Sunday, October 22, 2017

Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero Retrospective

Today's episode of Sounds of Cinema continued the month-long Halloween theme with a look at the careers of Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. Both filmmakers passed away earlier this year, leaving behind an impressive and influential body of work.

Tobe Hooper
Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, Texas in 1943. Hooper got his start in motion pictures as a documentary filmmaker and among his early works was a PBS documentary about the music trio Peter, Paul and Mary. His feature film directorial debut was 1969’s Eggshells, an experimental drama about the counter culture of the late 1960s. Hooper would primarily be known for his work in the horror genre and his movies were intelligent but also dream-like. The filmmaker frequently tapped into the madness, sexuality, and violence of the unconscious mind in stories that were modern day fairytales.

Hooper arrived on the filmmaking scene with 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Now hailed as one of the great horror titles in American cinema, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre established Hooper as a horror director and he worked in the genre for the rest of his career. Although his filmography is wildly uneven, Hooper helmed several of the great horror pictures of the 1970s and 80s including Poltergeist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. He also did notable work in television such as the miniseries Salem’s Lot and episodes of Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror. Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
There are a handful of movies, especially in the horror genre, that have acquired a reputation that is bigger than the movie itself. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of those rare films that lives up to the hype. What is extraordinary about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is obfuscated by its simplicity. The story is archetypal. A group of young people wander around the back roads of America and are picked off by a killer until only one remains. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is distinct from so many other slasher films because of its execution. Shot on Super 16mm film in the heat of the Texas summer, Chainsaw has a raw and visceral feel. The movie also uses unusual sound effects and an experimental music score and it is shot and edited in a way that creates a sensation of disorientation and madness.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre introduced the world to Leatherface, a brutal but strangely child-like killer who wears a mask of human flesh. Leatherface was the first of the masked killers in the slasher genre and as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre grew into a Hollywood franchise the character became a cultural icon and one of the most recognizable horror villains.

Since its release in 1974, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has grown to become one of the best regarded and most influential titles in the horror genre. For Tobe Hooper, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was both a blessing and a curse. Most filmmakers work their entire career without making a movie with the impact and longevity of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hooper was able to work for the rest of his life on the reputation of his sophomore directorial feature. But like many horror directors, Hooper was boxed into the genre and achieving such success so early on created an impossible standard that he never overcame.

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Television of the 1970s gave birth to the network miniseries event. Important titles from the decade include Roots, Holocaust, Sybil and Salem’s Lot, which premiered on CBS in 1979. Based on the novel by Stephen King, Salem’s Lot tells the story of a small New England town invaded by vampires. In those days, actors and especially filmmakers who were working in television aspired to get into feature films and it was unthinkable that a successful director would go to the small screen. In that respect, Salem’s Lot was ahead of its time. Tobe Hooper brought the skill and sensibility of a feature film to a television production and the movie is still a frightening and ambitious piece of work. Salem’s Lot was also influential in the way it merged classic gothic horror with contemporary America and it was the perfect fusion of old and new. In the ensuing decades, Stephen King’s literary work would be the basis of a lot of made-for-television features and much of that is due to the success of Salem’s Lot.

Poltergeist (1982)
Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most Hollywood production. It had (for its time) a lavish budget, well-known actors, and cutting edge special effects. The themes of the movie were right up Tobe Hooper’s alley; there is a through-line that connects the cannibalistic family of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the neo-gothic vampires of Salem’s Lot, and the suburban haunting of Poltergeist. And at some level the movie also reflects the edgier themes of Hooper’s movies in the way it suggests that the affluence of suburbia is literally built upon the dead. Poltergeist is probably the most influential supernatural horror picture of its day. Its impact can be seen in The Conjuring series and the Insidious films.

Poltergeist was Tobe Hooper’s most financially successful movie but his contributions to it were disputed throughout the rest of his career. Poltergeist was officially directed by Tobe Hooper but the film was dogged by rumors that it was actually directed by Steven Spielberg. And Poltergiest has an undeniable Spielbergian stamp. Some of that is due to the talents involved. Poltergeist was written by Spielberg who was also the executive producer. The movie was made through Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company and the crew included several of Spielberg’s regular collaborators including producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, assistant director Pat Kehoe, and editor Michael Kahn. It’s no wonder that the movie looks like a Spielberg film; it was made in his factory using his workers. According to some of the cast and crew, Spielberg directed Poltergeist through Hooper, instructing him as to how to execute the set pieces. Friends and allies of Hooper have disputed this, arguing that Spielberg may have made suggestions but directorial decisions were ultimately made by Hooper and he therefore deserves the credit for the film’s success.

Cannon Films (1985 - 1986)
Following the success of Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper entered into a three-picture deal with Cannon Films. Led by the colorful personalities and questionable business practices of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Cannon Films produced an impressively broad catalogue of movies in just a few years, mostly in the horror, sci-fi, and action genres. Hooper’s first film for Cannon was 1985’s Lifeforce. Based on the novel The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson and scripted by Alien writer Dan O’Bannon, Lifeforce is part vampire movie, part alien invasion, part erotica, part contagion story and collectively it is full-tilt bonkers. The movie isn’t very good and it didn’t find a theatrical audience but Lifeforce has developed a cult following. Hooper’s next project was 1986’s Invaders from Mars. A remake of the 1953 movie, Invaders from Mars was a family-friendly romp steeped in nostalgia for the drive-in movies of the post-war era. Invaders from Mars was also a failure at the box office but in the wake of Hooper’s death several writers praised the movie as an underappreciated cult classic.

Hooper’s final movie for Cannon was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In the twelve years since the release of the original film, the slasher genre had peaked and was now in decline. Hooper wrote and directed the follow up but he jettisoned the nihilistic terror of the original film in favor of the campy and self-aware black comedy of titles like Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II. The result was a Grand Guignol farce that was also an early deconstruction of its genre. The sequel took a deliberately cartoonish approach which was not appreciated by critics or by fans of the original movie. But taken for what it is rather than what viewers thought it should be, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is an extremely entertaining picture that combines slasher movie thrills with a madcap sense of humor. It’s a flawed film but its originality, comedy, and energy have made it a cult favorite and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is one of the best horror sequels.

Assorted TV Work
After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Tobe Hooper’s film career largely declined. He continued to direct feature films and made a few interesting pictures such as The Mangler, based upon a short story by Stephen King, and 2013’s Djinn, which was a ghost story set in the United Arab Emirates. However, the best work of Tobe Hooper’s later career was done for television mostly on horror anthology programs. He directed an episode of the Steven Spielberg produced series Amazing Stories and HBO’s Tales from the Crypt as well as two episodes of Night Visions. Hooper also directed the pilot episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, a television spinoff of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, which told the backstory of Freddy Krueger. Among Hooper’s most successful television work was on Masters of Horror, an anthology series which recruited such well respected directors as Takashi Miike, John Landis, John Carpenter, and Dario Argento. Since Master of Horror was broadcast on premium cable, the show was able to include some outrageous content and Hooper’s episodes certainly delivered on that.

In 2014 Tobe Hooper sat down with Mick Garris for an wide ranging interview:

George Romero
Filmmaker George A. Romero was born in The Bronx in 1940. After a brief stint attending Carnegie-Mellon University, Romero and some of his friends founded the Image Ten production company in Pittsburgh which primarily made commercials. Romero and company pooled their money and resources to make 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, which became a landmark piece of American film and gave birth to the zombie genre. For nearly five decades, Romeo continued to write, produce, and direct additional zombie films as well as titles like The Crazies, Creepshow, and Knightriders. He passed away on July 16, 2017.

Several qualities distinguished George Romero’s movies. One was the scale and skill of his filmmaking. Romero was able to get a lot of production value into low budget movies and he was very savvy about making his films look more expensive than they were. There is also a playful quality to his work. Romero’s films possess a strange contrast between the filmmaker’s evident sense of humor and a dark and at times pessimistic view of society. That’s indicative of another quality of Romero’s films – their political subtext. Romero used the horror genre, and especially his zombie films, to comment upon the political and cultural zeitgeist.

George Romero is best known as the godfather of the zombie movie and those films are certainly at the core of his filmography. But he made a lot of other terrific and very interesting movies that are worth revisiting.

The First Living Dead Trilogy (1968 - 1985)
George Romero made two zombie trilogies. The first one spread across three decades: 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, and 1985’s Day of the Dead. Because of the passage of time between installments and due to complexities regarding the copyrights over the films, each installment was its own independent entity with its own continuity and characters.

The original Night of the Living Dead was a seminal movie for George Romero, for the horror genre, and for American filmmaking in general. Film writer Ben Hervey observes that Night of the Living Dead was a fusion of a couple of inspirations. One was the post war monster movies that played in drive-in theaters of the 1950 and 60s. The other was the political and social upheaval of the late 1960s including the civil rights movement and protests against the war in Vietnam. The imagery from those sources coalesced in Night of the Living Dead and the content of the movie reflected this as a diverse group of people fight among themselves while besieged by a growing horde of cannibalistic zombies. The movie is a product of American instability at that time and Night of the Living Dead is as essential to its era as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider.

American culture had changed significantly by 1978 when Romeo made Dawn of the Dead and so the filmmaker’s approach changed with it. Updating the movie to accommodate the consumer culture that was taking hold at the time, Romero moved the setting of a zombie siege from an abandoned farmhouse to a shopping mall, which was a new feature of the American landscape in the late 1970s. The first portion of Dawn of the Dead is a straight up horror picture but it gradually becomes a satire. The movie is a bloody romp that sent up consumerism and its excesses were deliberately numbing. It’s rare for a sequel to outdo its progenitor but Dawn became the most popular of Romero’s films and it was just as influential as the 1968 film. Virtually every cinematic zombie apocalypse to come later can be traced back to this movie.

Romero waited until the middle of the next decade to make Day of the Dead. A far darker and more pessimistic film than Dawn of the Dead, Romero’s third zombie picture took place in a military bunker in which soldiers and scientists have formed a tenuous alliance. A reflection of the Reagan era, Day of the Dead is about the way in which the culture had become militarized and it is a far more cynical movie than Romero's other zombie pictures. It’s telling that the most sympathetic character of Day of the Dead is Bub, a zombie that one of the scientists is trying to domesticate through Pavlovian conditioning. The movie wasn’t as successful as Night or Dawn but time has been kind to Day of the Dead and it has undergone a reevaluation. Incidentally, Romero said that Day was his favorite of the first three Living Dead films.

The Crazies (1973)
George Romero made more than just zombie films. In between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, Romero wrote and directed two movies that rank among his best work. 1973’s The Crazies was the story of a viral outbreak in a rural community. The infected people become murderously insane and government forces attempt to quarantine the disease but only make matters worse. The Crazies is the most baldly political film of Romero’s career and it references a number of popular images of its day, namely the murder of anti-war protesters at Kent State University and the famous image of a Buddhist monk immolating himself. As a work of its era, The Crazies captured the sensation of society coming apart—perhaps even better than Night of the Living Dead—and it was early evidence that Romero was a filmmaker with a distinct voice and a recognizable style. Echoes of The Crazies can be found in subsequent Hollywood movies such as 28 Days Later and Outbreak and a remake was released in 2010.

Martin (1978)
One of George Romero’s most unusual films was 1978’s Martin. This was a vampire film unlike any other. The title character, played by John Amplas, is a vampire who is the exact opposite of the suave and powerful Draculas played by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. Martin is a shy and awkward man of slight build who doesn’t actually want to hurt anybody but who is driven to murder by his need to feed on human blood. The movie does away with all the superstitions of vampire mythology; in this story vampirism is a genetic disorder and so the character walks around in the daylight and is immune to garlic or crucifixes. He struggles with his sexuality while also suffering humiliation and discrimination from his cousin who sees him as a demonic being. That makes Martin one of the first movies to not only make the vampire the central character but also to make him sympathetic. So much of the vampire fiction that came later, from Interview with the Vampire to Twilight, owes a debt to this movie.

Knightriders (1981)
Between Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, George Romero made one of his few non-horror pictures with 1981’s Knightriders. This movie takes place among a medieval reenactment troupe who ride motorcycles rather than horses. But everything they do is quite serious and life within the company is ruled by a specific knightly code. The king of the troupe, played by Ed Harris, tries to preserve a dying way of life and the company’s internal struggles and rivalries are exacerbated by the intrusion of big business and commercial interests. Knightriders was one of Romero’s most personal films. He was an outsider in the movie business and even when he penetrated the mainstream Romero struggled to maintain the integrity of his work. Knightriders visualizes the tension between independence and commercialism and in some respects it is a eulogy for the last remnants of the countercultural idealism of the 1960s and 70s. It’s a unique and fascinating movie and one that Romero counted as among his favorites.

Creepshow (1981)
George Romero had a regular staff of collaborators that he repeatedly cast as actors or hired on the crew. One of the most important of these relationships was with special effects artist Tom Savini. He was a rock star in the horror genre during the 1980s renaissance in makeup effects. His work on Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead was very inventive and Savini would work on several other Romero movies as a makeup artist as well as an actor and a stuntman. Savini’s work on Romero’s films, as well as his contributions to Maniac, Friday the 13th, The Prowler, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 set new standards for realism in gore.

Another of George Romero’s key working relationships was with writer Stephen King. There were initial plans for Romero to direct an adaptation of King’s book The Stand. When that didn’t materialize, Romero and King exploited a mutual love of the EC horror comics which were popular in the 1950s before they were snuffed out by moral crusaders. 1981’s Creepshow was an anthology film written by King and directed by Romero that was a tribute to those horror comics. It had the same tone, mixing bloody horror with a sense of humor, and Creepshow included some animation in the transitional sequences. It also attracted a high caliber cast including Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall, and Ted Danson. The movie is a lot of fun, perhaps the most fun of any title in Romero or King’s filmographies. A sequel was released in 1987, directed by Michael Gornick with a script by Stephen King and George Romero. The making of the original Creepshow has recently been archived in the documentary Just Desserts: The Making of Creepshow.

The Second Living Dead Trilogy (2004 - 2009)
At the start of the new century, the living dead invaded virtually all forms of media as seen on television with The Walking Dead, books like World War Z, and movies such as the Resident Evil series and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. George Romero returned to the genre with a new trilogy: 2004’s Land of the Dead, 2007’s Diary of the Dead, and 2009’s Survival of the Dead. Unlike the earlier films, the new movies were interconnected and featured recurring characters. Of the three, the best was Land of the Dead. The movie reiterated themes of the earlier zombie trilogy and reinterpreted them for the millennial audience. As in his earlier films, Romero also had a political point to make and Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead were explicitly post-September 11th cinema. Land was about the way the powerful and corrupt distract the masses with bread and circuses as society crumbles around them and Diary was a found-footage movie that connected the fragmentation of media with the crisis in authority and the loss of truth. Survival of the Dead was a bit different from any of Romero’s other zombie pictures and it gave the director a chance to make a western, a genre he had long enjoyed. Romero’s second zombie trilogy was nowhere near as good or as influential as his earlier Living Dead films but they do make an interesting bookend to his career.

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