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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.