October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best Tobe Hooper horror movies is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Tobe Hooper wasn’t just a master of horror. He was one of the genre’s first American auteurs, translating his socio-political perspectives on the world into terrifying visions of small-town USA. Now you may think, “Woah, wait a minute, but what about George A. Romero? Night of the Living Dead clearly has socio-political undertones, and that came out years before Hooper’s debut film Eggshells.” And you would be right! But Romero has stated time and again in interviews that the casting of Duane Jones was not intended to make a direct commentary on race relations during the Civil Rights Movement. Hooper, however, was very intentional from the beginning of his career at making his films more than the sum of their parts. As he told the Austin Chronicle, “The influences in my life were all kind of politically, socially implanted.”
But through a frustrating and demoralizing fight over authorship at the peak of his career, the artistry and intellectualism that underlines much of Hooper’s oeuvre has been obscured. The controversy shifted the tides of his career, dragging him away from the acclaim he had been working so hard to achieve and out into a disreputable sea of mega-budgeted shlock and straight-to-video fare.
Hooper was never one to quit, though. With each film, he still found ways to experiment and reinvent himself. As he said in an interview for the l’Etrange Festival in 2010, “I’m still a film student. I continuously learn. You’ve seen directors that they hit a style and they stick with it, but if I did that, I’d turn into a piece of glass. I’d be useless.”
That’s why, even though his films have many imperfections, Hooper remained daring, curious, and naturally ridiculous. I mean, how can you deny the pure cinema of a crocodile covering up a murder like it’s Norman Bates or a deadly Aztec artifact that also doubles as a hot little cocktail dress? You’ll either be happy, or disappointed, to know that neither of those two films made The Boo Crew’s cut, but like all of Hooper’s films, each contains genuine substance that’s worthy of your attention. Join Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, Valerie Ettenhofer, and myself as we crack open a Dr. Pepper and wheedle the Hoopsters varied filmography down its bare horror essentials.
10. Toolbox Murders (2004)
If you’ve ever wanted to witness the power of indefinite articles firsthand, look no further than 2004’s Toolbox Murders which is definitely not to be confused with 1978’s The Toolbox Murders. Tobe Hooper’s remake follows a young couple who’ve just moved to a new apartment in Hollywood. While Steve works himself silly at the local hospital, the immediately suspicious Nell (Angela Bettis) can’t shake the feeling that their new home is extra shitty, not just “loud neighbors and black mold” shitty. Sure enough, as the bodies of her fellow tenants begin to pile up, Nell starts to research the building’s history, discovering an occult conspiracy and a monstrous manifestation of Hollywood’s nasty, exploitative history. The peeling wallpaper can barely contain the rotting dreams and vicious hunger that powers the machinery of Tinseltown. And once the edifice’s superficial charms begin to peel away, all that’s left is a predatory impulse fueled by heartless sacrifice. For all its mid-2000s silliness and predictability, this ferociously fun late-career slasher has more than enough interesting ideas and crunchy direction to still feel interesting after all these years. Toolbox Murders wears its sleaze on its sleeve, and much like the film’s decrepit high-rise, this genre flick has a lot of character beneath all that grime. (Meg Shields)
9. Eaten Alive (1976)
After Tobe Hooper made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hollywood wasn’t calling just yet. But that doesn’t mean no one was calling. He was serendipitously connected with screenwriter Alvin L. Fast and producer Mardi Rustam, who had a hand in various exploitation films, from the likes of Al Adamson and Greydon Clark to the infamous Pets. The goal was to capitalize on the success of Jaws, just swapping out Bruce the shark for – as the French title so aptly put it – a death crocodile.
Despite a commanding performance from Neville Brand, the film loses the artistry and intensity of Texas Chain Saw, which Hooper was more than aware of, “I accepted that I was making a grindhouse movie, and I do remember accepting, at that moment, that this film won’t go to the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes.” But it’s within the film’s surrealistic lighting and overall twilight dreaminess that the substance of Eaten Alive emerges, and the intention behind everything Hooper does comes to the surface. As he said in an interview for the film’s physical release, “I wanted to create an unreal world. If I’m going to do this, and really commit to it, then hell… I’ll do it my way, and make something I hadn’t seen before.” (Jacob Trussell)
8. Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
After Tobe Hooper’s contract with Cannon Films expired post-Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, he became a director-for-hire as he entered the 1990s, shooting episodes of TV shows like Amazing Stories and The Equalizer to TV movies like I’m Dangerous Tonight. The films he still managed to make during this period, though, continued his interests in the horrors residing within the American Dream, like the evils of capitalism as represented by a demonic laundry press or the hereditary horrors of atomic radiation testing featured in Spontaneous Combustion.
The film is a scattershot of ideas that don’t always work, but when it does, it’s through the power of a tightly wound and quite literally explosive performance from Brad Dourif. If that’s not enough for you, what if I told you it features some of Hooper’s most striking cinematic images and a random cameo by a Hollywood director that leads to a deliriously satisfying and well-deserved death scene. (Jacob Trussell)
7. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)
When Tobe Hooper placed his stamp on the world of horror with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, he set the bar incredibly high. Attempting to capture lightning in a bottle a second time with a sequel could have been career suicide. Rather than try to ramp up the sheer terror and dread of the first film, Hooper wisely used The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 as an opportunity to have a little fun with the Sawyer Family. Leaning hard into the camp, TCM 2 is equal parts gory and goofy. Sure, Leatherface and the fellas still have a taste for human flesh, but they also like to party! Picking up a few years after the events of the first film, the Sawyer clan has managed to evade police capture while continuing to chainsaw folks to bits and pieces. A former Texas Ranger with a personal vendetta – played by a gloriously unhinged Dennis Hopper – is determined to hunt them down and get revenge for his niece and nephew. Throw in a dancing Leatherface, a chainsaw fight, and a new member of the family named Chop-Top, and you’ve got yourself a mighty fine bowl of chili. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 may not be Hooper’s best film, but it’s arguably his most fun. Bonus points have been awarded for the cheeky poster that riffs on The Breakfast Club. (Chris Coffel)
6. Salem’s Lot (1979)
Technically, Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of one of Stephen King’s first great works is a miniseries, but with just two episodes and a runtime well under 4 hours, it’s essentially just a movie split into two parts. Salem’s Lot has a big-screen update coming next year, but in the meantime, Hooper’s version stands as the definitive adaptation of King’s story about a Maine town whose residents are turning into vampires.
As a TV movie airing in the late ‘70s, Salem’s Lot couldn’t get gory, so it relied on a sense of ever-building dread as former Jerusalem’s Lot resident Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to the place he grew up to write a book about an old, potentially haunted house on the outskirts of town. The adaptation works in large part thanks to its creepy visuals, as Hooper imagines the vampires as grey-blue-skinned, religion-fearing monsters with reflective eyes like an animal caught in headlights. Plus, King’s small-town story pairs well with Hooper’s obvious fascination with the idea of sinister forces tearing down the status quo and threatening the nuclear family. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
This list of the best Tobe Hooper directed horror movies concludes on the next page…
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