Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 02/03/2018

Invaders from Mars, in which Tobe Hooper directs a 1986 B-movie remake of a 1956 B-movie. I give it a B minus.

Invaders from Mars may not be Hooper’s finest moment, though it captures him in a very conscious homage to Atomic Age science fiction. In fact, it draws some visual elements directly from the 1956 flick by William Cameron Menzies. In fact, the whole film is very in keeping with the original’s perspective, a space loving kid (Hunter Carson, here in 1986.)

Carson stars alongside his mother, Karen Black, who in the film is actually his school’s nurse. But when Carson’s parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) get taken over by aliens, Black surrogates him in what otherwise seems a vaguely odd and cozy fashion.

Even with Stan Winston and John Dykstra designing critters and Dan O’Bannon helping with the script, it’s hard not to feel somewhat cynical as the film devolves into truly child-like (child-ish?) fantasy towards the end.

Best scene: Louise Fletcher swallowing a bullfrog.

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 10/15/2016

This viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was for the kids.  Like any good parent, I try to expose them to the classics. I’d last watched it 14 years ago, the first year I was keeping this film diary.  It was fresh and fierce then and it still is today.

Watching movies with my kids is something I really appreciate.  I enjoy experiencing things with them and often vicarious enjoyment gives off contact highs better than I would get watching them alone.

This was a bit of a mixed bag here.  Though my son screamed aloud once (and immediately laughed at himself), my daughter was asking how much longer the film had during the late scene of nonstop screaming and terrorizing of Marilyn Burns.  It piqued a curious point of interest for me, this elongated torture/terror.  It is drawn out, and it is uncomfortable (perhaps at best).  The victimization of women, though, as common a trope in horror all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe, isn’t inherently misogynist here.  Especially in light of the current national dialogue as we seek to elect a president.

I recalled the first time I saw TCM, back in the 1980’s.  The movie had such word-of-mouth buzz that it was almost an urban legend.  It’s shocking reality was also nearly matched by its shocking 1970’s-ness (which is the Eighties seemed a bad thing). Featuring less gore than a lot of films, it was hard to appreciate the film properly.  I feel that it has grown in my estimation in my adult viewings.  And validated again here.

I still haven’t fully discussed it with my kids (we did a bit), so I don’t know their full take on the film.  I tried not to overhype it other than to say it was a true horror classic, a solid entry in our October horror festival.  It is interesting, though, to see a film from a fresh vantage, another reason watching with my kids is satisfying for me, especially now at 12 and 15, we can watch movies like this.

A brilliant film.

The Funhouse (1981)

The Funhouse (1981) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 10/12/2015

Tobe Hooper’s 1981 horror film about a pair of young adult couples who decide to overnight it in the funhouse of the travelling carnival is definitely tame stuff to have been subjected to persecution by the UK’s Director of Public Prosecution as a “video nasty”, but as I’ve noted before their list was hella random.

If anything, it struck me as somewhat of an homage-laden love letter to both the carnival and classic horror films.  The titular “Funhouse” of the film is one of those rides in a dark space, with numerous jump scares and creepy images: skeletons, giant eyes, spiders, guys with axes, vampires, you name it.  The idea of “movie as thrill ride” hadn’t necessarily been so overtly spelled out yet, but the metaphor of the ride and the movies is there.

The film kicks off with some explicit homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), with a small boy donning a mask and making like he’s going to kill his sister in the shower with keyframe shots spelling out the homage explicitly.  But the bedroom through which the trickster works his way is loaded up with posters, masks, odds and ends of classic horror films like Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolfman (1941) as well as other automata from penny arcades and traveling fairs.  The actual carnival also features some living “freaks,” though of the bovine kind, an interesting aside.

The star of this somewhat sentimental horror film is Elizabeth Berridge, who would go on to much more fame in 1984’s eventual Oscar winner Amadeus.  Though you’ve also got Phantom of the Paradise‘s (1974) William Finley in a bit role as a stage magician.

It’s charming, if not necessarily a masterpiece.

Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985) movie poster

Tobe Hooper
viewed: 05/12/2014

I for one welcome of sexy naked space vampire overlords.

I wish I could tell you how many The Cannon Group/Golan-Globus production movies I saw back in the day.  It’s funny because “back in the day,” I was between 11-17 in the years that the Israeli cousin team of  Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced B-movies up the yin-yang, so I don’t know what I knew about movies that I didn’t learn from Sneak Previews with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but I knew when I saw that logo and saw those names, the film would be of a particular ilk and quality

Back in 1985, though,  who knew that Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires would wind up a long-time personal favorite?

The movie poster, I’ve always thought, was pretty cool.  The open eyeball juxtaposed above the planet Earth.  I liked that.  But really, I don’t doubt, it came in large part from the glorious nakedness of French actress and space vampire Mathilda May.  She’s ravishing, just this side of perfect of Nastassja Kinski.  And she wears not a shred of clothing through most of the movie.  (I was 16. Gimmie a break.)

The film though offers a lot more than Miss May.  It’s co-written by Alien (1979) scribe Dan O’Bannon and really is a sort of a post-Alien sci-fi horror film, even with echoes of Planet of the Vampires (1965).

It starts with an Earth spaceship encountering a giant hidden ship within Haley’s Comet (timely! at the time).  Inside this H.R. Giger (R.I.P.)-knock-off alien ship, are three encased nude people (the important one being the girl, of course).  When these beings end up on Earth, they unleash a lifeforce-sucking vampirism that sets all of London in a doomed apocalyptic tizzy.

There are some excellent zombie creature/corpse effects.  Really, really cool stuff, I assume the work of notable John Dykstra.

I’m not as a-swoon over it as I was as a teen but I still think it’s great stuff.

It also features a pre-Picardian Patrick Stewart and some other notable turns by Aubrey Morris and Peter Firth.  And as for Tobe Hooper, he may never have re-achieved his visceral horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) but he did make some good movies.

Poltergeist

Poltergeist (1982) movie poster

(1982) director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 10/01/2011

With October upon us, I began my annual horror film selections for the month of Halloween with one of the most effective scary movies ever made.  I’d been thinking of showing Poltergeist to the kids for a couple of years, but definitely thought they (or at least Clara) was too young for it until now.  Actually, some may still question my showing Poltergeist to a 10 year old and a 7 year old, but really, it only has one scene of “gore”.  It has some scary images, for sure, but the reason that it’s so damn scary is because it is well-crafted.  It builds tension, heightens fear and drama.  In fact, it’s a testament to how you can make a way scary movie at a PG or PG-13 level and lose nothing of its effect.

I told the kids ahead of time that it was going to be very scary.  Sometimes when I tell them stuff like that, they often shrug off what I think was scary.  But I let them know, or at least tried to let them know what they were in for.

It scared the bejesus out of them.

I well recall the summer of 1982, me being 13 or so, seeing Poltergeist on the big screen.  It scared me then.

Over the years, it’s become a bit of an archetype for me, and culturally, many of its moments have become part of our collective psyche.  The last time that I watched it, I guess about 10 or more years ago, I was duly impressed with the film’s efficacy.  I guess it’s long been questioned the amount of director Tobe Hooper that is in the film as opposed to the amount of producer Steven Spielberg.  It has to be said, from mise en scene to the acting style of JoBeth Williams or the children, this film is pretty pure Spielberg and probably Spielberg at his best.

It’s a classically middle American family, in a suburb of suburbs in Anywheresville, CA.  In fact, there is even some critique perhaps of urban sprawl in the name of suburbia.  I mean, we’re not only raping the countryside here, we’re digging up the dead.  I feel that I hardly need to re-cap the narrative here.  Spielberg/Hooper deftly draw the family from the earliest scenes, setting them up as recognizable types (ourselves for instance), setting them ripe for peril.  One of Spielberg’s common themes, child endangerment, is off the charts here.

What’s interesting this time around for me are the elements of change from this early 1980’s setting.  Clara and Felix wondered why the film opened with the National Anthem.  I had to explain that in the days before cable television, that channels went off at night, and often closed with that tune and images of America before turning to “snow,” such a critical element of the film, the snowy television evoking the evil spirits.  It’s now an anachronism.   I think even at the time that I was well aware, and envious, of the young boy’s Star Wars stuff.  He had a lot of toys and posters that I had, but even more.  Of course, that is less anachronistic other than the fact that all that stuff is now “vintage”.

The scene that evoked the greatest gasp of fright was the one in which the clown has moved from his spot on the chair and Robby looks first under one side of his bed, then the other side of his bed, and rises, relieved not to have found him beneath, only to be grabbed from behind by the evil clown.  I’m not exactly sure where evil clowns became a theme of horror for people, but I’m willing to guess that after that scene, many a child (or adult) suddenly developed a particular horror of the garish, cheery-eerie characters.

Scary movies are a pleasure.  There is joy in getting wound up, feeling your adrenaline shoot through you, your heart racing.  And I have to say, it’s been fun watching such a thing with the kids.  I actually think that I am quite discerning about what I show them, not simply in taste (I certainly take pride in the breadth of the stuff that we watch together) but in that I don’t watch wholly inappropriate stuff with them.  I was recalling that my mother did take me and my sister to see Alien (1979) in the theater.  I’ve always remembered it as my first R-rated movie.  I was 10.  That would have made my sister 6 or 7, depending what part of the year that was.  She was dragged along.

I’m not using the potentially questionable choices of my mother to validate my own practices, only to say that I make my choices with forethought.  And most importantly, I try to make for discussion of any and all that we see together.

The kids were joking that the next movie that we should watch should be about pink bunnies and rainbows.  But it’s October, so we’re not done yet.

Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive (1977) movie poster

(1977) director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 09/22/10

Tobe Hooper’s first follow-up feature film after his legendary The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Eaten Alive dips its proverbial toe back into psycho killer waters, this time with a giant crocodile to nibble on it.  Actually “inspired” by a true life serial killer named Joe Ball, who ran a saloon that featured an alligator pond (to which he was rumored to have fed his victims), Eaten Alive is sort of a Southern Fried version of Psycho (1960) and to some extent a less-potent retread of elements of Hooper’s more successful earlier film.

The film stars Neville Brand as the scythe-wielding proprietor of a backwoods hotel who talks to himself in rambling, semi-nonsensical monologues about the nature of the beast, his “pet” crocodile (from Africa) who gobbles up numerous members of the cast, including a young buck named Buck, A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s (1984) Robert Englund.  The cast also includes Mel Ferrer and Carolyn Jones (Morticia of television’s The Addams Family).

The story follows a teenage runaway, who is fired from the local cathouse, which is run by Jones, and ends up as Brand’s first victim.  When her sister and father come looking for her, and another little family drops in to the misbegotten hotel, the body count goes up, up, up, either by scythe or crocodile, or in most cases, a combination of the two.

The film’s primary strengths are in its Southern-ness, the swampy backwater, populated by many an oddball, though Brand is the oddball deluxe.  The soundtrack features an ongoing litany of country music, with a couple of the tunes taking the foreground as they are “turned up” while Brand fidgets about the downstairs lounge.

There are some weird elements, like the little family with their daughter and pet dog that stop by the hotel.  The father has this very strange scene with his wife that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but is sort of mondo-weirdness indulgence.  Why the wife is wearing a wig is never explained.  And the father’s aggression and psychosis is just hard to explain.  But there is some perverse humor when the dog, Snoopy, is eaten by the croc.  Perhaps most odd, Brand has a pet monkey that just curls up and dies.

When the film begins, it feels like classic exploitation stuff, but Hooper’s characters, while hardly fleshed out, are given quirkiness and oddity that feel almost like David Lynch creations.  Eaten Alive doesn’t begin to capture the visceral thrills of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it does stick with a portrayal of the South as a freakshow and does offer a unique heap of campy weirdness.

Invaders from Mars

 

Invaders from Mars (1953) movie poster

(1953) dir. William Cameron Menzies
viewed: 11/10/07

The final leftover film from my Halloween night movie fest that didn’t happen was the iconic and kitschy Invaders from Mars.  The film’s aliens and movie poster seem to have continued to have value in reproductions throughout the years on t-shirts and other spots, keeping the “image” of the movie alive even if the movie itself isn’t so often seen.  Oddly enough, I’d never seen it.  I say “oddly enough” because I did watch an awful lot of these movies as a kid and I’d even seen the 1986 Tobe Hooper remake when it came out.

The film is truly cornball.  It’s closer in many ways to Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) than it is to other real classics of 1950’s sci-fi films such as Forbidden Planet (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), or even It Came from Outer Space (1953).  There is this wonderfully campy “aw gosh” 1950’s Americana, a small town in which everyone knows one another, everyone is a stand-up guy, and even the military and other secretive projects are all in for the greater good rather than are totally suspect.

Seen through the eyes of a star-gazing child, and ultimately questioned as a preminitory dream, the film could be looked at through some less critical line of perspective on this slant on the American world of the day.  But the film is lots of goofball hokum, whose main strengths are in the strange design of the Martian leader and his henchmen.  The film also features more mind control and “otherness” like Body Snatchers that seems to echo a weird paranoid xenophobia of control that may simply be a less sophisticated take on the same theme.

Still, the film was moderately fun.  A little milataristic perhaps, and almost more pessimistic, though with the weird little irony of the “it was all a dream” but “oh, here we go again” of the ending is pretty amusing.  It’s a hard one to take too seriously, but would still fit beautifully into a more robust analysis of 1950’s science fiction, especially with its social criticisms worn on its sleeves.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) movie poster

(1986) dir. Tobe Hooper
viewed: 08/17/02

Thirteen years after the original, Tobe Hooper did what most people should never do: messed with a classic. Even if it was his classic.

I recall seeing this film on video, probably not long after its initial release. I remembered that it wasn’t very good. Apparently, I remembered correctly.

This film seems to be a response to the midnight movie culture that grew up around the original. All the characters are more hyperbolic, more purely comical, reinterpreted, if you will. Things seem to be played much more for laughs. In fact, it struck me that the cannibal family began to resemble the Marx Brothers, with the mute Harpo-like Leatherface, the manic Zeppo-like “Chop Top”, the mile-a-minute verbalizer and ringmaster “Cook” is almost Groucho-like. Of course, with a lot of gruesome perversity thrown in.

The film is shot mostly on sets, very unlike the original which used its rural Texas landscape to add an amount of “realism” to its happenings. The detachment from any natural, recognizable location suggests that this film is far more pure fantasy than the first, another significant departure in intent.

There is also much more explicit gore and “special effects”, which the original didn’t rely on as much.

Though there are many departures from the original, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 drifts into a similar narrative finale, a culminating “dinner” scene, which seems more an homage to the original than anything.

Dennis Hopper shows up as a ranting “hero”, clearly as crazy as the cannibals that he hopes to slaughter, toting his own set of chainsaws in holsters like a wild west sheriff. This film was interestingly released in 1986, the same year that Hopper appeared in Blue Velvet and The River’s Edge, which were both a part of a big resurgence for his career, I believe.

Tobe Hooper never has regained the “magic” of his original film, though he did produce a few other interesting films such as Poltergeist (1982) and Lifeforce (1985), though Poltergeist is far more a Steven Spielberg film than a Tobe Hooper film, one might say.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is not a good film, especially when compared with its predecessor. But it is not totally lacking in entertainment value. It’s probably best watched as a black comedy.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

 

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) movie poster

(1974) dir. Tobe Hooper
viewed: 08/03/02

The legendary, iconoclastic cult film. How long has it been since you have seen it? Have you ever seen it? It had been probably over fifteen years for me. So long that I felt my recollection of it was probably fairly off-kilter. I took the opportunity of this little mini-horror fest with my nephew Jordan to catch up on one of the “classics” of the genre.

It’s got to be said. This film really holds up. Almost 30 years since it was made, it still packs a punch. It’s not so much the gore and blood, since probably there have been so many films since that have far out-done it in those extremes. But The Texas Chainsaw Massacre continues to have an impact because of its out-and-out weirdness and its black humor. It’s a cult film that well-deserves its notorious status.

This analogy has probably been made before, but this film is really like a cross between Psycho (1960) and Deliverance (1972). The tale is loosely based on the exploits of Ed Gein, the Wisconsin serial killer who was also the basis for Psycho, but Tobe Hooper really seems to give this the backwoods fear of “inbred” rednecks (that particular jaundiced perception of the people of the south or other rural areas). The characters display the kind of “weirdness” and otherness that is perhaps recognizable though far too jarring to be “familiar”.

The mostly nameless family of cannibals is an almost nuclear unit, though one made up of unlabeled relationships and is a family unit that is entirely male. Amusingly, even this motley, abusive family of killers and cannibals find time to sit down together for a family meal.

The film also features a lot of well-executed (no pun intended) low-budget cinematography and editing, creating some jarring effects. From the blunt, abrupt brutality of the first killing to the screeching soundtrack and intense close-ups on would-be victim Sally’s eye during the deranged sit-down dinner meal, the film incorporates a rough, raw mise en scene.

It seems no coincidence that some of the best American-made horror films of the last 40 years were produced outside of Hollywood. Like Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls(1962) and (even more so) like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was produced independently in the American “heartland”, well away from the big machines of American film-making.

That said, yet another cliche can easily be applied to it: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was truly “ahead of its time.”