Maybe it's just the title, but Tobe Hooper's low-budget 1974 film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a reputation that extends well beyond those who have seen it. Shot in Texas by a director of documentary and industrial films who had never before received national attention, it seemed to come out of nowhere. But the distance of time allows Chainsaw to be seen as part of a new wave of American horror films (from Night Of The Living Dead through Last House On The Left and onward) that arrived in response to the turbulence of the '60s and '70s, a topic covered in the compelling new Independent Film Channel documentary The American Nightmare. Chainsaw is far different from what might be expected: Though short on neither chainsaws nor massacres, Hooper's technical mastery and unrelentingly creepy use of atmosphere make it work. Released to a shocked public, Chainsaw went on to attract attention at Cannes and earn a place in the permanent collection of the Museum Of Modern Art. After Chainsaw, Hooper left Texas for Hollywood, where he spent a decade alternating between high-profile projects (such as the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot) and low-budget efforts (Eaten Alive, The Funhouse). In 1982, he helmed another modern classic, the Spielberg-produced haunted-suburbia film Poltergeist. Shortly thereafter, he signed a deal with Cannon Pictures that yielded the eccentric genre exercises Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars, as well as 1986's underrated, darkly comic Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Appearing during a morality scare similar to today's, it became an object of ratings controversy due to its violence. The past decade has found Hooper splitting his time between television projects and horror films such as The Mangler and Crocodile. In the process of preparing two new films, Hooper reflected on his career with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: The chief assertion of The American Nightmare is that the '70s horror films were largely a response to the social unrest of the time. How much do you think that applies to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
Tobe Hooper: Well, 100 percent. We were out of gas in the country at the time, and it boiled up out of those times. It's all true, the content of the film, actually. People were put out of jobs, they were out of gas at the gas station. It was actually pretty amazing that my consciousness was there. When I saw the documentary, I was really surprised to see that Romero, Carpenter, and Craven were all there, in that mindset. It all bubbled up out of that. Personally, I found that really incredible.
O: If you want to look at it another way, though, it does kind of have a fairy-tale quality to it, a kind of timelessness.
TH: Definitely. I intended to stylize it like a Grimm's fairy tale. You're in some kind of archetype the moment you start seeing it. It's almost like Hansel and Gretel: You pick up the bread crumbs and one person continues to follow the other.
O: It was an interesting choice to make the villains a family. How did that come about?
TH: The whole thing came to me in a flash. I was standing in a hardware store, and it came to me instantly as kind of a reaction, I think, to another project I had been working on that was about a house and isolation. This thing gelled really rapidly: I had the idea, I called my writing partner [Kim Henkel], and we started working on it that night. We had the script finished in a matter of three weeks, and it seemed like it went very rapidly, almost as if it were meant to be in the jet stream.
O: How did you assemble the cast?
TH: I had worked with Jim Siedow, who plays the cook, and the rest of the people I got from around the University Of Texas. I had worked with one of the actors—the driver of the van—on a film called Eggshells that was about a commune house for the subculture: Guys were coming back from Vietnam, and the subculture was beginning to split apart and go back out into the mainstream, even though they didn't know it. One of the actors came from that picture, and the rest were local people.
O: What was the release pattern like?
TH: In those days, they would cycle them around, 600 theaters at a time, so it took a month or so to go across the country. But it started playing first in New York and L.A., and then the Museum Of Modern Art purchased a print for their permanent collection, and then Rex Reed gave it a great review. The film just kind of took off. It was the high film at the Directors Fortnight at Cannes that year, too.
O: At what point did it become a national scandal and come to be cited as an example of an extreme horror film?
TH: That was right away. Right away. That actually started happening at the test screening at Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Word of mouth just ran like crazy. The film was re-released by three different distribution companies over a period of about eight years, and put out again in first-run position. It seemed like once a year it would come out again and make its way across the country.
O: Did enough people recognize its artistic merit at the time, or do you think it's only slowly come to be recognized?
TH: No, it was recognized straight away, and it was recognized in London, as well. It came out around the same time in London, and it was Outstanding Film Of The Year for the London Film Festival. It had awards all around the world. It was recognized primarily as kind of an art film, in a way.
O: Were you making Eaten Alive while it was in theaters?
TH: It probably did sweep through the theaters while I was doing Eaten Alive, which was originally called Death Trap.
O: That film just got lost for a while. What happened with that?
TH: It was released—I don't know how many theaters played it—but I don't quite know what happened with it. It was one of those films where I got a call to come out to L.A. to do it, and I said, "Sure, let me take a look." I flew out and I've been here ever since.
O: During the glut of slasher films in the '80s, did you ever look at it and say, "Oh, no, what have I done?"
TH: Well, I… No, I don't recall those feelings. The only thing I recall is this definition of the slasher film coming around. Chainsaw was released in 1974. Is that when the slasher genre happened, in the '80s?
O: I'd say Halloween [in 1978] really got the ball rolling, but the early '80s would be when the genre really peaked.
TH: Right. I was probably working on a vampire film or something like that, and I don't recall those feelings. I do recall saying that I didn't care for "slashers" as a definition for films.
O: Why is that?
TH: Well, I don't think it described… I didn't like my film being lumped in with that definition, and I would read it described in the press under that definition. I just didn't feel it belonged there, so it was kind of a personal observation of my own work and the work I'd been doing, and I just didn't feel it belonged in that. For one thing, I just didn't care to categorize things that way. I don't know which came first, the definition or the movies they pull the definition from.
O: Did you ever want to work outside the horror genre?
TH: Absolutely. In fact, I finished a comedy last year, and I'm working on a comedy and a film noir that's kind of a fun, retro-feeling film. I started in comedy, and to me, one of the things I love about Chainsaw is the dark comedy that's obviously in it. An example is a line they quote a lot in screenings: "Look what your brother's done to the door." It's kind of ironic, dark comedy. But it was years until anyone recognized that aspect of it, I guess because it filled the senses in such a direction. "Don't go into the woods. You don't know what's out there." I don't think the comedy was seen until later.
O: How did you come to direct Poltergeist?
TH: I'd known Steven Spielberg from the time I came to L.A. He and I were talking, and I said I wanted to do a ghost story. And he said, "Cool." I mean, I don't know if he said "cool," but he said let's do it. I mentioned The Haunting, the Robert Wise film, and that had also been a favorite of Steven's when he was growing up. So it came out of that moment.
O: History has shifted some of the credit toward Spielberg. Can you set the record straight on that?
TH: I've kind of talked that one to death, really. I've been asked that so many times that I feel the record should be straight already. The genesis of it came from an article in The L.A. Times: When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house. I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me. The L.A. Times arrived on the set and printed something like, "We don't know who's directing the picture." The moment they got there, Steven was shooting the shot of the little race cars, and from there the damn thing blossomed on its own and started becoming its own legend. Really, that is my knowledge of it, because I was making the movie and then I started hearing all this stuff after it was finished. I really can't set the record much straighter than that, because Steven did write the screenplay and there are other credits on there, but it came down to Steven and myself sitting at his house. He wrote the screenplay, and we gathered around a poltergeist textbook for the research, which was actually Robert Wise's research book that he had on The Haunting. When I got my offices at Universal, a couple of books had been left behind. Robert Wise had just moved out. It's an interesting connection, kind of logical, because there had only been a few ghost stories on film that had made it, or that had worked: The Uninvited, The Haunting... You can put Legend Of Hell House in there because it was a kind of successful film. But then Poltergeist. It's curious that this ghost-and-haunting subject had kind of been untapped.
O: The Haunting set the bar pretty high.
TH: It really did.
O: Were you reluctant to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2?
TH: Yes, I was. I was just going to produce it and I couldn't find a director. Literally, I couldn't find anyone my budget would afford, a director whose work I knew, so I ended up running out of time and directing it myself. In doing so, I amplified the comedy and, I think, gave the general audience exactly what they did not want. I think they expected more of the same.
O: I'd heard such bad things about it, but I really enjoyed it, in large part because of the comedy.
TH: It's crazy as hell. It's a film that's just loony. But at least I got a chance to make a comedy—a very grim comedy—that is receiving an acknowledgement for its stylization. In the past four or five years, it's being seen for the first time.
O: It's very much of its time, with the family becoming successful through their barbecue and other capitalist '80s touches.
TH: I can't help but be a part of the times. I just think that film, for the serious filmmaker, is an osmosis of the times. That's usually what I tap for my resources: I look around at what's happening politically and economically. I don't know, it's all over me anyway. I'm totally absorbed in things like CNN.
O: At the time of Chainsaw 2, you made several films for Cannon [the ultra-prolific, Israeli-based studio run by Maneham Golan and Yoram Globus best known for such films as Breakin', Missing In Action, and Masters Of The Universe]. How was that relationship?
TH: Cannon was really a good company to work for, actually. They made hundreds of movies. They did not have that many hit films, but both Yoram and Maneham just loved movies. They loved films and loved the filmmakers and really treated them well. Or at least they treated me well, and I'm sure they treated most people well if they loved making films. I had a three-picture deal with them, and they basically said, "Do what you want to do." There was some guidance, but not like today. It seemed more, when I was there, like maybe what the old system was like. I miss it. I miss that kind of showmanship and chance-taking.
O: Do you object to the term "B movie"?
TH: Well, it's an old term that comes from when there really were A and B movies from the studio system. Today, I don't really know what that means. I don't know how it applies, because some films may be considered B movies that are A movies and a lot of films are A movies that some people may consider B movies.
O: The reason I ask is because it seems like Cannon was one of the last companies that worked at a particular budgetary level, producing films to fill a niche with some creative freedom for the directors. That's sorely missing these days.
TH: It is. They had A pictures out, Cannon did, but you had more freedom and more control. It is missed, because when they… There wasn't the DVD market there is now, and so a lot of their films have been bought out by different companies. Now, the product moves around from one corporation to the other and goes to appreciate a nice video release.
O: Lifeforce strikes me as a film on which you must have had a lot of creative freedom. It's a very eccentric movie.
TH: Yeah, it is. It's interesting, the way I was encouraged to just keep going. Its source material was Colin Wilson's Space Vampires, and the movie I was shooting was Space Vampires. That puts it in a framework. In itself, the title acts as a springboard for a way of looking at the film. And with Space Vampires, I think because of the amount of money it cost, there was an allergic reaction to that being a B title after shooting it—from myself, as well. I vacillated on the idea of the more serious approach, which was not really right for the film, which does not try to be 2001. However, that title and the promotional campaign when it was released… I think I projected the idea that the film is more serious than expected.
O: What do you think of the current debate over violent entertainment?
TH: [Pauses.] Let me see if I can put this correctly. It's messing with the First Amendment, it seems. It's troublesome in that way, and because there's a problem with messing with the continuity of the national psyche. It's difficult any time you mess with the tribal consciousness, the expectations of the country's psyche. It seems like censorship in a way that is not productive, constructive, or helpful.
O: There's a quote from the documentary where someone said of the early '70s that all that bad karma had to go somewhere, and that it's better to channel it into films than into other places.
TH: It really is.
O: I think if you lose that means of expression for violent thoughts and the darker sentiments of human existence, you're in trouble.
TH: It's both a catharsis and a safe darkness. When I was shooting in the '60s, making documentaries for the end of the Kennedy Title 3 Advanced Educational Programming, I saw things like effigies of one's boss that the employees could take it out on at lunch break and have a release. I think there are potential problems with restricting what anybody can see. It is, after all, a safe darkness and a place for a certain kind of release.
O: Children tend to be used as a smokescreen for people who have other reasons for wanting to suppress things.
TH: Yeah, I feel that way. Can you imagine how much injury there is on the way to and from the cinema? I don't know if that makes any sense.
O: I'm not sure what you're getting at.
TH: I'm talking about car accidents in ratio to any kind of thing that cinema has "caused." I give kids more credit than that. I mean, my God, they're… I'm having such a problem with some of the things that are being said now [about kids], in terms of responsibility.
O: It seems like the same debate every 10 years, or whatever the cycle is.
TH: Yeah, and it is. I recall, when I was a little boy, the changeover in music from one style to what eventually became rock 'n' roll. There was a lot of negative press about rock 'n' roll, just the way Elvis Presley moved his body on The Ed Sullivan Show. That caused an outrage. But the kids are really smart. They are sharp and they're not yet bent over by the system. I think there's a wonderful intelligence in today's youth, and it's a part of growing up.
O: You're working on two films now. What can you tell me about them?
TH: That one's a comedy and one is kind of a suspenseful noir thriller in the Dark Passage/Bogart tradition. That's kind of about it, really. I can't get into detail about them yet.
O: Is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the film you'd want to be remembered for?
TH: It's probably the film I will be remembered for. And it was a complete piece insofar as things were really working and not compromised by a committee. That's a tough question to answer, because it will be the film, just as Gone With The Wind was Selznick's. I think it's on his tombstone.