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Remembering Tobe Hooper: The Cannon Years

Remembering Tobe Hooper: The Cannon Years

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 (1985)

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.

The Saw is Family. The Saw is Forever.



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COMMENTS

38 Comments
  • Right Is Right

    At the risk of sounding blasphemous, Hooper, like Romero, was responsible for only one really good flick, so he hardly qualifies for the title “master.”
    One classic does not a “master” make.

    • A2VL

      I honestly agree with you about Hooper but Romero has enough to be a master. The original dead Trilogy and Creepshow are classics. Martin is a great, underrated film and he helped launch Tales from the Darkside which is a fan anthology series.

      • Right Is Right

        I’ll concede “Night” an “Dawn” are classics, but for me “Day” doesn’t deliver. I see “Creepshow” as being more King than Romero, and “Martin,” while pretty good, doesn’t rank among the greats.

    • Rickinator

      So which one? Poltergeist? TCM? Lifeforce? You never named the one.

      • Royal Rican Prince

        Those films mentioned are SO different from each other. Quite an artistic achievement!

      • Right Is Right

        TCM.
        “Poltergeist” has Spielberg written all over it, and “Lifeforce” was meh, at best (imo).

    • Aaron Eiermann

      Which one flick was romero responsible for? Night of the living dead? Dawn of the dead? Creepshow? Day of the dead?

      • Right Is Right

        ^ (see my response to A2VL above) ^

    • Simon Allen

      Are we forgetting that Salems Lot was probably one of the scariest things ever made for television ?

      • Right Is Right

        Not so for me, partly because I had read the book, and partly because TV movies are forbidden from being any good.

      • Colin Christian

        Agreed. After Chainsaw,it is easily my favorite piece of Hooper work,still creepy,atmospheric and one of the best King adaptations ever,a genuine classic, the greatest TV movie,along with Duel.

    • turk

      To me, “Funhouse” was pretty classic. That movie scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. And admittedly, like many other directors trying to make a living, he had some misses on the resume. But, his best stuff is definitely among the horror classics.

    • Hack Snyder

      “Hooper, like Romero, was responsible for only one really good flick”

      Romero was a fucking genius. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Creepshow and Martin are all masterpieces and Knightriders and The Crazies are good. I’ll admit that Hooper had a lot of problems though. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist are masterpieces, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Salem’s Lot are very good, Lifeforce and The Funhouse are fun oddities, but the rest of his films are either so bad they’re good or plain awful. Well, Body Bags is fun but I don’t count it as a Hooper film since John Carpenter directed most of it.

    • oh_riginal

      Risk taken. Blasphemy achieved. Romero is a national treasure.

    • El_Fez

      “Romero, was responsible for only one really good flick”

      So I take it that you’ve only ever seen one Romero movie, then?

  • A2VL

    I just finished Invaders from Mars and thought it looks great but thats about it. It just has no momentum or sense of urgency and isn’t an outwardly bad film but it loses a lot of steam.

    • Fracassi

      Invaders from Mars is a great kid’s film. Watch that between the age of 10-13 and it will scare the crap out of you. It may be a little dated, but when I saw it as a kid, I was terrified.

  • Munchie

    The ‘Invaders From Mars’ remake is godawful, but I will go to bat for TCM2 until the end of my days. I love that damn movie.

    • Royal Rican Prince

      I thought that remake was horrendous! TCM2, being that I saw the original in ’74, was a total disappointment. I wanted to like it BUT so much of what I liked in the original was absent.

      • plutohiller

        I completely understand your sentiment on TCM2. I would love to see a sequel with the same tone and grittiness as the original. But accepting the tone change, TCM2 ups the insanity and violence to make it a worthy sequel compared to others. The remake was good, but Ermey steals the show and becomes the primary antagonist; even more so in the remake prequel. Sadly, the era, look, and feel of the original can’t possibly be replicated in these modern times.

  • Creepshow

    It’s nice to hear from you Zach. As always, well done.

  • JohnnyScience

    Really enjoyed this. Thank you!

  • Dennis Chenier

    Lifeforce is so much fun. It’s personally one of my favorite’s from Hooper.

  • pumkinheadfan VHS Forever!

    Oh how i Love Cannon so! As much of a house of cards company it was….they gave us alot of cheesy awesomeness to enjoy forever!

  • Alaric De Marnac

    I’m surprised that “Invaders From Mars” got a PG rating. It had no gore, but the shootings and the Martians disintegrating people were pushing it to a PG-13.

  • Emilio

    Love this article, very well done!

  • Royal Rican Prince

    I LOVED Lifeforce!

  • sixfeetdownsouth

    Oh. Everyone loves Hooper now?

    • El_Fez

      I love him as much now as I did two weeks ago. He’s a solid but uneven director. TCM? Brilliant. Lifeforce? Awesome. TCM2? I liked it, but I could see why people are divided. Eaten Alive? Crap. Invaders from Mars? Meh. The Funhouse? Eh, it was harmless.

  • CalUni

    Great article Zach! I thought Lifeforce had some great moments but felt long. Invaders from Mars worked better for me and it had the bonus of Louise Fletcher (hamming it up, such fun) and Karen Black (so likeable as always). Black’s son was, to me, the worst thing about the movie though – bad actor. I know it’s b-movie stuff but he just looked vacant 90% of the time.

    • Oh, yeah – the kid was pretty atrocious. He was very flat. Everyone else was so over the top that I felt the camp vibe had to be mostly intentional. Surprisingly, though, Black’s performance seemed somewhat tamped down from her usual.

  • Simon Allen

    Lifeforce is just a classic as far as i’m concerned and I doubt we will ever see its like again .

    • Saturn

      There was talk about a tv show based on the same source material, but I haven’t heard owt about it in a couple of years so whether it happens or not?
      Fingers crossed – as I love Lifeforce.

      • Simon Allen

        Yep i heard this too Fella .

  • Colin Christian

    I saw Lifeforce on its release and was stunned,so much fun! I had a girlfriend at the time that had the same look as Mathilda May,so I loved taking her to see the movie several times,you can see it’s influence in the new Mummy movie. But Invaders was terrible,the original is vastly superior,even though it didn’t have those Stan Winston FX.

  • El_Fez

    I love Lifeforce SO much. It’s like if the Pertwee Era Doctor Who had a love child with Quatermass and the Pit and Cannon Films snuck a camera into the bedroom. So fucking batshit crazy, so goddamned awesome.

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