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Tobe Hooper and the Aesthetics of Madness (Part I) by Jonny Numb

<img src="danceofthedead.jpg" alt="The Aesthetics of Madness Tobe Hooper’s Dance of the Dead">

The Aesthetics of Madness (Part 1): Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead.”

Madness and Cinema

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 The Toolbox 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.)

Crash Analysis Support Team:

<img src="jonnynumb.jpg" alt="Jonny Numb">Jonny Numb

(Aka Jonathan Weidler), he only plays favorites when it comes to review sites like Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes, and can also be found on Twitter and Letterboxd.

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Movies in the Morgue

<img src="thelastknock.jpg" alt="Door opening to the Morgue">

Door opening to the morgue…

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

This episode’s SCREAM OUTS from Twitter: 

@RealJillyG @GuyRicketts @dixiefairy @RSBrzoska @AnnThraxx @BleedingCritic @RonGizmo @d_m_elms @MachineMeanBlog @inthenightdoc @FriscoKidTX @TheDeniseCrosby @DonRiemer @tarah_paige @VicsMovieDen @StephenFolklore @palkodesigns @blunderground @IMDb @nikolajcw @RobertBEnglund @EmileHirsch @liamneson @justinlong @CultEpics

The plot sickens: Check out our podcast on Cemeteries!

(THE LAST KNOCK art from Palko Designs.)

THE LAST KNOCK presents: Remembering Tobe Hooper

THE LAST KNOCK artwork from Palko Designs

We salute independent horror director and writer, Tobe Hooper

Sad times as we say goodbye to independent filmmaker Tobe Hooper who left his mark by creating a new form of horror storytelling with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But he’s far from a one-hit movie wonder. The Texas born director went on to helm Eaten Alive, the successful Salem’s Lot mini-series, Lifeforce, Mortuary, Toolbox Murders, and many more projects for the big and small screens.

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!

Tobe Hooper image from Mirror

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.)