Texan director Tobe Hooper celebrated his 74th birthday last month, so I thought we’d do the same for his illustrious career. It includes some bona fide classics, even if it can be a bit hit-or-miss as of late.
Still, his influence is undeniable and, when he’s on top of his game, as he was for most of the 70’s and 80’s, few can touch him. Let’s take a look at his ten best, in reverse order.
10. Toolbox Murders (2004)
Let’s begin with the most recent entry on this list. After a decent-if-spotty 90’s, Tobe Hooper’s work in the 2000’s has admittedly been a little on the disappointing side. On the one hand, he’s done alright for himself on TV, including two solid episodes of Masters of Horror and an episode of the mini-series Taken, which reunited him with former collaborator Steven Spielberg- more on him later.
On the other, Crocodile was no Eaten Alive and Mortuary (no relation to the 1983 semi-classic horror flick) was no great shakes, either. Tobe Hooper’s most recent effort, 2013’s Djinn, isn’t quite as bad as some critics would have you believe, even though the ending is a bit of a letdown. Still, it benefits from a unique setting (the United Arab Emirates) and eschews the tendency for US films/shows to stereotype Arabic characters, treating them as the human beings they are, while remaining true to their heritage in a respectful way.
That said, by far his best work in the 2000’s thus far is his remake of Toolbox Murders, a trashy 1978 flick that has its fans. Though the remake is far slicker and lacks the docudrama-esque realism of the original, it’s undeniably a better movie on the whole, with much improved FX and a solid cast by modern-day Hooper standards, including horror fave Angela Bettis (May,the made-for-TV Carrie remake), Buffy-vet Juliet Landau, Rance Howard (Ron and Clint’s dad, Ticks), and Rob Zombie’s better half, Sheri Moon.
9. The Mangler (1995)
Tobe Hooper coasted on his laurels a bit in the 90’s, but nonetheless put out a few decent efforts, including various one-off episodes on anthology series like Tales from the Crypt and Perversions of Science, plus a segment of fellow horror legend John Carpenter’s Body Bags.
He also helmed the decent TV-movies I’m Dangerous Tonight and The Apartment Complex, as well as Night Terrors with “Freddy Krueger” himself, Robert Englund as well as the mess that was Spontaneous Combustion, though I do love me some Brad Dourif. That leaves the Stephen King adaptation The Mangler as his best filmic effort of the 90’s, by a long shot.
Also starring Englund, alongside Ted Levine, of The Silence of the Lambs (he was “Buffalo Bill”) and Psych fame, the film revolves around a – wait for it – murderous laundry press! Yes, there were few things King hasn’t tried to make scary over the course of his career, from those cymbal-clashing toy monkeys to dolls to dogs to bad-ass automobiles. Hey, whatever works.
The Mangler is silly but fun, enriched by spectacularly gory murder sequences and the scenery-chewing Englund. It was successful enough to spawn not one, but two sequels, which aren’t great, but good enough for check-your-brain-at-the-door type viewing, at the very least. Really, the same can be said for this one, but it’s good enough for #9.
8. Invaders From Mars (1986)
Another remake, this time of the 1953 sci-fi cult classic of the same name. Invaders From Mars tanked considerably upon its release, but I liked it just fine as a kid. Maybe that’s exactly the kind of mind set one has to get themselves into to enjoy the admittedly touch-and-go flick, which suffers from wonky comedic interludes and lackluster characters. Still, the special effects are jaw-droppingly great, as is the set design when it comes to the aliens’ spacecraft interiors and the like.
Thanks for that go to none other than Stan Winston and John Dykstra. Their work alone makes this one worth a watch. Alien and Return of the Living Dead writer Dan O’Bannon also co-wrote the screenplay. It might not hold up as well as some of the others on this list, and it is kind of dated, but you know how it is with movies you saw as a kid- some of them stick with you.
Though critically lambasted at the time, it’s since been reappraised and has its fans, notably Scream scribe Kevin Williamson and director Richard Rodriguez, who were clearly inspired by the film with The Faculty, though the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers was also a factor, obviously. It’s worth noting, though, that the original Invaders pre-dates both the book and the film versions of Body Snatchers, so there’s that.
7. Eaten Alive (1977)
Tobe Hooper’s belated follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this grimy flick also features the aforementioned Robert Englund in one of his earliest roles- and his first horror flick, period. As such, it’s required viewing for fans of the actor. “My name’s Buck and I’m…” was later appropriated by writer/director Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill.
It’s also Hooper’s second film in a row with TCM star Marilyn Burns, and features genre faves like Neville Brand (Without Warning), Roberta Collins (Death Race 2000), William Finley (DePalma’s Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise), Carolyn Jones (Morticia on the original The Addams Family), Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City), Stuart Whitman (Night of the Lepus) and then-future Real Housewife child star Kyle Richards (1978’s Halloween, The Car).
Collins plays a prostitute who flees her brothel and hides out at a creepy hotel in near the swamp, whose proprietor (Brand) has a pet crocodile that he feeds guests to that rub him the wrong way. This movie is packed with wonderfully trashy 70’s atmosphere that is pretty undeniable, so much so that I almost rated it higher on sheer chutzpah alone.
Ultimately, I just like the remaining entries better as movies, though tastes may vary, depending on how much you like that 70’s vibe to your horror. Sorry, I was an 80’s child – not that it stopped me from rating you know what #1, mind you.
6. The Funhouse (1981)
Honestly, you could flip flop this with #7 and I wouldn’t have any complaints, but I saw this one long before that one, so it wins out for me on sheer nostalgia. I even had the book, which was written by the celebrated Dean Koontz under a pseudonym. Reportedly, faced with the challenge of taking a relatively straight-forward slasher movie and making it novel-length, Tobe Hooper opted to REALLY fill in the blanks, with the events of the movie only compromising about a fourth of the novel.
As such, I tend to go into the events of the movie with the events of the book in mind, as it makes for an even more interesting experience. Someone should totally remake the flick using the novel as source material, if you ask me. It explains the creepy little brother and has a much more elaborate back-story for Amy, plus Gunther and his dad, as well as more deaths overall. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it enough.
That said, the movie definitely has its charms. I’m a sucker for movies set in amusement parks, carnivals or state fairs, especially horror, and the seedy atmosphere here gives Eaten Alive a run for its money. It feels more 70’s than 80’s, which makes sense, given how early on in the decade it was made.
I also love the performances from lead villain Kevin Conway (Lawnmower Man 2), who plays all of the various carnival barkers at the fair in question, bringing to mind a creepier version of Cheech Marin in From Dusk Till Dawn. Nicely effective as well are Oscar-nominated actress Sylvia Miles (The Sentinel) as the psychic/erstwhile prostitute and the aforementioned William Finley as a quirky magician.
But the undeniable show-stopper is Gunther, the monstrous, deformed creature that lurks inside the titular Funhouse. Created by FX wiz Craig Reardon, who would go on to work with Hooper on Poltergeist, as well as create the equally memorable Sloth for the classic Goonies, among others, the horrific Gunther is something to behold and definitely haunted my nightmares for years to come after I first saw this one.
The film received surprisingly positive reviews, with even typical horror hater Gene Siskel giving it a thumbs up, and did solid box office in what was the Golden Age of slashers at the time, helping Hooper to land the much-coveted Poltergeist directing gig.
It also features an amusing (if a little disturbing, given the situation) nod to Hitchcock in the opening sequence, which is a lot of fun, as is the film on the whole. The DVD/Blu-Ray also features some cool deleted scenes and lots of bonuses that are well-worth checking out.
5. Lifeforce (1985)
The massive success of Poltergeist led to this, Tobe Hooper’s highest-budgeted movie to date. Unfortunately, it tanked big time at the box office, ultimately leading to his descent to much lower-budgeted features from there on out. To be fair, Hooper did get another shot at the brass ring with Invaders from Mars, which had a decent budget, too, but it also tanked, so…
It’s too bad, as Lifeforce is easily the most ambitious film he’s ever done, and somewhat like three movies in one. Granted, that may have been what scared some people away, and the film is much better served by the lengthier “International Cut,” which is twelve minutes longer and Hooper’s preferred cut of the film. It’s readily available on home video – in fact, more so than the original version, which I don’t even have, and have never actually seen. Both are available on Blu-Ray in a 2-disc set, so you can choose for yourself.
Regardless, it’s a nifty little movie, with a whole lot going on. It plays as a bit of a homage to Quartermass and the Pit, with a healthy dose of Lovecraft for good measure. Indeed, author Colin Wilson, who wrote the book upon which this was based, The Space Vampires, was essentially dared to write this after he criticized Lovecraft’s writing and his publisher told him to see if he could do any better, ultimately resulting in a trilogy of well-received novels.
I think a lot of people my age in particular tend to remember this one as much as they do due to the fact that the sexy French actress Mathilda May spends pretty much the entire movie fully naked. But that is, assure you, not why I placed it so high on the list, as agreeable as that sight may be.
Instead, it’s the whirlwind plotting and the overall spectacle, which runs the gamut from space to London to Texas. There’s rarely a dull moment, even at over two hours long. Factor in a great cast that includes OG Charles Manson portrayer Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter), Patrick Stewart (pre-Captain Picard) and Peter Firth, of the deeply-weird Equus, and cool eye-popping effects, and you have what I consider to be Hooper’s most underrated effort.
4. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Some might call this one a cheat, as it began its life as a TV mini-series, one of the first I can remember seeing, if not THE first, but keep in mind that, aside from catching it on TV, the only readily available copy of it was, in fact, a highly-condensed movie version (aka Salem’s Lot: The Movie), which featured additional scenes and more graphic violence. Fortunately, it was shown pretty regularly on TV growing up, so I remember taping it on some cable channel or the other and re-watching it over and over, though I had the “film” version as well.
Tellingly, Salem’s Lot was always considered for both versions, which is precisely why those additional scenes and more violent scenes were shot in the first place, with the intention being to release the film internationally as a theatrical film, not a TV-miniseries one. Though the film, as to be expected, differs pretty radically from the book at times, reportedly author Stephen King was quite happy with the final results, and even considered some things an improvement – which was decidedly not the case with the later adaptation of his The Shining, to say the least.
Fortunately, both versions are pretty readily available, so, as with Lifeforce, you can compare and contrast the two to see which one you like better. For me, the movie version moves a lot faster and is more entertaining, while the mini-series is more faithful to the source material and fleshes out the characters much better than the film.
Either way, it was hugely influential, spurring a, ahem, resurrection of vampires at the movies, including a Dracula remake, and the likes of Fright Night and The Lost Boys, the latter of which “borrowed” the whole flying vampire thing, which scared the hell out of me as a kid. There’s also a scene in which a character is impaled on deer antlers on the wall, which Lost Boys would rip off not once, but twice, if you include the sequel, as well as more memorably used in Silent Night, Deadly Night, in which the victim was a sexy, nude Scream Queen Linnea Quigley.
Finally, Joss Whedon has cited it as a major influence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would have rated this one even higher, and probably should have, but I just love the top 3 so much that there was never any question of it for me, personally, even if it probably is better than our next entry as a whole. What can I say? The saw is family and all that.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Fans of the original were sharply divided when this, Hooper’s much-belated follow-up to his original breakthrough horror classic was released. The fact is, horror with comedic undertones can be a big turn-off for some fans, as it often undercuts the actual horror present. However, if done right, it can be an effective tool, i.e. Evil Dead 2, Return of the Living Dead, An American Werewolf in London.
I get why some people don’t care for this one, but honestly, I find myself watching this one more often than the original these days. That’s because it’s just plain fun. It may not have the same vibe as the original, but it’s an effective little shocker, with a far higher gore quotient than the original and some ace FX by beloved horror icon Tom Savini. Indeed, it was originally released unrated, as Hooper couldn’t secure an R rating.
A modest success at the box office, it was much better received on home video, which is where I saw it for the first time. Granted, I can see where those expecting more of the same from the original would be disappointed, but really, an undercurrent of black comedy was always present in that film- it’s just more overt here.
But it’s hard to argue with that cast, which includes a wonderfully over-the-top turn from Dennis Hopper, then on a roll with a career resurgence in classic roles in the likes of Blue Velvet and River’s Edge, as a thoroughly mental former Texas Ranger determined to avenge his niece and nephew Sally and Franklin, from the original film. Hopper has a near-worth-the-price-of-admission scene in which he shops for chainsaws that is truly something to behold.
However, the real scene-stealer is the all-time classic turn by genre fave Bill Moseley (of House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects fame) as Chop Top, a crazed Vietnam vet with a metal plate in his head, which he uses a heated wire hanger to burn and eat the skin off of. The brother of the Hitchhiker character in the original, he is full of quotable proclamations – just ask Primus – my favorite being: “Lick my plate, you dog dick!”
Granted, the film isn’t that scary, though it is intense at times – particularly the scenes in which lead actress Caroline Williams is terrorized Marilyn Burns-style by the Sawyer family – but I still just love it and consider it a fully worthy successor to the original, warts and all. Great soundtrack, too. Be sure and check out the Blu-Ray, which features lots of bonuses, including some solid deleted scenes and commentaries from Hooper and the cast.
2. Poltergeist (1982)
I was sorely tempted to make this one number one. It’s the Tobe Hooper film I saw first and it made quite the impression on me as a kid, as I suspect it did on most kids of the 80’s. Much has been made of the level of involvement Hooper actually had in directing it, with some suggesting producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg did the lion’s share, but Spielberg himself said that he merely storyboarded the film and oversaw its production and gave Hooper full credit in an open letter to The Hollywood Reporter for his efforts.
Besides, only the early, suburban-oriented stuff seems remotely Spielbergian- once the horror starts, it’s pure Hooper all the way. Spielberg, Jaws notwithstanding, isn’t particularly known for horror, which is precisely why he hired what he saw as a expert in it to direct the film in the first place.
Though, to be fair, he was prevented from directing the film in earnest because of his duties to Universal making E.T. around the same time, which interestingly, he initially offered to Hooper, who turned it down. Probably a good move, given how out of his wheelhouse the film would have been.
The end result, regardless, speaks for itself. This is one of the most undeniable 80’s horror classics of all time, filled to the brim with memorable scenes. Most everyone who grew up in the era has their favorite nightmare-inducing scenes, be it the kid-eating tree, the horrific clown doll (my sister had one just like it and we would play Poltergeist with it as kids), the pool filled with corpses (which were actual real-life skeletons), or my own personal freak-out, the face-peeling scene.
The film is a true rollercoaster ride, and one of the films that caused the PG-13 rating to come into existence, due to what some parents saw as violence too extreme for kids, which wasn’t entirely wrong. Interestingly, many of the films that led to said rating were ones Spielberg were involved in, including Gremlins, Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and he reportedly was the one who suggested the compromise with the ratings board in the first place.
I just love this film; to me it is one of the undeniable masterpieces of modern horror. I don’t know that I’d change a thing about it. The cast is perfect, including Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams as the hip, pot-smoking parents we all wished were our own, the adorable Heather O’Rourke as the kidnapped Carol Anne, and an unforgettable turn by the diminutive Zelda Rubinstein as the not-entirely effective medium Tangina. “This house is clean,” my ass.
The score, by Jerry Goldsmith is very effective, and though the special effects are somewhat dated by today’s standards, they were certainly ground-breaking at the time. Still, I’ll take this over the lackluster recent remake any day. The film is also hugely influential, and remains Tobe Hooper’s highest-grossing effort to date.
You can draw a straight line from it to the likes of the Insidious franchise, to be sure, not to mention the Paranormal Activity series. The first sequel is pretty good as well, thanks to an indelible performance by Julian Beck as the creepiest of preachers and some enhanced effects, though the third is not great and is to be avoided.
Finally, there’s the matter of the fact that many of those associated with the film met some pretty grisly fates, leading some people to believe the film had a “curse” on it. Poor O’Rourke died of a cardiac arrest at the mere age of twelve, while co-star Dominque Dunne, who played her older sister in the film, was murdered by her boyfriend shortly after the release of the film. Whatever the case, it all adds up to a classic in my book.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
What else? As much as I love me some Poltergeist, there’s no denying the power of this, Tobe Hooper’s second film (after Eggshells, which I’ve never seen) and, most would say, his finest hour. It’s easily his most influential work as well, having inspired countless other filmmakers, and, along with the same year’s Black Christmas, helping to kick-start the much-reviled by some, much-beloved by others slasher sub-genre.
Leatherface, indelibly portrayed by the hulking Gunnar Hansen, is one of the most celebrated and classic modern movie killers, right up there with Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger – but he predates them all. Inspired in part by the notorious real-life psycho Ed Gein – who also inspired another classic movie killer, Norman Bates – the oddly child-like whack-job wears the cut-off faces of his victims, hence the name.
While the main plotline is simplicity itself – a group of young people run afoul of a family of nut-jobs that kill them off one by one. Well, all but one, that is: Sally, portrayed by Marilyn Burns in a performance so unhinged you’ll think she really did go crazy at the end. Indeed, co-star Edwin Neal (“The Hitchhiker”) called the experience worse than his time in Vietnam, and cited he’d kill Hooper if he ever saw him again!
It certainly shows in the film, which is one of the most grimy you’ll ever see. Reportedly, Burns’ outfit was so caked in fake blood by the end of the shoot that it was practically solid! As payback to Hooper for his unrelenting shooting schedule, Hansen ventured just a hair closer than Hooper expected with his chainsaw in the film’s final moments, scaring the daylights out of him.
Despite all this, the film is hardly the gore-fest it has the reputation for being- for that, you’ll need to seek out the sequel. Indeed, Tobe Hooper was gunning for a PG rating, believe it or not, which is why a lot of the deaths are more implied than shown. In spite of his best efforts, the ratings board slapped it with an X rating, requiring various edits until he was able to finally secure an R rating.
This just goes to show that sometimes the most effective horror movies are the ones in which we the viewer fill-in-the-blanks for ourselves. Certainly, in this case it resulted in one of the most celebrated horror films of all time, influencing everyone from John Carpenter (notably Halloween) to Ridley Scott (who was inspired to do Alien by it, which is basically a slasher movie in space) to Rob Zombie, whose first two films are clearly inspired in large part by the movie. And that “score,” for lack of a better word? Just thinking about it gives me chills.
All of which add up to my choice for number one. It may not be as fun as Poltergeist or TCM 2, or some of Tobe Hooper’s other flicks, but it is undeniably the most visceral, heart-pounding, intense thing he’s ever done- or likely ever will. You just can’t go wrong with a classic, am I right?
Disagree with my choices? By all means, list your own selections down below in the comments section, and thanks for reading!