Tobe Hooper, like George A. Romero, burst onto the scene with one of the most shocking independent horror films ever made. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) practically invented the slasher-film craze of the 1980s. But, also like Romero, he was considered something of a one-trick pony. While Romero fell back into the same series to great success, Hooper was never able to replicate the impact of his debut.
Still, he continued to work. After making Poltergeist (1982) under the watch of producer Steven Spielberg, Hooper signed a contract with Cannon Films to direct three movies. Cannon, for those unfortunate enough not to know, was a studio facsimile — chief executives Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus would release films regardless of things like quality. They’re remembered today with a sense of ironic fondness for making Chuck Norris a star (primarily in the Missing in Action movies) and for turning Sylvester Stallone into a parody of himself (in 1987’s Over the Top).
Still, Cannon allowed filmmakers relatively free rein on their products. Golan and Globus didn’t care about the end result of the film so long as it could be released. Like Roger Corman, Cannon’s business strategy allowed filmmakers to improvise on a tight budget.
Hooper’s films for Cannon provide an interesting glimpse at his goals as a filmmaker. He wanted to be someone who brought the B-films of his youth back to the public consciousness. And Hooper very nearly succeeded with the three he made for Golan-Globus.
The first film in Hooper’s contract was the most unusual film he ever made. My first exposure to it was in the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. The film includes a clip from Leonard Maltin’s original review of Lifeforce, which he describes as “berserk” for its constant genre shift.
Maltin wasn’t kidding.
But what’s important is that Lifeforce seamlessly blends those genres. Lifeforce isn’t just a collection of horror set pieces with nothing in between them. The fact that Hooper decided to link his narrative using a naked supermodel (Mathilda May) means that it was bound to become a guilty pleasure and the sort of movie that defines Cannon films.
The film is about space vampires. A spaceship called the Churchill finds them trailing behind Halley’s Comet and brings them on board. The vampires proceed to kill almost the entire crew and then make it back to London. The vampires decay into great looking special effects if they do not suck the life force out of people. One of the vampires (the aforementioned naked woman) escapes and causes London to go under quarantine as they try to find her.
That summary does not do the film justice. It’s constantly shifting back and forth between the timelines, so we don’t find out what exactly happened on the Churchill until about an hour into the movie. This is also the sort of film that has Patrick Stewart showing up just so he can speak in a woman’s voice.
Still, the special effects are a definite selling point. Hooper has always been interested in creating a spectacle and Hooper was eager to use his bigger budgets. The opening is grand as we hear a John Williams (actually provided by Henry Mancini) inspired score over a panning meteor shot. And it only gets bigger from there as we see the giant spaceships and the scenes with the vampires draining the life force from people.
Tonally, Lifeforce is similar to a Hammer horror film. This may be due to the London setting, but the film is more slowly paced that I anticipated as well. There are large segments of the film devoted to scientists talking about the aliens and how they can defeat them. It grinds the film to a halt as we go over the exposition about the space vampires. It’s much more fun to see them actually do things then to have people try to explain it. But then, Hammer was always more dependent on the atmosphere of its films than it was on scenes of Dracula biting people.
It’s very difficult to determine what Lifeforce was trying to do. Was it meant to be a serious science fiction/zombie outbreak film that just so happened to have a naked supermodel? Is it a response to the more knowing horror films that were becoming the rage by 1986? Or is it a tribute to the European sexploitation horror films that Hooper was undoubtedly aware of when he signed on to direct the movie?
I think it’s mostly supposed to be a tribute of classic horror rather than a parody. It has this breathless charm of a ten year old trying to describe the awesome thing he saw at school today. You can tell they’re enthusiastic even if they can’t quite put it into words. I knew that Hooper was eager to create Lifeforce. It’s short on ideas but very large in its impact. It’s a blend of every horror trope Hooper could dream up, but it vampires, zombies, aliens, psychic powers, and the Apocalypse. Somehow, Lifeforce keeps itself together despite pulling its characters and the audience in wildly different directions.
Invaders From Mars (1986)
The 1980s were a time for great horror directors to remake ’50s schlock in their own image in order to not only reintroduce people to the films they loved but show they could outdo their predecessors. John Carpenter directed The Thing (1982), David Cronenberg did The Fly (1986), and Chuck Russell remade The Blob (1988).
Hooper’s entry into this trend was Invaders From Mars. I have not seen the original, but it sounds like the sort of thing that a child growing up in the ’50s and ’60s would have loved. A child learns that aliens are secretly taking over the minds of earthlings and fights to stop them. It’s a combination of the paranoia that would later be explored by Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the sort of kid fantasy that Hollywood has been making forever.
Amazingly, Hooper put together an amazing crew to help him, including writer Dan O’Bannon and actors Bud Cort, Louise Fletcher, Karen Black, and Timothy Bottoms. The material was also very appropriate for the ’80s. Like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Invaders From Mars is ultimately about how Ronald Reagan’s ’50s nostalgia was built on a lie and actually hid sinister things. All we needed was for one of the Martians to sing a Roy Orbison song.
But Hooper never explored that idea in his Invaders. He was seemingly stuck with a kids’ adventure movie that doesn’t explore any of the darker aspects of the material. While the emphasis is on the horror of having aliens invade people’s minds, we never feel that horror. It’s obvious when someone has been taken over by the aliens and dumb when everyone seems to pretend like their friend has not been taken over by an otherworldly intelligence.
What doesn’t help is the fact that the young Hunter Carson gives a terrible performance. I usually don’t enjoy blaming actors for anything that goes wrong with a film, especially child actors. But his David Gardner was supposed to be our emotional center in the film. When he barely acts terrified by the aliens (he describes them to adults like he’s reading a book report), then how can I be expected to be scared?
Still, the aliens look great. Stan Winston created some incredible practical effects that hold up well. But by the time we see the aliens, it’s too late. Any goodwill has been destroyed by the lack of tension the film created. The third act redeems Invaders From Mars somewhat by fully embracing the ’50s military sensibility that underscored many classic B-movies. “Marines aren’t afraid to kill Martians!” a general yells after two of his possessed soldiers try to kill him. But then, we see the that the worst was saved for last, as David wakes up for his Martian nightmare. I don’t know if this is how the original film ended, but there was no possible way for an ’80s audience to accept that ending.
Invaders From Mars is the most tonally similar remake to the original. But the reason Carpenter’s The Thing is so fondly remembered is because it took the original film as a starting point and recreated it with a new sensibility. Hooper didn’t try. Whether he felt his Spielbergian style would be more acceptable to audiences or he wasn’t given enough of a chance by Golan-Globus is debatable. But the end result feels less like a passion project and more like a work-for-hire gig. It was exactly what John Carpenter was trying to avoid.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Upon its release, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was considered one of the biggest horror disappointments ever made. Even Golan and Globus were said to be disappointed with the results. Audiences complained that, rather than relying on the tension the first film created with its simple plot and its documentary style cinematography, it relied on the gore effects that the first film deliberately avoided. Even weirder was the fact that Massacre 2 was set up as a comedy rather than a horror film. Every scene seems to be an inversion of the preceding film, with dying characters making jokes about how they’re “falling to pieces” and a dueling chainsaw fight between Dennis Hopper and Leatherface.
But Massacre 2 is not meant to be a horror film. It’s meant to be a subversion of slasher sequels — specifically, Halloween II (1981). Taken in that light, Hooper’s follow-up makes far more sense.
At the time the film was released, slasher films were in a contest to outdo each other with special effects and makeup in order to give people memorable “kills.” After a while, they weren’t scary since they weren’t realistic. Encountering a man shooting an arrow at you is one thing. Encountering a superhuman giant capable of crushing your head with his bare hands belongs in the realm of fantasy. Hooper realized this fact when he wrote his follow-up. What made the original Massacre so scary was that it felt so real, like a half-forgotten news story. This was underscored by the text crawl claiming (falsely) that it was based on true events.
Sequels required bigger and better set pieces, but that wouldn’t work for Massacre because that would rob it of its homegrown quality. It was easy to imagine the real case that could have inspired the story as we saw Sally screaming for her life. Massacre 2 eschews that element when we see two college students killed in the most over-the-top manner possible.
When Carpenter was tasked with writing a sequel to Halloween (1978), he created a film that was bigger, bloodier — and nowhere near as good as the first film. Carpenter played his sequel completely straight, as though we would be equally shocked by a monster we’d already seen doing the same things he’d already done.
So Hooper took the opposite approach. He made his film bigger, but didn’t expect it to shock anyone. The ideas are too absurd. The sequel acknowledges the first film, but only as the starting point to a series of gruesome murders that most authorities dismiss as accidents. It’s not until rock DJ Stretch accidentally catches one of the murders on tape does a Texas sheriff named Lefty (Dennis Hopper) go to investigate. The Sawyer brothers, including Leatherface, kidnap Stretch to keep her quiet but Leatherface starts developing a crush on her.
It sounds like a good horror-film setup, but Massacre 2 never takes itself seriously. For example, the Sawyer brothers now live in a dilapidated amusement park rather than a rundown farmhouse. It’s full of corpses and blood. Jim Siedow is back as the cook, but he does nothing but bark about how hard it is for the small business owner to make it in the economy. Even the terrifying Grandpa becomes a figure of fun as he tries in vain to wrap his 130-year-old hand around a hammer to kill Stretch. Hooper was punishing people who insisted that gore and effects are what created horror and did so by including as many gore effects as possible.
Besides, Massacre 2 does have some genuinely terrifying moments. Bill Moseley’s Chop Top is one of the scariest characters in the franchise. He carries around the corpse of his twin brother (the hitchhiker from the first film), rubs a heated coat hanger on a metal plate in his head, and characters openly treat him with fear. His introduction, where he breaks into the radio station after it’s closed to demand Stretch play his “request” and give him a tour of the studio, is disturbing. Stretch is barely able to speak as she tries to get Chop Top to leave. Hooper was still capable of delivering screams even as he subverted horror.
If sequels are supposed to take the original as a starting point and do something different with the material, then The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 ranks among the most original sequels ever made. But it was too revolutionary, even for the gore hounds that the ‘80s raised. People turned against it, but can you blame Hooper for trying? He was smart enough to recognize the situation that a sequel placed him in.