Tobe Hooper has passed away at the age of 74.
I hate writing traditional obituaries. Instead of running down the filmography of this horror film giant, I would rather share an anecdote of how his most famous film held the power to shock, horrify, and move a new viewer over thirty years after its release.
I came to horror films later in life than most fans of the genre, so I first saw THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE when I was in my late teens. To this day, watching it by myself on a crappy VHS rental with serious tracking problems remains one of the most intense viewing experiences I have ever had. While most favorites of the genre tend to fall flat upon first viewing for fans that see them after years of hype, CHAINSAW actually exceeded the hype.
Over the next fifteen years, I watched CHAINSAW at least once a year. Each viewing highlighted something new for me. Whether it was the sad undertone of the vicious, violent nature of American culture consuming itself or the subtle slapstick that Gunnar Hansen gave to his performance as Leatherface, it was a constantly evolving and rewarding film for me.
Like every horror fan, I went through a period where I consumed all things Hooper. The closest any of his subsequent films came to repeating the high of watching CHAINSAW for the first time was his singularly insane LIFEFORCE. But while films like EATEN ALIVE or THE FUNHOUSE may not have had the same initial impact as his masterpiece, they do hold a power upon re-watching them that most directors are not able to pull off. Even if I was unable to pinpoint exactly what it was that Hooper was trying to accomplish with each film, the clarity of vision came through each time, elevating them beyond the routine to actual works of art in some cases.
In 2007, I struck up a friendship with a fellow cinephile at my new job. In the time-honored tradition of film geeks, we set about trying to alter each other’s tastes based on our own. He turned me into a fan of the films of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and I sent him down a Dario Argento rabbit hole. In October of that year, a local indie theatre in Chicago was screening several horror classics during the run up to Halloween. He mentioned that he was considering going to check out CHAINSAW since he had never seen it. I knew I had to be there to see his reaction.
Despite the film being projected from what looked like a DVD blown up to fit a screen that was far too large for such a presentation, the raw power of it was in full effect. The theatre was huge and there were only about eight or nine other people there, but from the moment the image of the decaying corpse wired to a tombstone as abstract art showed up, the tension in the audience could be felt. I noted my friend squirming during the long, uncomfortable sequence with the hitchhiker and laughing uncomfortably at some of Franklin’s more annoying moments.
Finally, our first unlucky victim stumbled up the little ramp, got clubbed over the head with a hammer by a giant in a skin mask, and disappeared behind a metal door slammed closed with deadly finality. It’s a perfectly constructed sequence and one that did not fail to make my friend jump and utter a shocked oath under his breath.
From that point on, despite the terror and grotesque subject matter on the screen, it was one of the most fun experiences I have ever had watching a movie. Every scare worked perfectly, eliciting the desired response. Every bit of bizarre dark humor from the crazed, cannibalistic family drew uncomfortable laughter, and the off-the-rails finale as Sally escapes but leaves her sanity behind while Leatherface swings his chainsaw about in a frustrated dance left him slack-jawed (I know because I turned to look at him as soon as the final smash cut happened). I wondered if that was how I looked after my first viewing.
This movie that everyone in the world had heard of since its release 33 years earlier had retained every ounce of its power on a new viewer. Even better, he found a wrinkle in it that I never considered: sympathy for Franklin whom he believed had always felt like a burden to Sally. For the record, I do not agree with him on that point, but I understood his argument.
There are few films in any genre that—decades later—still retain the power they held upon their initial release. Even rarer are those films that continue to offer up new wrinkles and ideas for audiences to chew over. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is that rarest of films that manages both.
Tobe Hooper will forever be a legend. His ability to connect the ugliest aspects of human nature to uncomfortable humor and grotesque violence was surpassed only by the sheer volume of his imagination (just look at every frame of LIFEFORCE and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 for proof of that). Along with George A. Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven, he helped shape the American horror film for two generations of viewers. His passing is sad news, but celebrate his uncompromising art by sharing his films with someone who has never seen one of them before. It will be just as rewarding an experience for you as it is for them.