each decade of his career.

Eggshells is very much the product of a young filmmaker, one who reveals his enthusiasm for cinema in the very shape of his work. Before landing the meager means to make this project, Hooper had cut his teeth on documentaries and commercials. He had also demonstrated his avant-garde propensities with the playfully haphazard short film Heisters (1964). His intention with Eggshells, he says, was always simple: to direct a narrative feature. And in line with Hooper’s aspirations, Eggshells is characterized most notably by its director’s infatuation with the new: the film is predominantly a technical exercise, abstract in its structure and imagery but sure-footed in its form. It wears its avant-garde ideals perhaps more brazenly than any of the director’s later works. Through its psychotropic and free-floating gestures, it captures both the activities and spirit of hippie subculture. Much of the film’s runtime devotes itself to rambling and self-aggrandizing conversation, to the excitement of commune-living in all of its sexual and drugged-out freedoms. Rather than presenting itself as an “ethnography” or outsider’s study, the film takes the very shape of its subjects’ beliefs and worldviews. More than anything, its dedication to the aesthetics of a particular time and place recalls the 1960s works of Jonas Mekas (I’m thinking especially of Report from Millbrook [1966] here); at times, its depictions of psychoactive reactions also bring to mind the early Stan Brakhage (specifically, I’m reminded of a spatially focused film like Cat’s Cradle [1959]). When Hooper deceives us through editing and sound design into believing that a man can swordfight with himself, he’s actually celebrating the novelty of image and experience rather than judging the whacked-out hallucinations of drug users. This is a film about love: love for its subjects, love for their lives, and love for the form that can express that love.

Eggshells: screenshot

“Love” might seem one of the least intuitive words to describe his follow-up, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. While my primary intention with this article is to discuss Hooper’s less celebrated works, I can’t help but bring this radical reframing of genre horror into the conversation. Massacre is nothing less than one of the game-changing entries of its genre, a film so committed and deeply felt that it alters the way we see horror. Again, Hooper channels his energies toward a very particular form, wherein immediacy and a kind of “realism” are achieved through deliberate styles of performance, photography, and editing. This form heightens the sense of association and empathy with the film’s subjects: the victims suffer the brutal consequences of bad luck and naïveté, but so do their victimizers. The film attributes a democratic sense of “wrongness” to everything and everyone, so that horror stems more from a grotesque depiction of plans gone awry than it does from a tangible statement on morality. Case in point: “Leatherface” himself, a character who operates as much as an icon of innocence as he does as an icon of menace. The notion of a predatory killing machine terrorizing an innocent “final girl” is in no way established here, as some might claim. In fact, Massacre should not be viewed as a “slasher” movie by any standard definition of the subgenre. Instead, it’s about two groups of people who perceive each other as utterly alien, whose chance collision results in a very stressful and violent scenario for everybody involved. To be sure, there’s not a unilateral sense of “wrongdoing”: Leatherface and his family are the first to inflict violence, and collectively they certainly convey no sense of conscience. But even so, this is not a film about “good” vs. “evil”: it’s a film about a time and place, specifically the southern U.S. in the 1970s, and the possibility for slaughter that lurked constantly beneath that cultural surface. The film’s final image is one of the most ambiguous in American cinema: Leatherface dancing with his whirring chainsaw on an empty highway, his hulking body backlit by the beautiful, fiery pastels of a sunrise. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre charts a series of gruesome events within compressed space and time. A lot of things happen, but Hooper’s not here to sermonize. He’s here to take us there and keep us there. The film scars with its irresolvable tensions.

It might seem intuitive to next discuss Hooper’s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, a reasonably well-respected picture that showcases many of the auteur’s most interesting tendencies. However, I find myself drawn more to the unusual textures and tonalities of Eaten Alive (1976), which acts in many ways as a reframing or even a deconstruction of Massacre. Eaten Alive’s proceedings trap our focus inside a murky, swamp-moated hotel in rural Texas. The establishment is run by a psychotic shut-in (Neville Brand), who slaughters his clients with a scythe and feeds their bodies to an alligator. Unlike Massacre, Eaten Alive subverts any standard notion of cinematic “realism,” opting instead for an oneiric tone that calls active attention to its own artificiality. Reports suggest that actor Brand spent much of the shoot drunk and delirious, and the film itself incorporates his performance’s energy: the atmosphere is oppressively affected by red gel lighting, persistent fog machines, and a droning score that melts into the sound design. The film feels wasted, washed-up, and angry, belligerent in its unwillingness to provide what audiences might expect. Like Massacre, it positions itself in a state of pure ambivalence: there are no empathetic protagonists to speak of, and the outbursts of violence quickly lose traction in the film’s soupy, hyper-stylized fever dream. It’s easy to describe in terms of plot, but nearly impossible to describe in terms of affect. Like all of the director’s best films, it must be experienced. It hinges itself on the particularity of its tone, its unusual gestures, and its complete originality. In many ways, it is every bit as radical as its classic predecessor.

Moving on to the 1980s, it is even more difficult to limit myself to two titles. Of course, one might expect a discussion of the previously mentioned Poltergeist; it’s likely, too, that many would choose to focus on The Funhouse, a carnival-set reinterpretation of Massacre that also satisfies the genre-codified demands of the “slasher.” These are both excellent films, and worthy of discussion, but I lend my focus here instead to Lifeforce (1985) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), both of which surely rank among Hooper’s most audacious and bizarre works. It is also worth noting that Lifeforce might be the director’s most romantic film, rooted as it is in the passion and profound eroticism of vampire narratives that lingers long after Bram Stoker’s Dracula makes its impact in the late nineteenth century. Vaulting haplessly between various narrative structures and genre expectations, Lifeforce contains at its core Colonel Tom Carlsen’s (Steve Railsback) deep longing for an inhumanly beautiful space vampire (Mathilda May). Said vampire spends the majority of the film wandering nude through London spaces, disempowering men with her body and pinning the film’s sensibility in a palpable, unflinching sexuality. Everything in Lifeforce oscillates between extremes of bloodlust and erotic lust, with physical connections between the vampire and various men beginning with excitement and ending with the men’s gruesomely shriveled, lifeless bodies. The film’s tactile and intimate sensuality is off-centered by its grandly theatrical gestures: the scope of its widescreen compositions brings to mind the great Richard Fleischer, who also infused genre material with poetic grandiosity (Soylent Green [1973], Red Sonja [1985]). If there’s a more ambitious and wild entry in Hooper’s oeuvre, I can’t imagine what it would be.

Lifeforce: screenshot

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) eases nicely into conversation with Lifeforce (and all of the preceding titles) in that it resists audience expectations and designs itself primarily around powerfully radical form. When we look forward a few decades at the hapless horror madhouses of director Rob Zombie (especially House of 1000 Corpses [2003] and The Devil’s Rejects [2005]), it is crucial to acknowledge their antecedent in Massacre 2. The Massacre sequel locates its meaning in direct opposition to its predecessor: surface grimness is replaced with unapologetic gallows humour, “realism” is replaced with a carnivalesque celebration of cinematic sets and expressions, and even the first film’s final shot is reversed in deliberate and meaningful ways. The film’s philosophy can best be expressed through the final siege on the Sawyers’ subterranean dwelling, conducted with gusto by Lieutenant “Lefty” Enright (Dennis Hopper). The scene sees Hopper channeling his most anarchic performance energy, severing the dwelling’s foundations with a chainsaw while repeatedly screaming “bring it all down!” The first film’s fictional armature is called rudely to attention, stripped back and reconfigured into a totally new form. Massacre 2 confronts its audience with questions of their own complicity: the Sawyer family is shown to win one of many local chili contests, their secret being that they feed the ground-up flesh of their victims to their judges. Hooper’s sequel celebrates a larger budget and bigger production possibilities than its predecessor, and he makes us aware that he has repackaged his fiction in ways that might be discomforting. It’s impossible to ignore the connections between carnage and commerce, but in what ways might that unspoken connection be subverted? The final shot sees Vanita “Stretch” Brock (Caroline Williams) spinning atop a precipice with a chainsaw wielded over her head, screaming in a combination of victory and horror. The ambivalence of its predecessor remains, but the subject has necessarily shifted. If there’s anything that links The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Lifeforce, it’s the spirit of pure recklessness.

This brings me into what is probably the director’s least commonly celebrated creative period: the 1990s to the present. In the 1990s, I’ve decided to begin with Spontaneous Combustion (1990). In terms of reputation, it is probably worth recognizing at the outset that the great Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa recently compiled a list of his favorite films for La Cinetek, and included Spontaneous Combustion among his chosen titles. It’s easy to understand the choice: like Kurosawa’s Cure (1997), Pulse (2001), and Retribution (2006), Spontaneous Combustion stages its horror within the structures of human drama, while also lending sustained attention to the affective possibilities of spaces. Also like many of Kurosawa’s works, Spontaneous Combustion concerns itself with the dreadful re-emergence of the past, focusing especially on the individual and internal level. Protagonist Sam (played with great exuberance by Brad Dourif) discovers that his parents were transformed by experiments involving atomic weapons, and sees his own life traumatically shaped by this discovery. In confronting his own pyrokinetic abilities, Sam finds terror rather than emancipation. The film stages a consistent visualization of Sam’s psychology through its use of spaces; for example, after Sam suffers an explosive episode set off by his own anger, Hooper frames him against a multitude of his own reflections. His reaction multiplied by bathroom mirrors, Sam’s sweating face is refracted from various angles while his girlfriend Lisa (Cynthia Bain) stares in shock and fear. The film’s interest in drama doesn’t stifle Hooper’s aptitude for cinematic excess, though: Dourif’s broad and hectic performance is complemented by the sets’ unusual palettes, layouts, and lighting schemes. The potential for “standard” genre fare buckles under the director’s avant-garde impulses, resulting again in a film that feels extraordinarily instinctive and singular.

Spontaneous Combustion: screenshot

Taking into consideration this concept of avant-garde aesthetic sensibilities, The Mangler presents a new peak in Hooper’s oeuvre. Adapted from Stephen King’s short story of the same title, The Mangler heightens the complicated content-form interplay of Spontaneous Combustion and ultimately stands out as Hooper’s most outlandish work. This is the moment when the director’s interpretation of genre goes full circle, bringing its author into the same openly experimental space that launched his career in Eggshells. The Mangler showcases an even more mature, sophisticated, and focused artist, though, wearing its crazed aspirations in every scene like a badge of honor. However, it’s worth noting that the film doesn’t simply revel in formal excess; rather, it finds the potential for serious and damning social allegory in its source text. Most of the horror stems from horrifically gory factory accidents, and its sympathies are clear: the narrative sees oppressed factory laborers (mostly women) forced to work in lethal conditions. They live under the constant threat of “the machine,” represented not only by the titular “mangler” (a possessed folding machine that gnaws body parts and disposes of human life with all-too-frequent abandon), but also by the factory manager (played as a machine-human hybrid with sickening conviction by Robert Englund). In its visceral interpretation of King’s mechanophobia, the film opts for dreamlike visual strokes: the sets are vast, their sharply angular shapes emphasized through camera placement and brazen lighting schemes. It’s a nightmare bathed in primary colours, smoky haze, and uniformly bizarre performances. Through incorporating the angry energy of a young Stephen King, Hooper finds in The Mangler an opportunity to sharpen the mania of Spontaneous Combustion. The result is one of the unsung masterpieces of horror cinema, every bit as striking and fully formed as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The Mangler: Robert Englund and Lisa Morris. Photo courtesy of New Line Cinema/Photofest

After the mad experimentation of The Mangler, it would seem that Hooper’s form could not possibly reach greater heights. In looking at his 2000s work, it is interesting to see the filmmaker in a self-aware “old master” stage, dialing back his aesthetic excess while still pushing further his cinematic philosophies. While Toolbox Murders (2004) is a remake of Dennis Donnelly’s 1978 film, the result is undoubtedly a piece of Hooper’s very personal career-long visions and concerns. Staging its horror within the confines of an apartment complex, the film moves spatially downward to the building’s depths, finding in its killer a deformed and depraved outcast who has hidden beneath the feet of his victimized tenants. Like the monstrous killer in The Funhouse and the Sawyer family in Massacre 2, this predator is rendered horrific by virtue of his nearly inhuman appearance and animal-like aversion to light and personal interaction. By staging another iteration of this familiar narrative within the context of an existing filmic plot, Hooper again draws our attention to the fictional surface of his work. Toolbox Murders incorporates gloomy, textural details into its proceedings, characterizing protagonist Nell Barrows’s (Angela Bettis) day-to-day life with a sensory unease that builds toward its brutal climax. The film necessarily locks itself within these particulars: the sense of the space, the mounting dread that can be contained within a set of walls, the possibility of horror that exists in any banal domestic setting. It’s a technical exercise in reinterpretation, one that waives the possibility of repetition in favor of reinvention. It’s a new masterpiece, unmistakably Hooper but fresh in its feelings and formal intuitions.

Toolbox Murders: screenshot

Last, I move onto the woefully underappreciated Mortuary, possibly Hooper’s most punishingly grimy horror film since the first Massacre. The yellow-brown tones of Toolbox Murders darken into the sickly, sludgy browns of this film’s central home. Appropriate, considering that the domestic and the morbid blend inextricably together: the plot sees mother Leslie (Denise Crosby) and son Jonathan (Dan Byrd) moving into the title mortuary. Hooper stages meal preparation and embalming in unnervingly close proximity, lighting the house with a queasy pallor and imbuing the sense of death into nearly every scene. This being a Hooper film, the horror runs even deeper than expected: even this grotesque, sickly brown space has its dark and repressed secrets, worse than we expect. Bobby Fowler, a physically deformed outcast, lurks in the hellish tunnels beneath the home. The difference between this film and the similarly plotted earlier Hooper works is that there’s never any sense of reprieve or distance from the genre’s fate of death and decay: the film itself is made of this stuff, mucky and wet and full of mortal reminders. It might be his very darkest, even if it resolves with fiendishly simple plot contrivance and a bout of computer-generated artifice. Mortuary is to Toolbox Murders what The Mangler is to Spontaneous Combustion: an even more radical expansion of ideas and aesthetic fixations. Also, like The Mangler, it is every bit a masterwork, and deserves placement among the most successful titles in the genre.

What I have sought to do here is identify thematic and formal through-lines in the oeuvre of Tobe Hooper by placing emphasis on specific works. Any of the titles mentioned here are deserving of sustained and focused analysis, but I aim to celebrate an entire filmography, and the contributions of an auteur at large. Tobe Hooper is nothing less than one of the most radical contributors to the horror genre. Horror and experimentation need not be separated, his films tell us. An artist can change, and an artist can revisit without repeating. Thanks to Hooper, the genre is now much broader and more open to future possibilities.