RIP Tobe Hooper, Director of the Film That Changed Modern Horror Forever

Director Tobe Hooper created one of the most influential horror films ever made back in 1974 with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and almost a half a century later it's still changing the genre.

The horror film community has lost another great. Director Tobe Hooper, famous for helming The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Poltergeist, passed away yesterday in Los Angeles of natural causes. His legacy: a trail of blood, bone, and whatever Chop Top scraped off of his metal-plated head in Chainsaw 2. 

Though his career consisted mostly of obscure TV movies, Hooper's iconic chainsaw-wielding madman and his brood of flesh-eating cannibals not only changed the course of an entire genre but changed the course of the director's career, effectively turning him into one of the most influential filmmakers in modern horror. 

I mean, you can't talk about slashers, low-budget filmmaking, or even found footage film without first talking about his 1974 indie masterpiece The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. 

Film as Commentary

The film, which used relatively unknown Texan actors, turned the genre on its head. Up until its release, horror films largely followed the classic formula: monster + victim = scares; Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are classics, but even Hitchcock's avian killers in The Birds, Mario Bava's witch in Black Sunday, and Roman Polanski's demon child in Rosemary's Baby, offered little variation to the popular horror trope.

But Hooper, like his fellow horror artist George Romero, used cinema as a vehicle for social commentary not only with great subtlety but also with great cruelty. This unflinching savagery reflects what many Americans felt about the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, including Hooper, and Leatherface, along with his cannibalistic family, were perfect representatives of "the massacres and atrocities" that happened there. In his book Return of the Power Tool Killer, Hooper tells author John W. Bowen about his experience seeing images of the war on TV. 

The lack of sentimentality and the brutality of things...showing brains spilled all over the road. Man was the real monster here, just wearing a different face, so I put a literal mask on the monster in my film.

TCM was a Slasher Before Slashers Even Existed

Before Jason, Freddy, and Michael Meyers, there was Leatherface, but Hooper's maniac differs from the modern maniacs of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Sean S. Cunningham, and Victor Miller. It is reported that Hooper allowed actor Gunnar Hansen, who played the iconic villain, to develop the Leatherface character and to freely incorporate characteristics that he felt were authentic to the role. According to the Boston Globe:

Before production, Mr. Hansen entered method-acting mode. He visited pigs to perfect his squeal. He spent time at a school for the developmentally disabled. And to build stamina for chasing co-stars with a chainsaw, he started jogging. The actor prepared, and cast and crew decamped to the Hill Country to commit their squalid tale to celluloid. And there, the real suffering began.

The difference between Leatherface and the killers in 80s slasher films like Friday the 13th, Halloween,  and A Nightmare on Elm Street is a little difficult to define. He's not superhuman. He can't teleport. He's not a ghost (or something) that lives in your dreams and waits patiently for you to fall asleep so he can slice you in half with his homemade finger-knife glove. Perhaps the most glaring element that separates Leatherface from the madmen to come after him is the presence of innocence and suffering in the world that the chainsaw-wielding villain finds himself in. Not only was he created to have developmental disabilities, you get the sense throughout the film that he too has come under the thumb of his abusive family and undoubtedly spent his fair share of time strung up on the proverbial (or literal) meat hook.

The First Breaths of Found Footage

There are many things going on in Chainsaw that hinted at the future of found footage film. The beginning of the film, Chainsaw claims to be inspired by actual events, much like The Blair Witch Project, and the story behind this is multi-layered. On one hand, you've got the Ed Gein story; Leatherface was based on serial killer Ed Gein who crafted lamp shades, clothing, and masks from the skin of his victims. On the other hand, you've got the lesser known story told by Hooper in an interview; he says he intentionally misinformed his audience in the same way "the government [lied] about things that were going on all over the world."

Hooper also used unknown Texan actors, ones who appeared in commercials, obscure TV shows, and other similar projects. This could have been in part due to the film's low budget, which was reported to be between $140K and $300K, but it could also have been Hooper's intentional stylistic choice to give the project a low-budget, doc-style aesthetic.

Claims of authenticity, low budgets, and unknown actors would become cornerstones to the found footage genre, but the documentary-style in which the film was shot is perhaps the biggest contributor, and Hooper's experience as a documentary cameraman in the 60s certainly influenced the handheld camera work.

Tobe Hooper

When the horror genre consisted largely of intellectual musings of filmmakers fascinated by classic monsters, Hooper captured the real-life fears of a world ravaged by despicable displays of terror and cruelty and put them on the screen with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The film was and continues to be influential to so many filmmakers, including Rob Zombie, Ridley Scott, and Nicholas Winding Refn.

The filmmaking community owes Tobe Hooper a debt of gratitude, not just for the scares, but for his positive influence on indie filmmaking, his role in the evolution of the horror genre, and for making country roads in Texas longer, emptier, and more terrifying than anyone ever could. So maybe tonight's the night you pop some popcorn, turn off your human flesh lamp, and pop in Hooper's masterpiece to commemorate his terrifying contribution to the horror genre.     

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