For his book Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, author Scout Tafoya is looking to finally put Hooper in the spotlight he deserved, but eluded the Master of Horror throughout most of his career. And while fans can definitely expect to read about so many of Hooper’s more well-known projects, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist, The Mangler, Invaders From Mars, and one of this writer’s personal favorites—Salem’s Lot—Tafoya also digs into Tobe’s work pre-TCM, his many forays into television, and more.
Daily Dead recently caught up with Tafoya to talk about Cinemaphagy, celebrating one of the genre’s more unsung directors, the challenges he faced with the book along the way, and more.
If you want to learn more about Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and/or order your own copy, you can find it on Amazon HERE.
Even though your reasoning behind wanting to celebrate the career of Tobe Hooper is spelled out in your book, was there something specific that inspired you to write Cinemaphagy in particular?
Scout Tafoya: It was knowing that no such book like it existed. When it occurred to me that the movies of Hooper’s I was most interested in having dissected and analyzed were orphans, I just got so sad. This guy should have been a giant, not just with horror obsessives, but with auteurists and niche critics with especial interest in people who were making great art with lurid titles going straight to VHS, for all intents and purposes. In my years as a semi-pro critic, I saw a shift away from treating mainstream genre fare with much sympathy in favor of looking for sometimes cruder, but usually more formally interesting underdog art that was flying well below the radar of the mainstream. That’s since kind of been beaten out of the culture (thanks to everything going to streaming, which leveled the playing field like a nuclear bomb, and there being more critics than ever who mostly want to have the same conversation about the same six movies, which makes finding a true oddity of a movie harder), but at the time all I could do was kind of point with sad eyes at my heroes and wonder why no one else saw what I saw.
Now in fairness, there are a number of Hooperites out there, they just aren’t the kind of people who can change a conversation. It took basically everybody’s combined strength and focus to change the conversation around Elaine May. I sadly don’t see this happening for Tobe Hooper because you’d have to find a lot of people in a hurry who are invested in the choreography of a camera on a dolly track, and well, that ship seems to have sailed. Regardless of all that, this body of work, these movies and TV shows, as I watched them and saw more and more of Hooper the artist emerge, it just made me protective of them and of him, the soft-spoken Texan who just wanted to make great motion pictures, no matter the circumstances, no matter how disreputable the producers, no matter the budget. He’s someone who is very easy to sympathize with (I’ve directed almost as many films as Hooper, so I know a little of what it’s like to have your work go ignored) and he was even easier to like. I guess the simplest way to put it is: I saw something in this man and his movies and I thought it was beautiful and I wanted everyone else to see it, too.
In the opening of Cinemaphagy, you go into detail about how you lost your initial work for the book and had to figure out what came next. I can’t even imagine how daunting that was for you (seriously) - what went through your mind after that happened and how did you inspire yourself to dig back into this project?
Scout Tafoya: Well, the pep talk from Mark Borchardt certainly helped. Running into him, a guy who also knows what it’s like to be an underdog horror director, felt like the most sweetly serendipitous answer to my crisis. You know, ten million things assail you when something like that happens. You blame yourself so loud you can’t hear anything else around you, you want to swear and just smash the confounded computer that took the work from you, etc. But running into Mark, who has become such a beloved figure because people like him because he is such a genuine and lovely human being (one of our best, if I’m honest. How many other Americans are known purely for being so good-natured and triumphing in the face of overwhelming odds?) just made me realize I couldn’t give up.
Hooper deserved the attention and time, this work that had given me so much joy and so much to think about deserved this treatment. I’d learn in the years after completing it how much no one else seemed to agree with me (I got something like 50 rejections from publishers you’d both know and will have never heard of), but that too just kind of redoubled my determination to get this thing out into the public’s hands. Little did I know that right around the time I was finalizing the deal with Miniver Press there were books being written/edited at the time on Hooper, one by the great Chris O’Neill and another an anthology from a university in Hooper’s home state. That was exciting to realize, as there would finally be enough Hooper books that someday he’d take up as much of a chunk on a bookstore shelf as someone like Cecil B. Demille or Steven Spielberg.
How long was the process of writing Cinemaphagy then, and what was your process like in terms of making your way through Hooper’s entire filmography, and then drawing all these throughlines between his work and the work of other filmmakers?
Scout Tafoya: So, it took about a full year to write. I pitched the book to its initial publisher (which went out of business and vanished before it could be published) in January of 2015, got the okay in March with a deadline a year later, and wrote the first third (I think I was in the middle of his ’80s period, but it’s thankfully a dim memory at this point) piecemeal all that year. It was backburnered a million times because I moved to New York during that year, had to look for bar jobs that were then insanely demanding, all while still freelancing, covering the New York Film Festival—a very typical writer’s life, in other words. But in January of 2016, I opened it up to do some more work and it was gone. The deadline was in two months.
The next day I ran into Mark Borchardt and just… powered through. I had the whole thing done by the end of February. Of course, this was in the early days. I then spent the next year waiting for the first round of edits, which never came, and then sometime later… can’t remember when exactly, but the publisher closed and the book was homeless. So I searched from 2017–2020 for a publisher. Finally, when I found one (late spring 2020), I went back and basically every extant piece of his work I couldn’t find when I wrote the first draft had made its way to the internet, which allowed me to paint a more complete picture of what his career was like. Those TV pilots were a big deal for the work, to find little bits of autobiography and psychoanalysis in these shows about violent flashbacks to the supposed golden age of America, they revealed so much about Hooper. That expansion process took a further two months of writing and refining. Then the editing took until Christmas-ish.
The process was very intuitive. I knew that so many of these movies would be new to most of the book’s potential audience, so I wanted it to be like you were in a room with me watching them. Which in hindsight maybe sounds absurd, but I wanted it to feel like you could visualize everything (a lot of my favorite writing, the stuff that was formative to me pulls this off beautifully) while also being given the history lesson about where these ideas and impulses come from. I kind of felt like if you were unfamiliar with the films, you’d emerge on the other side with a clear picture of the work, and if you were familiar, maybe you could see in these works things you had missed. So it was a very intuitive process of watching the movies, pausing every few minutes, writing, and then starting them up again. I did this with every movie at least twice, and then when I was going back over the work later, I’d revisit the film if I felt like a point I’d made could have been clearer or if I couldn’t visualize what I was describing and knew it needed to be clearer, etc. The one upside to watching something like three movies a day for most of my life is that I didn’t need to do much research about the things he seemed to be referencing. In fact, part of why I wanted to write the book in the first place was watching The Mangler and seeing so much Orson Welles. That stuff just leapt out at me from the screen.
Even though Cinemaphagy is largely your own positing on Hooper’s career and his different works, you still include a few historical elements here to help contextualize Tobe’s work against the socio-political landscape that existed when those films/other projects were created. Was there anything that surprised you along the way as you were researching different aspects of Hooper’s work or other projects that tie directly to Hooper’s work?
Scout Tafoya: I guess I was surprised to learn that the ideas present in Texas Chain Saw were still around 30 years later. It made it all the more galling someone hadn’t written this book before. Even his Masters of Horror episodes. One was this industrial counter-culture zombie story about young people’s bodies being used to entertain bloodthirsty masses, and the other is about haunted oil driving everyone in a small town crazy. Both were released during the Iraq War, both were roundly panned/ignored. They were sort of the answer to his earliest experimental work—the more explicitly avant-garde work like Down Friday Street and Eggshells. The color scheme in Eggshells and Dance of the Dead is the same and there’s even a balloon motif in both. And there just wasn’t any writing about this because no one cared enough or liked the work enough to unpack it all.
Most days I’d make these discoveries and just kind of shake like Amy Irving at the end of The Fury. Like… why? It’s all right here! The whole puzzle is right here in the movies, why weren’t there dissertations and magazine articles and books and documentaries and video essays?! Maddening. One of the few guys with this mean Marxist streak running through even the most silly sounding movies and through it all craft right out of a ’50s melodrama. Every day I’d watch these movies and just feel so fortunate to have them, to enjoy what he was saying and how he was saying it. When the great director Andre De Toth shows up in a cameo part in Spontaneous Combustion, it was like Hooper was passing me a joint from the ether. Some days it felt like the guy wrote a creative autobiography and all I had to do was transcribe it.
Did you have certain projects of Hooper’s that were favorites of yours to write about?
Scout Tafoya: Always the dolly shots. They’re to me the most exciting part of classic cinema because the cinema becomes a machine there, swallowing up space and time and creating new meaning with every inch forward. I think my favourite camera movements of all time are the sort of proto-Steadicam rushing forward found in the early works of Andrzej Zulawski and Ken Russell (Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise has an iconic one), but after that it’s all dolly shots and Hooper was simply one of the greats at this technique, up there with Welles and Ophuls. Didn’t matter if it was TV or a low-budget movie (Crocodile has gorgeous ones), whatever, he’d lay down the track and just elegantly build his movies and pull you through them. I always felt this kind of gentle sensation while watching his work, like I’m actively being transported somewhere and the fact that he was such an ace with set design and art direction (his work was always such a gift to art directors) meant that he’d have these beautiful planned movements through environments that feel dreamy and impossible.
His work for the Cannon group literalized this thing I kept seeing in his movies, where the Earth literally swallows its heroes (hence one of the meanings of the portmanteau of the title—the Earth becomes a sarcophagus over and over again in his work, an anti-womb) and I just loved that his movies were painstaking in showing the differences between the “normal” world and the nightmare underground or just beyond our sight. Anytime someone was swallowed up by a red light or the Earth, it sort of justified this close reading of his text.
While I’m sure it was fun to write about many of Hooper’s more recognizable projects, was it a fun experience for you to get to talk about quite a few films and TV episodes that are probably more generally overlooked by fans?
Scout Tafoya: If anything, that was more fun. Digging into Texas Chain Saw was more daunting because it is one of the most vaunted works in American cinema full stop. Though I was keen to write about it to correct one of my least favourite assumptions about it: that it feels random. I’ve read I don’t know how many pieces on Texas Chain Saw where the undergirding thesis is, “This movie feels like it was made by real killers,” or something similar. When to me it’s always struck me as one of the most elegantly composed and planned movies ever. It’s like Black Narcissus or Tales of Hoffmann, just a work where every microsecond has been considered carefully. People talk about this movie like it’s a found footage film or something, when its most iconic shots are either on 20–30 feet of dolly track or a tripod.
So I wanted to give him his due as a formalist, to kind of make it clearer why the implication that his personality isn’t as big and bold as Spielberg’s on Poltergeist. Those guys came of age at exactly the same time, had exactly the same touchstones, but one of them’s treated like a feral child who wandered in off the street while the other’s treated like the adult in the room by so much coverage of that movie. Infuriating. Spielberg bought one of the Rosebud sleds for $120,000 or some such thing, but Hooper was the one who kept putting overt references to Welles in his work (he made a short film literally about the alien panic after Welles’ War of the World broadcast). I’d rather have proof that someone watched and absorbed Lady from Shanghai than that they wanted to own some piece of Welles’ legacy.
All that to say, there was so much more to discover in the little movies and the TV pilots because it’s entirely possible that no one has written about Cargo or his work on Nowhere Man. The TV pilots form this kind of loose history lesson about the stuff we’re taught and have to unlearn about American domestic and foreign policy. Eggshells is this movie that talks about Vietnam in metaphorical terms (the vaporizing machine in the basement that eats teens) while predicting the violence of Kent State, but in Dark Skies, Taken, and Nowhere Man he gets to just say things out loud in that TV writing way. Taken and Dark Skies are both about the way nostalgia gets affixed to the old days, when in reality everything was being decided by a cabal of bloodthirsty maniacs with no compunction.
There’s a great moment in Taken where the opportunistic murderous young soldier blackmails Michael Moriarity into both a promotion and his daughter’s hand in marriage, and you see Moriarity (who by then was in the middle of his James Woodsification into full-blown conspiracy nut) just seething with anger that someone managed to be even more underhanded than he is. Hooper just directs the hell out of these beautiful prestige TV shows, where it all seems so beautiful and perfect and innocent and then an alien jumps out of RG Armstong’s skin or someone kills their pregnant girlfriend, and you realize the nostalgia, that West Wing glow of the images of the past, is a total lie and the only thing to do with these myths is destroy them. That’s what movies like Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, and Night Terrors do so well: they just enunciate things we all know about America so that you can’t at all miss his meaning. This is a bad place. In his work, you see his critique of the American dream and its many, many forms and in his life story you see how the same place treats an artist.
What ended up being your biggest takeaway from your experience writing Cinemaphagy, and did it change your own views on Hooper in his work along the way (or maybe it didn’t at all)?
Scout Tafoya: The biggest takeaway was sort of a confirmation of what I suspected when I watched The Mangler for the first time: this is a major filmmaker treated like a backwards pretender. Growing up with horror writers and the earliest blogs and of course magazines and books, you get used to seeing names like Fred Olen Ray, Charles Band, and Lloyd Kaufman treated with a kind of loving disdain. “Yeah, the work was bad, but they’re always fun,” what have you. When it happens that someone like Hooper, who cracked into America’s skull with a hammer, who wedged himself in the American artistic legacy, it was almost taken personally that his other movies weren’t exactly like Texas Chain Saw. And so that hair-ruffling, affectionate “oh you” attitude was never extended. He was a failure for what he did as much as what he didn’t do. And that just boiled my blood. I initially went into this project not even necessarily seeing a book, but rather just trying to find out what happened. It was a sort of rebuke of my own incuriousness. Texas Chain Saw was one of the first movies I saw with which my young mind knew not what to do. What is this movie?! I spent the next 10 years trying to figure it out until I was totally at peace with the work and what it was saying and just really in love with it. And then it occurred to me: I had no clue what he’d done with the rest of his life.
So I started watching and just kept having my hair blown back by these beautiful works of arch grotesquery. I kept sort of seeing the damndest things and connections to other filmmakers (Pedro Costa! Byron Haskin! Maya Deren!) and it was like any given episode of The Simpsons where Homer learns too much about Thomas Edison and won’t shut up about it. I knew I could either just annoy everyone I met with my theory that Colossal Youth was indebted to The Mangler, or I could write a book and let anyone who was ever curious about Tobe Hooper sort of decide for themselves if I was crazy. But the only thing I learned was what I imagined to be true when I saw The Mangler for the first time: this was one of the greatest American film artists, a giant, and because so little of his instincts and strengths ever lined up with the bailiwick of American art criticism, his best work would be doomed to obscurity. So this was just me trying to un-obscure some of it.
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