Tobe Hooper, who realized just how terrifying a chain saw in the wrong hands could be and used the insight to make one of the most influential horror movies of the last century, “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” died on Saturday in Los Angeles. He was 74.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office said Sunday that he died of natural causes, The Associated Press reported.
Hooper’s other directing credits included “Poltergeist,” the 1982 ghost story he made with Steven Spielberg, and episodes of television shows like “Tales From the Crypt,” but his most enduring contribution was certainly the “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” a low-budget 1974 sleeper that became a cult hit, helped establish horror conventions that are still widely used and influenced countless other directors.
Hooper said that as a young man he loved the horror genre, but found that the films in it had become boring.
“I figured I was paying two bucks a ticket, a dollar and a half a ticket, and I was getting about 10 cents’ worth of scare,” he said in “Masters of Horror,” a 2002 documentary. Then a friend steered him to “Night of the Living Dead,” the 1968 film by George A. Romero (who died last month).
“I walked out thinking, ‘OK, that’s the way to do it,'” Hooper said.
Romero’s film was an inspiration for the would-be director, but he still needed an idea. It came to him, he said, in the hardware department of a Sears-like store during a busy Christmas season, with his low tolerance for crowds as a catalyst.
“I was kind of freaking, just wanted to get out of there, get out of the crowd,” he said in the documentary. “And so I found myself in front of a chain-saw display in the hardware department, and that’s where the idea came from — ‘Well, if I pick this damn thing up and start it, they’ll part like the Red Sea and I can get out of here.'”
The result was his breakthrough film, shot in Texas in 100-degree heat with a cast of unknowns and Hooper, also an unknown, in the director’s chair. (With Kim Henkel, he also wrote the story and screenplay.)
The tale involves two siblings and their friends, a family of cannibals, and a chain-saw-wielding madman named Leatherface (played by Gunnar Hansen) who wears a mask made of human skin. Drawing some elements from the real-life story of Ed Gein, the movie shocked with its propulsive violence. Hooper, though, maintained that it wasn’t as gory as many people assumed.
“The girl on the meathook,” he said in the documentary, defending this position, “when I pan down her body to show the washtub underneath, it is obviously to catch a lot of fluid. There’s nothing dripping from her. It’s just, you put it together in your mind.”
Critics were not enthusiastic about the film. An official of the British Board of Film Classification, which for years refused to certify the movie, described it as trafficking in “the pornography of terror.”
Tobe Hooper was born on Jan. 25, 1943, in Austin, Texas. His parents, he said in interviews, were in the hotel business, which left him often babysitting himself by going to the movies as they checked up on their properties in various cities.
He began by shooting documentaries, then in 1969 made his first feature, “Eggshells,” which drew little attention. Among his best TV work was a two-part adaptation of “Salem’s Lot,” Stephen King’s novel, for CBS in 1979.
“Poltergeist,” a box office hit, found Hooper working with Spielberg, who was one of the movie’s producers and writers. Horror movie buffs and others have long suggested that Spielberg was really the director, but Hooper chafed at that notion.
Information on Hooper’s survivors was not immediately available.
In 1986 Hooper directed “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” with a cast that included Dennis Hopper and a title that made “chain saw” one word (as did a 2003 remake of the original movie starring Jessica Biel).
Assorted other “Chainsaw” and Leatherface sequels and prequels came along, with varying degrees of involvement by Hooper. And elements from the original movie — menacing power tools; killers in masks; cannibalism as a horror device — became staples of the genre as directors influenced by the goings-on in Texas came of age.
Among the directors influenced by Hooper’s signature film was Guillermo del Toro, a creator of “The Strain,” the FX horror series. In the “Masters of Horror” documentary, he recalled his reaction to seeing the film.
“From that moment until four years later, I didn’t eat any meat,” he said. “I became a total vegetarian.”