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How Tobe Hooper’s modern horror made society the monster

Tracing the legacy of the king of transgressive scares, who has died at the age of 74

In the mid 1970s, the hippie bubble had popped: a generation of kids, liberated by those before them, had grown tired of false promises of utopia, peace, love and a better world. The U.S involvement in the Vietnam war caused disillusionment and unrest across the country, as demonstrations turned into riots and the horrors of war unfolded on the television. You could say that the people were proto-woke.

Tobe Hooper reflected that ideal and showcased the growing unrest and changing widespread ideals in his expert, but rather brief, canon of work. It included, without question, his best films and TV work: Poltergeist, Salem's Lot and of course, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, his signature film about the idealistic teenage dream being brutally (so, so brutally) cut short.

His 1974 masterpiece was released just a year before the war ended in 1975. The film of course – which was so reviled for its macabre imagery and gore that it was ‘banned for being too violent’ – concentrated on a classic formula: a bunch of happy, weed-smoking teenagers go off-course on a road trip and discover a family of cannibals, housing Leatherface, a walking nightmare with a chainsaw, who wore a human face as a mask.

But really though, it was a brutal depiction of social unrest and violence in America, and signified the end of the innocent, utopian ideal. The teenagers represented a soon to be undermined mindset, with Leatherface the unstoppable, advantaged force that would destroy them. He wore a human mask, which viewers would of course presume was the face of another young victim.

And in real life, Hooper made it very difficult for his teenage actors, who had to endure a pretty shitty time while on set, no doubt adding to the gut wrenching aesthetic captured on film. Reports talk of how the smell of bones and animal entrails made the cast vomit continuously and how many people suffered grave injuries from the use of a fully functional chainsaw on set.

But although the film was officially uncensored in 1999 after being accused of promoting 'the pornography of terror', it didn’t depict that much in the way of violence. He excelled at the art of connotation, of driving your imagination wild. It terrified and fascinated everyone from Ridley Scott to George A. Romero, John Waters and Wes Craven. And that rush of adrenaline is tracked by the fantastic use of colour, wide and close cinematic shots, the stark images of Sally (Hooper perfected horror's 'Final Girl' trope), and Leatherface twisting and twirling his chainsaw through the air in anger pre-credits.

The killer family are victims of U.S capitalist society, slaughterhouse workers made redundant by technological advances – they butcher and sell human flesh to survive. Then, the violence which had occurred during the Vietnam war had destroyed the lives of many young Vietnamese and American men, reduced them to mere faceless numbers in a war built on lies and false pretenses. Leatherface's mask signified the end of the dream, the dead face of innocence, the remnants of the youthful optimism ruined by war.

Some years later, those ideals had been replaced by consumerism and the age of advertising. In 1982, the world had changed dramatically. High rolling businessman, colour televisions becoming more impressive and a growing societal cult obsessed with money and power. And where Hooper's 1982 masterpiece Poltergeist (based on a book by Steven Spielberg) heightened the fears of both children (the weird sound under the bed) and parents (the loss of a child), Hooper also took aim at consumerism and the ubiquitous nature of television, alongside a critique of Reganism, as Hooper set up technology as a portal for evil.

The scene takes place in the house of the 'Freelings', a suburban middle-class family who have embraced  – and profited  – from the 'greed is good' mentality of the time, while the social divisions between the rich and the poor grew ever wider. Hooper held a mirror up to this unbalanced society of the disenfranchised and stupidly rich, and took revenge upon it, with as much humour and wistful abandon as the 80's yuppies that approached life through a cloud of cigarette smoke, cocaine still in their noses. Its legacy pervades modern storytelling, seeping into hit show Stranger Things.

Again, Hooper didn't fill the film with scenes of extremities, of blood soaked gore and violence. He just insinuated what could or what might have happened, again sending your imagination into chaos, trying to draw grounded meaning and explanation from Poltergeist.

His television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot is widely recognised as one of the best takes on King’s literary oeuvre. The acclaimed 1979 miniseries sees the classic vampire transposed onto neighbours and local folk: the monsters are teachers, diner waitresses and town drunks. Hooper explored the Maine town’s undercurrents of moral decay – its love of small local gossip eclipses any knowledge of ancient, serious evil invading in the town, and those expected to remain strong, like local police and priests, fail.

After a huge public fallout with Spielberg over creative rights to Poltergeist, the Hollywood work dried up. He then turned to Canon films for a three-picture deal which produced Invaders From Mars and Lifeforce, both terribly hammy and camp horror films that didn’t contain his observational edge. A stint working on television as a director for shows such as Tales From The Crypt saw out his career – but the indelible print left behind by his three masterpieces paved the way for politically minded critiques of the world that we are so used to seeing now.

He shocked and appalled audiences and, before his lull period, was considered a horror genre enfant terrible, a man who knew how to captivate audiences and shock them by plucking at their common fears. At the time though  – and very much unlike today's content swamped consumerists – audiences probably weren't aware that their shock and appall was in some way at themselves.