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.