Remembering the Original Master of Horror

Death is never easy. We’ve all experienced grief in some form at several times during our life. And grief is a very personal thing. The same loss can and will affect many people in very different ways. For instance, humor is a go-to for me in grief. Whether it was the loss of my grandmother, my uncle, or even my father, one of the ways I expressed my grief was through humor. There are bouts of loneliness, anger, sadness, joy, etc. What I find miraculous, though, is that it is the memories of that person that is at the root of those emotions. The memory of that person is the foundation on which grief stands.

We can experience grief from the loss of people, places, pets, or things. And when it comes to people, we don’t even have to have known the person whom we’re mourning. Such is the case with our celebrity heroes. Some may call it silly to mourn celebrities. “You didn’t even know them. It’s ridiculous.” Well, for someone who considers himself a bit of recluse, I spend more time in the fantasy worlds of movies than I do with actual humans (outside of my family, of course; I’m not a monster). But the death of pop culture icons have always had this effect. Just yesterday was the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. David Bowie, Prince, Chris Cornell, John Lennon, John Candy, Robin Williams, Heath Ledger, Elvis, the list goes on and on and on. People have always and will always be affected by celebrity deaths.

In the short time I’ve considered myself to be part of this wonderful community we call horror, we’ve experienced three world-shattering losses. Wes Craven passed away two years ago this week. George Romero left us about a month ago. And this past weekend, we heard the news that Tobe Hooper had died. These three creative forces whom I’d never met, have left holes in the world where their brilliant minds once stood. And the passing of Tobe, in particular, has hurt the most for some reason.

I’m not going to take the time to talk about the hard life Tobe led or the controversies that always seemed to float around near him. I’m not going to run through Tobe’s entire filmography. But what I am going to do is celebrate Tobe’s creative mind by highlighting some of his art that will no doubt keep entertaining and inspiring for years to come.

Back in 2002, Mick Garris gathered 10 of his writer/director friends for a dinner dubbed “The Masters of Horror Dinner.” Included in the group was John Carpenter, Larry Cohen, Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Don Coscarelli, William Malone, Stuart Gordon, and the man I consider the ORIGINAL Master of Horror, Tobe Hooper. Out of that dinner was born a wonderful Showtime anthology series, and subsequent “Masters” have been added to the original list. I consider Tobe to be the original because in 1974 he terrified audiences with arguably the greatest horror film of all time, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

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Whether it was the poster, pictures in Fangoria, the VHS box, we knew who Leatherface was before we even saw the movie. When we were finally brave enough to watch Chain Saw, the images within were burned on our brains and haunted us night after night as we were lying in our beds, trying our hardest not to convince ourselves a chainsaw-wielding cannibal wasn’t going to break in the house, skin us, and wear us. The ironic thing is that Tobe claims he was making a comedy. Sure, maybe 30 years later  we’re able to see some comedic elements, but it’s the faces in the movie that we just can’t purge from our memories. It wasn’t until 22 years later that Tobe made sure audiences knew it was ok to laugh at the most fucked up family that has ever graced the silver screen.

Tobe followed Chain Saw up two years later with a tale of a demented hotel owner in the bayou along with his pet crocodile. After having just watched Eaten Alive, I’m convinced that Tobe is the one who painted the portrait of the scary hillbilly in my mind. Being from Texas, I guess he’d know. Just like Wes Craven knew how to write teenagers, Tobe knew how to write fear. He could tap into the human condition, extract our deepest, darkest fears, and actualize them into plots and characters that would terrify us. There is no other filmmaker in my mind that could show fear as well as Tobe Hooper.

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In The Funhouse (my favorite of his films) Tobe exploited the traveling carnival for all the scares it carries with it. He got three brilliant performances out of one man (Kevin Conway) as three different carnival barkers. He constructed two of my favorite shots from any movie (crane shots, following two different characters, weaving their way around the carnival tents). And he gave us characters that we actually care about in a horror movie – a feat not easily conquered.

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After getting the biggest opportunity of his life to direct Poltergeist, Tobe teamed up with Dan O’Bannon to give us the biggest movie of his career in terms of budget and scope. Big is honestly the only word I can use to fully encapsulate Lifeforce. After watching small, independent projects like Chain Saw, Eaten Alive, and The Funhouse, Tobe obviously learned some great things on the set of Poltergeist and applied them to Lifeforce. I’m not a space guy, per se, so the first act is fine set-up, but I’m not into it. The second act is where it really starts to ramp up for me, followed by one of the greatest third acts I’ve ever seen. Big. It’s just big and fun.

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Immediately following Lifeforce, Tobe stayed with O’Bannon to bring us a remake of the 1953 drive-in classic, Invaders From Mars. Out of all of Tobe’s features that I’ve seen (and there are only four I haven’t seen) this is probably my least favorite. It’s a beautiful film with wonderful shots and scenery. I’m just not into the schlocky, over-the-top acting that he was going for (and achieved). With that said, I can say this has the Tobe Hooper stamp on it which makes it a very well made movie.

Next Tobe did Chainsaw 2, started working in TV, and then teamed up with John Carpenter to direct the anthology Body Bags. Once again, Tobe taps into the human psyche, and (along with a brilliant performance by Mark Hamill) taps into actual fear and shows it to us. What happens when the one thing we depend on to make a living is suddenly gone? Throw in a brilliant story around that, several hysterical cameos, and you have yourself a wonderful little anthology (not to mention a cameo by the Master himself).

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Tobe then dives headfirst into television, sprinkles a few features throughout, and in 2005 gave us the remake of 1978’s The Toolbox Murders. I included this in our Summer of Slash this year because it’s a very good film. Like he always did, Tobe showed us our fears. What happens when you move to a new place surrounded by new people? Our minds are free to run wild with the horrific possibilities, and Tobe presents them to us in one of my favorite discoveries of the year.

Tobe Hooper will live on through his art, as all past artists will. We can pop on Chain Saw and get a chill. We can watch Salem’s Lot and hope nothing comes floating past our windows in the middle of the night. We can explore our fears safely, while knowing that someone like Tobe Hooper was there guiding us all along, assuring us that it’s just a movie, and that everything’s going to be ok. We’ll miss you, Tobe.

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