Commentary: Tobe Hooper’s Austin youth shaped ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’

Shortly after I returned to Austin in 1997 with Tobe Hooper, he pointed out his first home to me: a building on Congress Avenue where he lived as a little boy in his parents’ hotel. The fourth-floor window in the back of the building was his room, and the Paramount and State theaters across the street were his babysitters. It was here that he first fell in love with movies.

I cherish the stories Tobe shared with me during our seven years together, especially the combination of events that inspired “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” the horror classic filmed here in the 1970s.

OBITUARY: ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ director Tobe Hooper helped launch Austin’s film scene.

When he was a child in Austin, his hometown, the family doctor made a house call and shared a story about a Halloween mask made from a cadaver, which terrified young Tobe. Then came the memorable phone call from his aunt in Wisconsin, who told him the story about Ed Gein, a murderer and body snatcher in the 1950s. These stories never left him. Years later, as an adult, Tobe was traumatized when his mother had a lung removed. He said he couldn’t lose the image of her being sawed open.

Once, we were driving past the old Montgomery Wards near Highland Mall and he pointed to the store and said that’s where the idea for “Chain Saw” was born. In that one pivotal moment in time, in the hardware department of Montgomery Wards, all the pieces came together.

It was just before Christmas and the store was jammed. Tobe was claustrophobic and just wanting to get out of there. He said he saw the chainsaw and his next thought was, “I know how I can get out of here!” Thus, the idea for “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was born. I always thought about that story every time I drove past Montgomery Wards until it closed.

I still can’t drive past the University of Texas without remembering Tobe’s story about being on campus the day Charles Whitman started shooting from the tower. As Tobe left a building, an officer shoved him back inside and told him to stay put. The officer turned and walked away — and moments later was instantly shot dead.

Tobe loved directing more than anything. He was always so animated and enthusiastic about it. In the early days, when he went to film President Nixon at a rally, he naively told the Secret Service, “I’m here to shoot the president.” They instantly threw him to the ground.

Perhaps what haunts me the most is the image of Tobe as a little boy sitting on a bench in the Travis County courtroom lobby, his feet barely reaching the floor, as he waited with his mother for the final divorce proceeding. He never understood why she brought him with her.

These are just a few of the life experiences that made Tobe Hooper the remarkable filmmaker he was.

The master of horror was also a gentle soul who loved animals, especially his beloved dogs Amberson and Daisy. When Amberson was dying, Tobe was working on a film and he asked me to see if Rick Linklater could fill in for him, so he could return to Austin because he loved his dog so much. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Tobe would even try to save a spider from the bathtub or catch a moth and take it outside to set it free.

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Tobe loved Austin and cherished his Texas Hall of Fame Award, but he felt he needed to be in Los Angeles for the work. Tobe eventually went back to LA; I stayed and made Austin home.

Before Tobe’s passing last week, he received the recognition he long deserved when “Chain Saw” was honored at Cannes. It was the only film ever shown three different times at the festival. Tobe received a standing ovation.

Tobe’s peers always recognized his genius. Perhaps in death, the world will too.

Zwilling is a writer in San Marcos.

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