LOS ANGELES — Tobe Hooper, the horror-movie pioneer whose low-budget sensation “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” took a buzz saw to audiences with its brutally frightful vision, has died. He was 74.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office on Sunday said Hooper died Saturday in the Sherman Oaks area of Los Angeles. It was reported as a natural death.
Along with contemporaries like George Romero and John Carpenter, Hooper crafted some of the scariest nightmares that ever haunted moviegoers. Hooper directed 1982’s “Poltergeist” from a script by Steven Spielberg, and helmed the well-regarded 1979 miniseries “Salem’s Lot,” from Stephen King’s novel.
Hooper was a little-known filmmaker of documentaries and TV commercials when he made his most famous work: 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” He made it for less than $300,000 in his native Texas, and yet it became one the most influential films in horror: a slasher film landmark.
Marketed as based on a true story, “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” is about a group of friends who encounter a family of cannibals in Central Texas. The central villain, Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen) was loosely based on serial killer Ed Gein, but the tale was otherwise fiction. Hooper, whose inspiration struck while looking at chain saws in a department store, considered the film a political one — a kind of shock to ’70s malaise. The film’s cannibals are out of work, their slaughterhouse jobs having been replaced by technology.
“I had never seen anything like it and I wanted to see it myself,” said Hooper in 2014. “That was a driving force and my ability to pull the energy up out of myself to work that damn hard as I wanted to see it. the movie, I mean, as a finished picture. The energies are making a decision at a point.”
The film was controversial. Several countries banned it, though the independent film — aided by its gory reputation and lightning fast word-of-mouth — grossed $30.8 million, playing for eight years in drive-ins and theaters. Still, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” wasn’t as explicitly grisly as it was reputed to be; much of its humor-sprinkled horror was summoned by the filmmaking and the buzz of one terrifying power tool.
Carpenter, the “Halloween” director, on Sunday called it “a seminal work in horror cinema.” William Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” recalled Hooper as “a kind, warm-hearted man who made the most terrifying film ever.”
“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” wasn’t received too kindly by critics. Harper’s, for one, called it “a vile little piece of sick crap.” Roger Ebert said it was “without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose.” But its renown steadily grew, and many appreciated its harrowing craft, comparing it to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Pyscho” (which also took inspiration from Ed Gein). “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was selected to the Director’s Fortnight of the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. Later, it would become part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Poltergeist” was Hooper’s other horror classic, though it sprung from the mind of Steven Spielberg, who also produced it. Made with a much larger budget of $10 million, “Poltergeist” is about young parents (Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams) whose suburban dream house is haunted by the graveyard it was built on.
Hooper also directed a more comic sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in 1986. A poorly received but profitable remake followed in 2003. Numerous spinoffs have also been produced, most recently a prequel titled “Leatherface” to be released in September.
Hooper’s last film as director was 2013’s “Djinn,” a supernatural thriller set in the United Arab Emirates.