Tobe Hooper was not a man. He was a God who walked the Earth for too few years.
Hooper did a lot of things in his time here, but he will always be remembered, be cherished, for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. TCM is a strong candidate for the greatest horror movie ever made. It’s the Crown Jewel of the 70’s exploitation era. No other film can touch it.
It had to be divinity. Everything clicked together. A passionate filmmaker. Underlying despair from a nation in disruption. A formerly turned on generation had burned out. Peace and love didn’t cut it anymore. Everyone knew there were monsters everywhere. They wore faces. Some were grotesque and others looked like our neighbors.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is both a brutally shocking horror movie and an arthouse masterpiece. Horror fans everywhere revere the movie, and it is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
Had Tobe Hooper only accomplished this one thing, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he would be celebrated forever. While he never hit such delirious heights before or after Chain Saw, there were a lot of high notes.
I liked Hooper’s Chain Saw follow-up, Eaten Alive. It’s a gnarly little slice of southern transgression. He had more money, and some names in his cast. Robert Englund was scarier and funnier as Buck in Eaten Alive than he ever was as Freddy K.
Tobe was on the way up. His next big project was the 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries. I still rank it among the better King adaptation. He did a nifty little quasi-slasher called The Funhouse that had a nastier twist than most of its competition.
Then came the biggest one: Poltergeist. It was Tobe Hooper’s shining moment. I was never really a big fan, but it was successful. Spielberg had the Midas Touch in those days. A lot of controversy surrounded Poltergeist. People speculated whether Tobe directed the entire thing, or did Uncle Steven take the reins. I don’t really know — I always assumed Hooper directed the whole movie, but there was post production done without his involvement.
Things got a little shaky after that. Tobe Hooper made a three-picture deal with Golan and Globus at Cannon Pictures. All three are pretty good. None made much in the way of profit.
One was the long awaited Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequel. I saw it at a walk-in theater late one Friday night. I adored the movie. Not everyone did.
I instinctively knew Hooper couldn’t recreate the tension and nerve-rattling atmosphere of the first Chain Saw. He went in a more comedic direction. Chain Saw 2 is plenty gory, but most scenes are played for laughs. I thought the whole thing worked, and the film has one of the most kickass soundtracks of all time. Yes, it was my introduction to The Cramps and “Goo Goo Muck.”
Tobe Hooper proved he could effectively mix humor and horror. This is a skill he put to good use with his one and only novel, Midnight Movie.
Midnight Movie was published in the summer of 2011. I bought it immediately and wasted little time before jumping right in. I was prepared to be disappointed, but to my delight I loved Midnight Movie.
The zombie craze was finally dying down in 2011. There was still a little formaldehyde running through its veins, and Tobe turned the tropes inside out with his book.
Midnight Movie is written as an oral history, ala World War Z, but it’s played for more laughs. It’s a meta novel in which Tobe Hooper himself is a main participant. It seems that Tobe made a movie in his teens called Destiny Express. It’s a justifiably lost film, but a copy is unearthed by a hygienically-challenged film nerd. He flies Tobe in for a screening and that’s when things go awry. Somehow the movie starts a zombie pandemic called “The Game.” Hooper and a genial film journalist, are the only ones who can stop it.
Midnight Movie is funny enough to be considered a comedy, but it’s gory and nasty enough to be embraced by the extreme horror set. Hooper plays himself mostly for laughs, lampooning his cantankerous reputation. He’s the kind of crank you wouldn’t mind hoisting some drinks with.
This novel is briskly paced, with lots of epistolary sequences in the form of Twitter posts, diary entries, and news briefs. It’s almost impossible not to race through the book to see how it all ends up.
Sadly, I almost never hear about Midnight Movie from my horror friends. I know some liked it, and I heard a few say they hated the book. It seemed like the same people who were turned off by TCM 2 dislike Midnight Movie.
Midnight Movie is a book that deserves new life. The paperback is long out of print, but copies are available for very reasonable prices. There’s a Kindle version too.
Tobe Hooper’s later career is full of too few hits and some disastrous misses. I don’t think it was all his fault. Film is such a collaborative medium. Studios big and small love to second guess directors. Even when they hire a living legend.
Tobe Hooper will always be a deity to me. He touched greatness once. Other filmmakers can sequel, prequel, or requel The Texas Chain Saw Massacre all they want, but nothing will ever touch it. Everyone from Eli Roth to Rob Zombie to Ti West and beyond have used the movie as a template for their own productions. Good movies and bad ones. None compare.
We can, however, enjoy Chainsaw and Hooper’s other films, and we can tune in for Midnight Movie. It’s a joyously perverse poisoned confection from one of horror’s greatest maverick talents.
Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of Terror, Sir Graves Ghastly Presents, The Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon Lover, The Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance has published his nonfiction collections He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In and He Who Types Between the Rows 2: Horror Drive-In Will Never Die. He can be reached at [email protected], and at www.horrordrive-in.com.