Tobe Hooper: “I always wanted to work in the time before I was born”

The breakthrough film of American filmmaker Tobe Hooper (b. 1943), “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974), was an independent and groundbreaking thriller, and it turned out to become one of the most successful and influential horror films ever made. No more Christopher Lee coming out of a coffin; new rules were applied in the storytelling. Although not everybody’s favorite genre or favorite film, it did become a landmark in Tobe Hooper’s career. In later years, he made a most successful TV movie “Salem’s Lot” (1979) and high-profile blockbusters such as “Poltergeist” 1982), written and produced by Steven Spielberg, “Lifeforce” (1985), “Invaders From Mars” (1986, remake of the 1953 film classic) and the sequel “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2” (1986).

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Guest of honor, filmmaker Tobe Hooper, attending the Offscreen Film Festival in Brussels | Serena Emiliani/Offscreen

Mr. Hooper visited Belgium in March 2015, invited as the guest of honor by the Brussels Offscreen Film Festival, an event which tends to focus on independent filmmakers, classic cult films, and lesser-known film genres, and which is organized in collaboration with the Brussels Cinematek and Bozar (The Centre for Fine Arts, overlooking the city and yet buried underground).

The Festival featured a screening of a crystal clear digitally restored high-definition version of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” at the prestigious Henry le Bœuf Theater at Bozar. At one time labeled as cheap horror, four decades after its initial release now, the film looks stunning, and with Dolby Surround 7.1, it sounds as if it was shot yesterday. The low-cost production value has entirely been erased. Says Mr. Hooper: “Now, you see more, you hear more, and as a result, you get more caught up in the emotions.”

Tobe Hooper 3 poster Texas Chain Saw MassacreMr. Hooper, doesn’t it bother you that most of the questions you have to answer are about “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” [1974] as if this is the only film you made in your entire career?

There are not too many films in this ‘universal psyche,’ everything just seems to come together, so I do talk about the film a lot. But how fortunate can a person be to have made one film that does hold on to time? So I thank God that I have one of those.

“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” cost less than a $100,000 to make and grossed over $30,000,000 in the U.S. “Easy Rider” [1969] was the same kind of independent trendsetter. Budgeted at approximately $400,000, it grossed over $41,000,000 in the U.S. When did you realize that your film could become a success or a classic in its genre?

When I had finished the film and the 35mm blow up, the people at the lab started coming in and said, ‘This thing is awesome.’ I knew theoretically that it was working, but I was afraid to see the film with an audience, so I went to see the movie in a drive-in theater. It was full of cars. Halfway through the film, I would see tail lights of cars coming on. I thought, ‘They are all going to leave.’ And it kept happening; tail lights just kept going on. And then I noticed a reaction I was having: something was affecting my leg muscles, they were getting tight, my foot hit the brake pedal, and I was pushing it too, so my tail lights were coming on too. That clarified things for me; making genre films was about whether or not my leg muscles would tighten up. When Ridley Scott first saw the film, he came by with a hamburger, a Coca-Cola, and then the lights went down. At the end of the film, the lights came up, and he still had his hamburger and his Coca-Cola in front of him. That was a good sign.

Frank Capra and Preston Sturges were known for their screwball comedies, Hitchcock for his thrillers, and you are a filmmaker of horror films. Was that a choice of your own, or was it just by chance?

Well, it was my way to get from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles, where the big microphone is that reaches the rest of the world. Or at least, that was the place then. So I made it as a reaction; I came out of experimental films, the more European kind of filmmaking, with this mental and emotional process. “Eggshells” [1969], the first film I made, got no attention for me. It didn’t do anything to advance my career in film. I knew that I could do a little budget film and get enough money together again to do one more film, and I thought I would just have a better shot at making it a horror film because that would be commercial. And that could make it possible for me to get another job. That’s the reason why I made the film, so I could be noticed in Los Angeles, and hopefully, that would be my ticket to Los Angeles and to the film business. I didn’t want to lose integrity by doing that, but it is a business, and if they are going to distribute it in a lot of theaters, they have to spend money doing it. The studios need to have some expectation of making money, and I didn’t want to continue to make documentaries, so I brought all of my experimental feelings into the language of making it. But I was also able to get into this strange behavior of characters, and experiment with things that I really loved about cinema; the characters, the way they behave, the way they make you feel. There is also the sound of truth, and how you get that sound of truth. So I was continuing to experiment, and found what it took to make a good genre film, one that I could be proud of as a piece of cinema. So that was my approach.

A lot of the films you directed, you also produced, edited, you wrote scores and screenplays. Was that an advantage for you?

Yes, it was. For one thing, I had to learn to do all of those things because I had to be a one-man show at times, especially when I would get a commission to do a documentary or a TV commercial. It helped me because I didn’t need an editor, a cinematographer, or a composer. I could do it myself, even down to make-up. I had been doing these things since I was able to get hold of my parents’ 8mm camera by the time I was seven or eight years old. After I got home from school, I would start working on a little film. A lot of it was self-taught. Later I went to the library, reading American Cinematography and Sight and Sound. There were only a few publications back then about cinema, about how cinema was made. So yes, it was an advantage that I knew how to do it myself.

To what extent did it help you when you started making big-budget Hollywood studio films in the early 1980s?

I’ve always been involved intensely in post-production. In the old black and white days of cinema, there were many film directors that would shoot a movie and then turn it into post-production. Sometimes the director wouldn’t even visit post-production that much; they would be off shooting, directing the next film, and providing footage for the studio. When things were happening for me, it was a time that the European director had taken off as the auteur, and he had a great deal of control. There was a lot of attention: the spotlight was on the director. Even more so than in, let’s say, the Frank Capra days, there was a possessory in the credit that the directors had. When I started, it was ‘a film by’ with the director’s name above the title, and so I was lucky to hit that time, although I always wanted to work in the time before I was born.

You admire the old studio films that much?

Oh yes, I still do. In the States, there is a channel that shows those films all day long, Turner Classic Movies. I love it. We also have Time Warner cable. They have numerous channels, a lot of video on demand, films that you pay for to see, etc.

Did the old filmmakers influence you or encourage you to do what you do now?

Absolutely. I was an infant when I started watching movies. My Dad was a cinema fanatic. He took me every day to the movies; I didn’t want to play football or go to the golf school, I went straight to the cinema. Unless I was sick, I don’t think there was a day I missed going to the cinema for the first 25 years of my life, so to speak. Sometimes I would see two or three films a day, and at the drive-in, I saw B and C films, those throwaways because there is a lot to be learned from these films. You can learn what not to do. So that was just my way of life. I couldn’t make it through the day without seeing a movie. Even now, I see several films a day.

Tobe Hooper 4 PoltergeistHow did you get involved in “Poltergeist” [1982], which turned out to be your biggest box office success?

I had known Steven Spielberg [who produced “Poltergeist”] from the time I came to Los Angeles. We were talking one day, and I told him I wanted to do a ghost story. He liked the idea, and when I mentioned “The Haunting” [1963], a film classic by Robert Wise, it turned out it was also a favorite of his when he was growing up. So that was really the beginning of it.

How much of “Poltergeist” is yours? Because there have been a lot of rumors that Spielberg directed quite a lot as well?

That all started with an article in The Los Angeles Times. The first two weeks of filming were exterior shooting, and I needed shots in front of the house of the family. I was in the back of the house shooting Oliver Robins [who played the young boy of the family] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, and so Steven was doing the shot of the little race cars. The Los Angeles Times arrived on the set and printed something like, ‘We don’t really know who’s directing the picture.’ From there, it became its own legend. That is how I remember it; I was making the movie, and later on, I heard this stuff after it was finished. I really can’t set the record much straighter than that.

Offscreen Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
March 12, 2015

“Poltergeist” (1982, opening scene)


EGGSHELLS (1969) DIR – SCR – CAM Tobe Hooper PROD Tobe Hooper, David L. Ford, Raymond O’Leary ED Tobe Hooper, Robert Elkins CAST Ron Barnhart, Pamela Craig, Allen Danziger, Sharon Danziger, Mahlon Foreman, Boris Schnurr [Kim Henkel]

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) DIR – PROD Tobe Hooper SCR Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel (story by Tobe Hooper, Kim Henkel) CAM Daniel Pearl ED Sallye Richardson, Larry Carroll [J. Larry Carroll] MUS Tobe Hooper, Wayne Bell CAST Marilyn Burns, Gunnar Hansen, Edwin Neal, Allen Danziger, Paul A. Partain, William Vail

EATEN ALIVE (1977) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Alvin L. Fast, Mardi Rustam [Mohammed Rustam] SCR Mohammed Rustam, Alvin L. Fast (screen adaptation by Kim Henkel) CAM Robert Caramico ED Michael Brown MUS Tobe Hooper, Wayne Bell CAST Neville Band, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, William Finley, Stuart Whitman, Robert Englund

THE DARK (1979) DIR John ‘Bud’ Cardos, Tobe Hooper [uncredited] PROD John ‘Bud’ Carlos, Dick Clark, Edward L. Montoro SCR Stanford Whitmore CAM John Morrill [John Arthur Morrill] ED Martin Dreffke MUS Roger Kellaway CAST William Devane, Cathy Lee Crosby, Richard Jaeckel, Keenan Wynn, Warren Kemmerling [Warren J. Kemmerling], Casey Casem, Vivian Blaine

THE FUNHOUSE (1981) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Derek Power, Steven Bernhardt SCR Larry Block [Lawrence Block] CAM Andrew Laszlo ED Jack Hofstra MUS John Beal CAST Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Miles Chapin, Largo Woodruff, Sylvia Miles, William Finley, Kevin Conway

VENOM (1981) DIR Piers Haggard, Tobe Hooper [uncredited] PROD Martin Bregman SCR Robert Carrington (novel ‘Venom’ [1977] by Alan Scholefield) CAM Gilbert Taylor ED Michael Bradsell MUS Michael Kamen CAST Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Nicol Williamson, Sarah Miles, Sterling Hayden, Cornelia Sharpe, Lance Holcomb, Susan George

POLTERGEIST (1982) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall SCR Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor, Michael Grais (story by Steven Spielberg) CAM Matthew F. Leonetti ED Michael Kahn MUS Jerry Goldsmith CAST Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Beatrice Straight, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robbins, Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein

LIFEFORCE (1985) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus SCR Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby (novel ‘The Space Vampires’ [1976] by Colin Wilson) CAM Alan Hume ED John Grover MUS Henry Mancini CAST Steve Railsback, Frank Finlay, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard

INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus SCR Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby (screenplay INVADERS FROM MARS [1953] by Richard Blake) CAM Daniel Pearl ED Alain Jakubowicz MUS Christopher Young CAST Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman, James Karen, Louise Fletcher, Bud Cort, Jimmy Hunt

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus CO-PROD Tobe Hooper SCR L.M. Kit Carson CAM Richard Cooris ED Alain Jakubowicz MUS Tobe Hooper, Jerry Lambert CAST Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Bill Johnson, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION (1990) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Jim Rogers SCR Tobe Hooper, Howard Goldberg (story by Tobe Hooper) CAM Levie Isaacks ED David Kern MUS Graeme Revell CAST Brad Dourif, Cynthia Bain, Jon Cypher, William Prince, Dey Young, Melinda Dillon, Dale Dye, Dick Butkus, John Landis, Tobe Hooper, André De Toth

NIGHT TERRORS (1993) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Yoram Globus, Harry Alan Towers SCR Rom Globus, Daniel Matmor CAM Amnon Salomon ED Alain Jakubowicz MUS Dov Seltzer CAST Robert Englund, Chandra West, William Finley, Zoe Trilling, Alona Kimhi, Juliano Mer [Juliano Mer-Khamis]

THE MANGLER (1995) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Anath Singh SCR Tobe Hooper, Stephen Brooks [Stephen David Brooks], Peter Welbeck [Harry Alan Towers] CAM Amnon Salomon ED David Heitner MUS Barrington Pheloung CAST Robert Englund, Ted Levine, Daniel Matmor, Jeremy Crutchley, Vanessa Pike, Demetre Phillips, Misa Morris, Vera Brackler

TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Tony DiDio, Gary LaPoten, Terence S. Potter, Jacqueline Quella SCR Jace Anderson, Adam Gierasch CAM Steve Yedlin ED Andrew Cohen MUS Joseph Conlan CAST Angela Bettis, Brent Roam, Marco Rodríguez, Rance Howard, Juliet Landau, Adam Gierasch, Greg Travis

MORTUARY (2005) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Tony DiDio, Peter Katz, E.L. Katz SCR Jace Anderson, Adam Gierasch CAM Jaron Presant ED Andrew Cohen MUS Joseph Conlan CAST Dan Byrd, Denise Crosby, Rocky Marquette, Stephanie Patton, Alexander Adi, Courtney Peldon, Bug Hall, Adam Gierasch

DESTINY EXPRESS REDUX (2009) DIR – SCR Tobe Hooper PROD Eric Laughlin CAM Darren Allen CAST Claire Craft, Helen Leary, Theo Morrison

DJIN (2013) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Tim Smythe, Daniela Tully SCR David Tully CAM Joel Ransom ED Andrew Cohen MUS BC Smith CAST Aiysha Hart, Razane Jammal, Ahd, Soumaya Akaaboune, Khalid Laith, Paul Luebke, Kristina Coker, Carol Abboud, Saoud Al Kaabi


SALEM’S LOT (1979) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Richard Kobritz TELEPLAY Paul Monash (novel ‘Salem’s Lot’ [1978] by Stephen King) CAM Jules Brenner ED Tom Pryor, Carroll Sax MUS Harry Sukman CAST David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb, Elisha Cook [Elisha Cook, Jr.], George Dzundza, Ed Flanders, Geoffrey Lewis, Kenneth McMillan, Marie Windsor

I’M DANGEROUS TONIGHT (1990) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD – TELEPLAY Bruce Lansbury, Philip John Taylor (short story by Cornell Woolrich) CAM Levie Isaacks ED Carl Kress MUS Nicholas Pike CAST Anthony Perkins, Dee Wallace-Stone [Dee Wallace], Madchen Amick, Corey Parker, Daisy Hall, R. Lee Ermey, Natalie Schafer, Jason Brooks

BODY BAGS (1993) DIR Tobe Hooper (segment ‘Eye’), John Carpenter (segments ‘The Gas Station’, ‘Hair’) PROD Sandy King, Dan Angel SCR Billy Brown, Dan Angel CAM Gary Kibbe [Gary B. Kibbe] ED Edward A. Warschilka MUS John Carpenter, Jim Lang CAST [segment ‘Eye’] Mark Hamill, Twiggy, John Agar, Roger Corman, Charles Napier, Eddie Velez; [segment ‘The Morgue’] Tobe Hooper, John Carpeneter, Tom Arnold

THE APARTMENT COMPLEX (1999) DIR Tobe Hooper PROD Scott McAboy SCR Karl Schaefer CAM Jacques Haitkin ED Andy Horvitch MUS Mark Adler CAST Chad Lowe, Fay Masterson, Obba Babatundé, Patrick Warburton, Amanda Plummer, Ron Canada, Miguel Sandoval, Tyra Banks

SHADOW REALM (2002) DIR Tobe Hooper (segment ‘The Maze’), Keith Gordon (segment ‘Patterns’), Paul Shapiro (segment ‘Harmony’), Ian Toynton (segment ‘Voices’) PROD Robert Petrovicz SCR Damian Kindler, Will Dixon (segment ‘Voices’); Jose Rivera, Steve Aspis, Philip Levens (segments ‘’The Maze’, ‘Patterns’, ‘Harmony’) CAM Andreas Poulsson ED Ken Bornstein, Michael Russo, Robert L. Sinise MUS George S. Clinton CAST Malcolm McDowell, Miguel Ferrer, Amanda Plummer, Shirley Knight, Anna Hagen, Giacomo Baessato