As most of our readers have surely heard by now, the Texan movie maverick Tobe Hooper shuffled off this mortal coil on Saturday at the age of 74. He left behind a treasure trove of genre-defining/defying films, the most legendary of them being the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Hooper was often pigeonholed as a horror director, and not without cause: beyond the itchy dread of the aforementioned stone classic, one would be hard put to find a better pocket descriptor for the man who brought Salem’s Lot and Poltergeist to life (and death) on the screen. Still, Hooper has been given short shrift as an eccentric comic stylist, which is where I’d argue his greatest distinction lies. Texas Chainsaw Massacre can surely be enjoyed as a simple shocker about a cannibal in a skin mask cutting people up with a chainsaw, but it wouldn’t be nearly as much a classic if it came without its sharply funny underpinnings. How many slasher films also serve as a misanthropic comic critique of both patronizing “back to the land” hippies and rural America’s ill-gotten reputation for breeding “pure, moral, simple” people?
More to my current point, though, is that Hooper’s sense of humor was also extremely madcap and wacky, like an old issue of Mad magazine or a Looney Tunes cartoon come to life. From Dennis Hopper’s imaginative method for trying out chainsaws in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 to the nonstop buck wild insanity that is Eaten Alive, Hooper’s films were packed with hilarious pratfalls and slapstick even at their most terrifying.
That said, if you want to celebrate Hooper’s life with laughs, but just can’t handle being spooked, you’re in luck: The Heisters—a short film from 1964 that was Hooper’s directorial debut—is all the laughs with none of the screams. Taking place in that nonspecific “ye olde” time which mostly only exists in 1960s cartoons, The Heisters is the story of three crooks who have taken to quarreling while hiding out, but to even call it a “story” is kind of a misnomer, as the conceit is really just a setup for a series of increasingly absurdist sight gags and stoopid practical effects. Pair that with plenty of outsized comic mugging and some tricks from “Ye Olde Junior Alchemy Kit,” and you’ve got a dank nug of screwball comedy that won’t make you piss your pants (with terror, at least). It’ll probably seem too silly or dated to some, I’m sure, but I wouldn’t invite any of those people to a party. They’d probably only wanna talk about Ingmar Bergman films and $25 charcuterie plates, and they’d definitely drink all of my top-shelf booze—even though the only dish they brought to pass was a nasty kale-walnut pesto. I mean, what the fuck, right?
Anyway: thank you for everything, Mr. Hooper. Yes, some of your movies gave me blood-curdling nightmares, but what I’ll remember most is the laughter.