Collins’ Crypt: Thoughts On Tobe Hooper’s Cannon Days

On the director's last great hurrah. 

One of my good friends (I won't embarrass him with identification) swears that Tobe Hooper has never made a bad movie. He later amended it to "bad theatrically released movie," but he's still wrong, since I remember being disappointed my mom wouldn't take me to see The Mangler, only to thank her later when I rented that piece of crap on VHS. His dreadfully boring Spontaneous Combustion (how do you screw up Brad Dourif with the power to make people explode?) also had a minor theatrical release. In fact, he's only made one good movie in the past 25 years or so, and that's the remake of The Toolbox Murders, which didn't go theatrical as far as I know.

No, when it comes to big-screen delivery, Hooper's last hurrah was a mid-'80s trifecta from Cannon Films: Lifeforce, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Invaders From Mars, the latter making its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Scream Factory next week. As he relates on the new commentary for Mars, when looking for a project after Poltergeist (please, no "Spielberg directed it" stuff - it's all been said and who cares? It's a great movie and it's got both their fingerprints on it), Golan and Globus approached him with the novel Space Vampires, asking him if he'd like to direct. Somehow that turned into a three picture deal, with Space Vampires (retitled Lifeforce) going first and getting the bulk of the money. These productions were jammed together, which might account for why the middle one - Mars - is the weakest, as he was still finishing up Lifeforce when he had to start production on it, and then a rushed production for Chainsaw 2 probably meant no one had time to second guess anything. Still, it's interesting that a guy who made his mark with one of the most beloved original horror films of all time would wrap up the most prolific era of his career with a trio of non-originals: an adaptation, a remake and a sequel.

Lifeforce is my personal favorite of the lot; admittedly, it's got a few issues and as I explored here, the two versions of the film each have their pros/cons, suggesting the best possible version may lie somewhere in between. But either one delivers great stuff - an eclectic cast (Patrick Stewart, Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, etc), some nifty FX and of course Mathilda May, who could be considered a special effect as well. It's not much like anything else in Hooper's career; while Poltergeist had some minor sci-fi elements and some of his later work did as well, it's never really played for scares, and the scope is much larger than anything else he ever did (fitting, since it has the biggest budget of any of his films). Unfortunately, like most of Cannon's attempts to join the big leagues by sinking a ton of money into a higher profile project than their usual action flicks, the film tanked, earning only a little over $10 million back of its $25-30m budget. According to Hooper, the marketing was partially to blame - they tried to make it look too serious ("like 2001," per Hooper) and downplayed its sillier elements. The title may have changed, but it was still about space vampires after all, and maybe if they played up the more adventurous/fun aspects it would have fared better. There wasn't much competition for horror or sci-fi when it opened (unless you count Cocoon), so it stands to reason that the same audience that would turn that summer's Fright Night into a hit would have turned out if they knew that Lifeforce wasn't serious, meditative sci-fi.

As for Invaders From Mars' similar misfortune the following summer, it's easier to peg the problem. It opened against Space Camp, which likely split up the "family sci-fi" audience, and (this must have stung Hooper) Poltergeist II was still doing well in its third week, so it just had a bad slot. But it's also not that great of a movie; Hooper (and screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Don Jakoby) curiously stuck very close to the original 1953 film, leaving their narrative with few surprises (it even retains the obnoxious twist ending). Its main draw is the FX, some of which don't hold up to scrutiny - the first UFO shot is particularly ugly, though if you consider the twist ending perhaps all bad FX (and plotting, and performances, and...) can be chalked up to an artistic choice. Somehow I doubt it.

The two leads are the biggest problems. The kid playing David is painfully stiff and awkward, which cripples the adventure since it's all from his POV. There's no joy in criticizing a young actor's performance, but there's no way around it; there are scenes where he's talking to people who have been taken over by Martians and they are far more human-sounding than he is! Sadly, he's Oscar-worthy compared to (actual Oscar nominee) Karen Black, who starts off okay when she's just playing a concerned and protective school nurse, but once she realizes there's real danger and David's stories aren't made up, the part of Black's brain that regulated her acting choices clearly shut down, as she starts screaming nearly all of her lines (between this and ID4, I never need to hear an over-actor shouting "DAAAAAAAVID!" ever again) and generally acting like a psychotic person. I'm not even exaggerating when I say that it might be one of the most shrill and obnoxious performances I've ever seen from a respected actor.

So it's no surprise that the film's best bits involve David's parents (Laraine Newman and Timothy Bottoms) trying to pass off as human, with Newman pouring salt on raw meat and Bottoms guzzling steaming hot coffee, or Bud Cort and James Karen as the scientist and military general trying to prevent a Martian takeover. For a nice change of pace in an alien film, the military is helpful and straightforward; there's no "let's cover it up and make a weapon!" type plotting, and they even take Black and the kid seriously when they come along and tell them about aliens in sandtraps and such (NASA actually comes off worse than the military, oddly enough). There's a scene where Cort talks to the aliens while Karen and the other soldiers look on, and I couldn't help but wonder if the film would be more effective had it focused on these two characters instead of our actual two leads. Maybe if I were nine years old I'd be into it since a kid is sort of the hero (though he doesn't really DO much), but as an adult I couldn't ever identify with the main character, a giant problem for this kind of movie. Perhaps if Hooper had roped in Oliver Robins from Poltergeist and literally any other old-enough actress to play Black's role, it would work better for me; a movie can survive one bad lead, but not two. It'd presumably have the same risk-free script, but at least I wouldn't actively be rooting for the aliens to murder our protagonists just so I didn't have to listen to their grating delivery anymore. DAAAAVID!!!!

 

Luckily, most of the FX are great, as is the set design. I assume most of the budget went to the incredible, multi-layer set that serves as the ship's interior, and Hooper (and DP Daniel Pearl) save their best visual/color work for these scenes, making them really pop (even more so on the new Blu). The alien creatures themselves are a bit goofy looking (one distractingly looks like Krang from TMNT, though it should be noted this came well over a year before that character's debut), but they're still great to see in action, and well done where it matters most (moving independently, interacting with actors, etc). Louise Fletcher is also a hoot as the teacher who gets taken over fairly early, though we can assume she was a nightmare even as a human. So it's not a terrible film by any means, just one where the whole is definitely NOT greater than the sum of its parts. When it's working, it does so as a fine homage to unpretentious 50s sci-fi/horror, but unfortunately it never finds much of its own voice - a movie can't run on nostalgia and reverence alone.

And then we come to the polarizing Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, which I've grown to really enjoy as I've gotten older. The original Chainsaw was one of the first horror movies I saw (at age 6! I had already seen Poltergeist, too, so maybe my mom was a closet Tobe Hooper fan), so I had high hopes for the sequel when I was a kid and seeing it for the first time (via a broadcast on our local FOX affiliate, back when FOX didn't have original programming for every night of the week). Alas, young me was disappointed; the humor was totally lost on me and I didn't like how the "cool parts" were mostly in the first half hour or so (that would be the yuppies on the bridge and the radio station invasion). It wouldn't be until high school that I started coming around, and it wasn't until college (maybe later?) that it overtook Leatherface as my favorite sequel in the series. It's the only movie I showed twice at the New Beverly, because it's such a blast to see with a crowd (and a perfect midnight movie since, as young BC knows all too well, "all the cool parts" are in the first 40 minutes, giving the late audience the boost they need to stay awake for the rest*).

Of course, by then Hooper had lost a lot of Cannon's money with the other two, so there wasn't much of a budget left for this one and he wouldn't have had the clout to ask for more. But that may be a blessing in disguise; I can't imagine there was much micro-managing on the film from its money men for it to have turned out this weird. Again most of the money seemingly went to set design (and Dennis Hopper, literally chewing that scenery with the teeth of his chainsaws), so coupled with Tom Savini's incredible FX work (luckily seen in all its glory since the film went out unrated) even its critics have to agree that it's great to LOOK at. The humor might not work for everyone ("Bubba's got a girlfriend!"), and even I don't care for Leatherface's design here, but there's something so gleefully OFF about the movie that I just love, more than making up for any of its lapses. The guy at the hardware store seemingly having an orgasm watching Hopper try out his new chainsaws is a particular favorite, but I'm quite partial to Stretch (Caroline Williams) lovingly putting her friend's sliced off face back on his person after he dies, akin to someone closing the eyes of a fallen comrade who died with them still open. And Bill Moseley's Chop-Top more than makes up for the lack of Edwin Neal's Hitchhiker, the only family member who was killed in the first film (on that note, it's the only one of the sequels that logically follows the original, not much of a surprise since it's the only one Hooper directed himself).

Chainsaw 2 was filmed in June for an August release (!), but the rushed production didn't seem to hurt its box office much - it's the only one of Hooper's three Cannon films to actually make money during its theatrical run. It wasn't much, but since it remains Hooper's last real wide release (The Mangler is technically one, but at 800 screens at a time when the average was over double that it wasn't exactly being given much of a chance to compete), at least he went out on a somewhat positive note. He'd soon return to television, and worked steadily throughout the '90s jumping between TV and film work, though none of it was particularly great, and while it seemed he was getting back on track after Toolbox Murders, he then directed what may be the worst thing yet, his "Dance of the Dead" episode of Masters of Horror. His last film, Djinn, was shot in 2011 and has still not been released in the US (the IMDb lists an October 2013 "limited" date, but I can find no other evidence of this being true - but even if so, it hasn't surfaced on disc or VOD). It's almost like the gigantic undertaking of making three films back to back sapped up the rest of his spark of this once promising and admirably eclectic filmmaker.

Scream Factory has released two of the three, and since Texas Chainsaw 2 is from MGM (the studio behind a growing portion of Scream's lineup) it's not totally unreasonable to assume they'll eventually put together a new release for that one too (perhaps next year for its 30th anniversary?). It's already got a pretty fine special edition out there, but that hasn't stopped them in the past as they have a knack for making these things even more special with new commentaries or retrospectives (though Hopper, Jim Siedow, Lou "LG" Perryman, and screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson have all passed on, so they better get cracking on such a thing while there are still enough people to talk to). For all their pros and cons, they make for a fascinating triple feature; it's fun to watch Hooper play in the big(ger than usual) budget arena while still showcasing his quirky sensibilities and fondness for dark humor. And they're so different that it's likely if you polled 100 people, the pick for favorite would likely be pretty evenly split among the three. What's yours?

*This is why Shocker, god bless it, is a TERRIBLE midnight selection, because the parts we remember/love are mostly in the LAST 40 minutes, making the audience quite restless waiting for them to happen.

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