Acclaimed horror director Tobe Hooper died on August 26th, 2017. Authorities listed his death as natural causes.
Tobe Hooper’s Contribution To Horror
Every genre has a watershed moment. In the 1970’s, watershed moments came fast and furious. The end of the hippie movement and the collective cultural hangover of Vietnam left the United States in a cynical spot. During this time, horror movies thrived. George A. Romero traded in zombies for murderous rednecks in The Crazies. Burt Reynolds and Ned Beatty suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of crazed hillbillies in Deliverance. A new, hard-edged, relentless style of horror film making became the norm.
In this evolving socio-political climate, Tobe Hooper knew he wanted to make a film about isolation and the woods. He wrote The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with Kim Henkel, and production commenced in August of 1973. The four-week shoot was notoriously tough. The crew worked sixteen hour days in the 110-degree heat, seven days a week. During the infamous dinner scene, the cast and crew were surrounded by real dead animals and rotting food. But, the final product is a direct result of these conditions.
In 1974, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre hit theaters and gave birth to the slasher genre. On its release, the film was met with a lot of controversies. Many reviews called the film “repugnant” and a “vile piece of crap.” Hooper attempted to make a PG-horror film, keeping the blood and harsh language to a minimum. However, the inherent cheapness of the film and the dirty grit of its settings had the opposite effect. People walked out of sneak previews, and it was banned in several countries.
Despite the controversy, the film industry, and cinephiles across the country loved The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Ridley Scott watched the film repeatedly to ramp up the tension in Alien. John Carpenter took the basis of an unstoppable masked killer and traded in rural Texas for suburban Illinois.
Tobe Hooper’s Post-Chain Saw Career
Following the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Tobe Hooper was in high demand. He continued a steady directing career. He directed the Salem’s Lot miniseries in 1979. And, in 1982, he worked with Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist. Spielberg was a huge fan of Massacre and asked Hooper to collaborate on a new suburban set horror film. Poltergeist‘s production was troubled at best, and rumors still abound about the “true” director of the film. Ultimately, Tobe Hooper did direct the film, but Spielberg gave a lot of input and acted as the film’s second unit director.
Poltergeist is a much different film than Massacre, but its mastery of the genre is still intact. Poltergeist features one of the best tonal shifts in any film. It begins as a kind of fun, Ghostbusters-esque paranormal thriller, and devolves into a relentless haunted house film. Unfortunately, Hooper’s cocaine use earned him a reputation, and he never quite hit the highs of Poltergeist again.
In 1985, he directed an insane science-fiction film called Lifeforce. The following year, Hooper revisited the world of Leatherface for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2. Hooper stated he feels the first film is a comedy. And, in the sequel, he explores those comedic elements to a bizarre end. The second film has a cult following but failed to connect with audiences the way the first film did.
The Death of an Icon
In the 90’s and beyond, Hooper relegated himself to low-budget B-films. Those films certainly have their audience. But, his reputation and lack of mid-career success pushed him out of favor with the culture at large. However, Tobe Hooper changed cinema forever. His dirty, grueling horror films inspired generations of filmmakers for decades to come.
Tobe Hooper passed away in Sherman Oaks, CA at the age of 74. Yes, he didn’t have the consistency of Carpenter or Craven. But, they took Hooper’s blueprint and improved on it. Furthermore, he remained a singular, original voice in horror film making. His presence will be missed, but his work will live on forever.