Tobe Hooper, who died over the weekend at 74, was a leader in the Vietnam-era boom in independent, ultra-violent horror films. His 1974 “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is considered the last in a trio of low-budget horror breakouts that included George Romero’s 1968 “Night of the Living Dead” and Wes Craven’s 1972 “Last House on the Left.”
Though grosses for these films were unreliably reported, “Texas” appears to have done the best. Its reported $30 million domestic take (adjusted, around $140 million today) was at least 100 times its budget (also a guess, though some reports have it as high as $300,000 in 1974 value). Producers recouped costs and little else from distributor Bryanston (best known for the Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” movies, as well as taking over distribution of “Deep Throat”).
Like Romero and Craven, the hit boosted Hooper’s career. But unlike his peers, Hooper struggled to establish his brand after “Texas.”
It was never for lack of trying. Hooper went Hollywood more quickly than Romero and Craven. His next film, “Eaten Alive” (1977), was shot in Los Angeles in a studio with a veteran cast that included Ned Brand, Stuart Whitman, Mel Ferrer, and a pre-“Elm Street” Robert Englund. Independently produced, it was part of a spate of animal attack movies (here, reptiles) made in the wake of “Jaws.” It received only a minor release.
Still, that was enough for Warner Bros. TV to hire him for their two-part broadcast adaptation of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot.” King co-wrote the screenplay, and reacted more favorably to it than most filmed versions of his work.
Most importantly, it mainstreamed Hooper as amenable to assembly-line studio work. Universal hired him for “Funhouse,” which was their attempt to join the low-budget horror game after Paramount scored with “Friday the 13th.” The 1982 film, which had a teens-in-peril theme like “Friday” and only milder R-rated violence, was a modest success.
And then, “Poltergeist.” MGM-UA released the 1982 film; Steven Spielberg wrote the story and contributed to the screenplay as well as closely supervising its production, with longtime associates Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy also receiving producing credits.
However, the production of Poltergeist” overlapped with Spielberg’s prep on “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” at Universal — and his contract bared him from overlapping projects as director. To this day, accounts differ on how hands-on Spielberg was during the shooting; IMDB now lists him as an uncredited director on the film.
MGM-UA released “Poltergeist” a week after “E.T.,” with publicity piggybacking on the bigger film and creating significant confusion about who really deserved credit.”Poltergeist” received its own strong reviews and significant success, with an adjusted domestic gross of $231 million. However, the suggestion that Spielberg directed the film, with Hooper as a secondary creator, prevented the latter from receiving the career boost.
Significantly, Spielberg’s production company Amblin Entertainment proceeded with other projects that seemed ideal for Hooper — only, without Hooper. The omnibus “Twilight Zone” film the following year had episodes directed by Spielberg, “Mad Max” director George Miller, John Landis (“American Werewolf in London”) and Roger Corman protege Joe Dante (“The Howling”). Dante went on to become a major force at Amblin (“Gremlins,” “Innerspace”) and directed an episode of Spielberg’s TV anthology series “Amazing Stories.”
Still, Hooper had enough heft to next direct “Lifeforce,” a sci-fi horror film with double the budget of “Poltergeist” and one in which his creative control was unquestioned. An adaptation of Colin Wilson’s novel “Space Vampires,” the screenwriters included earlier “Alien” writer Dan O’Bannon. (Ironically, “Alien” director Ridley Scott cited “Texas Chainsaw” as a touchstone for his seminal sci-fi horror film.) It was the first in a three-picture deal Hooper signed with the notorious Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Israelis who broke into American film in the late ’70s and early ’80s with a series of tacky mid-range films, interspersed with the rare higher-end project (“Runaway Train”).
“Lifeforce” was Golan-Globus’ most-expensive project. Rather than use their own Cannon Releasing, they made a deal with TriStar Pictures for studio support. They also shot in the U.K., and spent more on production design and special effects rather than cast.
It flopped, receiving mediocre or worse reviews and grossed only $29 million (adjusted). Meantime, Hooper was still under contract. He reteamed with O’Bannon for a remake of the sci-fi classic “Invaders from Mars.” Made for half as much as “Lifeforce,” with a broader group of producers along with Golan-Globus, it too flopped in 1986.
The third was a semi-comedic sequel to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Released in 1986 to little notice, it gained a level of cult interest in its video release.
At this point, the damage was done. Meanwhile, his cult horror peers thrived. Craven made “Nightmare on Elm Street” in 1984 and was a regular studio hire. Romero made two more independent “Living Dead” sequels; both were hits. John Carpenter, whose 1978 “Halloween” (his third film, first horror) had a thriving career.
Not quite 45 years old, Hooper was in a career crisis. He did a number of network TV episodes over the following years, a couple made-for TV-movies, and a succession of independent horror films (“Spontaneous Combustion,” “The Mangler,” and “Toolbox Murders” among them). His name still had currency, particularly in home video and some foreign sales. But he never directed another major movie.
None of this should take away from his legacy and influence. It is likely that his retaining rights for “Chainsaw” gave him his biggest paydays in the latter years of his life, and he had producing and other credits on three remakes and sequels made since 2003.
However, it also serves as a case study of a career that stalled a decade after it began and never recovered. In that regard, he’s hardly unique. With increased non-theatrical movie opportunities, today’s hot-shot directors have a bigger range of options and opportunities But the biggest lesson may be the old cliche: You’re only as good as your last film.