Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: MIDNIGHT MOVIE by Tobe Hooper

I recently had to good fortune to watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) on the big screen. It's a movie whose imagery benefits from that kind of scale. And not just the gross, disturbing scenes, but also several compositions of surprising beauty--the green grass and yellow flowers as our hapless teens walk toward their doom, the near gothic beauty of Franklin's Daddy's ruined house. It may take a couple of viewings to appreciate, but the dimensions of the big screen help bring it out in a way the small screen just can't.

Another thing it might take a few viewings to appreciate is the film's sense of humor. There's a lot in TCM that is extremely funny--the slapstick of Franklin's roll down the hill with a can of pee in his hand, the insult-comic banter of the Hitchhiker and the Father, some of Leatherface's non-violent antics, and of course the Bronx cheers. But again, for many, these things get overwhelmed by all the terror and intensity of the rest of the film. As I watched the other night, I was struck by how pervasive Hooper's (admittedly twisted) sense of humor is, even in what many consider his most "serious" work.

I mention these things because I recently got to read an advance copy of Tobe Hooper's first novel, Midnight Movie, now available from Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House. It's a wild ride, an extremely enjoyable read, and a work that, like his most famous film, benefits from both the expansive scale afforded by a work of literature, and from its author's strange sense of humor.

In the novel, an eccentric festival organizer in in Austin, Texas, has discovered a pristine print of Destiny Express, one of Tobe Hooper's early films that had been thought lost. Hooper comes for the screening, despite having lost all memory of the film in question due to a car accident in his youth. A motley group of other characters, whom we get to know through interviews, blog entries, emails and even Twitter tweets, also converge at the festival.

But Destiny Express is no ordinary film, and once the screening is over, strange things start to happen to those in attendance. A previously virginal girl becomes a man-eating nymphomaniac, spreading a strange and completely disgusting STD in her wake. An undercover terrorism expert goes over to the other side and plans an attack. And a journalist starts getting up at night to move at high speed through the city, infecting loners everywhere with the strange plague that turns them into violent, rotting, and extremely horny zombies. As Hooper and his new friends Erick Laughlin and Janine Daltrey try to discover whether Hooper's film is responsible for the outbreak, and if so how they can stop it, the plague spreads into neighboring cities and threatens to overwhelm the country.

The novel is told as a series of interviews, newspaper articles, blog posts and emails, an epistolary history of the apocalyptic aftermath of Destiny Express's screening. This gives the book a quick-reading, conversational style that carries you along easily through increasingly wild and bizarre happenings. Hooper writes himself as crusty, cynical, and world-weary but with a cutting wit, an aging hippie for whom movie-making is the only thing worth doing. And while he is the hero of his own story, he doesn't let himself off the hook, just as often having a bitter laugh at himself as at other targets.

The other characters are engaging and often funny, the plot just keeps getting wilder and more disgusting, and while the final explanation of the apocalypse may seem a little easy,the heroes' last-gasp attempt to stop it is a not-so-subtle parable that should please those aspiring artists who still believe movies can save the world.

For fans of Hooper's movies, Midnight Movie is a double treat: it gives us a chance not only to live in the director's head and hear his sardonic thoughts on everything from horror festivals to the film-pitching process to his own work and that of his directorial contemporaries. (We also get a healthy dose of his possibly justified antiestablishment paranoia.) And it also a chance to "see" a Hooper movie too big and expensive ever to be put on screen--the plot is definitely more Lifeforce than Texas Chain Saw Massacre*.) The book is easy reading, which is damned hard writing--Hooper and collaborator Alan Goldsher bring the director's voice out in an engaging, funny way that keeps you turning pages. Hooper is at his strongest when presenting the interviews in a cinematic way, cutting back and forth for sometimes comedic effect. He's at his weakest, though, when emulating news reports and articles, which don't really read like the real thing.

In closing, I thoroughly recommend Hooper's Midnight Movie for fans of the director and fans of horror literature alike. There's sex, violence, gags and gross-outs, sometimes inelegant but never boring. 2.5 thumbs. Here's hoping this won't be the last time Hooper exchanges his camera for a pen.

*Nota bene: In a crushing blow to horror snobs around the world, Hooper repeatedly and consistently refers to his own 1974 masterpiece as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, eliding the space between the "n" and "s" that such scholars have clung to for proof of their erudition. On the bright side, now we can all get over it and move on. 


Worsel said...

Great review and now I know another book I'm going to have to pick up for some summer reading.

db said...

I had a similar experience recently watching The Funhouse -- there's some automata on the rides and set design in there that's just lovely, and a few Bava-style set pieces that make for such a gorgeous contrast to the creepy carnival stuff and the deformed cow (from my hometown!). Not to mention wanting to grow up to be Marco the Magnificent. I'll definitely have to check this out -- I'm on vacation and absolutely up for something like this.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Worsel--thanks! MIDNIGHT MOVIE is definitely a good breezy summer read. Better hurry though, Summer's almost over!

@db--I saw THE FUNHOUSE on the big screen a few years ago, and THAT one really benefits from the scale. Hooper makes great use of the frame in many places, esp. in that NOSFERATU-inspired scene where the shadow of the Freak comes bleeding up the walls of the a/c duct where one of the victims is hiding. Chilling!

Truth be told, THE FUNHOUSE is probably my favorite Hooper flick. I understand that TCM is a better movie, and a more important movie, but FUNHOUSE is the one I have watched again and again and never tired of. In fact, I may have to spin it one more time this week. :)

Jenn said...

I've seen TCM on the big screen with Gunnar Hansen presiding and it was a hilarious affair indeed. A lot was called in to question about his wardrobe and hairstyle when he portrayed Leatherface, and hilarious anecdotes ensued.

As for this novel, I loved the hell out of it! I was gorey and oozy and sexy and repugnant and just shy of you imagine Hooper to actually interact. That promoter with is bologna odor and constant burping an farting is enough to induce nausea, let alone the images conjured from The Game. And the fact that an indie movie could inspire such chaos. Love it!

Could not get enough of this and finished it in a few hours! Amazing bit of meta-fiction, albeit not entirely meta.

Anonymous said...

Man, I knew I should have picked this up at Borders when it was clearanced out. Definitely going to have to check this out.


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