I think Tobe Hooper is one of the better horror directors still working today. The man understands that good horror doesn't automatically make a good film. He focuses on character, plot, and structure to the point of actually turning off some horror fans. Not to mention that some stories just aren't strong enough to sustain this approach. There's a reason so many horrors are just popcorn films and that's the lack of internal logic, weight, and characters. It goes beyond a perception of whether he's good or not. Hooper is best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a double-edged sword.
How many low-budget grindhouse pictures get included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art? How many are actually well-regarded by critics and fans? How many get new home video releases every few years and pack panels at conventions all over the world? Tobe Hooper managed to elevate the slasher into something regularly considered artistic and worthwhile.
On the other side of the coin, anything Tobe Hooper does that is not called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is treated like a lesser exercise. Worse still, if it's genuinely good and doesn't feel like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the amount of influence he had on set is questioned. Ever hear how there's no way Hooper really directed Poltergeist because it feels like a Spielberg film? Or [insert film here] only works because [insert excuse here]?
Perhaps the oddest part of this dynamic isn't how people treat his successes, but how they respond to his failures. Does anyone blame Stephen King for The Mangler? His story about a possessed laundry folding machine is the basis of the film. What about Night Terrors, where Hooper only acted as director? Who is held accountable for that production going so wrong? It's almost as if making one spectacular horror film means that Hooper must accept all blame for any blemish on his record, regardless of why the the other projects fell apart.
Hooper couldn't even win over fans with the horror fan service series Masters of Horror. His two episodes, "Dance of the Dead" and "The Damned Thing," are not the best the series has to offer. However, it's hard to imagine people really thinking they're terrible. Yet, on the Hooper scale of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to everything else he's done, the fact that these were not the same as the famed slasher meant they were underwhelming.
Tobe Hooper is one of those artists who will always be known for one creation. For all the fame, recognition, and fulfillment that can bring, it also sets a benchmark that rises and falls depending on cultural cache. When The Texas Chainsaw Massacre rises in public consciousness, Hooper has to do so much more to gain recognition for any other project.
The reason this even came up in my mind is the news that Hooper's first film Eggshells has been found and restored for some kind of release this year from MUBI. Hooper started bringing up the film again two or three years ago, cautioning people that it is not a horror film. The goal was to make a bizarre film, not a scary one, and it's hard to imagine how a film lost for decades with that goal could possible be great.
What will happen when people can get their hands on Eggshells? Will it feature some of the raw energy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? It's hard to predict the response. I could see a critical line of thinking where Eggshells demonstrates the initial experiments that made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre work. I could just as easily see the discussion that Eggshells just proves Hooper was only good for one film.
It feels like any discussion of Tobe Hooper always comes down to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, for better or worse. We're a culture that uses comparison to explain most everything. It's the spawn of "x meets y" film marketing taken to fan discussion and criticism.
I think Hooper has a few good films on his resume and some strong TV work. I'm willing to credit him for it, too. He changed the game with his most popular feature and continues to show the instincts for balancing horror with story/characters. If only he could get some better stories to work with. Maybe that would start to change the dialogue.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.