Tag Archives: Richard Matheson

Tobe Hooper and the Aesthetics of Madness (Part 2) by Jonny Numb

<img src="Aesthetics.jpg" alt="Tobe Hooper’s Aesthetics of Madness">

The Aesthetics of Madness (Part 2): Tobe Hooper’s “Chainsaw” dinner scene.

The Aesthetics of Madness – Chainsaw Style

You need not look further than The Texas 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.

(Gif of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre via giphy.)

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.

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.

Highways of Horror – Day VI – The Last Drive

You can’t beat me on the grade. You can’t beat me on the grade!

David Mann – Duel

As the old saying goes: “The last mile is the hardest mile.” In my case, it was the slowest mile and I had to put my car in full throttle…

The morning hadn’t started out well: -10 degrees (-23 Celsius), windy, snowy, and a thick gray sky ready to plop down onto Butte, Montana like the Blob on Phoenixville and a young Steve McQueen. But mere minutes out of the city, the clouds parted, the sun shined, and the roads were clear enough for 90 mph driving.

I loved the latter because this was a ten-hour haul to Seattle. Ally figured I wouldn’t mind driving 120-minutes more to get to her, the pups, and our new homestead, and I couldn’t argue that. I felt pretty damn solid and the Malibu moved like a rock star.

Google Maps welcomed me to the panhandle of northern Idaho, as I remained on my old friend, 90 West, who never seemed to steer me wrong. In short order, I took the curves and overcame the black ice of the road as the Chevy meandered through the Bitterroot Range of the Rocky Mountains. Pines sprinkled with white snow stood firm against the rock faces and made for a series of picture postcards, but I couldn’t pull over to take a shot.

I had already passed far too many overly cautious drivers and trucks that rolled like tortoises in slow motion because more ice patches could lay in wait in the shadows of the peaks as the sun dipped lower and lower on the horizon. With the temperature still in a frozen state, and with such narrow shoulder room, pulling over to take a picture would have been a dumb and possibly deadly tourist move.

At the end of the mountain pass is the lovely town of Couer d’Alene and its picturesque lake, and though I wanted to stop there, I felt it best to move further on into Moscow for better refueling options. Here, I took a small break and stretched my legs, but failed to see any Putin fans having a parade or posters of Lenin and Stalin. But I did have the opportunity to use a squeegee and wipe salt from the windshields, windows, headlights, and taillights. That cleanliness ended in such record time that it crushed the speed in which the singularity expanded in the Big Bang that created our Universe.

I pressed on into the dark, with a sliver of a crescent moon sending down enough light to radiate the rolling, snow and ice-coated landscape outside of Spokane as a grand blue mass. The small hills seemed curled up against the cold and let the wind run roughshod over them. Cars and trucks shifted side to side with the gusts right as we entered the Snoqualmie Pass.

This is where my New Jersey driving attitude kicked in. There may have been frozen patches, compressed snow, and seemingly single lanes in lieu of two thanks to bad plowing, but I pressed on at recommended speeds, while others moved as if on square wheels. In fact, signs requested all slow moving vehicles to get in the right lane, yet a string of cars climbing a hill were doing 40 mph in the left. I had to engage the risk of passing on the right because a truck got the message and abandoned the center lane for a relaxing roll up the hill. I pulled into the center and hurled by that string of six cars and kept on flying.

In Richard Matheson’s renowned television horror/thriller, Duel, directed by a young Steven Spielberg before he sent a shark after innocent swimmers, David Mann (Dennis Weaver) didn’t seem to have that many options as a crazed trucker (Dale Van Sickle) remained hellbent on driving him off the damn road. This took place in 1971, long before cell phones and such, so David was on his own. However, when he tried to get help, the man failed miserably. And once, overtaken by fear and paranoia, he even attacked the wrong person at a diner. This isn’t a “fish out of water story” or a “stranger on a strange stretch of road” tale, it’s a bit more existential than that. David’s dueling with himself: overcoming fear to find courage, overcoming anger to embrace logic, and overcoming the fear of death to fight for life. In this sense, he has to cope with the “dual” nature of the human experience.

There are two sides to each of us. We may present ourselves to the public in one way, as opposed to maybe a more relaxed or more honest self to those in our private lives. We also have fears, weaknesses, phobias, and illnesses though we may not have yet been put in a position to overcome them. David has though. He’s been thrust into a war and David can either stand down and die, or stand up with more confidence than he ever imagined he could muster. Even if he doesn’t make it, he’ll know he did his damnedest in the face of adversity.

Here, David’s propelled into becoming “the hero who didn’t want to be.” He has to recollect himself in order to focus to live another mile. Because the world is completely different for him now, and the rules that brought him safety and comfort no longer hold any weight.

When I finally entered the city of Seattle, I was met with overly conscientious drivers, and my duel became finding patience as the female voice on my GPS said, “I don’t have a fucking clue” when it comes to the most convoluted traffic patterns I have ever endured. Collectively, the drivers and their tentative nature and inability to take advantage of opportunities left me frustrated and begging for openings. Hell, when the light turns yellow, everyone stops and some intersections don’t even have stop signs. For the most part, Seattle drivers all seem to have earned their licenses the day before, which is a far cry from the assertive driving I’ve grown accustomed to from New Jersey Formula One racing. Welcome, “stranger in a strange land.”

As I drove on, I realized Seattle is far more gigantic than I ever realized, spreading wide amidst the Cascades. The Space Needle does stand out, but only as if a metallic wildflower nearly drowned out by a city of strong redwoods reaching ever higher towards the Big Dipper and Belt of Orion. Cranes pepper the cityscape, and they’re decorated in different colors to blend in with the lightshow emanating from apartment buildings and skyscrapers, where modern architecture complements the natural ebb and flow of Mother Nature.

This reminded me of Lisbon, Portugal when cranes marked the skyline and pierced the sunset like darts. Lisbon was healthy then, and Seattle is healthy now, growing in the tech and information sectors, offering new career opportunities for those who wish to relocate to someplace cool and begin anew – Hey, that’s Ally and me!

But the Emerald City is so much more, as all cities are, with a great mix of cultures, peoples, and languages, and endless venues. The art and film community is strong here, as well as the love for green and healthy living. Litter has proven to be a rarity, and people are not only concerned about the city, but they love it. In this sense, it reminds me of Montreal (without the European flair) and Vancouver, where the streets are clean and people take pride in where they live. Ally and I look forward to exploring all of Seattle and helping others care for it as if we’ve lived here a lifetime.

The house Ally chose is a perfect rental. Large and roomy, it’s a cool craftsman. The owners seemed to have chosen three different interior design avenues to explore, and “made it up” as they went along, which only adds to its charm. We also have a small backyard for our pups, Suki and Karma to run free. We’re located in the Roosevelt section, where suburbia meets city in a Brooklyn sort of way, and we like that. We’re close to transportation and can easily head downtown or to other section where the city thins out, rolls out, and expands as if at the ends of a lava flow. Better still, we’re right next to Patricia and John Eddy, two friends we hold dear who continue to mentor us in all that Seattle has to offer, and have helped us in ways neither one of us expected. Thanks to both of them, Ally wasn’t alone, and they both continue to send me wonderful job leads – though I doubt I’ll become an exterior washer of the Space Needle – ever.

In Duel, David Mann wasn’t simply a name Matheson chose at random. He was every “mann” caught in a battle he didn’t know was coming that turned his worldview upside down. However, when it came to his little car rolling tough against that 18-wheeler, he was definitely “David” facing his “Goliath.”

All David wanted to do in Duel was get to point B and meet someone. But whether on the road, on the street, or in our minds, we all have unexpected battles to confront and navigate, to come to terms with our own duality and put our own internal duel to rest. The point is to hang in there, dig deep, stand tall, travel safe, and overcome.

Ally and I don’t know what awaits us in Seattle, but I do know my family has had the most wonderful and amazing times in odd years. 2016 was a horror show for many reasons, but Ally and I have much to see, learn, and gain with our new and exciting venture.

I hope the road rises to meet you wherever you roam, and that your highway to success is never blocked. Yes, there may be a detour or two, as well as some bumps and a wrong turn, or maybe even a crash, but as David Mann learned, you’ll get there if you accept reality, keep your mind sharp, and put the pedal to the metal.

Ride on…

(Photo of Roosevelt Way near University of Washington taken by Billy Crash on his iPhone 5.)