Monday, August 28, 2017

What Was Left of Them: Tobe Hooper's Effect on my Childhood

by Odienator

Prologue: The Unforgettable Face of Fear

When I was 11 years old, my aunt Brenda took her two sons and I to see something innocent and wholesome at the now-defunct State Theater in my hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. By virtue of the Pix Theater going under a few years prior, the State had become my hometown's official grindhouse theater. The State would be where I saw every single Italian cannibal and zombie movie released in the states, each of which my cousins and I--sans Aunt Brenda--would sneak into over the next three years. Despite my pre-adolescent love of gore, I grew so sick of these barf-worthy ventures that I developed an aversion to zombies that persists to this day.

But on this particular day in 1981, there was nothing untoward going on in the theater where we'd eventually sit. Outside, however, was a different story. While my aunt brought tickets to whatever it was we saw that day, I wandered over to the giant glass display of posters for the films currently playing at the State. The one that drew my attention filled me with an equal amount of curiosity and terror. There was a grotesque looking guy wielding a chainsaw on it, standing in front of a screaming woman who appeared to be hanging from something. Shuddering, I drew my eyes away from the image and up to the words on the poster. Unfortunately, they offered no respite. It said:

"Who will survive and what will be left of them?"

My cousins joined me at the glass. "Whoa!" said my older cousin. "Mom," he yelled as he pointed to the poster, "can we see THIS?" 

"Hell no!" she yelled back. "That movie's old. I saw it years ago and it's not for kids!" 

"But we ain't kids!" he protested. "I'm 12!"

"Get your asses over here NOW!" Aunt Brenda demanded. I was so transfixed by the poster that my cousin had to hit me upside the head to break the spell. "Come on before my mother gets mad!" he warned.

We walked past the concession stand and into the theater area. The State was a triplex in 1981, with one theater upstairs and two on the lobby level. Our film was in third theater, which meant we passed the door of the theater playing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Inside was the answer to the ominous question on the poster. As we passed, a teenage girl opened the theater door and made a terrified beeline for the concession area. In the brief time the door was open, I heard the sounds of chainsaws and screaming. It was so quick, I question if that's exactly what I heard. What was not up for dispute was the fact that the teenage girl who'd offered me that quick sneak peek had run faster than Jesse Owens from whatever the hell was making those noises.

After we found seats, I asked my aunt if we could get some popcorn. She sent me out to get a large bucket. "No butter," she said, "You hear me?" I would return with a bucket smeared with artificial butter topping, and I'd lie to my aunt and tell her they put it on by mistake. My aunt would take it back, and as punishment, would return with nothing.

Something far more upsetting happened en route to my getting that "erroneous" bucket of butter-scarred popcorn. As I walked toward the concession stand, a girl of about 16 or 17 came walking in the opposite direction. She held a large soda in one hand; in the other, a small boy. He looked about 6 or 7. With his short Afro and his chocolate colored skin, the kid bore a striking resemblance to Rodney Allen Rippy.

Our paths crossed right in front of the theater showing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I stopped so she could pass me and open the door, ostensibly so I could get a look inside. Unfortunately, the door swung outward, obstructing my view. 

The sounds coming from beyond that door were terrifying. Chainsaws! Screaming! Unbelievable Carnage!! Someone in the audience yelled "RUN BITCH RUN!" I was so wrapped up in the noise that I didn't notice the reason I was getting more than a cursory preview: the little boy was still outside the door. He was putting up one hell of a fight to resist entering the theater.

The scene was almost comic. I couldn't see the girl, as the door obscured her body. I just saw her hand tugging at the kid, who by now was making grunts of resistance. "Urrr! Urrr!" he said as he tried to pull away. The girl said nothing. She continued to tug at his arm. Sensing that he was losing the fight, the boy started using both of his hands in protest. 

Suddenly, the boy turned his head and looked at me. I saw unfiltered horror running rampant in his facial expression. Our eyes met, and a chill went up my spine. I will never forget what I saw when he looked at me.

Help me, his eyes pleaded. Please help me.

The terrifying movie noises continued to play while this transpired. I remained frozen in my tracks. There wouldn't have been much I could do anyway, as I wasn't much bigger than the kid. That girl would have flung my rail-thin ass through the wall.

Five seconds after our eyes met, the kid disappeared into the theater with a violent flourish. The door slammed shut, returning the hallway to an eerie silence. The poor kid had been consumed by the darkness as I helplessly watched. He probably became a serial killer as a result of this traumatic experience. 

As I continued my trek to the theater lobby, one thought occupied my mind. 

"Shit! I gotta see this movie!"

 I. Vampires Are Scary

Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was responsible for scaring the shit out of that poor kid. But before his power tool masterpiece would terrify me, Hooper directed one of the few vampire stories I found scary. I watched the 'Salem's Lot miniseries on TV when I was 9. I had read the novel, my second venture into Stephen King, so I had a good idea what to expect when I watched. But things are much scarier for me if I know they're coming, so I got a good jolt out of watching Hutch from Starsky and Hutch battle some nasty looking beasties. I don't know why my mother let me watch this movie, as it came saddled with the dreaded "Parental Discretion Advised" warning Mom always took to heart. I guess she figured that, since I'd already read the book, how much worse could the miniseries be?

Well, I had nightmares about the damn thing. Barlow, the miniseries' scary villain, kept coming to me in dreams, trying to kill me or, even worse, serenading me in mid-air with 70's songs like Feelings and Knock Three Times. (I was a messed up kid.)

'Salem's Lot was the first time I'd heard of Tobe Hooper. Despite it being made for TV, Hooper crafted a creepy, atmospheric chamber piece that didn't wimp out on the scares. Barlow's death, in particular, stuck with me. It takes forever for David Soul to stake him, and whenever the camera isn't on the extremely violent action, Hooper keeps the suspense consistent with the use of light from a swinging light fixture, scary vampire imagery in the background and gruesome sound effects. He gets a lot of mileage out of misdirecting the viewer's gaze, forcing them to imagine the gore the TV censors wouldn't allow much of back in 1979. The editing in the scene is also as violent as the crime.

II. The Party's at the Funhouse

1981 was the year I saw my first Tobe Hooper film in theaters, and by virtue of coming before New Line's re-release of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that film was The Funhouse. I remember my cousin Rena seeing it before my cousins and I did. She came back and, as was tradition in my family, told us everything that happened in the movie. This is why spoilers have never bothered me; things are a lot scarier for me if I know they're coming. 

Rena talked about the "nasty" sex scene in it, and how a particularly obnoxious character met a gruesome death. She even expressed a bit a sympathy for the monster, who was, in her words, "just trying to get some booty." I asked her if the monster was as gross-looking as the creature on the Funhouse poster, and she said that it was worse. 

Yuck! Yuck! Yuck!

Unlike most of the horror movies I saw between ages 10-16, I didn't have to sneak into The Funhouse. My aunt Big Evon took us. She didn't think it was gory enough for her tastes, but I thought it was very well-done and rather disturbing. Watching it again recently, I realized how underrated it actually is. This is a bit of a gem. As a kid, I didn't have nightmares, but it certainly cured me of my desire to ever go into a carnival's spooky house ever again. 

Hooper's direction is the star here as well. He gets a good performance out of his lead, Elizabeth Berridge, and he really does evoke a bit of sympathy for his killer. Despite being released at the height of the slasher craze, Hooper doesn't make the kills overly graphic, once again leaving some things to our imagination, evoking the did we see what we thought we did feeling that he had mastered 7 years prior. Speaking of which:

III. Leatherface Almost Makes Me Barf

The week after Rodney Allen Rippy's lookalike had his theater lobby freak-out, my 2 cousins and I snuck into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Keep in mind that I grew up on horror movies, so by 1981, I was a bit of a seasoned veteran. It wasn't that movies didn't scare me, it was just that I had a higher tolerance for this stuff than a lot of kids my age. I was especially tolerant of gore. I had seen Dawn of the Dead, Suspiria and Deep Red by this point. What really got under my skin was what the movie didn't show to me, because my imagination was far worse than anything anybody could run through a projector.

Suffice it to say, I was not prepared for this movie.

Everything I learned about the history of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I learned years after I saw it. So I was walking in as blindly as the audience at its original release. I had no idea that the story wasn't exactly "true" nor that I would have to wait until Pieces and Chainsaw's sequel to get graphic chainsaw action, I just knew the reactions of that girl who ran from the theater, and the little boy whose pleading eyes haunt me to this day. But judging by the narrration and the flashes of God-knows-what that opened Hooper's masterpiece, I slowly realized I had bitten off more than I could chew.

For starters, the movie felt like some maniac's filth-speckled home movies. I had no idea what cinema verite was at 11, but the grungy mise-en-scene got under my skin. From the first frames, I started to itch, because I'm quite anal about dirt and grime, and I hadn't even gotten to Robert Burns' spectacularly gross set design for Leatherface's house. To this day, my cousin mocks me about my reaction to the pitch black comedy of the film's dinner party scene. I sat in the theater squirming as if I were being electrocuted. I wanted to peel off my skin and give it to Leatherface to wear, because this film made me feel as if I would never be clean again.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre also contains the single most horrific image I have ever seen in a lifetime of horror movies. It occurs when Leatherface hits that poor guy with the sledgehammer. I knew Leatherface was going to show up, but like Sissy Spacek's hand coming up from the grave in Carrie, the shock arrives with a most off-kilter pacing. The shot choices and editing are masterful: Leatherface appears, clobbers the guy and then there's a shot of his body convulsing on the ground. That's what got to me--the convulsions were way too convincing. Since Hooper doesn't show the open wound, my brain imagined the damage that sledgehammer had done to that guy's head.

I almost threw up.

Closing my eyes only made the movie worse--it sounds a lot scarier than it looks--so I became defiantly committed to staring at whatever Hooper and company threw at me. TCM is edited so viscerally that the movie starts happening to you. When Teri McMinn gets hung on a meathook, rather than cut to the gory penetration, Hooper shows her facial reaction, forcing the viewer to identify with her agony. I could feel the cold, pointy hook going into my back.

I almost threw up again.

The normally rowdy State Theater audience had, for the most part, been stunned into a silence that was occasionally broken by someone yelling out "Daaaaamn!" or instructions for poor Marilyn Burns to run like hell. Leatherface's relentless pursuit of her seemed interminable, and Burns played her panic to the hilt. My cousins thought I was squirming, but in actuality, I was running in place. I was being chased in my seat. This was 4DX before 4DX.

When Burns' Sally finally escapes, I didn't know how to interpret her final screams. Were they screams of catharsis? Of relief? Or had she been driven crazy by her ordeal, her screams waving a primal goodbye to her sanity? I still don't know. But to this day, whenever I have a particularly harrowing day, I think back to Sally on the back of that truck, and I say "Gurl, I feel you."

IV: It Knows What Scares You

I don't believe that Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist, but I do believe he played a major part in the final product. After all, he wrote it. And the Freelings seemed too normal to belong to Hooper's cinema--he tended to favor far more dysfunctional, parasitic families. So maybe Spielberg wielded his influence in the early scenes, which play like a parody of the perfect Spielbergian suburban family drama.

But Poltergeist's scary-funny, absurdist approach to violence and trauma, especially in the relentless, corpse-filled finale, is pure Tobe Hooper. Whether it's JoBeth Williams, in her paper thin panties, sliding into a swimming pool full of gruesome dead bodies, Richard Lawson peeling off his face or Oliver Robins being strangled by his sinister toy clown, Hooper's visual ownership is never in doubt. Only upon a second viewing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does one fully see the sick humor just below the surface. By virtue of being less grueling, Hooper's unmistakable black comic fingerprints are more readily evident in Poltergeist.

Regardless, this movie lived up to its tagline for 12-year old me. It knew what scared me, and it proceeded to terrify me with those things. I was afraid of thunder, clowns, being separated from my family and (don't laugh) the glow that the old TVs always had when you turned them off. Poltergeist had set pieces featuring all of those.

And while TCM is clearly Hooper's masterpiece, Poltergeist is my favorite movie of his. It holds a special place in my heart because it was the movie I saw the day I graduated from 8th grade. My cousins--the same ones who were at TCM with me--had tried to crash my 8th grade graduation night "prom," which caused all three of us to be thrown out. So, still dressed in our suits, we went to the movies instead, and this is the movie we saw. Thanks to HBO, I saw it many, many more times.

V: Be a Good Boy, and Let the Butt-Nekkid Lady Kill You

After Poltergeist, Hooper was kidnapped by the symbol of my adolescent moviegoing experiences, the Cannon Group logo. The Cannon Group Logo is like that drunk friend you have that you really shouldn't hang out with, but you do anyway because he promises a lively evening. Later, you feel enormous guilt and regret as you crawl from the wreckage of the night's activities. That's what it felt like watching a Cannon movie.

Bitch, you know you love me!

Lifeforce is the Cannon movie that marked Hooper's return to the vampire movie--kinda sorta. Our antagonists are space creatures who come to Earth to suck the lifeforce out of people. The cast included Captain Picard and the guy who played Charles Manson in Helter Skelter. But nobody gave a damn about those guys once they got a look at Mathilda May. The imDB credits her as "Space Girl" but that description does her no justice. Like the Terminator, Space Girl arrives on the scene butt-ass naked. Unlike the Terminator, she never asks anyone for their clothes.

It's 1985. I'm 15 and just finishing my junior year in high school. Around this time, the local theaters were slowly realizing they didn't give a shit if an underage kid got into an R-rated movie. So I think this was the first R-rated movie I bought a ticket to successfully. Nervously, I walked up to the ticket booth and, despite looking like I was 12, I cheated the MPAA. My reward was a 2-hour movie featuring boobies, boobies and more boobies. I honestly don't remember anything else, outside the fact that this movie was incredibly stupid. Oh, and the F/X work was good--those fried people were ghoulishly effective. And boobies.

Cut me some slack. I was 15.

VI: Leatherface Tries to Make Me Barf

Since Tobe Hooper's next movie was Spontaneous Combustion, made when I was 20, my childhood experiences with the director end here. I'd talk about Hooper's Cannon remake of Invaders from Mars, but I didn't see that until I was 30. I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 when it came out, two months after I graduated high school.

Writer L.M. Kit Carson and director Hooper said this film's poster was a parody of The Breakfast Club's poster, whch should have clued folks in to the fact that this is a comedic take on Leatherface's return to the screen. Folks who didn't get the memo include the MPAA who, as with Re-Animator before it, were shocked enough to rate this film X. My good buddy, the Cannon Group logo, surrendered the X, sending The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to the State Theater sans rating. The State didn't care. They had played Dawn of the Dead and Bolero without MPAA lettering.

But those sons of bitches at the State DID treat the film like it was rated X, so for the last time, I had to sneak into a movie. (I was 16 when I graduated high school--and I still looked 12.)  What I saw when i sat down in the theater was the quintessential Cannon Group movie. And I wasn't crazy about it.

I know that's a bit of sacrilege, as TCM 2 has a legion of fans. But though the movie is over-the-top ridiculous and slathered with the gore effects of the great Tom Savini, I couldn't reconcile this version of Leatherface. I remembered him as a terrifying figure. He's not scary at all here, which I suppose is the point. He's even overshadowed by his other family members and by Dennis Hopper, though in Leatherface's defense, it's impossible to upstage Dennis Hopper. Even when Hopper's not wielding a chainsaw.

Seeing a major figure of my parents' youth going up against one of the most terrifying figures of mine had its giddy joys, to be sure. But despite Hooper doing a very competent directorial job, and the film paving the way for other splatstick sequels like the superior Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn, I'm always left wishing I enjoyed this movie more than I do.

Still, it's infinitely better than any of the sequels and reboots that followed it. And it's such a grandiose, haphazard comedy it reminds me of Spielberg's 1941. So how's this for a conspiracy theory: If Spielberg ghost-directed Poltergeist, perhaps he was returning the favor for Hooper ghost directing 1941. Hey, you never know.

Epilogue: Farewell, Horror Heroes of my Youth

Tobe Hooper died on August 26, 2017. He was 74. He joins two other horror icons of my childhood, Wes Craven and George Romero. They were men who scared me shitless, gave me nightmares and allowed me to taste the forbidden fruits of the horror genre from which the MPAA was supposed to protect me. They contributed to my delinquency and nurtured my love of all things cinema. I shall be eternally grateful.

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