Tobe Hooper is my favorite director. Not just my favorite Master of Horror, not just my favorite director in the horror genre, my favorite director period. That makes ranking his filmography an almost impossible task, because even those titles that rank lower on the list are still movies I love – or, at the very least, like. He’s a filmmaker who has been perpetually misunderstood, devalued, even accused of not directing one of his most famous films, despite working in the genre for four decades and making a number of classics. He was a filmmaker ahead of his time, one I will forever love for his characteristic insanity and the endless personality of his work. A frame of a Tobe Hooper movie cannot be mistaken for anything else but a Tobe Hooper movie. His films are weird and they are wild and they are wonderful.
Though he rarely gets credit for his skills as a technician – the way, say, his fellow masters John Carpenter and Dario Argento do – so much of his special, mad genius lies in the formal elements of his work: the way his camera moves, the lighting design, the rhythms of his cutting. Tobe Hooper was a great filmmaker, one who understood the form enough to subvert it at every possible opportunity. That subversion was at the heart of all of his movies, which might help explain why so many of them were misunderstood upon release. Thankfully, the years have been good to his work and it seems like some fans are finally coming around to his unique brand of madness. He was a total original, one who changed the face of horror forever but always continued to push himself, never making the same movie twice. I miss him every day.
Here are my picks.
1. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Absolutely no surprises here. While the original TCM isn’t technically my favorite Tobe Hooper movie, it’s difficult to argue that it’s not his best movie, inspiring a decades-long franchise and helping shape the face of horror for years to come. The story of a group of teens who get stranded and go knocking on the wrong door looking for help remains one of the most powerful and intense horror movies ever made. Heck, one could make a convincing argument that it’s the very best horror movie ever made. Hooper could have never made another horror movie and he’d still be a legend for directing this classic. Lucky for us, that wasn’t the case.
2. The Funhouse (1981)
Though I’m placing it second in the ranking (which I know is going to bother a lot of people), this is actually my favorite movie from my favorite director. Here’s a movie that makes a case for Hooper’s abilities as a commercial filmmaker, even though he’s unwilling to totally ignore his own instincts to subvert expectations. The story of a group of teens who spend the night in a funhouse only to be stalked and killed by a hideous monster is also one of his best-looking movies, with gorgeous, colorful photography by Andrew Laszlo. The Funhouse is filled with loving references and tributes to horror movies of the past. It’s a brilliant hybrid of a studio slasher and a Tobe Hooper movie. This is the film I point to when people question his participation in Poltergeist, as a pretty straight line can be drawn between the two films.
3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (1986)
Maybe the most Tobe Hooper movie ever made. This polarizing sequel – fans seem to either love it or hate it, with little room for middle ground – does a complete 180 from the original Chain Saw and positions itself as a dark comedy. A really dark comedy. Hooper’s humor is so dark that writer/director Mick Garris coined the term “red humor” to describe it – humor that’s so dark it goes beyond black. Great effects courtesy of Tom Savini, great performances from Dennis Hopper, a returning Jim Siedow, and future horror icons Caroline Williams and Bill Moseley, and a truly kickass and underappreciated soundtrack (due out on vinyl from Waxworks later this year!) make this one stand out, but it’s the Tobe Hooper-ness of it all – the fevered pitch, the excess, the total descent into hellish madness — that makes it great.
4. Poltergeist (1982)
It’s really saying something that a movie like Poltergeist, which could easily be #1 on another director’s list, is being ranked fourth here. That’s how many good movies Tobe Hooper has. This one is the blessing and the curse of Tobe Hooper’s career: he got to make a huge commercial success written and produced by Steven Spielberg — a movie that should have propelled him to the A-list of horror directors. Instead, it’s been 40 years of controversy and heresy about who REALLY directed Poltergeist, with most people (or at least the ones who insist on coming into my Twitter mentions) pretty convinced that the movie was ghost directed by Spielberg. Though it’s impossible to deny Spielberg’s influence – he did write and produce it, after all — I’m still someone who thinks Hooper had much more to do with the film’s success than he gets credit for. It has the same go-for-the-throat intensity as his other work, the same formal compositions, the same focus on the concept of the Bad Place. It’s clearly a Tobe Hooper movie, albeit a fascinating anomaly in his filmography as a kind of commercial experiment that’s pulled in a few different directions. I’m happy he had this studio success, but I’m even happier that he went back to making full-on Tobe Hooper movies.
5. Lifeforce (1985)
Hooper bounced back from the Poltergeist controversy with his most lavish, insane film yet. Originally titled Space Vampires, Hooper’s first film of his three-picture deal with Cannon Films plays like a mix between Quatermass, Hammer Horror, and ’80s obsessions with vampires and nudity. It finds the director working with his biggest-ever budget ($25 million) and his largest scale, resulting in a movie in which Hooper is finally able to realize his feverish vision on screen. Cut down by the studio (who also replaced large chunks of the score), Lifeforce was a movie destined to be misunderstood in its time. It’s only in recent years that it has been reassessed as more than just “that movie where Mathilda May is naked a lot” and is finally getting credit for just how masterful and batshit – pun intended – it is. That’s true of a lot of Hooper’s work.
6. Salem’s Lot (1979)
This is lower on the list than many readers will undoubtedly like. There’s no denying its quality, but the length and the leading man turn from David Soul make this a Tobe Hooper movie I revisit less often than many others. This 1979 made-for-TV miniseries is Hooper’s first and best Stephen King adaptation, with great scares (including the famous “kid at the window” scene that inspired decades of kindertrauma) and atmosphere, plus an all-time great vampire in Reggie Nalder’s Barlow. This is one of the director’s classiest efforts, though it’s precisely the restraint on display that bumps it down the list a bit for me. I like my Tobe Hooper completely unhinged.
7. Eaten Alive (1976)
Speaking of unhinged! Hooper’s follow up to Texas Chain Saw Massacre is another sweaty, claustrophobic, grisly affair about a psychopath (Neville Brand) who runs a hotel in the swamp and feeds the guests to his giant pet crocodile. One of the most underrated movies in Hooper’s filmography, Eaten Alive doesn’t even need the crocodile for it to be great — the atmosphere inside that miserable motel and Brand’s insane performance is enough to make the movie a minor genre classic. It’s also a much better indication of where Hooper’s heart lies than the film that preceded it — a cartoonish, ugly and darkly comic look at madness, murder and violence, plus an obsession with artifice and theatricality, with everything from the sets to the costumes and wigs being obvious fakes. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a great example of Tobe Hooper’s skills as a filmmaker, but Eaten Alive is a better indicator of his tastes.
8. Invaders from Mars (1986)
Ever wonder what a Tobe Hooper kids movie would look like? Look no further. The movies he made with Cannon in the ’80s are proof that Tobe Hooper’s heart lies with over-the-top excess and cartoon insanity, and perhaps no movie exhibits those tendencies more than his remake of the 1953 classic Invaders from Mars. Like in the original, a young boy (Hunter Carson, son of co-star Karen Black and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson) uncovers a conspiracy in which alien invaders begin taking over the residents of a small town. While it’s clear that Hooper is a big fan of ’50s science fiction, no real attempt is made to ensure that his remake is anywhere near as scary as the original. Despite working with legends like Stan Winston and John Dykstra on the visual effects, the director makes sure they retain a self-conscious B-movie quality rather than going for realism or scares. Hooper’s love of camp and his usual tongue-in-cheek, self-aware humor are on full display here, particularly once James Karen’s army General enters the picture. Like with Lifeforce, the general reaction at the time (and probably still) seemed to be that the silliness of Invaders from Mars happened by accident. Hooper knew exactly what movie he was making.
9. The Mangler (1995)
Hooper’s second Stephen King adaptation and his last movie to ever receive a wide theatrical release is one of his most misunderstood efforts. Based on King’s short story from Night Shift, it’s about a cop (Ted Levine) taking on a haunted laundry press. You read that right. Hooper understands the ridiculousness inherent in the story of a haunted laundry press and responds accordingly, with his most exaggerated and outlandish film since Lifeforce. He buries star Robert Englund under pounds of prosthetic makeup and draws heavy inspiration from German expressionism to craft a story of industrialism and capitalism turned sentient and corporeal. They’re themes he’s been addressing since the original Texas Chain Saw, as they’re obviously important to him – his battles with producers over the years suggest Hooper was never content to be just a cog in a larger machine. The Mangler is the movie that really separates the Hooper fans from the horror fans. As a diehard Hooper fan, I love it.
10. Toolbox Murders (2004)
After nearly a decade spent languishing in TV and direct-to-video releases like 2000’s Crocodile, Hooper returned to form with this, a remake of Dennis Donnelly’s 1978 movie The Toolbox Murders. Bolstered by a strong performance by genre favorite Angela Bettis (May), Hooper gets back to his ’70s roots and directs a movie that’s lean, brutal, and violent, but also very effective at delivering the tension and scares. Though it failed to trigger a well-deserved comeback, Toolbox Murders proved that Tobe Hooper still has it where it counts. It’s his last best movie.
11. Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
One of two movies Hooper made in 1990, Spontaneous Combustion stars Brad Dourif as a man who, as a product of government experimentation, quite literally spontaneously starts on fire, with deadly results. It’s a typically outrageous Tobe Hooper premise, brought to life with bold theatricality and operatic excess. Brad Dourif brings it as usual, and his performance alone makes Spontaneous Combustion recommended viewing. The movie rarely reaches the highs of Hooper’s better movies, but it’s still one of his sneaky good movies, one overdue for a reconsideration.
12. Mortuary (2005)
Hooper’s penultimate film marks his third collaboration with screenwriters Jace Anderson and Adam Gierasch, who previously wrote Crocodile and Toolbox Murders for the director. It centers on a family that moves to a new town so that mom (Denise Crosby of Pet Sematary) can take over as the mortician; unfortunately, the dead begin returning to life and infecting the living. Savaged by critics at the time of its release, Mortuary is much better than its reputation would suggest. It’s got a lot of creepiness, some good scares, and Hooper’s trademark red humor. Some wonky effects during the climax hurt it a little, but Hooper fans should really give this one another shot.
13. I’m Dangerous Tonight (1990)
The haunted dress movie! This made-for-TV effort (it debuted on the USA network) finds a cursed Aztec cloak rediscovered on a modern-day college campus and turning those who wear it (particularly after it’s made into a beautiful red dress) into possessed murderers. While the premise is textbook Tobe – how many other filmmakers would even take this material on? – there’s little of Hooper’s signature stamp on the film, which is a pretty by-the-numbers affair notable for the presence of several genre stars, including Mädchen Amick, Dee Wallace Stone, R. Lee Ermey (who would later play a major role in the remake of Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre and its follow-up) and even Anthony Perkins in a bit part as a college professor who offers all the necessary exposition.
14. Djinn (2013)
Tobe Hooper’s final film before his passing in 2017 is shot and set in the United Arab Emirates, following a woman who is haunted by a spirit while left alone in her new apartment. Djinn is a pretty good little horror movie, but it feels so far removed from what Hooper usually does that it has to land near the bottom of the list. There are some compelling ideas being addressed and it’s cool to see Hooper working in another country and exploring the folklore of another culture, but he never quite seems comfortable with the more slow-burn approach to the story. Like a few Tobe Hooper movies, this one was supposedly recut by producers; I’d be very curious to see his original version.
15. Night Terrors (1993)
Hooper was a last-minute replacement for this offbeat horror movie, which attempts to bridge flashbacks of the Marquis de Sade (Robert Englund, again under heavy prosthetics) with the modern-day story of a young woman (Zoe Trilling) who gets involved with a weird sex cult (led by Englund in the second of his dual roles). Getting to see two legends of horror, Englund and Hooper, work together again after the Freddy’s Nightmares pilot carries a certain novelty, but the director never seems to get hold of the material, possibly because the script was constantly changing right up until shooting. It’s barely a horror movie, and Hooper is ill-suited for the kind of slightly twisted Red Shoe Diaries that it ends up being. At least the locations are nice, and it does go sufficiently bonkers by the end, but by then it’s probably too little, too late. Even for a Tobe Hooper apologist like myself, we’re now at a point on the list where the movies are harder to defend. That describes Night Terrors pretty well.
16. Crocodile (2000)
It’s hard to make a case for this movie’s placement anywhere but here on this list. While it’s often the film that gets pointed to by people making the argument that Hooper had “lost it” (or, worse, never had it in the first place), Crocodile isn’t as bad as those people claim. Some of the animal effects are rough, yes, giving the whole thing a kind of SyFy channel vibe, and the characters are mostly annoying, but it’s never not entertaining. I’ve seen the movie a handful of times and I’m still not sure if Hooper is slyly making fun of 2000s-era horror conventions or if he’s just embracing them wholeheartedly. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt. In either case, even a staunch Tobe Hooper defender like me knows Crocodile belongs at the bottom of the list.