For our final Lost Legend, we turn to Tobe Hooper, a wonderful horror voice who passed away in 2017. Hooper will be forever remembered for writing and directing The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a horror movie to which a whole genre of horror movies owes its thanks. Following Massacre, Hooper had varying degrees of success with indies and studio pictures, but everything he made was infused with the Hooper DNA meaning that it would be fun, well-made, and with a whole heap of gross stuff to look at.
Eaten Alive (1976)
Overview: In the rural East Texas, a man kills travelers and feeds them to his pet crocodile
Hicksploitation: Tobe Hooper is obviously most famous for his portrayal of the Sawyer family, a group of psychopaths living out in Texas who are in the chainsaw massacring business. That movie, a seminal piece of horror, is a lo-fi, dirty, gritty movie that you can almost smell when you’re watching it. Its appeal lies in its lack of finesse and sheen, and the sense that you are watching something actually happening that they’ve somehow managed to film.
Eaten Alive treads similar ground plot-wise but doesn’t have the same amount of rawness that keeps us talking about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre forty years later. The plot is pretty loose: a group of travellers find themselves staying at a hotel in the middle of the swamp run by the eccentric, Judd. As the movie progresses they run afoul of their landlord who stabs, batters, or scythes them before disposing of their bodies to the Nile crocodile that lives in a pool by the hotel. It has some fun moments and Judd is a very interestingly depicted character, but the whole thing never quite feels like it gets started before it suddenly ends. Over the course of the movie, the hotel guests don’t really interact with each other so there’s no group dynamic up against the villain, just separate characters wandering around alone until they anger Judd and he despatches them, which becomes repetitive after a bit.
Setting: What makes this movie appealing though is the way it’s filmed. The majority of the movie is set outside on the grounds of Judd’s hotel with his croc pool, but the whole movie is filmed on soundstages. It is also quite apparent that this is the case and the whole movie, drenched in red, blue, and purple light with impenetrable black backgrounds almost looks like it’s using the same experimental staging technique as Lars von Trier’s Dogville. It creates this wonderful dreamy, unreal atmosphere, and presents Eaten Alive as the complete opposite of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was filmed outside and in real locations to the point where the last time I saw that movie there was a fly in my living room and for a moment I thought that it had flown out of the TV.
Eaten Alive looks like it could have been filmed before a live studio audience and at the end you half expect the crowd to come out and take a bow.
Overall: Not as essential as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie has some interesting bits: Young Robert Englund appearing as Buck (who is “rarin’ to fuck”), Marilyn Burns back as one of Hooper’s final girls, and Neville Brand’s performance as the unhinged Judd. He is definitely more Norman Bates than Leatherface and his presence at the centre of the movie is unsettling and unpredictable. If Hooper had surrounded him with more dynamic characters and a stronger plot, I would be more likely to call this movie a must-watch for every Halloween, but for now, it’s more of a curiosity.
Overview: A family find themselves being terrorised by poltergeists as their house seemingly turns against them.
Spielberg: Steven Spielberg wrote and produced this movie and it has so much Spielberg about it that there is still an authorship debate about who actually directed this movie, Spielberg or Tobe Hooper. That is a disservice to Hooper who, while not having such a distinct style as Spielberg, makes the movie his own with some grungy flourishes and horrific visuals.
The basic premise of a tight-knit, very realistically portrayed family being haunted by spirits and needing to band together to remove the evil from the house is very Spielbergian with scenes like the breakfast or the remote control argument feeling like they could have been deleted scenes from ET. However, the finer strokes scream Hooper to me.
Hooper: I would say with Hooper that his movies could be known by their dirtiness and their propensity towards brutality. When we see the heads of the family, played by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson lying in bed smoking weed it feels very Hooper. As does the whole sequence in which one of the paranormal investigators is first terrorised by a moving steak, then finds himself staring in the mirror as his face peels off.
Also, the character of Tangina feels like someone who could have been in Eaten Alive or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in some capacity. She is a tiny medium with a Southern accent and a take-no-shit attitude. She is funny but manages to keep the movie on the right side of goofy so as to not break the incredible momentum the movie creates from its opening scene and holds all the way until the end.
Family: The cast of this movie is utterly delightful and each character feels as though they have inhabited their role so fully that you could be mistaken for thinking it was a real family they drafted in for these roles. Heather O’Rourke is wonderfully creepy and cute as Carol Anne, who communes with the TV and announces, ‘They’re heeeeeeere!’. Dominique Dunne doesn’t get much to do but it makes a lot of sense as she’s a teenager so obviously, she’s never at home. Oliver Robbins is essentially me as a young boy: scared of clowns and worried about that the tree outside my window was going to abduct and eat me. The star of the whole thing for me though is JoBeth Williams, who is so wonderfully giddy at first then gradually more terrified but throughout she is constantly ready to kick ghost ass and take ghost names.
Overall: A fantastic movie full of wonderful sequences, brilliant performances, and scares ranging from jump scares to slow burn heart stoppers. The movie is a wonderful alchemy between the sensibilities of two directors which manages to take the best of both and make them mix together perfectly.
Overview: A spaceship exploring Halley’s Comet comes back to Earth with space vampires as its cargo.
Hammer: Lifeforce is Tobe Hooper’s attempt to make his own Hammer Horror movie with Cannon films footing the bill. He has most of the correct ingredients: set in London, vampires, very English characters, and a healthy amount of gore. However, what the movie lacks stands out more. This is long, aimless movie that takes a protracted runtime and says nothing with it.
The movie is like a sci-fi take on Bram Stoker’s Dracula if you made Renfield the hero. If you’re not familiar with Dracula, Renfield is the solicitor that goes to see Dracula before the book starts and who comes back to London hungry to eat flies and spiders and constantly babbling about “the master”. In Lifeforce, that role is played by Lt. Carlson, an American astronaut who finds the space vampires asleep in a spaceship in the tail of Halley’s Comet. It is his crew that find the vampires and bring them back to Earth, and it is his psychic connection to the head vampire that helps the heroes throughout the movie.
Heroes and Villains: However, after the prologue where Carlson’s crew find the ship he disappears for twenty minutes and we get introduced to a variety of characters who may or may not be the protagonist of this movie. By the time the plot eventually settles down and we have two leads, I was very confused as we’re presented with so many middle-aged white men as possible leads that I developed cinematic face blindness and couldn’t tell one from the other.
The villain, on the other hand, was easy to identify (when she wasn’t shape-shifting that is) as Mathilda May who is simply credited as Space Girl, performs her role completely naked. It is a choice that is never fully explained other than to justify why everyone is obsessed with her. What is interesting is that she has two other vampires with her, both male, who are always filmed quite artfully so we never see a full shot of their nakedness, while May is not offered that dignity and spends her entire performance with nothing left to the imagination.
Overall: Maybe it’s the lack of Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee to give this real Hammer push, but Lifeforce never quite takes off. Hooper excels once again with his shooting of creature work and the zombies and dried out husks of the vampire’s victims are awesome to behold. The movie could benefit from more clarity in terms of what is happening, why, and who are we supposed to be rooting for. It could also be a half an hour shorter as once I started getting to that two-hour mark beautiful women, Patrick Stewart, and space viruses weren’t cutting it anymore.
Invaders from Mars (1986)
Overview: Martians invade a small town and the only people who can stop them are a young boy and the school nurse.
Monster Squad: Invaders from Mars should be held up there with The Goonies, Monster Squad, or a plethora of other ‘80s movies where clever kids outwit their enemies. However, the difference between Invaders from Mars and those other movies is that Invaders is not an ensemble of kids trying to save the world, it’s just one kid, David. The lack of a group of kids (each with a signature quirk) robs the movie of some of its fun as David is paired up with a grown woman for most of the movie and her scepticism about him and his wild theories about Martians invading comes and goes depending on the scene. If David had had a group of school friends and together they had had to convince the adults something was happening, work out how to stop it, and save the day, then this movie would have been a fantastic science fiction for kids movie instead of something that changes genre from scene to scene.
Invaders from Mars is a remake of the 1953 movie of the same name, and it treads a lot of the same ground as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Essentially, during a meteor shower, David sees a UFO land over the hill behind his house. His parents don’t believe him but his father says he’ll check it out in the morning. The next day when David’s dad comes home he’s a little weird and there are wounds on the back of his neck. After a while, more people starting acting weird and aggressive, and before long only David and a few others are unaffected.
Horror: The movie is not the most memorable piece of cinema but when it hits it hits hard. Timothy Bottoms’ performance as the Martian controlled dad is great and very unsettling as he manages to effectively play act being a human puppet with the life gone from his eyes. The creature effects are also great. Or at least most of them are. The head honcho brain bug Martian looks like Krang from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, but the drones are incredible. Huge, lumbering beasts with row after row of long sharp teeth, they are definitely where Stan Winston put the bulk of his attention.
It would be easy to classify this as more a sci-fi than a horror except that Louise Fletcher’s character is something straight out of a child’s nightmare: an unfair teacher who has a grudge against you and who you catch eating a live frog. Or perhaps this is specifically a nightmare I had when I was a child. Either way, it’s unpleasant.
Overall: There are better movies that tread the same ground but as always with Hooper, you’re going to get some imagination, fun, and cool visuals, even if the movie doesn’t completely blow you away. With Invaders from Mars, Hooper is having a lot of fun and a few more kid characters might have made this a perfect rainy Saturday afternoon classic.
Featured Image: TriStar Pictures