It’s difficult to deal with the loss of our Masters. The passing of Romero was a massive gut punch, and now here we are again. Only a little over a month later, Tobe Hooper has passed away at the age of 74. It’s safe to say without his first feature, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the shape of American horror would not appear the same it does today. That original low budget slice of sun drenched terror has been massively influential to a number of directors working today. Despite this great loss, Hooper has a legacy in TCM that will live on forever, always provoking and inspiring those brave souls willing to venture into its abyss.
I’m not here to talk about TCM, however. As much as I adore the original for its shrill terror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has always been more to my personal taste. It’s a vibrant, darkly comedic film, coming at the end of a bizarre run of flicks made in partnership with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. The heads of the now infamous Cannon Film Group were hungry for a franchise they could exploit. Paramount had Friday the 13th. Newline had Freddy. Riding high off the success of the Spielberg collab Poltergeist, Hooper was a hot name in Hollywood, and Golan and Globus snapped the director up for a three picture deal. Before they got the Chainsaw sequel they wanted, Hooper wisely tackled two other films that tickled his fancy first.
Lifeforce is a film that evaded me for many years. On a whim one night I rented a copy and sat down for two hours of pure sci-fi/horror insanity. With Lifeforce, you’re really getting four films in one: Alien-esque space horror, a body jumping procedural, zombie hordes (technically “vampires”), and large scale destructive action. Hooper was given the keys to the kingdom and ran wild with what was the largest budgeted film Cannon had produced at the time. Based on a book titled The Space Vampires, Hooper’s intent was to craft a colorful popcorn flick reminiscent of the Hammer films he loved so much.
While the title changed, the spirit remained. Hooper was clearly having a blast and throwing everything at the screen. No resource was left untapped from practical gore and creature design, optical effects, sweeping crane shots, classic British thespians, and the alluring Mathilda May as the lead space vamp. While this writer enjoys the film for its bonkers narrative shifts and Grand Canyon sized leaps of logic, May remains the centerpiece that seems to draw in many viewers. She’s an alluring presence without uttering but a few lines. She also happens to be completely naked for a majority of the runtime. Hooper shoots the nudity in a clinical, matter of fact manner. It’s a natural state for this alien being and is presented as such to the audience.
With Lifeforce, Hooper showed he could handle a large scale production. Lead actor Steve Railsback spoke highly of his talent, “As a director, he knew what the hell he was doing. He knew.” Unfortunately, Lifeforce failed to perform at the box office, losing in a head to head battle with that summer’s other sci-fi flick, Cocoon. It’s unclear if the wonky script was the culprit or the poor marketing, but the film failed to regain even half of its budget. No worries, Hooper still had two more films to tackle in that three picture deal.
Invaders from Mars (1986)
A family friendly remake of a 50s B-movie might not seem like a perfect fit for Hooper’s second film at Cannon, but it was actually a passion project the director chased down for years. The goal was to craft a horror story fit for kids. With a surprisingly subdued Karen Black and her real life son Hunter Carson (also the son of TCM 2 screenwriter L. M. Kit Carson) in the lead roles, amazing creature effects from master Stan Winston, and some grand scale set design – it’s puzzling to me why Invaders from Mars gets as much hate as it does. From moment one, Hooper presents us with a typical Leave it to Beaver facade that slowly gets chipped away as the Body Snatchers-lite plot unravels. The film is presented through the eyes of young David (Carson) as he tries to convince the adults around him that something just isn’t right since he witnessed a possible UFO crash land in his backyard.
Another financial failure for Cannon, Invaders still hasn’t managed to build a cult following similar to the other two films on this list. I think its time will come, however. It’s clear Hooper intended to play everything a bit more for camp than terror. The film becomes increasingly colorful as the story progresses and we move further away from “reality”. For those who’ve never checked this one out (or the original), I won’t give away the ending, but vague-ish spoilers follow. Nonetheless, maintaining the same stinger as the original was a major point of contention among audience members in 1986. Sure, it can be seen as a cheap cop-out, but Hooper truly earns that ending through his visual style and some of the more eye-roll worthy plotting.
To some, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars is amateur garbage heap of misguided decisions. To others, misunderstood art. It’s the perfect film to show a kid who is just dipping their toes into the genre waters. In fact, having just recently revisited the film, if I had been shown this when I was 8 or so, it most certainly would have been my favorite flick ever. Just watching the genuinely unique alien design would have provided countless Crayola adventures. In that, I believe, is exactly the response Hooper was aiming for.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Finally, Golan and Globus were getting what they paid for, a sequel to the seminal backwoods survival horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While the three picture deal hadn’t been very lucrative, Canon still showed confidence in Hooper by allowing him a lot of creative freedom to make the films he wanted as he wanted. That said, the budget for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was significantly less than the director’s previous outings. Mere days before production began, a producer swung by set just to inform everyone they were pulling a million dollars from the already tight budget. Coming in at around $4.7 million, Hooper still managed to pull together a team of incredibly talented artists who brought his demented carnival world to life.
From barbequing hippies in the original to lampooning yuppies, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a far cry from the stark, fever pitched survival horror of the original. It wasn’t exactly what Cannon had anticipated, despite the obvious humor built into Kit Carson’s screenplay, the execs were surprised the finished film was as much comedy as horror. The short turnaround time of the shoot thankfully left little time to fight with the MPAA over the rating, so the film went out to theaters unrated. What we were left with is one of my all time favorite films (as well as Stephen Spielberg apparently).
There’s a clear progression from the unhinged insanity of Lifeforce and the candy colored production design of Invaders that all flows straight into TCM 2. An obvious level of freedom is present within these three films that few directors are given the chance to experience. While there may have been some disagreements and post-production tweaking, ultimately Hooper was given multi-million dollar sandboxes to play around in. For that, thank you, Cannon, for allowing one of our Masters of Horror the chance to exorcise his neon colored nightmares onto theater screens across America.
Tobe Hooper will be missed, but his legacy will last forever. From the big hitters like the original TCM and Poltergeist to this oddball trilogy, I know I’ll think of him whenever I hear the revving of a chainsaw.
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