Dir. Tobe Hooper
Film #29 of The ‘Worst’ of Cinema
Reading Paul Schrader’s article for Film Comment, ‘Cannon Fodder’, which is his selected cannon of cinema’s best films and his beliefs on the canon as an idea, I ponder how one, as an individual film viewer, is supposed to treat the virtues of cinema. How do you gauge the qualities of a film? What is better, a film great in technical quality and high ideas, or one which causes you to laugh or to cry? What does one do with the idea that, as was dubbed the concept of the ‘auteur’, some directors have traits to their work that continue in their career’s work, and that it can be affected by the work environment and choices they make? Is there any virtue to a ‘bad’ film that makes it worth keeping, and what is the virtue of a film worth anyway as art and as cinema? Why am I evoking Schrader’s lofty attempt at a cinematic canon, compared to a canon of Western literature, for a review of a Tobe Hooper film that few have seen, probably all hate, and is not that good in the first place?
Recently I have found a way of being able to keep more DVDs in my possession and prevent my living quarters being crushed under the weight of plastic DVD cases, but this ideas is more significant for me in that it would allow me to turn my collection beyond a hodgepodge collected over the years but into a personal archive that, even if they are just material discs liable to decay, could be a codex of film history for me, the high and low brow squashed together as I have a library of cinema sculpted by what I decide to keep and what I can actually get. Entirely filmographies of certain directors are possible to keep without having the pointlessly large boxes, which had no extras let alone special packaging with them anyway, and without fear of being crushed by them like the unfortunate Japanese man who was crushed by his manga collection during an earthquake, or without getting into conflict with family members in the same house. Barren areas in genre and cinema movements, barring a film or two, can now expand providing the films are of some worth for me and if I have the funds to acquire them. However it is also something that, if my desired idea of the codex actually works, needs to be thought about more than just an excuse for more DVDs. I am a pretentious man at times, but also one who wants to grow as an individual, and as I believe cinema like anything else can help improve a person as well as entertain them, I need to think what worth such a plan would do for me, which is why I evoked Schrader’s canon, one which was purposely elitist on his part so the best films - The Rules of the Game (1939) to In the Mood for Love (2000) – was pushed to people wanting to step into cinema. This idea means just as much for cult cinema fans, for seasons like this wading through the ‘worst’ that film has to offer, and bad films from a director (Tobe Hooper) I feel is underrated, in that, from the great of cinema to the schlocky horror film, will I use such additional space to actually acquire films of worth, for entertainment and to expand my thoughts, or am I going to just use it to consume shiny discs for the sake of it like a person consumes junk food because society advertises it to us continually, so we keep buying it, and has no worth to it afterwards? Is there worth to it or am I just a product consumer?
In Mortuary, a widowed mother and her two children, a male reaching adulthood and a young girl, move to a new house, a mortuary, as part of her decision to become an entrepreneuring mortician. Something sinister is under the building however and it’s more than the deformed son of the previous owners. It is a film clearly made within an erratic filmography. The film is not good. It has its virtues but suffers from being another generic film made in the 2000s onwards that has no subtlety to it, made on cheap digital camera, a generic score made for it that tries to force out elicit scares and CGI that looks mediocre. In its favour, it has a quirkiness to it, not in being random for the sake of it, but in an eccentricity I wished carried on in the rest of the film, where I can now add ‘graveyard babies’ to my new mental catalogue of bizarre slang about creepy sexual practices. It also retains probably Hooper’s greatest virtue, that exists in almost every film of his I’ve seen except Crocodile (2000), of a maddened, frightening intensity to scenes, like the film itself has become insane itself or a sharp blade is being stroked up your spinal column. This tone only appears once or twice in the film, but in scenes like the one where Hooper continues in his career to subvert the image of a happy family sitting together at the dinner table, it works immensely. It is just a shame that the film, by its end, turns into a generic horror film of young people running away from evil ghouls screaming at each other and them, the first three quarters, while not the best, at least showing a unique personality that made Mortuary a lot better than its reputation suggested. This goes back to that issue of what is worth keeping as a film, regardless of the disc it is put onto I now have more potential space for, and whether I will get anything from rewatching it continually in the future. I will keep Mortuary, unlike many of the awful films I’ve viewed for this season, but it will be under the concession that “yeah, Mortuary is not that good is it?” as I think about it at this moment. What has an interesting idea – a widowed older woman, with her children, trying to strive as a career woman in a business that could have become what Michele Soavi's Cemetery Man (1994) was but from a woman’s perspective and with Hooper’s sense of unnerving, giddily mad tone – and has some virtues to it is disappointing as what the reviews of it suggested.
Hooper is integral to horror cinema because of a single film – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – but his career also shows another issue that will affect my planned codex in that it goes in various erratic directions. A director with clear distinct traits can also have a wavering career and none so more than acclaimed filmmakers who’ve worked in horror – Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter etc. – who have either evolved or die slowly onscreen trying to keep up but fail miserably. Hopper unfortunately, even with good films, has been beset by movies failing to reach an audience on their first release, his other famous film Poltergeist (1982) credited to producer Steven Spielberg, and increasingly lower budgets. This concept that a director can have flaws in his work means that the idea of keeping their entire filmography may involve having films you don’t actually find virtue in, or with Mortuary have some but is ultimately not that good even as entertainment. I do feel Hooper is underrated, willing to defend The Funhouse (1981) and even Spontaneous Combustion (1990). It is a filmography that has one film – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – that has been canonised, one film (Poltergeist) which is significant because many people of a certain generation grew up with it as children, a couple of cult hits like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986), and many forgotten and critically reviled creations. An example like him brings to mind the issue that Paul Schrader evoked in his article without even having to have a canonised collection of the greatest films ever, as rather than the most elitist selection of art house films, cult cinema shows the issue of judging the virtues of films and directors just as clearly as for people who have to weigh the films of John Ford against each other for their careers, the more erratic quality of films in genre cinema against art cinema more pronounced and meaning that the virtues of entertainment and artistic value are more necessary to wade through the worthless creations. For the most part, a director l hold close to heart like Wong Kar-Wai or Bela Tarr is more consistent, making most of their work, if not all of it, worth keeping in its entirety, but another I admire like Tobe Hooper who is more varied in quality brings up the issue of what worth certain films have to actually keep them. That one also has to consider whole genres and sub-genres, and film movements and countries when thinking about film history, or even cult cinema itself, and one needs to actually think about what worth there is to the movies they are keeping more so. It’s not an over thought, pretentious concern either, as is the case for anyone who finds a film, a book, a piece of clothing, or another item in their possession and wonders “Why have I got this?”, thinking about how meaningless the said item was when they first got it and yet kept the thing when someone else could have gotten something from it. It’s gaining some meaningful worth from any item, beyond just being a consumer product but as something part of the world and themselves, and if one thinks about it more, like I am doing with my DVD collection, than the simple act of spring-cleaning the house could be argued to be a manifestation of an existential clear out.