The failed career of Tobe Hooper
For horror fans, few films are as influential as 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Visceral. Atmospheric. Grotesque. It’s a living nightmare.
Only 30 years old, director Tobe Hooper had announced himself as force to be reckoned with. The beginnings of a long and illustrious career had begun to take shape. 8 years later Hooper would work alongside one of the behemoths of the industry, Steven Spielberg, directing an original script by Spielberg himself. That was 1982 and the film was Poltergeist, another horror classic. The stars seemed to align for Hooper but in fact, Poltergeist would be the director’s death rattle.
Following Chainsaw, Tobe Hooper closed out the 70’s and rang in the 80’s with varying degrees of success. As a newbie to the Hollywood machine, he was finding his footing. His follow-up to Chainsaw entitled Eaten Alive was another low-budget exercise in backwoods horror but the production was racked with behind the scenes drama and Hooper was reportedly dismissed from the film before production ended. He rebounded nicely though with Salem’s Lot, a CBS mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed vampire novel. It was a ratings smash (and damn creepy in its own right). His next flick, The Funhouse (1981), is atmospheric, suspenseful, and just outrageous enough; a great fit for Hooper’s offbeat sensibilities. The film was a mild success commercially.
And here we are at September 1981. Tobe Hooper had been picked by Steven Spielberg to helm Poltergeist. Spielberg had always wanted to do ghost story and would’ve directed it himself had he not been in pre-production on E.T. Both films were slated for a June 1982 release and Spielberg’s contract prevented him from directing both films concurrently. He would need a surrogate director. Enter Tobe Hooper: young, energetic, and talented. Believe it or not, Spielberg was a Chainsaw fan, but the Producer-Director relationship between Spielberg and Hooper was controversial. Spielberg had storyboarded the film, cast it, was on-set almost every day, and oversaw post production on his own. Rumors started swirling almost immediately that Hooper was nothing more than a “ghost” director that could help Spielberg duck the rules. It’s a plausible theory. Spielberg picks a talented but green (in terms of big-budget moviemaking) director that he can control. Spielberg himself seemed to claim that he was the driving force in the partnership:
“Tobe isn’t… a take-charge sort of guy. If a question was asked and an answer wasn’t immediately forthcoming, I’d jump in and say what we could do. Tobe would nod agreement, and that become the process of collaboration.”
Curiously, a 10-minute “Making Of” special created to promote the film features plenty of interviews and on-set footage of Spielberg but Hooper is almost entirely absent. Cast and crew recollections differ somewhat as to how much participation Hooper had but one opinion is universal: Spielberg had final say. Upon Poltergeist’s release, controversy grew so much that Spielberg wrote an open letter to Hooper in The Hollywood Reporter apologizing for the bad press and thanking him for their “unique” relationship.
Hollywood wasn’t banging down Tobe Hooper’s door after Poltergeist’s successful release. You’d think that the director of the 8th highest grossing film of the year would get a few offers. You’d be wrong. Hollywood is a town of talkers. Word gets around. Hooper allegedly had a substance abuse problem at the time which likely led to his dismissal from The Dark and 1982’s killer snake opus, Venom. Some reports say that Hooper entered an in-patient rehab facility immediately following Poltergeist. Whatever the facts are, it would be 3 years before Tobe Hooper made another movie and his career never really recovered.
June 1985 saw the release of one of the decade’s most expensive movies: Lifeforce. A $25 million sci-fi epic about naked space vampires invading London by way of Haley’s Comet, it was the first in a 3-picture deal with Cannon Films, a prolific B-movie factory that kept Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris gainfully employed throughout the 80’s. The film performed miserably, despite its flashy special effects and gratuitous nudity. It’s one of the craziest movies of the 80’s, undeniably cheesy and irresistibly stupid, though commercial prospects should have been questioned well before production began. Invaders From Mars, a remake of the 50’s classic, was another big-budget failure for Hooper and Cannon, barely grossing $4 million in summer 1986. It’s not a bad film—it actually scared me as a kid—it’s just an unremarkable one. The one-two punch of those failures forced Hooper into directing the long-awaited sequel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, a film he initially intended only on producing. Armed with a budget of $4 million, Hooper delivered a grossly outrageous film. Reviews were mostly negative but Chainsaw 2 performed decently, grossing $8 million in August 1986. All in all, Hooper’s three picture deal with Cannon yielded $23 million in box office receipts on $41 million in budgets. Not so impressive. Chainsaw 2 would be the last time that Hooper would have a film in wide theatrical release. Hooper’s post-1986 career has been unremarkable. He’s bounced between television and direct-to-video movies with mostly dismal results.
I believe that Tobe Hooper has at least one more good movie in him. He’s not a bad director. There are some good movies in his filmography. The Funhouse and Lifeforce are two great examples and I suggest you seek them out. The tide also seems to have changed on Chainsaw 2 which has undergone a rediscovery of sorts over the last decade. I can’t wait to be able to look forward to a Tobe Hooper film again but as I write this I’m watching his The Toolbox Murders (2004) which I’d never seen before. Unfortunately, I think it’s safe to keep waiting. . .