Elegy: To Be Tobe

Tony Timpone

Photo: Jonathan McPhail

A year ago, I received a most exciting email. My friend, Eli Roth, wanted me to join the team producing a six-part horror movie documentary series tentatively called AMC Visionaries: Eli Roth’s History of Horror. Of course, I didn’t have to mull this offer over for long (sign me up—yesterday!), but Eli added some urgency to his pitch.

I want this to serve as a definitive work, something that can survive for generations with classic interviews with all the greats before we start losing them,” Eli said. “Wes Craven’s passing really made me think that we have to get these guys on camera now in some definitive piece before we lose them and their stories are gone with them.

Sadly, in the 10 months since I began working on this mammoth series, being produced by cable TV vets Asylum Entertainment, Eli’s fears continued to be realized. First we lost George Romero in July (see my tribute here), and although we weren’t even done mourning him yet, another master, Tobe Hooper, died just five weeks later at age 74. Directors of the two most influential horror films ever made, gone in one summer? Unfathomable.

I still recall the palpable fear I felt when seeing The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time during its 1980 rerelease from New Line Cinema. Not yet old enough to see R-rated fare, I bluffed my way into Forest Hills’ UA Midway to see the movie I had been reading feverishly about for the last year in Fangoria. And, of course, the 1974 movie lived up to the hype. Sitting alone during a matinee showing, I was soon punished for playing hooky from high school that day, as I barely survived those 90+ minutes of unrelenting terror. Shot in quasi-documentary style, Chain Saw felt so real that it had to be real!

Tobe Hooper Chain Saw

Tobe Hooper on the Set of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Seven years later and ensconced as Fangoria’s editor, I would meet Hooper for the first time at his Beverly Hills home. In spring 1987, I accompanied Fango’s British correspondent, Philip Nutman, to interview Hooper. Phil (sadly, also now deceased) did the heavy lifting; I sat back and enjoyed listening to the droll Texan spin his awesome tales, while his two hyperactive wire-haired terriers frequently interrupted the living-room chat. Tobe came across as warm, fascinating and honest. Scruffy-bearded and short, he seemed like a hippie relic. There was something very lovable about him. Maybe because he was so darn authentic.

I couldn’t wait to put Hooper on my convention circuit, just like Romero. He supported our first LA con in 1985, then joined Romero in spring 1988 at one of our LAX shows for a book-to-film panel. Romero had just done Monkey Shines, while Hooper planned on filming Gary (The Howling) Brandner’s Floater (the movie never materialized). Tobe could be very shy at the conventions, but come he did. One of my favorite memories was at a June 2009 show at NYC’s Jacob Javits Center. After the con, Bill Lustig and I put together a dinner party and invited both Tobe and Dario Argento to chow down with us. What a night! I can still see and smell Tobe’s giant cigar as we talked all things horror at the sidewalk steakhouse near Rockefeller Center. Tobe was also enjoying the company of his much younger (by nearly 40 years!) girlfriend Rebecca, who reportedly pummeled the 5-foot-4 septuagenarian’s face last spring.

Tobe Hooper Weekend of Horrors

Tobe Hooper – Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors 2009.

Unlike his fellow horror masters, Tobe’s career never hit the creative heights it should have. His post-Chain Saw studio movies The Funhouse, Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars failed to find audiences and lost money. He also managed to hook up with all the wrong producers, like the Cannon boys, who penny-pinched his budgets and gave him impossible shooting schedules (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2’s a prime example). When I got wind of various independent, direct-to-video quickies that he signed up for, like Spontaneous Combustion, Night Terrors, Crocodile and even 2013’s United Arab Emirates-lensed Djinn, I’d call Tobe for the scoop. He always gave it to me straight, detailing the same sad story each time. Though he worked his ass off on these cheapie movies, he lost final cut to invasive producers who blunted his efforts. The final results barely reflected his directorial vision and emerged as personal embarrassments. What should have been his crowning achievement, the 1982 blockbuster Poltergeist, instead turned into another black mark on his resume when rumors spread that intrusive producer/screenwriter Steven Spielberg actually directed the film. Poor Tobe could never catch a break. Fortunately, he never stopped working; besides the movie assignments, Tobe found a receptive home doing TV (everything from his excellent version of Salem’s Lot to “The Equalizer” to two nutzoid episodes of buddy Mick Garris’ “Masters of Horror”).

Hooper on the Set of Poltergeist

You would think that Tobe would have grown tired talking about Texas Chain Saw again and again, but that was the furthest thing from the truth. At the 2014 Fantasia Film Festival (I serve as a chief programmer there), Tobe hosted the stunning 4K restoration of his landmark picture and received a Lifetime Achievement Award. In the green room, Tobe and I enjoyed a warm reunion. He appeared to be enjoying his new touring role as one of horror’s elder statesmen, and he pumped me for details on what other international film festivals would be keen in having him as a guest. That night, most of the introversion that he exhibited at some of those early conventions melted away, as he lapped up the gushing praise of the staff and fans who hobnobbed with him at the theater and late into the night at the fest’s local watering hole. At the sold-out Chain Saw screening, Tobe was touched by the standing ovation of the 700 or so attendees and even happily endured the lengthy late-hour Q&A. For a man who never really got a fair shake from Hollywood, Tobe rarely expressed bitterness or regrets. Frustration yes, bitterness no. As usual, his Texas drawl delivered such expressions as “far-out,” “groovy” and “cool” during his Fantasia sojourn, and people got a kick out of his dry sense of humor, even when discussing his career disappointments. Yes, Tobe Hooper deserved better, but horror movies never got better than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Tobe Hooper

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Tony Timpone

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