Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Remembering Horror Film Director Tobe Hooper

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 8:19 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We'll conclude today's edition of our 30th anniversary retrospective with a 1988 interview that has become an obituary. Tobe Hooper, who's best known as the writer and director of the 1974 film "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," died last Saturday. He was 74. "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" was so gruesome, it helped inspire a wave of slasher films, but it was also so interestingly made that it was added to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

The movie is about a group of hippies who meet up with a family of homicidal maniacs who kill strangers to the area, eat their flesh and turn what's left over into sausage. The main character, known as Leatherface, wears a mask of human skin and attacks his victims with a chain saw.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE")

PAUL A PARTAIN: (As Franklin) Come on, Franklin. It's going to be a fun trip. If I have any more fun today, I don't think I'm going to be able to take it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAINSAW REVVING, SCREAMS)

GROSS: Before "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," horror usually meant the supernatural - zombies, monsters and other creatures. But in "Chain Saw," it was people who ate flesh and played out our worst nightmares. Here's what Tobe Hooper told me in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TOBE HOOPER: I don't think I set out to change the genre consciously. I was just - I was a movie fan, you know. I was a horror film buff. And I simply made a film that I wanted to see because I felt that at that time - and we're talking about something like close to 15 years ago - the horror films that we were getting, it had gotten, you know, very boring and totally unscary (ph) and hokey and bad. I wanted to make something that worked again, that had chair jumpers in it, you know, that moved an audience. So I really set out as a fan of the genre to do something that gave you your, you know, gave you your money's worth.

GROSS: Your movie is very threatening. It's very ugly. It's very hard to sit through in some ways, but it's really not that explicitly gory. It's not as gory as you'd expect it to be. Was that intentional on your part, or have standards just changed since 1973?

HOOPER: No, that was intentional. And it also had to do with my awareness of getting a rating on the picture. And I actually set out to get a PG rating.

GROSS: Are you kidding?

HOOPER: No, I'm not kidding. I - in fact, when I was shooting the picture, I called the MPAA and told them what I was doing. And I said, how - now, how can I make this PG? You know, I know the concept is rough, but let's hypothetically talk about a sequence that I have. A sequence, for instance, where a girl is - a big guy hangs a girl up on a meat hook. And if you don't see penetration and you see the girl hanging on the meat hook and you've suggested penetration in a kind of Hitchcock way, you know, what will I get? Does that get an R? Does that get an X? Or how about PG?

So over the phone, talking the MPAA all the way through while shooting, I was trying to do what they suggested so I could have a PG rating. Well, when the film was finished and they saw it, it was really amazing. They have these little clipboards, you know, with lights on them in the dark room. And every few seconds, those lights would pop on. And they were making notes. And I thought, oh, that's trouble. That means they're talking about cuts. Well, ended up not having to make any cuts, but, of course, we took the R rating. And I don't know, however, had I not sincerely tried to go for PG, the picture may have been an X.

GROSS: Did anybody in the movie industry thought - think that you were insane or dangerous after seeing the movie?

HOOPER: Well, you know, it's the first time I've been asked that question. And - but, you know, I didn't get the kind of response then that as a young film director would get now making a genre piece. They would instantly be embraced because of the numbers, you know, because of the scoreboard. I mean, a hit is something that makes money. And I've seen lots of young film directors embraced for making terrible movies that made, you know, made a lot of money. But, I mean, it was very strange because it as - soon as it was released, it did get mixed critical acclaim, but the positive acclaim was very positive and on a big scale.

For instance, the film that year was an official film in - at the Cannes Film Festival for the Directors' Fortnight. It's a branch of the Cannes Film Festival that spotlights up-and-coming directors. And also, "Chain Saw" was put in the permanent film archives of the Museum of Modern Art. It won awards all over the world and opened a few doors, but I think it took seven or eight years before mainstream filmmakers - producers, I should say, the heads of studios - before were, for some reason, able to recognize this as an artistic piece of work and a very good technical piece of directing because of what it was and because of the effect it had on you.

GROSS: Tobe Hooper, recorded in 1988. He died last Saturday. He was 74. Tomorrow, we'll continue our 30th anniversary retrospective, featuring interviews from the first couple of years of our show. We'll hear three interviews from 1987 - with Max Roach, who kind of invented modern jazz drumming, pianist Jay McShann, who led the band in which Charlie Parker first became known - McShann was at the piano for our interview - and singer Anita O'Day, who inspired many of the so-called cool jazz singers. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "CHERYL - 2003 REMASTERED VERSION")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "CHERYL - 2003 REMASTERED VERSION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.