At the midpoint of each month, we feature a figure or theme within the film community and share our thoughts about related works. Each of our critics chooses a particular film to write about (sometimes two!). Our choice for a Retrospective Roundtable might be inspired by a recent event in the film community, an exciting new release, or from a common interest shared between our critics.
With a career spanning six decades, Tobe Hooper made his mark on the horror genre. With his genre-defining film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he originated several elements of the slasher subgenre of horror and launched the start of a franchise that lives to this day. While Hooper’s films are often not critical darlings, it is impossible not to recognize his excellence in creating B-movie horror. His films inspired fellow horror directors Wes Craven, Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja, and Ridley Scott. Hooper passed away recently at the age of 74 of natural causes.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Ben McDonald: By the time I got around to seeing Tobe Hooper’s 1974 cult classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I had already seen many of later slashers it spawned. As a result, I was admittedly expecting a standard slasher, complete with bad teenage decision-making and copious amounts of corn syrup blood. Within the first minute of the film, as the opening disclaimer purporting the “mad and macabre” truth of the film rolled, I knew I was mistaken. Hooper’s film ultimately shares little in common with the exploitative (albeit fun) trash that often is the slasher genre. It’s real, it’s disturbing, and it’s utterly insane.
What makes The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so effective is how convincingly authentic it feels. Shot with a grainy 16mm camera in the scorching Texas heat, the movie often bears a striking resemblance to a snuff film or home video, making it all the more uncomfortable to watch our heroine Sally (Marilyn Burns) suffer. With physically exhausting and sometimes dangerous shooting conditions (over 16 hours a day), the screams of Marilyn Burns feel so unnervingly real. In perhaps the most disturbing sequence of the film, Sally is tied down to a chair of human skin while a cannibalistic family shrieks and hollers in her face. All in all, there are not many moments in the film’s last 30 minutes when Sally isn’t screaming her head off in terror. It’s certainly not a subtle sound design, but it works extraordinarily well as the psychologically draining ordeal it aims to be. With only the sounds of a chainsaw and screaming barraging your psyche for such an extended period of time, you really feel like you’ve been with Sally by the end.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is horror that doesn’t try to be tense, but intense. It quickly draws you in and then bombards you with disturbing imagery and sounds until you just can’t take it anymore. It is the late Tobe Hooper’s masterpiece and the antithesis to modern horror, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Matt Schlee: Lifeforce is really representative of everything that makes 80s sci-fi great. It opens with middling special effects at best, a deep-throated voice over, and the interior of a high tech space ship filled with low resolution digital screens. It’s dripping with every ounce of possible corniness. It offers a handful of eye rolling jokes and some genuinely nerve-wracking horror. In an era where “space vampire” was a legitimate pitch for a movie, Lifeforce has to be one of the supreme options.
Hooper really flexes all of his muscles in this one and successfully inserts some really creepy horror imagery in a movie that might’ve just been forgettable B-sci-fi in the hands of a lesser director. Though the movie probably wouldn’t play as well to modern audiences – not least of all because of what I would generously call somewhat objectionable views toward its female characters – it’s really perfect for what it is. Lifeforce is the epitome of the 80s low-budget genre flick.
Body Bags (1993)
Alex Sitaras: One of Hooper’s lesser known films is a collaboration between him and fellow horror auteur John Carpenter called Body Bags. The film is a brief anthology consisting of three horror stories (the first two directed by Carpenter, the last one directed by Hooper) connected by their relation to bodies of the deceased within body bags at a morgue. Body Bags was originally commissioned as part of a television series by Showtime in their attempt to emulate the success of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. Even though the series ultimately did not air, Carpenter’s and Hooper’s directorial work was released as this television film.
Body Bags is perhaps best known for its celebrity cameos, including John Carpenter as a downright disgusting coroner, Tobe Hooper as a morgue worker, and Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sam Raimi (Evil Dead), and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise) with roles within the three short films. The short films themselves don’t stray too far from horror conventions, the first of which, ‘The Gas Station’ (Carpenter) is a more standard horror piece while ‘Hair’ (Carpenter) and ‘Eye’ (Hooper) are body horror tales. ‘Eye’ features Mark Hamill as a baseball player who recently lost his eye in a car accident. He undergoes a transplant but discovers that the spirit of the man whose eye he now has is gaining control over him, placing his wife in danger. Hamill’s performance is enthralling and undoubtedly the best performance in the anthology as he gradually loses his bearing on reality. Body Bags reminds me of reading Goosebumps stories as a child, both enjoying the use of slight twists on reality to generate horror.