Master of horror and pioneer in indie filmmaking, we look at 10 Tobe Hooper gems — from the genre classic that launched his career to his later work.
On this day (August 26th) three years ago, the world of horror lost a revolutionary filmmaker. Tobe Hooper burst onto the movie scene in 1974 with his controversial film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which shocked and seduced audience with its notorious violence, macabre sense of humor, and gritty vision. Considered by many to be one of the best horror films of all time, this micro-budgeted, pioneering slasher film would help launch Hooper’s career in Hollywood.
In honor of his life and legacy, I present (in order of release date) ten of my favorite, must see Tobe Hooper films, along with where you can watch them online.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
I’m sure many of you have experienced this film that redefined horror for generations and helped give rise to the slasher sub genre that dominated throughout the late 70s and early 80s. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was partly inspired by the brutal crimes of serial killer Ed Gein. In the film, five friends fall victim to a family of cannibals while visiting an old homestead. The most terrifying member of the twisted Sawyer family is Leatherface, a large mute man who wields a chainsaw and wears a mask made from human skin (giving him his nickname). Leatherface has no problem making BBQ meat out of the young out-of-towners.
Chainsaw is known for its grizzly violence, despite it having little to no blood or gore. That’s because Hooper is a master at making you believe you’ve seen far more than he’s actually shown you. He showcases a section of rural America that is so sadistic it traumatizes the audience.
I loved the use of natural lighting to create a hazy atmosphere and the extraordinary use of the moonlight during the infamous chase scene between final girl Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen). The sound effects in the film help heighten the brutality, with every thud from the hammer or revving of the rusty chainsaw bringing a sense of dread and uneasiness.
What makes the film even more grotesque is Hooper’s use of comedy amidst carnage. There’s something sickening yet humorous about The Cook (Jim Seidow) hitting Sally with a broom or Leatherface trying to get his decrepit old grandfather to properly grip a hammer. 46 years after its release, Chainsaw continues to influence the genre. And it still remains nearly unmatched in its intensity, genuine terror, and memorability.
2. Eaten Alive (1976)
Following the huge success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper’s follow up film was another bizarre look at the backwoods of America and its inhabitants. It’s also another film partially inspired by a real life killer. This time the maniac muse is Joe Ball (also known as the Bluebeard from South Texas or the Alligator Man) who owned a bar with a live alligator attraction during the 1930s. During this time, he murdered several women and was rumored to have fed them to his pet alligators.
Eaten Alive stars Neville Brand as a psychotic redneck named Judd who owns a rundown hotel in East Texas with a swamp in the back. One by one, travelers check into this place only to inevitably incur Judd’s murderous wrath, eventually ending up as crocodile food. The plot follows a similar narrative structure as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. You have Judd who plays the Norman Bates character, in charge of a small and secluded hotel. He snoops on his guests to find out what they’re up to. He then murders them in an uncontrollable rage, only to snap out of it and realize what he’s done. He has a swamp where he can hide the bodies, and a convenient crocodile to destroy the evidence.
Eaten Alive is a gruesome flick with massive violence and gore, heartbreaking moments involving a little girl and her dog, and a rusty color scheme. The use of red and blue lighting gives the setting a murky and gritty tone.
Except for Brand’s cartoonish performance as Judd, the acting is one dimensional. Marilyn Burns returns to portray the Janet Leigh-inspired character in the beginning of the movie, and she once again shows off her screaming chops that made her one of the original Scream Queens. This also marked the first collaboration between Hooper and Robert Englund, as they would go on to work together on numerous film and television products, including the Hooper directed premiere episode of Freddy’s Nightmares.
3. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Based on a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot was a television miniseries that is widely considered one of the best King adaptations. A classic modern vampire tale, it’s absolutely riveting with its blend of horror, suspense, and dread. What makes this film truly great is its foreboding atmosphere and the unsettling creepiness of the isolated town where the film takes place.
Hooper borrows a lesson from Spielberg and frightens the audience more with his monster’s off-screen antics than with keeping him front and center on screen. While the makeup and special effects look cheap, I found them to be impressive for the time. I loved how they gave the vampire a simple look. His blue skin and yellow eyes may look dated, but they are highly effective in giving you shivers. There’s also some great “hide your face under the covers” moments.
The movie clocks in at over three hours, and with today’s short attention spans and technological distractions, it could be hard to watch in one full sitting. But it’s well worth a watch, as it continues to hold up as one of the best vampire flicks ever made. It pays enormous respect to its source material, creating a terrifying visual tale that the bar mighty high for future made-for-tv movies.
4. The Funhouse (1981)
Released in 1981, The Funhouse is the story of four teenagers who sneak into a carnival after lights out. But a good time soon turns into a terrifying nightmare. As they are fooling around, they witness a murder. From there, they are stalked by a deformed man and his father who are determined to never let them leave the carnival alive.
The Funhouse is another film where Hooper effectively uses the setting as the source of horror. There is so much tension that builds as you navigate through the story, leading up to its claustrophobic climax. Hooper also blends multiple sub genres of horror — including slashers, haunted house horror and monster movies. This ensures there is something for every genre fan to enjoy.
The acting is believable, thanks in part to the seasoned veteran cast. The makeup work was done by legendary artist Rick Baker, who continues to make terrifying creations.This stylish effort from Hooper doesn’t get quite the admiration that it should.
5. Poltergeist (1982)
Hooper reached the top of the film world when he was asked by Stephen Spielberg to collaborate on a paranormal horror thriller. That movie of course would become Poltergeist, which still holds up today as one of the scariest films ever released. What starts out as an innocent ghost flick, with mischievous spirits moving objects around the Freeling household, takes a terrifying turn when mischief turns to malice and the family begins to be terrorized from beyond.
There are so many memorable moments in Poltergeist that remain permanently ingrained in the minds of horror fans — from a hand coming out of the television set while a young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) exclaims, “They’re here!” to her brother, Robbie (Oliver Robbins) getting attacked by that nightmare-inducing clown doll.
The credit for the unforgettable visuals goes to Industrial Light & Magic, who often pushed the boundaries of creativity to create an engulfing visual narrative. Jerry Goldsmith’s score enhances these visuals and delivers a sense of fear and hopelessness.
Famously, there has been some debate among film historians as to who gets the credit for Poltergeist’s success. Some claim Spielberg ghost directed the film, with Hooper being downgraded to the role of cinematographer. Others claim Hooper did the bulk of the directing and has been unfairly robbed of his achievements. The film does have a Spielberg look to it, but it also boasts an atmospheric tension Hooper is known for. Unfortunately, it was a situation where you saw two distinguished filmmakers collide rather than collaborate. Regardless of his role, Hooper’s contributions to this remarkable film are worth celebrating.
6. Lifeforce (1985)
Perhaps the most “Punk Rock Horror” film ever made, Lifeforce is a new take on the vampire lore mixed with science fiction, spirituality, and zombies. Working from a script by Dan O’ Bannon, whose credits include Alien and The Return of the Living Dead, Hooper draws so much from his previous works that it almost seems like his plan is to throw everything up on a wall to see what would stick.
It’s refreshing to see space vampires sucking the life force out of victims rather than blood, but the special effects and makeup effects are the definite highlights of Lifeforce. Hooper borrows lighting effects from Poltergeist and Eaten Alive to demonstrate the transition of the spirit from one body to another. The practical effects are even more impressive. It was truly frightening to see the drained bodies come back alive and scream with their shifting eyes, followed by the sight of them combusting when they can’t find a host to draw energy from.
Lifeforce walks a tightrope between a generic scary film and a dark comedic fantasy. But in the end, it’s a film where you can feel the ambition of Hooper and O’Bannon to make something so very original — and they succeeded in delivering something which could never be duplicated.
7. Invaders From Mars (1986)
The original Invaders From Mars released in 1953 is a cult classic that had a major influence on horror and science fiction films. While Hooper doesn’t deviate from the source material with regards to story, he does give the 1986 remake a more kid-friendly flavor. Once again, the standout is the special effects and cinematography. Everything, from the look of the potato-like creatures to the use of camera angles that are at the height of the child protagonist, makes this a delightful all-audience experience.
It’s not perfect. The biggest problem is the acting. Despite having a great veteran cast, including Karen Black, Larraine Newman, and James Karen, the performances are downright bad and at times laughable. It’s possible that’s what Hooper was going for considering the cheesiness he brings to this adaptation of a sci-fi classic. This is definitely not a film meant to be taken seriously.
It doesn’t get talked about much amongst Hooper’s much more influential films. But it’s a decent effort and a rare offering for kids and parents to sit down together with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy some quality movie time.
8. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
How do you make a sequel to one of the greatest horror films created? That was the challenge Hooper faced when he decided to make a follow-up to his 1974 classic. Released twelve years after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Part 2 takes place in Dallas, Texas, where a former Texas Ranger, Lieutenant Boude “Left” Enright (played by the late great Dennis Hopper), is investigating reports of mysterious chainsaw killings across the state and looking into the disappearance of his nephew (Franklin Hardesty, the brother of Sally in the first film).
He encounters a radio host named Stretch (Caroline Williams). She gets caught up in the ordeal after she plays the audio of two callers getting chainsawed to death, which triggers the Sawyer family to come out of hiding and go after her.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 has been misunderstood by many throughout the years. It’s an over-the-top, chaotic thrill ride that doesn’t rely on senseless gore. Yes, there are nods to the first movie, but it doesn’t try to replicate the successful formula of its predecessor. Instead, Hooper chooses to emphasize the dark comedy elements present in the original Chainsaw, significantly amplifying them this time around.
What I love about this movie is how we learn more about the frightful but fascinating Sawyer family. There are some truly memorable performances all around. But the one that stands out is Bill Moseley as the deranged Chop-Top. His introduction is hilarious — with his Sonny Bono wig as he calls it, along with the rest of his hippie attire —as he slowly sets Stretch up into a trap with Leatherface. It’s sickening to see him scrape the metal plate on his head with a coat hanger and eat the skin that he picks off from it.
The most talked about scene of the film is without a doubt the chainsaw fight between Dennis Hopper and Leatherface. They clash like two swordsmen while destroying their surroundings, causing them to collapse. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a movie that will have you squealing in horror and laughing at the insanity.
9. Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
Hooper loved to explore science fiction themes. Spontaneous Combustion features Brad Dourif in a rare leading role as a young man who was born during an experiment, with his parents being the first nuclear family. The effects of the radiation caused them to spontaneously combust, and Douif’s character was born with congenital effects from the experiment. This causes him to channel fire and electricity in an uncontrollable manner.
Spontaneous Combustion was Hooper’s first release, at the turn of the decade in 1990, that didn’t receive a big theatrical release. It’s known for its subtle special effects and a conspiratorial plot that includes some hard-to- follow twists and turns. Unfortunately, the complicated plot eventually falls apart in the third act. But Dourif is a saving grace, and he so often salvages films from falling into obscurity with his emotionally driven and determined performances. He’s also aided by swift camera work and a solid score that enhances the raw emotion on display.
It’s far from perfect, but there’s enough going on in this movie to keep you engaged and on the edge of your seat. Spontaneous Combustion may not be as memorable as some of Hooper’s other films, but it ranks high among the films the visionary director released in the 90s.
10. The Mangler (1995)
Based off the short story by Stephen King, The Mangler is about a laundry folding machine that has been possessed by a demon, which causes it to kill those it comes in contact with. It stars Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs) as the lead and Robert Englund as the maniacal and over-the-top owner of the laundromat, Bill Gartley, complete with a horrifying look and leg braces to add to the creep factor. This is not a particularly memorable King adaptation, but it’s a guilty pleasure to many in the horror community like myself.
Hooper does a good job giving a wink to the audience and not taking himself or the material too seriously. It has all the elements to make it an enjoyably campy watch, with bodies being folded into bloody pulps from the machine, cheap but fun effects, and lapses in logic throughout that add to the ridiculousness.
Many have interpreted this film as an allegory for the negatives of capitalism, and that makes a lot of sense as you watch how Englund communicates with the workers whom he has tied to strings wrapped around his fingers. The Mangler is a great late-night popcorn movie and sadly the last decent effort from Hooper, as he continued sliding downwards into obscurity through the rest of the 90s into the 21st Century.