Horror gets little respect from cultural critics, whether it appears in books, graphic novels, TV or movies. And yet, horror films are tremendously popular – witness the recent success of the indie film Get Out or powerhouse series such as Saw, Friday the 13th, The Conjuring, and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Horror film director Tobe Hooper, who died last Sunday, knew all about this lack of respect for horror, and even his impressive body of work in the genre was never quite enough to garner mainstream awards. And yet he left a lasting impact on American popular culture; you’ve heard of Hooper’s films even if you aren’t a horror fan: Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and—perhaps his most well known movie—the cult hit The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Consider Poltergeist. Hooper directed the film, working with Steven Spielberg on a movie that was both a genre and box office success (it’s still rated one of the best horror films of all time by fans). Poltergeist earned three Oscar nominations too, for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Effects and Best Original Score. Hooper went unrecognized, however, although he did get a nomination for Best Director from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films (he lost out to Nicholas Meyer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).
Hooper’s most famous film, however, remains The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and while a big hit in the genre, it surprisingly never garnered any awards at all. The only honor the film ever earned was the Critics Award from the Avoriaztobe Fantastic Film Festival in its year of release. That’s not a lot of love for a film that The Guardian places in the top fifteen best horror films ever made, and Rolling Stone puts at number five on its own list.
What explains the enduring appeal of the movie and of horror films in general? One reason is practical: horror films are cheap to make, usually feature lesser known (hence less expensive) actors, and aim directly at the teenage and early-twenties demographic of viewers.
But horror films also tend to function as basic morality tales. That’s why the kids who sneak out of the cabin in the woods to make out tend to be the first to die, while the good girl who stays chaste is the last teen standing.
Hooper explored those tropes in Chain Saw Massacre with a story that featured a paraplegic main character who is also victimized. By playing into some cliché elements (weird, scary neighbors who end up attacking people) while adding his own twist to the dark, anxiety-provoking tale, Hooper ensured that Chain Saw Massacre broke new ground with horror fans.
By comparison, too many horror films today either traffic in clichés or embrace ironically self-aware stories where the characters explain to each other how to avoid classic horror film dangers, only to get killed in the end anyway.
And that’s too bad. A good horror movie taps into our collective psyche; it’s a chance to experience fear, anxiety and even scream out loud, all without ever actually being in any danger. It’s cathartic for fans, a significant percentage of whom are in the midst of the turmoil of adolescence (which is plenty terrifying on its own). As cinematic technology improves, the gore and effects keep becoming more realistic, but like all cinema, good horror films will only be good if they convincingly explore the turmoil of our times. Hooper tapped into the angst of the 1970s and 1980s and left us with some enduring—and terrifying—souvenirs of that era. Here’s hoping today’s horror filmmakers learn something from this master of the genre and do the same for our own.