The Tobe Hooper Collection
By: Mr Intolerance on June 13, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Umbrella Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 259 minutes
The Movie
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, Brad Dourif, Melinda Dillon, Cynthia Bain, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Tom Savini, John Landis
Country: USA
External Links
A lot of people pooh-pooh Tobe Hooper these days, and I must say in the wake of his first offering for the Masters of Horror TV anthology series, Dance of the Dead, I can't blame them. However, in the light of his season 2 Masters of Horror episode, The Damned Thing, I thought it was time for a bit of re-evaluation of the films of the fella who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most folks I know who are into the whole horror enchilada will tell me that TCM is the only decent offering that Hooper had to offer, but when I look at some other titles in his repertoire Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap – starring a gloriously over-the-top Neville Brand), Lifeforce (one of my favourite guilty pleasures – it's insanely entertaining), Poltergeist (yeah, I know Spielberg was responsible for parts of it), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (again, big dumb fun, even if Dennis Hopper refuses to talk about it – have a squiz at Stefan Jaworzyn's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion for the real skinny there), Salem's Lot (a movie that scared me green as a kid), I began thinking that judging this fella's work based on one film (say, the aforementioned Dance of the Dead) was about as fair as judging George A. Romero on Monkey Shines, John Carpenter on Ghosts of Mars or David Cronenberg on Existenz. Now those three fellas are three of my favourite directors, and I'd be appalled if someone's judgement of their respective bodies of work was based solely on those lacklustre efforts.

When Umbrella released this collection, I was a little annoyed for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I'd already bought two of the films included when they first came out – Eaten Alive and The American Nightmare. And secondly, The American Nightmare isn't a Hooper film, although he is in it. Why didn't they just stick Funhouse (also recently released as a stand-alone) in instead? So personally, I didn't see the point of it. After having won a copy of the collection doing horror trivia at the recent A Night of Horror film festival in Sydney, I sat down one hungover Sunday morning with some breakfast martinis to calm the shakes, and watched the films.

Now you have to understand, I'd already seen two of them before, but it was interesting to re-watch them, and trying to see what folks who might not be as au fait with Hooper's oeuvre might think (I'm not trying to big note myself here people, it's just that when you've been watching horror films on a daily basis, read horror fiction and non-fiction to the exclusion of most other books and comics, played horror-based video games a la the Resident Evil and Silent Hill franchises and have listened to music based on horror when not listening to horror soundtracks for most of your thirty-six years, you've kind of seen, read and heard it all). As a place to begin with Hooper's films (after The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, of course – which is how I'm assuming most of the people coming to this collection got here), it's not too bad. As an indication of Hooper's directorial talent, it's maybe not so great.

Eaten Alive has already been reviewed for this website, so I don't think I have too much else to say about it; but for those too lazy or disoriented to click on the link, this is Hooper's riff on the true story of Joe Ball, a nutcase hotel owner who fed guests to his alligator.

This was Hooper's sophomore horror effort following TCM, and it's a beauty – wonderfully, gleefully over-the-top and garish, if a million miles away from the grimy bleakness of his first film. It's kind of like an old EC comic book, but made for an adult audience, having that series' mordant humour, but with more visceral carnage. It also features TCM alumnus Marilyn Burns and an early pre-A Nightmare on Elm Street appearance from Robert Englund.

Spontaneous Combustion I'd never seen before (due to a blindness and stupidity on my own part – I kind of thought, "Oh, it's a Tobe Hooper film," and thus avoided it, instead of approaching it on its own merits), and was quite keen to see what it had to offer. The story begins in 1955 with our all-American couple Brian and Peggy Bell, who are guinea pigs in a nuclear bomb shelter experiment. They emerge from the shelter apparently unharmed, but with a little surprise of their own – Peggy is pregnant. Their boy David (who grows up to be Brad Dourif, a truly stellar character actor – although he has done better work than this; that said, his performance certainly picks up in the second half of the film) is born on August 6 – ten years to the day after the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima - with an unnaturally high temperature of 100 degrees, and a birthmark, a perfect circle (an old alchemical symbol for mercury), on his hand. Dave's parents however, never get to be proud doting parents for more than a day, falling prey to SHC – spontaneous human combustion: a one in a million chance occurrence, where the human body immolates for no readily apparent reason, although a boffin with a terrible Colonel Klink accent explains Brian and Peg's D-I-Y human bar-be-que as resulting from a combination of the drug they took prior to the test and the radiation they were exposed to (although he seemed to be ignorant of the mercury that Peg ingested when accidentally biting through a thermometer, and which Brian also got on his hands…).

So back to the present, and David is all grown up and at College (although he's been raised under the identity of Sam Kramer), with a College student's usual interests – his girl, Lisa, and believing in things, in this instance protesting the opening of a new nuclear power-plant. He's also totally unaware of his heritage… So Sam/David still runs a fever, experiences terrible migraines and starts noticing little things, like shooting fire out of his finger and people spontaneously combusting, and somebody is trying to let him know who he really is (Brian's watch is a prominent visual motif). Mind you, the visions he gets when staring into the fireplace are starting to help him down that road as well.

David gets in contact with a radio psychic, and things start to go horribly pear-shaped, his powers not under his control – when under any kind of emotional stress things tend to burn, and as his past becomes known to him, we get one of cinema's least appropriate comfortings: Lisa to David – "It's okay, I know how you feel, my parents burned to death too!"  It becomes readily apparent that David is a bit of an experiment, being monitored in all aspects of his life by sinister government forces – I was reminded in some parts of Scanners, in others, rather obviously, of Firestarter. No more plot spoilers from me, but when David starts to piece together the various bits of the puzzle, things really start to heat up.

Sorry. Couldn't resist it…

A great film? Not really. A entertaining one? Sure, I guess. Spontaneous Combustion is a bit of a pot-boiler and of variable quality, and it struck me as a bit of a Cronenberg wannabe (the whole body-horror thing, I guess, along with the fear of medical science/authority/the government), but it did engage me.

I found it kind of interesting how the film tapped into the Cold War nuclear fears of both the 50s and the 80s. The early parts of the film could have been from an old Jack Arnold film, given the nuclear paranoia on display, as well as the "innocent America" vibe it portrayed through our two rather clueless parents and their Leave It To Beaver-style naivete and squeaky-clean-ness. Considering this was made in 1980 (and having grown up in this rather uneasy time myself, with the threat of nuclear Armageddon via the Soviet boogeyman being broadcast on the news every night, it rang rather true), it quite successfully tapped into the fears of the time, to my mind.

The American Nightmare is my kind of documentary. My only beef with this is that it's too short. Basically, it's a one hour long doco about the US horror industry in the 70s – when it was good. There's all kinds of interview footage with all my fave directors, and fan-boy that I am, I love it. Romero, Cronenberg, Carpenter – it's all wonderfulness. There are some interesting points raised about the films being a reaction to the Vietnam war, US domestic policy (Kent State, involvement in the Vietnam war, no fuel – the OPEC vs US thing was predominant in world events at the time) at the time – or some of the horrendous things that at times happened – the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King, or Robert or John F Kennedy, for example. And the directors have plenty to say on the matter.
All three features appear to have been taken from NTSC sources and converted to PAL, but the transfer quality is perfectly acceptable. Perhaps not as good as their pure NTSC counterparts though.
English 2.0 Dolby Digital audio tracks for all three, and they're about as good as could be, given the source material. There's nary a bit of crackle and grain.
Extra Features
For Eaten Alive –  the theatrical trailer, and trailers for Bride of Re-Animator, Basket Case, and Spontaneous Combustion.

For Spontaneous Combustion – the theatrical trailer, and trailers for Society, The Stepfather, The Candyman, and Bride of Re-Animator.

For The American Nightmare – trailers for The Last House on the Left, Bride of Re-Animator, Dawn of the Dead (original), and Spontaneous Combustion.

Hardly meriting the title of special features.
The Verdict
All up, I think it's a worthwhile collection, if not Hooper's best work. This is a random selection of Hooper films, but I think that at the same time it's all good. Definitely worth a watch, and if you don't believe me, fuck off.
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score

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