He Came, He Sawed: 10 Greatest Tobe Hooper Movies

Perhaps it was Wes Craven who offered the definitive comment on Tobe Hooper’s macabre masterpiece from 1975, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Craven called it “Mansonite” and in a spirit of dark humor he applied the adjective as much to the film’s creator as the thing itself. The director had invaded our minds with this diabolically horrible film and very much moved the furniture around in our skulls.

Gone but never forgotten, today we are going to be looking at Hooper’s ten greatest pieces of cinema…

10. Invaders From Mars (1986)

Cast: Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman

In this remake of the classic ’50s sci-fi tale, a boy tries to stop an invasion of his town by aliens who take over the the minds of his parents, his least-liked schoolteacher and other townspeople. With the aid of the school nurse the boy enlists the aid of the U.S. Marines.

It’s pretty safe to say that the last thing you think about when you hear the words Tobe Hooper and Cannon Group together, is a children’s movie. But, that is exactly what 1986’s Invaders From Mars was intended to be. In Hooper’s own way, however, the film is more than meets the eye. Certainly one of his lighter and far less bloody films, Invaders still features most of what we have all come to love about Hooper. It’s a bright, colorful, wildly imaginative, and, most important of all, funny film; one that envisions a world of its own, makes it tangible on screen. Like many of the best horror and/or sci-fi remakes Hooper’s film takes aspects of the original and makes from it something completely unique and original.

9. The Mangler (1995)

Cast: Robert Englund, Ted Levine, Daniel Matmor, Vanessa Pike

Based upon the Stephen King short story of the same name (which appeared in his inaugural short story collection, Night Shift), The Mangler follows a policeman as he investigates a series of mysterious deaths at an industry laundry. He soon discovers that a professional speed iron has becomes possessed by a demonic spirit, and the laundry’s sinister owner has been sacrificing his employees to ensure his financial success. It’s nutter butters.

To start, the short story this is based on is great. But when it is brought to the screen, it’s just ridiculous. It’s so over-the-top, but it also doesn’t have anywhere near the budget to be as over-the-top as it wants to be. There are so many weird choices in The Mangler that leave you to question every single decision that was made. And that’s why it’s actually an amazing viewing experience. As bad as The Mangler is, there’s no way you can say it’s not enjoyable. You’ve got the amazing team of late-career Tobe Hooper and Jess Franco’s screenwriter Harry Alan Towers in charge of the story. The decision to turn a movie about a killer laundry press into a detective movie is absurdly genius. Sure, it stretches out the joke, but the beauty of this film is that there is no joke. Not to the filmmakers.

8. Toolbox Murders (2004)

Cast: Angela Bettis, Brent Roam, Marco Rodríguez, Sheri Moon Zombie

Toolbox Murders opens with the fairly nasty murder by claw hammer of an aspiring actress, before introducing us to the main characters in the film, newlyweds Nell, a unemployed teacher, and Steven, a busy young doctor. They’ve just taken up residence in a crummy apartment in a block called the Lusman Arms. Their neighbors are either sleazy or unhinged, and the resident handyman Ned is just plain creepy. Nell is left alone in the apartment whilst Steven goes to work, and she gradually begins to realize that something isn’t right. This feeling is confirmed when she overhears her neighbor being murdered with a nail gun, although no body is found when she convinces the police to have a look. As another girl is murdered, Nell starts to find out that there’s more to the apartment block than meets the eye, and gets nearer and nearer to the truth…

Toolbox Murders is not so much a remake of its 1978 ancestor as it is a complete re-imaging. Yes there’s a nail gun murder and a similar masked killer theme; but this time around we have an intriguing supernatural sheen, which makes the movie a tad more interesting. The rubbish mystery has been replaced with a good old school horror plot that works wonderfully, making this one of the best remakes of the noughties. Gory (one guy gets his head sawed in half ala Intruder),suspenseful (the final stalking scenes are brilliant) and well watchable to boot, this is Tobe Hooper on his A-game.

7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Cast: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley

Over ten years after making the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper returns to his deranged family of reclusive cannibals for another round of chainsaw chases and non-stop screaming. Hooper brings a real budget this time (having recently directed Poltergeist for Steven Spielberg) and the talents of veteran make-up artist Tom Savini. This means he can make things bigger, louder, and gorier than ever before; and they are. He also brings a wacky, self-deprecating sense of humor, as if deliberately flaunting Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s status as one of the first and still greatest “slasher” movies. The result is an impish take-off on the original film (and contemporary horror movies in general) which elevates its own clichés (buckets of blood and gore, droll dialogue, the screaming female lead) to the level of high camp.

TCM 2 is loosely concerned with a small-town disc jockey named “Stretch” (who does most of the screaming) and an embittered Texas Ranger. They team-up and decide to put an end to the murderous activities of the notorious Sawyer family once and for all (that is, of course, until Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). The tale is a strange, sweaty, uncomfortable mix of horror and humor and it’s completely brilliant. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

6. Eaten Alive (1976)

Cast: Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund

So how do you go about successfully following up an instant classic like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Some would argue that Hooper never really did but in 1977 his next project following that landmark film was another grubby little shocker set in the deepest, darkest backwoods of Louisiana, albeit a grubby little shocker with a different kind of bite to it.

After an uncomfortable run-in with randy redneck Buck (a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund), prostitute Clara is given directions to a hotel where she can pull herself together after her ordeal, but when she arrives at the Starlight Hotel she is greeted by the curmudgeonly Judd who introduces her to his pet crocodile in a most unfriendly manner. This is because Judd is slightly unhinged and before long more guests arrive, giving Judd the chance to sharpen up his scythe and slice them up into pieces for his reptilian friend to feast on. Where will it end…?

5. Lifeforce (1985)

Cast: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay

Released to critical scorn and near-total commercial indifference, the sci-fi/horror hybrid Lifeforce has spent most of the following 30+ years languishing in obscurity. If it was remembered at all, it was either because of its massive financial failure – which helped doom the futures of both its producing company and its director – or because of its status as one of the all-time favorite films of Mr. Skin, that beloved repository of on-screen nudity.

Indeed, Lifeforce is the movie that pretty much killed Tobe Hooper’s mainstream directing career. The first of his three-movie deal with the great Cannon Films, the film recouped less than half of its $25 million budget (which, for Cannon, might as well be Avatar money) upon its theatrical release and made Hooper something of a laughingstock in the process. Maybe because his previous movie, Poltergeist, had been so commercial, a lot of the audience for Lifeforce assumed Hooper didn’t know what he was doing — they concluded that the movie just got away from him. Nope. Tobe Hooper knew exactly the movie he was making. Lifeforce is a crazy movie. It was designed as a crazy movie. It succeeds at being a crazy movie. Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby, based on Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires, the film portrays the events that unfold “after a trio of humanoids in a state of suspended animation are brought to earth after being discovered in the hold of an abandoned European space shuttle.” Yes, it’s pure insanity.

4. Salem’s Lot (1979)

Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia

The successful writer Benjamin “Ben” Mears returns to his hometown Salem’s Lot, Maine, expecting to write a new novel about the Marsten House. Ben believes that the manor is an evil house that attracts evil men since the place has many tragic stories and Ben saw a ghostly creature inside the house when he was ten. Ben finds that the Marsten House has just been rented to the antique dealers Richard K. Straker and his partner Kurt Barlow that is permanently traveling. When people start to die anemic, Ben believes that Straker’s partner is a vampire. But how is Ben going to convince everyone that he isn’t absolutely nuts?

Tobe Hooper’s TV movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, despite the constraints inherent in any television production, is actually a very effective and creepy vampire film. Indeed, small-screen restrictions require the bloodletting be kept to a minimum, but the director and scripter Paul Monash nevertheless manage to construct a first-rate chiller out of King’s fertile source material. Salem’s Lot is a masterful vampire flick barely aged that will keep you up nights, and away from your window during the midnight hours.

3. The Funhouse (1981)

Cast: Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff

A shady carnival has just rolled into town and four teenagers think it’s a swell way to spend their Saturday night. As their evening of merriment draws to a close, the idea hits them: Spend the night in the funhouse! Because this is the sort of thing rationally-thinking teenagers do for fun, the quartet sneak into the chamber of horrors for a spooky orgy. However, their orgy doesn’t last long, as they find the funhouse to be the home of a deformed monster that has no qualms about strangling the life out of folks. After making the mistake of raiding the funhouse’s cashbox, enraging not only the monster but his unscrupulous carny father, the teens are locked inside the maze-like freakshow to be hunted down one at a time.

In a year that saw almost an endless amount of standard slashers being released, The Funhouse is almost a breath of fresh air as it refuses to fall into the tropes of the age. Instead, what we get is more of a throwback, atmospheric monster movie. The slasher genre is even poked fun of with a Halloween/Psycho homage during the film’s opening sequence. A masked intruder attacks the protagonist as she showers, resembling the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcocks’s Psycho. The “attacker” turns out to be her younger brother (playing a practical joke), a nod to John Carpenter’s opening to Halloween. Whether it’s intentional or not, this acts as a humorous snub to the flood of slasher films at the time and subsequently sets it very much apart from the pack.

2. Poltergeist (1982)

Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein

Poltergeist is to the haunted house sub-genre as Halloween is to the slasher movie: It wasn’t the first of its kind, but it elevated things to a whole new level of style, excess, and intelligence. Coming largely from the mind of co-writer/co-producer Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist established several tropes that have since been copied to death: the little kid who becomes the evil spirits’ conduit; the freaky apparitions that haunt a youngster in his bedroom, at night, while mommy and daddy are snoozing; the medium and her sidekicks who move into the house to exorcise the demons.

The difference being, of course, that, in Poltergeist, all of those story components work, resulting in an alarming show that blasts viewers with one ghoulish set-piece after another (try to sleep in a room with a clown doll ever again) before a showstopping and crowd-pleasing bit involving a terrified mother, an in-ground pool, and tons of wet, rotting cadavers.

1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Cast: Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Paul A. Partain, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal

In short, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a genuine classic of the genre, a punishing, unrelenting nightmare that never allows viewers even a moment of sanity or security. The film can, and will, be reinterpreted by critics and theorists for decades to come. Though, the movie tells a fairly simple tale at heart. A group of five teenagers driving through rural Texas happen upon a deranged, cannibalistic family. Psychological terror and chainsaw mayhem ensue.

In the years since Texas Chain Saw first hit theaters, there have been countless imitators, sequels and reboots. Yet as loved and influential as the original classic has been, many who would seek to emulate its vision seem to overlook its true strengths. Oh, and Leatherface is still one of the greatest antagonists in horror history – watching him swinging that chainsaw around is almost hypnotic.

Let us know your favorite Tobe Hooper movie in the comments below.

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