Toolbox Murders ★★★★★

The film that opened my eyes to Tobe Hooper's brilliance was neither The Texas Chain Saw Massacre nor Poltergeist (though I had previously seen both) but rather Toolbox Murders. I was 18 years old, living with my parents and unemployed, having withdrawn from college after a disastrous first semester. It was the beginning of a four-year spiral of depression, isolation and substance abuse: the darkest period of my life thus far.

I rented Toolbox Murders from my local Hollywood Video for three reasons: (1) I was aware of the director's reputation and had enjoyed a few of his older films, (2) I had a crush on Angela Bettis from May, and (3) I'd heard it was gory. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say the film shook me to my center, and I consider it a milestone for my full emergence as a mature horror fan. Night of the Living Dead had been equally impactful for me a few years prior, but that film was thirty years old; Toolbox Murders was current, Toolbox Murders was now--even as it relied on vintage genre tropes for its impact, it captured the post-9/11 era's forcible reckoning with the violence undergirding our most cherished American institutions: Hollywood, municipal governments, science and medicine, the upwardly mobile family home. Such a climate must have seemed eerily familiar to Hooper, who had cut his cinematic teeth on the same messages in the tumultuous post-Vietnam era. Nobody listened back then; nobody listened in 2004; nobody's listening today, but he said it anyway. Because, like all artists, he had to.

With my new appreciation for Hooper's artistry, I watched every one of his films I could lay my hands on--including a reappraisal of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which I now considered a masterpiece after my initial lukewarm impression. I began to discover the ley lines running through his thematic and aesthetic territory: the decay of American industry and the working class; the failure of globalized capitalism; humanity's complex relationship with technology; the arcane intersections of geography and geometry; the weight of patriarchal oppression; Brechtian unreality; the place of folklore in modern life. But the most resonant theme to me personally--on conspicuous display in films like TCM and its sequel, Poltergeist, Salem's Lot, and The Funhouse--was the tragedy of the American family home.

Home was always a toxic environment for me. Part of my life's struggle has been to avoid carrying that toxicity into the various incarnations of home I have built for myself in my adult life--something I've had irregular degrees of success and failure with. At age 18, living at home when I felt I should be on my own, Hooper's pessimist vision of the family home as something shifting, dangerous, and menacing in its uncertainty spoke loud and clear to me.

Hooper's movies--elegiac, haunted, meanspirited, disjointed, primally horrifying--have followed me throughout my life, and I continually return to them, finding new truths and terrors at each revisit. His nightmarish editing, his unflinching camera, and his uniquely American perspective on the abject were foundational aesthetic elements that forged and fed my love of all things horror. (Not to mention that I have always been a defender of the jumpscare as a fundamental horror technique, and Hooper is one of the absolute masters of the jumpscare.)

There is no doubt in my mind that Tobe Hooper is the most underappreciated and misunderstood auteur, not just in horror, but in American cinema as a whole. His passing, especially coming as it does scarcely more than a month after George Romero's, has left me devastated in a way I haven't felt for a cultural figure since Prince died.

In my adult life, every time I've moved houses, I've made it a tradition to watch Toolbox Murders on my first night alone in a new place--before I'm used to the peculiar nocturnal sounds of the place, the angles, nooks, crannies and corners of the room where I'll be henceforward laying my head. The movie scares me silly, but inside that fright is the reminder that whatever and wherever I call home, be it ever so humble, my mental home will always be inside Tobe Hooper's ramshackle, cruel, perilous, but ultimately, weirdly positive worldview.

Rest in peace to a true genius of the art of terror.

Cf. Repulsion