Although primarily considered a giant of the horror genre, director Tobe Hooper changed cinema forever with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, released in 1974. Alongside George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1969, Hooper’s debut horror film continues to inspire generations of independent filmmakers and horror auteurs like Rob Zombie (The Devil’s Rejects), Eli Roth (Hostel), and James Gunn (Slither and a little-known franchise called Guardians of the Galaxy). Made on a shoestring budget, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre quickly became notorious, propelling Hooper’s career and paving the way for future filmmaking Texans like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Mike Judge.
Plenty has been said about Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but with Hooper’s unfortunate passing, it’s high time horror hounds explore his lengthy career, which includes a slew of hidden gems and cult classics.
Eaten Alive (1976)
Released two years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive (also known as Death Trap, Horror Hotel, and Starlight Slaughter) follows a scythe-wielding, crocodile-owning redneck named Judd (a delightfully manic Neville Brand) who dementedly hunts the guests of his hotel. The film, with a script co-written by Kim Henkel of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, features memorable performances from a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund and Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family) as a brothel madam. Hooper’s decision to film the entire movie on a soundstage creates an eerie, unnatural atmosphere, and the film boasts an equally grisly and gleeful tone.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot originally aired on CBS in 1979. The mini-series adapted Stephen King’s classic vampire novel of the same name. Both versions explore what would happen if vampires terrorized a small American town. Besides Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper’s Salem’s Lot might be his most recognizable work. The mini-series has a rabid cult following, and the Nosferatu-esque depiction of Reggie Nalder’s master vampire remains iconic. Notably, Salem’s Lot kicked off the trend of adapting King’s work to the small screen, a trend that continues today with Mr. Mercedes, The Mist, and 11.22.63.
The Funhouse (1981)
Hot on the heels of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Hooper officially entered the slasher subgenre with The Funhouse. Some critics consider The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to be a proto-slasher (if not a full-fledged slasher); however, The Funhouse undoubtedly features trademarks of the subgenre that would come to dominate 80s horror: teens, terror, and a masked killer. The killer, a deformed man who wears a Frankenstein’s Monster mask, hunts four teenagers trapped in a carnival ride, but Hooper injects The Funhouse with a bit of deranged humor, transforming a basic premise into a standout flick.
After Poltergeist in 1982, Hooper’s status dramatically increased, and he signed a three-picture deal with Cannon Films, saving his sequel to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for last. Before he fired up the chainsaw again, Hooper directed Lifeforce, a space vampire epic. With a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon of Alien fame and special effects by John Dykstra of Star Wars, Lifeforce is a sight to behold. It’s bold, inventive, and easily Hooper’s most ambitious film, borrowing elements from Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, Hammer Film’s Quatermass and the Pit, and Ridley Scott’s Alien (ironically, Scott borrowed from Bava’s film as well). The film should have rocketed Hooper to Spielbergian levels of acclaim, but Lifeforce was sadly met with middling reviews and a lukewarm box office intake. However, if anybody doubts Hooper’s directing prowess, then they haven’t seen Lifeforce.
Invaders from Mars (1986)
A love letter to 50s sci-fi, Invaders from Mars is Hooper’s remake of the cult classic of the same name. Although sinister at times, Invaders from Mars is Hooper’s most lighthearted, kid-friendly film. It follows youngster David Gardner (Hunter Carson) and his teacher Linda Magnussen (Karen Black) as they attempt to stop an alien invasion but are persistently thwarted by the invaders’ ability to brainwash humans. With magnificent creature effects by Stan Winston and (again) John Dykstra, Invaders from Mars is a must-see for any sci-fi fan. Sadly, like Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars performed poorly at the box office as well as critically. Together, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars prove that Hooper knew how to craft visually astounding films, and that he wasn’t simply a Texan attempting to play Hollywood – Hooper was the real deal.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
At first seen critically as a travesty, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 might be the most 80s horror film ever made. Rather than replicate the formula of the original, Hooper wisely decided to make the sequel a violent satire. With a one sheet poster that parodies The Breakfast Club, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 doubles the insanity of the original, adds memorable characters like Bill Moseley’s Chop-Top and Dennis Hopper’s dual chainsaw-wielding police lieutenant, and features a climax too outlandish to spoil. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, however, marked the end of Hooper’s golden age. Never again would he be privileged budgets nearly as big, and it would take years for all three of his Cannon contributions to be recognized as cult classics. Into the 90s, Hooper directed more television with the occasional low-budget horror film.
Body Bags (1993)
Intended as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, Body Bags is a horror anthology television film that combines the talent of Hooper and John Carpenter (Halloween, The Thing). Carpenter introduces the segments as “the Coroner,” a quippy undead host, and directs the first two stories, but Hooper closes the anthology with the segment “Eye.” Hooper, channeling EC Comics, embraces schlock and directs an all-in Mark Hamill – Luke Skywalker himself – to the edge of oblivion. Body Bags is tongue-in-cheek like Creepshow and deserves more recognition. Unfortunately, Body Bags remained solely a TV movie because Showtime decided to not pursue the series.
The Mangler (1995)
It’s been said that The Mangler is one of the worst film adaptations of Stephen King’s writing, but it marks Hooper’s third film with Robert Englund (after Eaten Alive and 1993’s Night Terrors) and features inventive visuals as well as the director’s trademark black humor. Although the climax’s primitive digital effects nearly sully the experience, The Mangler is a wild ride that makes the most of a B-movie premise: an industrial laundry-folding machine becomes possessed and kills factory workers while the wicked owner (Robert Englund) cruelly looks on. Corny? Yes. Entertaining? Duh!
Toolbox Murders (2004)
In 2004, Hooper remade exploitation film The Toolbox Murders, but added a supernatural twist. The original 1978 version is a by-the-numbers masked maniac flick (although an especially memorable one because of the opening twenty minutes). Hooper’s version changes the setting from a generic apartment complex to a haunted Hollywood building. Triggered by renovations, a supernatural force awakens and preys on unsuspecting tenants. With an excellent lead performance from Angela Bettis (May) and a cameo from Rob Zombie’s wife, Sherri-Moon Zombie, Toolbox Murders thrills and chills. Although not quite the return to form that fans had hope, Toolbox Murders demonstrates that even thirty years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper knew how to shock audiences.