Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Chainsaws, Vampires and Suburban Ghosts: REMEMBERING TOBE HOOPER

As you no doubt have already heard, Tobe Hooper, the director of possibly the most influential and beloved horror movie of all time, passed away of natural causes at the age of 74 on August 26, 2017. There is probably nothing I could write here from a historic or technical point of view that you haven't already read or heard about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film has been dissected by everyone from Roger Ebert ("I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective." LINK) to Leonard Maltin ("Once it kicks into gear, it's brutally unrelenting toward its unappealing characters and the audience." -Leonard Maltin's 2014 Movie Guide) to every blogger and horror writer from every website, magazine and fanzine.

So I am not going to even try to educate you on his films or the man himself but what I am going to do is just a little cathartic writing about what The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Tobe Hooper has meant to me in my life and my love of horror movies. There is little doubt in my mind that Chainsaw was the seed planted in my pre-adolescent brain and was the catalyst for a lifetime of loving the "mad and macabre". You see, when I was around 5 years old (that would have been the late '70s), my mother and a friend snuck me into a drive-in double feature of The Incredible Melting Man and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I honestly have no recollection of this but she swears that I would watch from behind the bench seat and hide my little face when something gruesome or terrifying would happen. Which, if you've seen either or both of these movies, was probably a lot of the time. Little me was scarred for life.

Mick Garris, Tobe Hooper, Stephen King and Clive Barker on the set of "Sleepwalkers"
I heard that story throughout my childhood and I think it really struck a chord in me. In elementary school I couldn't wait until Saturday morning so I could eat sugary cereal and watch cartoons but the real treat was at noon when "Creature Feature with your 'ghost', Dr. Paul Bearer" came on channel 44 out of Tampa/St. Pete. They would show everything from Godzilla movies to classic Universal monsters to more hardcore stuff like slashers and zombie movies. I never saw Chainsaw on there but all the while I was hoping one day it would pop up so I could relate to the stories. In the mid-'80s, the heyday of the video rental boom, I remember seeing that Holy Grail for rent in my local mom and pop rental store but at the time I lived with my dad who didn't allow horror movies in the house. He did allow me to buy it a few years later when the Video Treasures VHS was in a bargain bin and he wasn't really paying attention.

So I happily snagged up and hid that tape in my bedroom until my dad wasn't home or I was going to visit my mother. Every chance I had, I watched the hell out of that movie; alone or with someone, it didn't matter. I had a connection with part of my past that I couldn't remember and I was fascinated how accurate my mother's description of it was. She would tell me about Pam being hung on a meat hook, the birdcage with chickens in it and Sally jumping into the back of the pick-up truck at the end and screaming "GO! GO!" while covered in blood. I couldn't believe what I was watching! This movie scared my mom away from horror movies to this day and kick-started my own obsession. A little while ago I started collecting the different releases of Chainsaw from throughout the years on different media from all over the world. As of now I have 3 VHS tapes, 9 DVDs, 2 blu-rays and 2 deluxe boxed sets, not to mention all the toys, pieces of art, signed headshots and different copies of all the sequels and remakes. Yes, I have a Texas Chainsaw Massacre shrine.

My small shrine as of a couple of years ago. I need an updated picture! (CLICK TO ENLARGE)
But the talented Mr. Hooper's work doesn't end with Chainsaw like some people want you to believe. Far from it in fact. He went on to make classic movies in many horror sub-genres like Eaten Alive (with a cameo by the then unknown Robert Englund and a returning Marilyn Burns), the Stephen King adaptation Salem's Lot, carnival slasher The Funhouse, sexy sci-fi vampire flick Lifeforce, a Cannon produced sequel to Chainsaw and my favorite of the bunch, the supernatural suburban scare-fest, Poltergeist. Yes, it is pretty widely accepted that Hollywood honcho Steven Spielberg gave the movie its look and probably directed a good chunk of the runtime, but no matter. Poltergeist is a movie with the look and feel of Spielberg but the heart of Hooper. I have watched that movie nearly as many times as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre itself. Growing up, it seemed to always be on cable TV, usually on HBO. It terrified me but I could somehow relate to the family and their seemingly normal life.

Tobe Hooper was nothing if not a passionate filmmaker. He asked a lot of his actors and actresses, sometimes probably too much. He had shady backers for some of his movies (remember, the Mafia doesn't exist). He was screwed over by those same people and forced to make movies that he didn't necessarily want to make but the films turned out to be classics anyway. He was the blue collar filmmaker that indie horror movie directors mimic his style and Hollywood horror producers have tried to emulate his success. He hasn't made any groundbreaking strides in horror in the past few years but make no mistake, he is one of the Kings of Horror and he will forever stand out in the annals of horror cinema. I find it hard to eulogize someone whom I have never met but who had such a profound hand in making me who I am today. Luckily there are people like my favorite writer of all time Clive Barker who have a wonderfully poetic and beautiful way with words, "The chainsaw is now quiet, but it will forever be heard."

R.I.P. Mr. Hooper

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