You need not look further than TheTexas Chainsaw Massacre 2 for a full-bore taste of Tobe Hooper’s subversive aesthetics-infused spirit. The fact that some viewed the film as a kitchen-sink mess and others saw it as a cheeky, gory commentary on ‘80’s excess underlined the persistent divisiveness of his vision.
If anything, “Dance of the Dead” confirmed this notion. One of the keystones of Masters of Horror was putting each filmmaker on equal footing in terms of budget, shooting schedule, and casting considerations. With the exception of the censorship issues with Argento and Miike, the episodes would sink or swim based on the individual directorial approach.
“Dance” showed Hooper at his most defiantly stylish and rebellious. Richard Matheson’s short story – anarchic in a controlled sort of way (yes, I realize the paradox) – was a burst of apocalyptic brilliance, following a handful of post-nuke punks while intercutting the action with details on the escapist drug they gorge themselves on. In many ways, it was the ideal foundation for a Tobe Hooper film.
Looking at Eaten Alive, Chainsaw 1 and 2, and the remake of Mortuary, it’s apparent that Hooper had immense sympathy for the Outsider. While he never went so far as to condone the actions of the killers at the heart of those tales, he at least sought to understand their motives. “Madness” was not some pop-psychology catch-all to Hooper, but a fully-formed state of mind that permeated all aspects of his aesthetic, from sound design (the clanging pots and pans of Chainsaw) to visuals (the red-saturated exteriors of Eaten Alive). Dialog possessed an improvised feel, and the sound sync – particularly in Eaten Alive – bordered on the surreal, especially when Neville Brand chased his victims around with a scythe. Consider, also, the infamous “dinner scene” from Chainsaw, where the victim’s screams and the howling laughter of her tormentors commingled into a jarringly ethereal birdcall.
Corgan’s death-metal soundtrack to “Dance of the Dead” may be on the nose, but it’s consistent with the plot and visuals, and a complement to the nihilistic, dead-end characters that populate the story. It feels like an evolution of the experimental soundscape of Chainsaw, regressing into garbled noise in tandem with the dissonant characters – a group of delinquent drug addicts siphoning blood (referred to as “the red”) for the sleazy MC (Robert Englund) of a nightclub in the mysterious city of Muskeet.
Muskeet is a place of secrets and revelations for our lead character, Peggy (Jessica Lowndes), who, on her seventh birthday, witnessed her friends die due to a biological agent (dubbed “Blitz”) raining down from the sky. The images of skin dissolving from adult and child bodies alike is both shocking and impishly deceiving – Peggy’s mother, Kate (Marilyn Norry) corrals her and her older sister, Anna (Genevieve Buechner) into the family home, while friends and relatives perish outside. Years later, what remains of the United States is divided among those who managed to evade Blitz, and those who wander the ruined landscape, scavenging for drugs and other essentials.
Time to Dine
The dreary restaurant Kate runs isn’t altogether different from the roadside barbeque joint in Chainsaw, or the hotel in Eaten Alive; while located along what used to be a main drag, it bears the hallmarks of a neglected, long-forgotten place, clinging to the ways of a bygone era. Peggy, now 17, has lived under her mother’s watchful eye since Anna’s disappearance. When the drugged-up punks, led by Jak (Jonathan Tucker – The Ruins) stop in for coffee one day, Peggy is cautiously intrigued – she appraises them like some new life form spawned from a petri dish. Sensing danger, Kate quickly forces the punks out, but not before Peggy makes eyes with the blank yet seemingly benign Jak. That night, Peggy defies her mother and travels with Jak and company to Muskeet for a date with destiny.
As always, Tobe Hooper’s base intention was to beat the viewer silly with his blunt-force aesthetics; but for those able to abide that pummeling, the subtext is where the real meat of the story lies. The clashing of social and economic classes was always a huge part of his commentary (with The Mangler in particular underlining the thankless plight of factory workers in a dead-end town), and part of the perverse joy of a Hooper film was seeing the well-adjusted middle class (think Poltergeist) caught off guard when brought face-to-face with The Other.
To be continued…
The Plot Sickens: Missed the first installment? Then check out Part 1 – and don’t forget to catch THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast tribute to Tobe Hooper.
We think so, and so do many who’ve responded to Jonny Numb‘s poll about those feel good end of the world films! In Apocalypse – Fan Edition, you’ll hear what horror fans have to say, what we had to add, and why laughing in the face of death may be the most powerful thing humans could ever do.
And don’t think we’re focused solely on zombie cinema. We’ll look at famine, war, exploding suns, pyroclastic flows, disease, alien invasions, and other great stuff that adds fuel to nihilism.
End of the world just a cosmic flyby away…
Apocalyptic thinking has captured the imagination of humanity for eons. But why the hell would people focus on doom and gloom instead of making the world a better place? We’ll explore that in this episode, but why have one Apocalypse when you can have two?! That’s right, the end of the world’s so nice, we had to do it twice. Next week, we’ll look at other films in this dystopian sub-genre and explore what they have to offer in the “Game over, man!” category.
But how close are we to the end of the world? On September 1, Asteroid Florence Nightingale, passed within seven million miles of Earth. She’s about three miles wide and could have done a helluva lot of damage to our little blue ball if she’d hit. (Talk about the irony if an object named after one of the world’s greatest nurses ended up killing millions.)
So put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, because it’s time for Apocalypse – Fan Edition!
Tobe Hooper’s career echoed that of many a seminal genre director from a particular, boundary-busting era. His struggles, his achievements, and his character iconography contributed to the horror canon. As with other directors who have passed on, his impact on cinema as a whole will continue to be felt.
George A. Romero gave us the black-and-white blood and guts of Night of the Living Dead in 1968, which also laid bare the genre’s potential to make social and political statements – in addition to subverting traditional notions of horror antagonism (“We have met the enemy, and he is us” indeed).
Wes Craven’s first feature, a take on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, brought grit, grunge, color, and a documentary-style aesthetic to a tale of criminal scumbags who subject two flower children to a “coming of age” that hinges on defilement, humiliation, and death. Last House on the Left, despite its self-doubting segues into humor and a banjo-twangin’ theme song, nonetheless brought savagery to the suburbs, breaking the illusions of “security” afforded to the upper class.
For me, this trinity always embodied the humanizing ups and downs of filmmaking business madness. You can find many interviews and commentaries of the late Craven and Romero looking back on scraping together funding, dealing with censor-happy studio heads, and succumbing to compromise when all other avenues failed. These are sadly familiar tales, but their recollections are imbued with a self-deprecating honesty that makes their stories all the more endearing and instructive.
Yet, while Craven and Romero had at least several critically conceded masterpieces under their belts, Tobe Hooper only had one.
But I don’t want to talk about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The conversation about who did or didn’t direct Poltergeist is the type of gossipy crap that bores me. And I’ll let Billy Crash write the apologias for the cult-beloved Lifeforce.
What I’m proposing here, is: While Hooper was just as much a product of a studio system that treated horror as disposable content to turn a profit, his projects over the years maintained signatures of style, characterization, and tonal sensibility. His films were always messy (in the literal and figurative sense), but not due to a lack of skill or temperament.
Maybe someday I’ll do a piece on the virtues of Spontaneous Combustion – the film and the phenomenon – but I’d wager that Brad Dourif’s flamethrower finger was a none-too-subtle reflection of what Hooper wanted to do to the money men who frequently, ahem, “mangled” his work. (Too bad the flames weren’t shooting from Dourif’s middle finger.)
While Tobe Hooper’s output in the new millennium produced successful, off-the-wall remakes of TheToolbox Murders and Mortuary, those films still remain divisive, with support that only falls in line with “cult” status. Even when left to his own devices, Hooper created his own form of madness by drawing wildly opposing reactions.
Dance of the Dead
And his first-season Masters of Horror episode, “Dance of the Dead,” was no exception.
Before I ever had a chance to watch it, I had noticed numerous negative user reviews cropping up on the IMDb. Many claimed that, if it wasn’t the worst episode of that first season, it was one of the worst.
I think Masters of Horror was ahead of the curve – a general precursor to the type of harder-edged, content-unrestricted fare that had been spearheaded by HBO, and later came to dominate Netflix’s programming roster. As a result, though, the show’s ability to push boundaries (with some network-mandated cuts to Dario Argento’s “Jenifer” and the outright banning of Takashi Miike’s “Imprint”) sometimes came off as leaning on gore or nudity for its own sake.
“Dance of the Dead,” however, felt like the one episode that embraced its own crazed boundlessness. Its gore was as organic as its nudity and skeevy presentation of sexuality (which is telling, since the closest it gets to sex is practically necrophilia). Its aesthetic – a series of hammering edits, heavy-metal music (courtesy of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan), and jittery “ghosting” effects – which most IMDb users decried, came across as perfectly fitting for the tale (an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic short story).
Consider some of Hooper’s previous works, and a pattern starts to appear: sets that resemble a claustrophobic notion of a hoarder’s lair. Characters with crazed motives, ranging from the external to the idiosyncratic. Action that storms its way into the frame with the recklessness of a wrecking ball through a brick wall.
Tobe Hooper’s detractors attributed the chaos of his films to a general lack of talent (“Texas Chainsaw was a fluke” being the laziest of article-starters), but less consideration was given to the possibility that Hooper’s brand of chaos was chaos by design.
To be continued…
(Photo of “Dance of the Dead” DVD cover via Undead Review.)
Andy Muschietti’s film IT out-shined all comers for best opening on a Thursday and best opening on a September weekend – beating out the competition by $75 million. But that’s just the North American market. The film secured the largest opening for a horror film in Australia, Brazil, Netherlands, Russia, and the United Kingdom, among others. After the worst summer in twenty years for Hollywood, IT has blown away expectations, even from analysts – who are no doubt now floating in Pennywise’s lair.
Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema definitely created an excellent marketing campaign, red balloons and all, but seeing IT on the big screen has been a long time coming for many a horror fan.
Does IT live up to expectations?
Billy Crash and Jonny Numb take a look at the film from all angles – even sewer level – and see how IT holds up against Stephen King’s beloved novel as well as the original mini-series. We check out the narrative, the story behind the story, the directing and acting, and so much more because we don’t clown around.
A Pennywise for your thoughts: Did IT make you float, or did you want to move out of dear old Derry never to return? Leave a comment below and let us know!
Horror is best served on a cold slab in the morgue…
As odd as it sounds, Movies in the Morgue, rue or otherwise, is a rare thing in horror. Simply put, not many films in the genre have explored or exploited what one might think would be an overused setting, device, or gimmick.
Even so, when it comes to morgue movies, we take a look at some of the best – and some of the rest, which should remain rotting on a slab, in a drawer, and locked under heavy chain. And we’ll do an autopsy on: Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, Epitaph, Men Behind the Sun, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Mortuary, Return of the Living Dead, as well as others.
The morgue, or mortuary, is simply a place that stores bodies. Most morgues can handle our dead with ease, but in cases where human calamity takes its toll, many may find themselves at their peak of capacity. On August 31, 2017, the Harris County morgue in Houston found itself in a horrible situation. Due to the intense rains and subsequent flooding from Hurricane Harvey, the facility had 175 bodies in storage with room for 25 more. They called upon the state for help and have a refrigerated 18-wheeler on stand by if the death toll continues to rise.
Regardless of what horror writers dream up, there always seems to something far worse in reality, once again making the claim from Mark Twain that “truth is stranger than fiction.”
Now, snap on your gloves, grab a scalpel, and cut your way into the bowels of Movies in the Morgue…
Any corporate person will tell you the most important thing about a business is location, location, location. But in the horror genre, location can bring stories to life in remarkable ways and resonate as a character in the film. When it comes to Horror Locations, some movies rise above in big bad ways.
Top Ten Horror Locations
Can you imagine if Jack (Jack Nicholson) and family were at a motel off the beaten path instead of the Overlook in The Shining? No, I can’t either. There’d be no crazy maze with all its changing entrances, no intense sense of isolation, and Danny (Danny Lloyd) would just roll around in the parking lot. I guess the creepy sisters would hang out in a sandbox.
The important item is that the Overlook isn’t only haunted, it’s other worldly. Once we see the outdoors, and then peek inside, it’s clear the pink and gold ballroom couldn’t fit. There are doors and stairs to nowhere, windows are in place where it’s impossible for them to exist, and pathway’s change. The greatest thing to add to the unease is that element of pure isolation – and when the snow hits, forget it. The family’s cut off. It’s them and the Overlook. Stephen King may have written the famed novel, but Stanley Kubrick made the Overlook even more menacing in how he presented the property. This is one of Horror Locations‘ most bizarro settings.
What once seems like a getaway for a family to reconnect turns out to be a sinister experience that instantly exploits their existing craziness. It’s clear their issues, from child abuse and anger, to detachment and “shining,” fuel the paranormal fire until it erupts in murder.
In the end, the Overlook becomes a fun house out of an amusement park. The only difference: You’re not supposed to survive the ride.
Isn’t Venice Beautiful?
After you watch Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Know, you may never look at Venice the same way again. Considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful cities and known to travelers as “The Bride of the Sea,” it’s hard to imagine such a venue on a Horror Locations list. But director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond makes every canal, every bridge, and every alley look like a passage to Hell.
Even in the daylight, the city takes on a sense of foreboding, where bridges and canals that once seemed like welcoming passageways, now serve as veins and arteries ready to bleed. The Baxters (Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland), didn’t come to the city for terror, they wanted to get away and pick up the pieces after their daughter’s death. But Venice brings them no peace: Laura can’t convince John that their daughter’s trying to speak to them from the grave, and John has one hallucination too many that he misinterprets with every blink of his eyes.
All the while, Venice serves as a dark pool ready to absorb them under the waters, just like the pond did to their daughter back home.
Of All the Cities in All the World
It could have landed anywhere, but the giant alien in Cloverfield came up from the depths off the shore of New York’s Coney Island.
New York’s vital to the film because the monster isn’t just toppling buildings and stomping souls, he’s taking out icons. The first piece of destruction is the head of Lady Liberty that sails down the street with Hud (TJ Miller) and friends looking on, then the Brooklyn Bridge gets cut in half, and guess what? Not even the subways are safe. And don’t even think about taking an early morning stroll in Central Park.
Matt Reeves may bring us a creature feature of adult proportions in a major American city, but the release date came just seven years after 9/11. When Hud and his buddies hide out in a shop as a cloud of dust and debris passes by, it’s reminiscent of the real horror that took place in 2001, which only adds to the tension and suspense. Whether you like the hipster Millennials or not, once we have that first image of an exploding building in our mind, followed by that white cloud, it’s hard not to root for any character to get the hell out of there.
But in this journey, the dawn may not bring a new day.
Life’s a Rubik’s Cube
Familiar locations work wonders because we expect them to be innocuous, so when horror ensues, we get that jolt from experiencing “the other.” But imagine waking up in a lame uniform on the floor of a colored room with hatches in the center of each bulkhead. Each room’s a different color, you have no food or water, you’re with some other scared strangers, and you have no idea what the hell’s going on.
This is Cube, Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 independent feature that left many a sci-fi and horror fan with an uneasy feeling. Because it’s not just the fact that there’s a series of rooms to nowhere, but most of them sport horrible death traps. To survive them and somehow find an escape route, the group must focus on their strengths and work together as a team to make it out alive.
Well, that sounds simple enough, but the rooms are silent, and other than different room colors, the move from one cube to the next creates monotony. And with thirst rising and hunger taking its toll, the trapped souls will undoubtedly start to make mistakes.
Cube serves as one of the unique Horror Locations, and it works because the kidnapped occupants have no frame of reference to work from.
Trapped in a room within a room leads to tension, fear, and desperation – and there may be no way out.
Take Your Skills to the Mall
Thanks to the internet, many may have given up on shopping at malls, but in the 1970s, finding everything you needed from different stores under one roof proved to salute consumerism like no other capitalist idea. George A. Romero knew this all too well, so with his Dawn of the Dead sequel, he forced a group of strangers trying to survive a zombie apocalypse inside the walls of a mall.
And what a great hiding place! There’s food, clothes, beds, and just about everything one could ever want. Except you can’t leave. The zombie horde’s outside waiting to cut you down so you’re trapped in a sort of gilded prison. Plus, there’s a mad biker gang that needs a beat down. So much for the fun and excitement of being locked in a mall. (If there was a movie mashup with Chopping Mall, robot guards on the prowl would have added maybe a bit too much to the mayhem.)
The mall becomes a prison instead of a fortress for the human hangers-on, but where to go?
When a few survivors leave what they once thought was a sanctuary, they may never find a home again.
Nothing like a beautiful, emerald farm in the land of Éire. Unless your farm has a breeding experiment that goes horribly wrong.
In Isolation, Billy O’Brien’s use of an off the beaten path farm as a backdrop for terror really amps up that uncanny feeling when even docile cows can become your worst enemy. Ossie Davis, before her stint as a mother in trouble in Babadook, plays Orla the vet who tries to help farmer Dan (John Lynch) with a pregnant cow in distress. It’s not just that the new calf bites Orla, but experiments with Bovine Genetics Technology have gone haywire and the result is the movie Alien on a farm.
Thanks to veteran cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, Dan’s farm looks like a dark brooding Hell, and cows never looked so creepy. It’s enough to make one think that pure unadulterated terror rests behind every barn stall, and for all we know, tractors may become self-aware and run one down. Ryan’s work proves that lighting and the atmosphere it creates lends so much to Horror Locations.
Even if anyone makes it out alive, the charm of the farm may never return.
A Quaint Little Island
In The Wicker Man, Summerisle looks like that perfect getaway off the coast of Scotland. Nice people, rustic charm, fresh air, and a bizarre rites festival to bring the world we know to its knees.
Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) comes to the island community via helicopter to find a missing girl – a girl the townspeople say never existed. But Howie’s a constable that doesn’t give up easily, and does his best to work around the smiles, the kindness, and the cheer to find her. Just one problem: The island’s namesake, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) seems to get in his way at every turn.
The horrific beauty of The Wicker Man rests in turning the tropes of the genre on its head. Director Robin Hardy kept the atmosphere light yet bizarre, and most of the terror occurs during the day amongst shiny, happy people.
But is there evil behind every smile, or has Sergeant Howie found himself in a society where the rules of normalcy are a bit different?
Either way, whether he finds the girl or not, there’s a good chance he’ll be next on the “missing” list.
It’s an Atomic Blast!
Ah, the 1950’s. Happy Days. As long as you didn’t live near ground zero when the US government ripped up the Nevada dessert with nuclear tests.
And in The Hills Have Eyes, two families collide: The mutant remains of atomic bomb testing survivors and a “normal” family on vacation. The latter makes the mistake of getting off the main road only to end up stranded in an old nuclear testing area.
The setting is the dessert and its surrounding hills. All is barren, exposed, and one’s life is up for grabs. The odd reality is that this vast wasteland evokes a sense of heightened isolation. There’s no place to run, no place to hide, and the only witness to the carnage is what remains of the Air Force’s testing site. After all, that mutant family is akin to indigenous people who have no clue that a more advanced and orderly world exists outside their own.
This isn’t some backwoods cannibal story, but one where writer/director Wes Craven asks us to forget where we are and the rule of law, and poses the question: Doesn’t a mutant family have the right to survive on their own terms?
The problem is that the dessert isn’t kind to humanity in any form, and loves to keep secrets, which makes it one of the best Horror Locations. It may be a miracle if anyone makes it out at all.
Final Frontier of Death
In Ridley Scott’s, Alien, the mining crew of the Nostromo followed protocol and made one big damned mistake. They landed on a rock, picked up an alien entity, and brought the bugger back with them.
The crew’s 70 million miles from Earth. And in space, no one may be able to hear you scream, but there isn’t much traffic either. Stuck on a ship that will take forever to get to the Outer Rim to contact Antarctic Traffic Control, they must face their chrome-toothed opponent and kill it before their vessel becomes one giant tomb. Take about one of your “really out of the way” Horror Locations.
Since the Nostromo’s a mining vessel, this isn’t some lovely well-lit space craft. It’s a blue collar truck in space hauling ore with the barest accommodations. The ship’s dark, stark, and claustrophobic. Even the flight deck has the crew on top of each other because more room means less ore and that means less profit for the company.
It’s a fight in tight quarters to defeat the beast before that long trip home.
But will anyone escape when there’s nothing but the cold, vast vacuum of space to keep them company?
A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
As far as Horror Locations go, for the men at Outpost Number 31, it’s the first goddamned week of winter of their discontent. They’re not happy, they’re dulled by their Antarctic surroundings of endless white ice and cold winds that never stop bringing the chills that can go to seventy below. Plus, the station has come alive with something weird and pissed off that’s not of this world. The radio’s down. The choppers and other vehicles have been hacked. The sled dogs are dead. They’re completely cut off and facing an enemy that can change at will – and may be the person standing right beside them.
John Carpenter brought the cold and then some with a landscape that glowed blue, gray, and ugly in The Thing. And with Ennio Morricone’s suspense laden and minimalist score, the sense of doom’s pervasive.
It’s safe to say all hope’s lost, and if anything can survive the bitter temperature and the tumult, it’s most likely the Thing in furry form.
So that’s the top ten – off the top of my head. But this is only round one. Other great Horror Locations have much to say, from the alien underworld in Crawl or Die to haunted house in The Changeling and beyond, so expect to see a “part two” sometime soon.
Share your favorite’s, and maybe they’ll find themselves on the next list…
Billy Crash (aka William D. Prystauk)
He loves great, in depth characters and storytelling in horror, and likes to see heads roll, but if you kill a dog on screen he’ll cry like a baby. Billy co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, and his professional website.
We’ll look at Tobe Hooper‘s life, why he’s right up there with George A. Romero and Wes Craven, how he changed the horror landscape – and we put the ludicrous Poltergeist directing controversy to rest.
If you’re a fan of the genre…
Hooper’s work serves as the foundation for slasher films in the 1980s, and contributed to the “hand held” aesthetic that keeps many horror fans on edge.
Listen in as Billy and Jonny explore their favorites from the horror master, and remember to leave your comments at Crash Palace about your favorite Hooper films!
Crash Palace and THE LAST KNOCK extends its condolences and best wishes to Mr. Hooper’s family and friends.
Love space vampires? Then check out Billy Crash’s piece about Lifeforce!
(THE LAST KNOCK art from Palko Designs. Tobe Hooper image from Mirror.)