The Psychedelic Illumination Of Tobe Hooper’s EGGSHELLS

A look at the director's wild debut.

I was sixteen years old the first time I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Having obtained it through dubious means (and against the will of my parents), I watched it in secret in the family computer room. After it was over, I emerged from that dark room feeling like I’d survived some kind of test - a self-inflicted crucible of horror. The scar tissue on my brain was thicker, and I could dive into even darker corners of this genre that had obsessed me for years. I didn’t know who Tobe Hooper was (beyond the director of Poltergeist) but I suspected he was some kind of next-level shock maestro - a sick mind who could conjure up unexplainable nightmares. I was genuinely intimidated by the idea of watching his other films.

Thirteen years later I watched Tobe Hooper’s debut, Eggshells (1969), for the first time, in a moment of mourning for the quietly fantastic filmmaker whose work I’d grown to love. It was a complete and total revelation. Not only did I discover a weird Rosetta Stone film that seems to reference several of Hooper’s later works, I also discovered Tobe Hooper, the psychedelic hippie and experimental filmmaker. The man who lived through an incredibly romanticized period in the history of my city, and whose debut film held the same DNA as several other Austin-based films, but was also wholly its own freak-out. Eggshells essentially performed the act of re-contextualizing all of its director’s work through a hallucinatory lens.

Eggshells (which, at the time of its making, was sub-titled “An American Freak Illumination”) was written by Hooper and Texas screenwriter Kim Henkel (who also co-wrote Chain Saw). In the tradition of many Austin-area debuts by first-time directors Eggshells eschews plot entirely - much like Richard Linklater’s It's Impossible to Learn How to Plow by Reading Books (1988), or Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin' Match (1978). However, Eggshells sets itself apart from those films by laying out its rambling vision of hippie life in Austin, Texas in a series of acid-splashed reveries: A man sword-fights himself in a basement filled with smoke. A couple luxuriates in the comfort of a plastic dome. A room paints itself in a frenetic bit of experimental animation. A man drives into a field, lights his car on fire, rips off all his clothes and then frolics away as it explodes. Hooper’s camera runs wild through a psychedelic gauntlet of reality-shredding images, and it’s in those images where it becomes most apparent that Eggshells is actually a really incredible companion film to the director’s best-known horror opus.

Eggshells itself is in no way a horror film, unless you consider life amongst the hippies to be horrifying (some people do!). If anything, it’s a sunshiny flipside to the macabre lunacy of Hooper’s second directorial effort. However, the signature psychedelia of Eggshells worms its way into The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in unexpected ways. If Eggshells is “an American Freak Illumination”, then Chain Saw is “An American Freak Nightmare” - a trip gone horribly wrong. Consider some of the visions that Chain Saw employs: solar flares, extreme close-ups of darting eyeballs, chickens in cages - all bound up in a super grainy splotch of reds, oranges, and blues. These terrifying beats of pure tonal horror feel ripped straight out of someone’s acid-addled brain.

To me, the most haunting moment of Chain Saw comes when, at the commencement of dinner, Edwin Neal slashes open Marilyn Burns’s finger and forces it into the mouth of Grandpa Sawyer. I remember feeling a genuine chill wash over me during that first watch as Grandpa, re-animated by the blood, began to suck the blood from her finger like an eager vampire. That was the moment when all the rules went crashing out the window, and I was left not knowing what to expect. Years later, I felt the same sensation - lacking the chills of fear this time - while watching Hooper’s debut abandon any pretense of a narrative and briefly turn into a full on experimental film. Chain Saw and Eggshells smash psychic holes into traditional narrative filmmaking, through the talent and instinct of their director. They also smash holes into the communal, peace-loving nature of hippiedom itself. In the space between the films, Hooper’s mood was significantly soured by five years of rough history as the turmoil of the late sixties bled into the early seventies. Where Eggshells surrounds its perma-stoned characters with a kind of pseudo-satirical celebration, Chain Saw feels like a howl of rage marking the end of an era - as if Hooper would rather light a field of flowers on fire than see it slowly dry up and die.

The early echoes of Chain Saw aren’t just restricted to the tonal aspects of each film. Famous shots from Chain Saw appear in Eggshells: A low angle of the front door of the hippie house recalls the famous tracking shot of Teri McMinn being grabbed from behind by Leatherface as she attempts to escape the Sawyer house:

Darting eyeballs during one of the films’ numerous freak-out sequences inevitably recall the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns’s bloodshot baby blues:

The comparisons don’t stop with Chain Saw, either. You can find pieces of Hooper’s later films in Eggshells, as if you were passively watching Hooper’s dreams. The West-Campus hippie homestead of Eggshells calls to mind the dingy hotel in Eaten Alive or the cobweb-ridden vampire nest in 'Salem's Lot. The tendency to have his hippie characters constantly romp around in the nude can’t help but call Lifeforce to mind. The hippies’ spooky, smokey basement filled with flashing lights bears a passing resemblance to the supernatural happenings in Poltergeist. The steel bridge in far east Austin that takes commuters out to the Airport makes an apperance, recalling the opening bridge chase sequence from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The consistency of vision throughout Tobe Hooper’s work feels fully formed already in his charmingly shaggy debut, where he introduces images and ideas that will show up in later films like brief acid flashbacks.

The last time I watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was in 2014, when it played at the Topfer Theater during SXSW, following its 4K restoration. After the screening, I did something that I’m usually loathe to do, and approached an artist I deeply admired and introduced myself. He was not only exceptionally kind and soft-spoken, but very much the exact opposite of the dark and twisted person that my sixteen-year-old self had imagined. He reminded me of friends’ dads - the cool ones who’d been around Central Texas since the '70s. The ones who remembered the good ol' days in Austin, when the grass was cheap and the barbecue was good. He was one-of-a-kind, and will be sorely missed.