Austin native Tobe Hooper is best known for writing and directing one of the most influential horror movies ever made, 1974's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." In conjunction with the release of "Texas Chainsaw 3D," the latest entry in the controversial franchise, Hooper sat down with the Austin Classic Movies Examiner to discuss the new film, his career, and his beginnings as a filmmaker in the late '60s.
"I was in Austin, making a lot of TV commercials, PSAs, documentaries. We had a little company called Film House, about five of us. We could even do post-production, although we had to get the 16-millimeter film developed in Dallas or over at channel seven.We did Farrah Fawcett's first professional work...We made a film called 'Eggshells' [a restored version screened at the 2009 South by Southwest Film Festival], a true hippie film, from the sandals up! It was about the beginning and end of a subculture."
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was banned in several countries upon its release. England banned the film for 23 years. The visceral terror evoked by the movie comes not from explicit gore and violence, but from Hooper's use of POV, the power of suggestion, and his creation of an all-encompassing atmosphere of dread. In the wake of the Newtown school massacre, film violence has once again become a hot-button issue. Hooper is not sold on the connection between screen violence and the violence endemic in American society: "I don't know how to respond. It's all a part of the same thing. The dark side of human nature...I don't think a horror movie is going to inspire a copycat, certainly not one running around with a chainsaw."
The original inspiration for "Texas Chainsaw" came from a now-defunct local mall. "I was holiday shopping, and I've always hated crowds...I was in the hardware department, and there was a row of chainsaws in front of me. I thought, 'Oh man, if I just start the motor. They will part and I'll clear this place without any struggle.' On the drive home, the whole story came to me. It was like a gift. One of those things I haven't experienced since."
Upon returning home, he wrote the original treatment for the film in a breathless rush, while listening to Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" double album. "It's a beautiful music, but also very dark."
After the success of "Texas Chainsaw," Hooper relocated to L.A., where the heretofore independent filmmaker had to adapt to working within the studio system. He was hired and fired from "The Dark," "Venom," and "Poltergeist" ("Uh, no comment..."). He found success on the small screen with his adaptation of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot," with David Soul. "I loved working with Lew Ayres on 'Salem's Lot.' He taught me so much. We became great friends working on that."
Perhaps Hooper's most ambitious film is 1985's science fiction cult classic "Lifeforce," made in England and shot in 70-millimeter. "Every director wants to work in 70. It just looks so great. All that light coming through the frame."
The following year, Hooper made "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2," the first sequel to the original film (there have since been another five sequels/remakes) starring Dennis Hopper. The tone of the film is decidedly different from the nightmarish 1974 film. There is a lot more gore in the film, as well as a lot more humor. "What I wanted to do was comedy. It was the era of John Hughes [the poster art was a parody of 'The Breakfast Club,' by the way]. But it was the bloodiest film I ever made. The original isn't that bloody."
Hooper is not a fan of a lot of modern horror films and so-called "torture porn." He maintains that "A lot of them don't seem to have the substance of a real movie. They don't want the audience to think. That comes from the top. Somewhere high above where the money comes from. Everything needs to be explained."
While he's not a fan of some of the more recent versions of "Texas Chainsaw," he likes the latest one. "They studied why the original film works, by breaking conventions, not doing it as the Hollywood version...Also, the 3D is really good. I'm turning into a fan of 3D. It's so different than the 1950s kind of 3D. This has such depth."
On the enduring appeal of Leatherface, Hooper speculates, "There's just something about him. Leatherface has family problems. There's dysfunction in that family."
Hooper continues to work as a director, a testament to his stamina. "I'm lucky enough to have been doing this for 40 years. Most directors tend to burn out after about ten years...I try not to do the same thing twice. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't."