Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Tobe Hooper's Cannon Trilogy

The Cannon trilogy is not so much a trilogy of related films but is rather a 3-picture deal Tobe Hooper signed on to make with Cannon pictures.... The films were Lifeforce (1985) Invaders from Mars (1986), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II (1986). The films of the Cannon trilogy would themselves be the last of a great run of movies Hooper would direct, beginning with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, Salem's Lot, right through to Poltergeist, The Funhouse and the Cannon films. Since then Hooper has suffered much interference from producers and distributors recutting his subsequent films, with only 2004's The Toolbox Murders showing only occasional flashes of greatness.

The first film of the Cannon Trilogy, Lifeforce, an adaptation of Colin Wilson's 1976 novel Space Vampires about alien creatures unleashing a vampire plague upon London remains one of the great sci-fi horror films of the 80's. The novel explores the intriguing premise of the phenomena of vampirism brought to Earth by aliens, and swaps the traditional blood-sucking for soul-sucking, the life force of the film's title. Colin Wilson apparently hated the film, and sure, it’s ludicrous and overblown but there is much to enjoy - a great cast, a surprisingly epic Harry Manfredini score and excellent old-school visual effects from John Dykstra. The film is so well paced, there's hardly a minute to dwell on the story's shortcomings, and the final act of the film as London becomes besieged with marauding blood sucking zombies is a real treat. Had Lifeforce been made 20 years earlier it could easily have been a Roy Ward Baker project starring Peter Cushing, or Christopher Lee, and the film could be seen as a sort of spiritual heir to Quatermass and the Pit. Interestingly, the script was co-written by Dan O'Bannon who would also write the screenplay for The Return of the Living Dead (which was to be directed as a 3D film by Tobe Hooper) made the same year as Lifeforce. Both films have some interesting parallels, and at least one idea, a shriveled corpse coming to life on a mortician's slab, would be recycled between films.


Lifeforce released in June of 1985 would prove to be a commercial misfire. Cannon effectively sabotaged the film by cutting 15 minutes out of Tobe Hooper's original 116-min cut, causing some storyline problems, but more disastrously the studio opened the film around the same times as Cocoon, a Speilbergian mega-hit confection about some old folks who have their lifeforce rejuvenated by aliens...

Lifeforce for me was one of the most memorable VHS sleeves of the 80's. The back cover featured a still of queen vampire Mathilda May and her breasts in all their glory. No trip to the video store was complete without catching a look...
After the box office belly flop of Lifeforce, Hooper's second picture with Cannon, Invaders from Mars would be made for half the budget of the first film. Invaders from Mars, is a contemporary remake of the 50's chiller about a boy who discovers his parents and his town are being taken over by aliens. Sadly, Hooper's film was dogged with problems, going over schedule and released to a lukewarm critical response, and more disastrous box office returns. Invaders from Mars is actually a very good movie, well cast, with Karen Black, James Karen, Sam Bottoms and Louise Fletcher, and featuring more fantastic visual effects by John Dykstra, and some of Stan Winston's most impressive creature designs. Winston would also work on Aliens the same year and both the subterranean lair in Invaders from Mars and the alien hive in Aliens are not too dissimilar. Hooper's direction has its fair share of great showy moments, and his kinetic camerawork, one of Hooper's greatest strengths as a director is often magnificent. However, the film would prove to be another financial failure for Cannon, and truthfully the film was probably too dark and sinister for the adolescent audience it was aimed at. Special mention also for Christopher Young’s wonderfully strange experimental score.


With the poor box office receipts from Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars (both of which failed to recoup even half their production costs), relations between Tobe Hooper and Cannon were understandably strained. The third and final picture made for the studio would be sequel to Hooper's extraordinary breakthrough film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It seemed rather inevitable that a Chain Saw sequel would be rolled into production, and thankfully it was Hooper at the helm. Apparently a sequel was planned in the 70's by some other film makers, and by all accounts the screenplay for this particular version was definitely not up to scratch. Cannon by now had the knives out for Hooper, and unnerved by the thought of more financial losses, gave Hooper a budget of $5million and a brutal production schedule - the film went before the cameras on the 5th of May and was in theatres on the 22nd August. The film penned by L.M. Kit Carson has the Sawyer family (with a few personnel changes from the original Chain Saw) relocated to Dallas and pursued by a crazed Texas ranger hell bent on revenge for the murder of his nephew in the first film. Hooper's idea for the tone of the film was to go in a different direction to the first film amping up the black comedy of the all-American dysfunctional family that simply loves to kill. It was a bold move, and the film has its fair share of detractors but Texas Chain Saw Massacre II is driven by a relentless carnival ride atmosphere, and by the time the film reaches its final act, it feels genuinely out of control.

"Lord, help me beat this stranger that walks beside me and takes away my strength" - Dennis Hopper on a mission in Texas Chain Saw Massacre II
That the film would turn out so well is something of a miracle and is testimony to the fearlessness of cast and crew, who worked a punishing 15-hour day, six-day week to get the film completed. Much of L.M. Kit Carson’s screenplay had to be re-written on-set as Cannon routinely shaved days off the schedule and to get the film finished, Hooper cut the film together as it was being shot. Hopper has outfitted his film with another great cast - a dazed looking Dennis Hopper as the Texas Ranger, Bill Mosley as the demented Chop-Top, and Caroline Williams, excellent as a feisty Texas DJ. Sadly Gunnar Hansen would not return as Leatherface, but Bill Johnson does a good enough job behind the mask. Of the 3 films made for Cannon, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II would actually turn a profit, despite Tom Savini's gory effects causing the film to be passed up for an R rating.

Of the 3 Cannon films, Lifeforce and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre II are both available on DVD. Lifeforce was issued as a barebones MGM DVD but thankfully, is the full Director’s cut. Following a barebones disc, Chainsaw II was re-released on DVD in 2008 as a very fine 2-disc edition with comprehensive extras. Invaders from Mars was once available as a stand-alone disc or coupled with Strange Invaders, and both editions can still be located fairly easily.

2 comments:

  1. I saw Mars and Chainsaw in the theater - only caught up to Lifeforce in the ealry 90's on tape. I liked all three - with Chainsaw II my fave of them and a fave of mine in general, despite being such a different movie from the first one. I don't think Lifeforce is in the video vault - that director's cut DVD sounds good - although I think these years later that there's a Blu-Ray special edition now.

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  2. Wow ! To see Chainsaw II on the big screen. I think John over at the Nostalgic Attic mentioned it but the film was instantly refused a certificate from the British Censors (which ultimately meant the film would not get distributed in Ireland) so aside from a fuzzy bootleg tape I didn't see the film properly until DVD... I love that you liked Invaders From Mars, those of us who do are few and far between - I think it's a great movie... I should update that point about Lifeforce being available on both sides of the Atlantic in very good Blu-Ray editions. I still find the movie hugely thrilling to sit down with...

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