One Two Trilogy: Tobe Hooper’s “Cannon Trilogy”

One Two Trilogy - Tobe Hooper

[One Two Trilogy takes a look at some lesser known — sometimes strangely related — trilogies, from directors both big and small.]

The early 70s saw a shift in American horror cinema. Films were becoming less “polished” than they had been in prior decades; they were becoming more raw, primal, and unpredictable which made them feel much more real. Following “real” people in “real” situations these films (often labeled “exploitation films”) often featured lots of movement, handheld camera work, and extreme close-ups. Among this new genre of kinetic film-making — which included The Last House on the Left (1972), Three on a Meathook (1973) and Deranged (1974) — The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) stands out as the grandaddy of them all.

tcm-posterDirected by a then-unknown Tobe Hooper, who’d been honing his skills by directing industrials, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was visceral, shocking, and unforgettable. However, it would still be a few years before Hooper got his big break. In the meantime, he directed a few hits — like Salem’s Lot, (1979) which was only the second Stephen King work adapted for the screen after 1976’s Carrie — and some misses — The Dark (1979), which was such a troubled shoot that he was eventually replaced as director. But in 1982, Hooper finally got his chance to infiltrate Hollywood: he was chosen to direct Poltergeist (1982).

Unfortunately, the wild and dangerous cinema that dominated the 70s was no longer the big draw. The start of the 80s saw a new trend: family-oriented blockbusters, spawned at the adept hand of wunderkind director Steven Spielberg. Hooper now had his big shot, but he was completely out of his element. The infamous stories behind Hooper’s involvement in Poltergeist are those of legend; some say he didn’t really direct the film — that it was actually producer Steven Spielberg who did most of the heavy lifting. Whatever the truth may be, the fact that he didn’t end up directing his next film until 3 years later only adds more to the mystery. Perhaps most telling of all may be the fact that Hooper’s next string of films were made under Cannon Films — a company whose reputation hinged on their low-budget B-grade releases.

With this new deal worked out with Cannon, Hooper was once again granted the same freedom he’d originally had a decade earlier with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Would he be able to duplicate the same success he’d had with his first film? …not exactly.

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The first film released through the Hooper/Cannon partnership was Lifeforce (1985). On paper, this thing should’ve been a massive hit. A movie about space vampires by the director of Poltergeist with a script by Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead) — based on a book by prolific author Colin Wilson — Lifeforce starred Steve Railsback and Patrick Stewart and featured music by Henry Mancini — all on a mammoth budget of $25 million. But it didn’t end up being a hit.

In fact, calling Lifeforce a flop would be putting it lightly —the film made less than half of its budget back. Not only that, but the production was fraught with speedbumps. Almost every player was replaced (including James Horner, who was originally asked to pen the score), the projected 17-week shoot ended up taking 22 weeks, and one of the script doctors was “horrified by Hooper’s working methods.” One of the actors claimed filming was shut down at one point because they ran out of money. Needless to say, Hooper’s return behind the camera was off to a terrible start.

Hooper released his next two films in 1986, just one month apart.

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First up was Invaders from Mars*, a remake of the 1953 film of the same name. Hooper’s Invaders remake was a quintessential 80s sci-fi kid movie. In the mid-80s, there were a glut of these fantasy films that were laced with weird and spooky undertones, and usually saw the young lead stars in some sort of existential peril: E.T., Explorers, Making Contact, Flight of the Navigator, D.A.R.Y.L., The Quest, Cloak and Dagger, Spacecamp, Lady in White, and even Return of the Living Dead II… the list is pretty endless. So, Invaders was Hooper’s contribution to the pile.

Poor Tobe. His comeback wasn’t looking great. Invaders ended up being strike two: despite a screenplay from the talented Dan O’Bannon (once again), and employing a solid cast, the film only made $5M against it’s purported $7-12M budget. Adding insult to injury, producers (and Cannon Films head honchos) Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan hated the final film; they felt misled, that Tobe had turned in a movie that was not as he’d originally described.**

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Hooper’s final film, which would fulfill his contractual obligation to Cannon, would prove to be his best. It would also turn out to be the most shocking, obscene, and flat out insane film of his career. Twelve years after making the film that would set him on his path to stardom, and take him to the top of Hollywood, a humbled and broken Hooper picked up his familiar dusty, blood-caked saw and headed back to Austin to direct The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. In a way, it’s almost poetic.

At this point, Hooper had to feel utterly hopeless. His star was fading. His last two films had been complete flops, and no one — not his producers or the movie-going public — thought he was a capable director. So with nothing left to lose — and armed with his lowest budget from Cannon yet — Hooper pulled out all the stops and kicked it into overdrive. The resultant film (with special make-up effects by the wizard of gore, Tom Savini) was so over the top, so bloody and brutal, that the MPAA slapped the movie with an “X” rating.

The only way to salvage the film was to chop a whopping 12 minutes off. Hooper relented and released a tamer, albeit still absolutely bonkers film, and to everyone’s surprise — it was a hit. The bizarre violence and black humor struck a chord with its audience: the diehard fans of the original hated it (which is great publicity), and everyone else thought it was the weirdest thing the 80s had released thus far. It was his only film under Cannon to turn a profit, earning over twice its budget back.*** Alas, it was too little too late for Hooper. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 would be the last time the director would have a film in wide theatrical release.

In the three decades since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Hooper has only released five films. None of these films have been a financial or critical success.

*Steven Spielberg was considering directing Invaders from Mars before Hooper was chosen.

**It should be noted that Lifeforce premiered while Invaders was in pre-production. When Golan-Globus saw what a disaster Lifeforce ended up being, they slashed Hooper’s Invaders budget in half.

***By the end of his three-picture run with Cannon, Hooper’s combined box office totals were only $23 million against a combined $41 million in budgets.

Written by Dr. Jose

Dr. Jose was born of monster magazines, weirdo late night TV, and endless aisles of video store schlock. He enjoys the finer things in life: chainsaws, mutants, and succubi from Hell. Buy him a beer and you'll have a friend for life. These are not opinions, people. Just the cold, hard facts. He currently runs the horror site Camera Viscera from an abandoned pizza parlor (which was built on an ancient Indian burial ground.)

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