Tobe Hooper flipped a switch and a 10-foot projection screen smoothly rolled down from the ceiling in his Benedict Canyon home. He pulled from his stockpile of videocassettes a four-year-old episode he directed for Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" TV series and inserted it into a tape machine.
In moments, a 6-foot image of Weird Al Yankovich dressed as a green alien cabbage man materialized on screen. In a way, Weird Al was one of the more normal sights in Hooper's home.
The horror director-whose latest work can be seen Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA in a new film called "I'm Dangerous Tonight," starring Anthony Perkins and Madchen Amick-keeps strange mementos from his pet projects.
Enshrined in a glass case is the meat hook from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (he says Spielberg has the other one). The dismembered hitchhiker corpse from the same movie sits in his living room. Then there's the steel mallet from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II," a staircase banister from "Salem's Lot" and a ceramic doll used in "Freddy's Nightmares."
The props, most grotesque and out of place in the quiet suburban house, are tokens of an unassuming man whose paramour has always been film fantasy. His supernatural USA movie stars Perkins as an archeology professor who helps one of his students, Amick (Shelley of "Twin Peaks"), when she succumbs to the deadly powers of an ancient Aztec cloak.
"I went to the movies every day, sometimes twice a day, growing up," said Hooper, 47, who was raised in Austin and Dallas. Wearing a cap, T-shirt, jeans and shoes-all solid black-Hooper sat in his living room holding a stubby, unlighted cigar.
"I saw everything," he continued. "I always figured I would be there one day making movies, because there really wasn't anything else I could do. That's all I thought about. That's all I dreamed about. I would talk my teachers at school into letting me turn in an 8mm film instead of written projects."
When he was 25, the former University of Texas film student abandoned documentaries and TV commercials to make a feature film called "Eggshells." "We shot for about nine months," Hooper said, his soft-spoken words a contrast to his gravel-rock voice. "It was partly shot off a script written on a napkin and partly improvisational shooting."
He paused and tried to light his cigar. It wouldn't light. He gave up and just held the cigar in his hand.
"It was a film about hippies at the end of the Vietnam War," he continued, Rand they were living in a commune house that was also inhabited by this thing we called a crypto-embryonic-hyper-electric presence."
Hooper said that the low-low-budget "Eggshells" played in only about 50 theaters, but the horror element was a hit. "I learned what I had to do to get attention," he explained. "I was in Texas, 2,000 miles away from the center of activity in Los Angeles. I had to have a gimmick to get into any kind of stream, let alone the mainstream."
So Hooper co-wrote a script with Kim Henkel inspired by bloody events in Wisconsin, raised $155,000 from a consortium of good-ol'-boy businessmen and politicians in Austin and shot "Chainsaw Massacre" on 16mm film in the summer of 1973.
The exploitation film, about a cannibalistic family who give new meaning to roadside kill, first went largely unnoticed, then became a cult classic, then spawned a hailstorm of imitations and now is hailed by some as a groundbreaking classic.
After a couple of slick B-horror films and the acclaimed TV miniseries "Salem's Lot," based on Stephen King's novel, Hooper's career peaked in 1982 when he directed the box-office hit "Poltergeist" for Spielberg, its co-writer and producer. But at a time when his career should have skyrocketed, the media climbed on Hooper's back and held him down with stories about Spielberg's creative influence overpowering the contributions of his meek director.
It was almost a year before Hooper received another offer to direct. His next film, "Lifeforce" in 1985, was a biggish-budget movie for Cannon Films, about space vampires, that flopped in theaters. He directed another science-fiction movie, a remake of the 1953 3-D classic "Invaders From Mars," before turning again to horror with a messy sequel to "Chainsaw Massacre" in 1986.
Now, Hooper is developing two new feature films and a TV series, and hopes to shed the scaly reputation of a horror director.
"I've been trying for many years to break out of that mold," Hooper said. "The face of horror is changing. I think we're about saturated with graphics. I definitely think it's taking a turn toward the psychological and emotional."
Hooper proudly went on to tell of an "Equalizer" episode he directed about the homeless. As he spoke he tried to light his cigar again. This time it stayed lit, and the red ember glowed brightly.
"Oh no, no. I don't think so," Hooper responded when asked if he planned to retire one day soon. He shook his head and smiled as if he just heard an inside joke. "There's nothing else I want to do. This is all I've ever wanted to do. It's like play for me. Orson Welles said it best-making a movie is the best electric train a kid ever had."
SCARING UP HOOPER Tobe Hooper movies available on videocassette: "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) "Eaten Alive" (1976) "Salem's Lot" (1979) "The Funhouse" (1981) "Poltergeist" (1982) "Lifeforce" (1985) "Invaders From Mars" (1986) "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" (1986) "Spontaneous Combustion" (1989)