Tobe Hooper, a 29-year-old Texan and film-school dropout, had wanted to make a work of art – a cinematic masterpiece in the mold of his Italian idols, directors Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Walking through a bustling Montgomery Ward department store days before Christmas in 1972, he found inspiration for a grislier kind of movie in a display of gleaming chain saws.
“I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly,’ ” he told Texas Monthly in 2004. “I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about 30 seconds.”
The resulting film – “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) – was a low-budget, blood-soaked horrorfest made with college students, teachers, a menagerie of dead animals and two human skeletons, one of them real.
Most critics were disgusted, with one Harper’s magazine reviewer calling it “a vile little piece of sick crap.” But its reputation has improved ever since, winning praise as one of the greatest horror films of all time, credited with popularizing the slasher genre in the 1970s.
Hooper, who went on to direct the Steven Spielberg-produced”Poltergeist” in 1982, died Aug. 26 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 74.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office confirmed his death but did not provide a cause.
Hooper (his first name is pronounced Toby) directed nearly 20 films, numerous TV episodes and the zombie-populated music video for the Billy Idol song “Dancing With Myself.” But he remains best known for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which he produced, directed and co-wrote.
He described it as an updated version of the Hansel and Gretel story and likened its villain, a 300-pound butcher known as Leatherface, to the 1950s cartoon duck Baby Huey. (Both characters were stuck in childhood, he said.)
But while Hooper’s story retained the cannibalistic element of the Brothers Grimm fable, it was far more sinister, replacing a pair of sweet-toothed children with a group of five young hippies, and swapping the witch’s oven for a butcher’s hook and a sharp-toothed power tool.
Hooper and his co-writer, Kim Henkel, based their story in part on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer who made masks out of his victims’ faces. But they filled in their own gruesome details for a plot that pit Leatherface, played by Gunnar Hansen, against a blonde-haired heroine played by…