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The Formulaic Shock and Awe of Tobe Hooper’s Midnight Movie

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The Formulaic Shock and Awe of Tobe Hooper’s Midnight Movie

The pop-cultural consensus on horror director Tobe Hooper would seem to be that, with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he somehow made one of the genre’s defining masterpieces right out of the gate only to squander a promising career on a string of strange mediocrities that ultimately marked him more as a hack-for-hire than an auteur in the tradition of more respected contemporaries such as John Carpenter, Wes Craven, or George A. Romero. (The only other film Hooper made that had any significant cultural impact, or drew favorable critical notice, was Poltergeist, which is, of course, famously primarily credited to producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg.)

While this rep undeniably has more than a little truth to it, I’ve always been sympathetic to Hooper, as I’ve always felt that he’s gotten a bum rap from even the horror genre’s notoriously less discriminating fans. Firstly, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t “one of the best American horror films of all time” (though snobs love that sort of qualifier), it’s one of the best American films period—a sweaty, rough-and-tumble masterpiece that catches a specifically troubled time in this country’s history with an immediacy and intensity that 30-plus years and countless remakes and imitations hasn’t managed to diminish one iota. Secondly, Poltergeist, which admittedly reflects quite a bit of Spielberg’s sensibility, has a cynicism and jolting brutality, not to mention an intimacy among the reformed hippie parents, that strikes me as more a result of the influence of Hooper than Spielberg. And thirdly, Hooper’s extremely uneven filmography has born more, well, fascinatingly not-quite-right features than is typically acknowledged, such as Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, Invaders from Mars, Lifeforce, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, which all have a mad drive-in theater potency that’s far more interesting than the work of the inexplicably overrated Wes Craven.

So I approached Hooper’s first novel, Midnight Movie, with optimism and goodwill, meaning, simply, that I was hoping for something closer in spirit to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or even The Funhouse, than more recent straight-to-video embarrassments like The Mangler or his Toolbox Murders remake. And, indeed, Midnight Movie begins promisingly with a meta premise in the tradition of the Stephen King of the latter Dark Tower novels, or even, I suppose, of the Brett Easton Ellis of Lunar Park: opening with an excerpt from an entertainment website promoting a fringe South by Southwest premiere of a long-lost movie Hooper made in his teens, which the site’s writers ultimately dismiss as something they can catch on DVD as opposed to missing a competing Decemberists show. Following that is an interview with the fictional Tobe Hooper who made the film in question—a testimonial that’s clearly being recorded sometime after something awful has transpired at said ultimately ill-fated screening.

Midnight Movie has a surprisingly ambitious structure, as Hooper is aiming for the novelistic equivalent of the vérité approach that was so effective in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Midnight Movie has a surprisingly ambitious structure, as Hooper is aiming for the novelistic equivalent of the vérité approach that was so effective in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The novel, divided into three parts of roughly equal length, is largely composed of emails, BlackBerry messages, Twitter updates, interview transcriptions, government documents, college student blogs, and even articles purportedly taken from Rolling Stone and the New York Times, among others. The premise, established succinctly and somewhat effectively, is that Hooper’s early film, which is described as an incoherent, disgustingly gory zombie film, triggers a mass infection at the SXSW premiere that, in a nice touch, manifests itself in a variety of fashions: Some attendees are incited to lead terrorist revolts, some turn into zombies, while others spread, in what is most likely a nod to Shivers, a STD that turns its victims into insatiable and deadly sex maniacs.

The point, initially at least, is that our instant and wide-ranging forms of communication are transmittable diseases that lead to mass-societal desensitivity to, well, everything, as every atrocity is just another quick jolt of stimulation to absorb before moving on to the next rapidly distributed misery from the safety of our computer. The punchline in this case, of course, is that society, because of this shitty little movie and all around general-citizen apathy, is actually on the kind of brink of destruction that every sensationalistic media outlet promises on a daily basis.

Sadly, with few exceptions (such as a disturbing blog documenting a young woman’s escalating sexual self-loathing, or an eerie passage that segues from a madman’s handwritten letter, to a memo notifying of said madman’s escape, to a beaten survivor’s testimonial), Hooper doesn’t have the range for this sort of experiment, and he’s hopelessly incompetent in capturing the voices of anyone who isn’t a sixtysomething filmmaker. The prose is often in the aggressively, casually flip everyday-person vernacular of third-rate Stephen King (“Austin was still fire central”), while the dialogue, particularly among the young characters, is downright embarrassing, (“Theo said, ’Hells yeah, I’m like totally mentally healthy now. What you don’t notice a difference?’”). The Rolling Stone article reads (laughably) just like the college blogs, while the meth-head Twitter feeds sound just like the emails exchanged between supposedly bright twentysomething women.

When a writer has the dexterity to pull this kind of stunt off, the results can be brilliant (read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which captures the 21st century with an acuity I’ve yet to encounter in a film), but in Hooper’s hands the alternation of various faux-multimedia communiques quickly becomes tedious, a device for delivering gross caricatures (particularly a gratingly unfunny Harry Knowles parody) and ludicrous plot developments (this has one of the least convincing movie pitch meetings of all time) redundantly and with little in the way of actual momentum.

To his credit, it would appear that Hooper eventually sensed his book’s narrative liabilities, as Midnight Movie jarringly but thankfully morphs into an old-fashioned multiple-first-person tale that finds Hooper teaming up with an adoring Austin Chronicle film critic to stop the impending armageddon, dubbed by the press as “The Game,” that his film may or may not have wrought. At this point, Midnight Movie settles into what it always wanted to be: an affectionately formulaic shocker with a dash here and there of self-critiquing cultural satire. With a hipper screenwriter adapting, Midnight Movie could, perhaps, make a halfway decent Midnight Movie for the wayward director who long ago made the greatest horror movie of all time.

Tobe Hooper’s Midnight Movie was released on July 12 by Three Rivers Press. To purchase it, click here.