Gentle Heart, Gruesome Imagination: Tobe Hooper (January 25, 1943—August 26, 2017)

Tobe Hooper gave me my start in the business.

We had the same agent, and he invited my writing partner/now-wife Jace Anderson and me to go to lunch with him. At the time, the only version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre I had seen was a grainy VHS copy, so my favorite movie of his was The Funhouse. But obviously, being the lifelong reader of Fangoria that I was, I realized that my wife and I were going to lunch with a living legend of the horror genre. We were both thrilled and nervous as hell. I remember being very concerned over who was going to pay. Our agent gave us the advice that Jace and I should offer to, but being the gentleman that he was, Tobe ended up footing the bill. He was generous, very complimentary of our writing, and incredibly unassuming. The whole thing was very exciting.

But it wasn’t nearly as exciting as when he called us a little bit later to ask us to rewrite the film he was working on at the time, Flat Dog (later to be re-titled Crocodile). There wasn’t very much money involved, but we didn’t care—we were working on a movie! At that stage of your career, you don’t yet know what you don’t know, but Tobe was a kind and patient teacher. Sometimes it was very pragmatic stuff—“Uh, goddammit guys, the animatronic crocodile can’t do what you wrote”—and other times it was about writing and story in general. He liked to say there were three layers to a story that a director needed to pay attention to: the visual, the dialogue, and the subtext.

Pretty soon we were on set, watching him direct. We were fascinated with how specific he was with camera placement and with his direction to actors. He delighted in playing tricks on actors to improve their performances, and woe be to the actor who was supposed to be running for her life but wasn’t selling it. Tobe wouldn’t hesitate to have them run around set between takes or load down their backpack with heavy items. When it came to crafting jump scares, he was, of course, a master. He knew exactly what would work and how to distract the audience. I remember him being very frustrated with how hard it was to move the 30-foot animatronic crocodile. He eventually had the crew move it so fast that its legs broke.

After the movie was done, we kept in touch with Tobe. I talked with him often, and soon we were talking more as friends than as co-workers. We’d talk movies and directing, of course, but we also talked about more personal things, as we’d both had past troubles with drugs. One day, Tobe mentioned he had an opportunity to direct a remake of the 1978 Toolbox Murders. This seemed so perfect: Tobe got to be back with power tools and a masked killer. He loved the irony of it: The original was a knockoff of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so now he’d be remaking the knockoff of his legendary film. He filled us in on what the original was about, and we made a decision that I’d advise writers never to do: We didn’t watch the original film. We told him we wanted to start with a blank slate, and give him something he could really scare the shit out of people with. It was a blast: The more gruesome the kill we came up with, the more excited he seemed to get about the project.

We shot Toolbox in the old Ambassador Hotel about a year before it was demolished, and it’s a time I’ll always treasure. Tobe was in his element, finding creative ways to terrify the audience. He loved the location, and was inspired by it time and time again. Tobe was delighted when the film was finished: I remember him showing us his cut and laughing to himself every time we jumped. Even better was the screening he held for his friends and fellow horror directors: John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, Joe Dante, and several others. (If I can’t remember who else was there it’s because Landis and del Toro were so loud and enthusiastic. Guillermo was shouting at the screen during the movie: “What the fuck are you doing?! Don’t go in there! No! What the fuck?!”) It was great to see Tobe in his element among his peers.

What else can I say about Tobe? He had a gentle heart and an incredible soft spot for animals. He was a bit of a hypochondriac: In all the years I knew him, I never heard him say “I have a cold,” although he did mention having SARS, pleurisy, and other ailments. He loved movies and loved a good story. I have a hard time believing I’ll never see his scruffy face again. MM

Adam Gierasch is an actor, writer, and director. Besides Tobe Hooper, he has collaborated with Clive Barker and Dario Argento. He directed the films Autopsy, Night of the Demons, Fertile Ground, and Fractured, as well as a segment in the 2015 anthology film Tales of Halloween.

This article originally appears in MovieMakers 2018 Guide to Making Horror Movies, featured inside our Fall 2017 issue. Featured image: Tobe Hooper on the set of his 1985 movie Lifeforce. Image courtesy of TriStar Pictures and Photofest. 

2 Comments

  1. Tom Luca

    January 25, 2018 at 6:42 pm

    Oh and LIFE FORCE!

  2. Tom Luca

    January 25, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    Love two pictures Tone directed especially, POLTERGEIST and INVADERS FROM MARS. Thanks for sharing this article

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