Poor Tobe Hooper. A promising young Austin filmmaker from the beginning of his career, he made a college film called “eggshells” in 1969, a counter-culture film of its time, but the career for which he is known really began with 1974’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. This is the film that would put him on the map in the history of horror forever, but would also be the stumbling block for him as he tried to grow as a director.
After the success of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, Hooper made a series of low-budget films to varying degrees of success (two of which he was removed from as director and replaced), but that all seemed like an unpleasant and distant memory when in 1982 producer Steven Spielberg chose him to direct the big-budget haunted house film “Poltergeist”. The urban legend is well known by now that Spielberg, unhappy with Hooper’s work on the film, did massive reshoots of the project himself, and the truth of the film’s auteur origins is still shrouded in mystery. Regardless, the film was a success, and Hooper was not brought back for the inevitable sequels.
He tried his hand at a couple of science-fiction films next, before returning to the well that had brought forth oil before in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2”. This time working with writer L.M. Kit Carson, Hooper decided that the dark humor that he felt the audience missed in the first film was going to take center stage in the sequel, and the result was a fascinating but confused film that made its money back but did little to help Hooper’s reputation as a difficult or unsuccessful filmmaker.
He has worked on many lower profile films since then (including a remake of “Toolbox Murders” and an adaptation of the Stephen King story “The Mangler”), and actually has an impressive television directing resume (on shows as varied as “Masters of Horror”, “Taken”, “Nowhere Man”, “Amazing Stories”, and “Tales From the Crypt”), but the promise showed in that stunning first horror film has never been equaled, either because it was lightning in a bottle that could never be reproduced, or possibly because the constraints on every film since have prevented him from achieving that same operatic level of disturbing mania. But there are a few films in his resume that are still interesting and obscure, and possibly minor classics in their own right.
Based loosely on the true story of a Texas bar owner who killed himself when it was discovered that he murdered women and possibly fed them to the alligators he kept as roadside attractions, “Eaten Alive” was the obvious and logical follow-up to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in its grindhouse sleaziness and its determination to out-gross the Texas cannibal family (in the graphic sense, not the profitability sense). Teaming for the first time with a pre-Freddy Kruger Robert Englund (who he would later re-team with for “The Mangler”) and the return of Marilyn Burns, the heroine from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (not to mention a small role for future “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Kyle Richards), this film is so grimy and uncomfortable to watch that you would never know the budget of this film was over five times as much as the budget for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. But there are some scares and interesting set pieces, and it certainly shows the artistic trajectory of Hooper after the massive success of his sophomore outing.
Ostensibly Hooper’s follow-up to “Eaten Alive” (he was hired to direct 1979’s “The Dark”, but was later replaced by another director), “The Funhouse” feeds into two distinct sub-genres: the slasher film, and the creepy carnival movie. Some beautiful cinematography and truly disturbing imagery (the unmasking in particular is quite shocking) make this movie something worth seeking out, and the cast of character actors bring faces you know with names that you don’t, so you’ll have a lot of fun playing a game of “That Guy” identifying.
A fun, wild, imaginative 1980’s remake of a classic 1950’s alien invasion film? It’s not John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, though we would forgive you for assuming it, because this film came out in the wake of that artistically successful (if not profitable) remake. Surprisingly, though it seems this film owes a debt of gratitude to “The Thing” (as does 1988’s “The Blob” remake), Hooper’s love letter to the film of his youth has an energy and youthful abandon that was present in the mid-1980’s and has been lost to the modern day children’s sci-fi adventure film. Landing in amongst classic mature kid’s films such as “E.T.”, “Goonies”, and the underseen classic “Explorers”, “Invaders From Mars” marks a big departure for Hoope which, along with “LIfeforce”, were two unsuccessful films for him that actually showed his incredible range as a director. That he was never able to explore that new filmic arena further is a loss.