Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Tobe Hooper's Early Works (The Heisters & Eggshells)

Arrow's magnificent 3-disc edition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 contains the finest supplements of 2013, with the second disc in the set devoted to Tobe Hooper early films, The Heisters and the director's debut feature Eggshells.

The Heisters, made in 1965 is a 10min absurdist slapstick comedy set in medieval times and concerns three thieves in flight from the law, hiding out in a dilapidated cobwebbed castle. Two of the men squabble over the loot they have just stolen and find increasingly ridiculous tortures for each other (an oversized custard pie, a lethal flying girdle) while the other thief more concerned with scientific matters, performs weird experiments on a beetle... Like many short, personal films of the era, The Heisters feels like a series of sketches, the movie is entirely dialogue-free (the three cast members compensate with some wonderful comic performances), and it's all the more remarkable that it looks like it could have been lifted from one of Roger Corman's Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, the film shot in Cinemascope and strongly influenced by Floyd Crosby's lighting for Pit and the Pendulum, explicitly referenced in one particular scene. The film also employs an exaggerated use of sound - at one point, a jawbone falling to the floor registers with a loud metallic crash. The film also contains two elements which would characteristic of Hooper's later work - striking expressionistic editing and camerawork and an imaginative use of props, in particular a bizarre, moldering music box which could have been part of the grotesque bric-à-brac decorating the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All told The Heisters is a brisk, fascinating and enjoyable curio.

Following a few screenings when it first emerged in 1971, Tobe Hooper's debut feature film Eggshells was lost for almost four decades. Rarely mentioned even by the director himself the film became little more than an untidy loose end in Hooper's filmography until Stefan Jaworzyn's 2003 book The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Companion, an oral history of the series, revealed some tantalizing details about the production and its untimely demise. Miraculously, a faded print of the film was unearthed in 2009 and following an extensive restoration and some eagerly anticipated screenings at select film festivals in Austin, Texas and London's Frightfest, Eggshells finally makes its long-awaited debut on home video.

In the film, two hippie couples have moved into an old rambling house, both on different journeys. One couple are preparing to be married while the other couple are just starting out in their relationship. Meanwhile, a fifth occupant of the house who nobody seems to be aware of, has made contact with a strange unearthly presence which has moved into the basement... Once described not inaccurately by Tobe Hooper as a cross between Paul Morrissey's Trash and Fantasia, Eggshells is an incredible document of the counterculture of the late 60's, of peace marches against the Vietnam war and the growing interest in politics, spirituality, alternative lifestyles and philosophies, much of it reflected in the charged semi-improvised dialogue spoken the young twenty-somethings in the film. In this regard the film is very much a companion piece to Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni's sad-eyed look at post-60's America, the two films sharing some interesting parallels - the use of documentary footage of student protests, characters searching for their path in life, and an anti-materialist sentiment which leads to scenes in both films where something is spectacularly blown apart. In contrast to Antonioni's film, Eggshell's is a joyous, exuberant celebration of youth and the energy of the times, reflected in the film's dazzling, free-wheeling experimental style, and audacious invention.

Early in the film, the audience is taken on a breathless hyper-speed journey through the house by the mysterious entity, very much like the breakneck trips around the suburbs of Tokyo in Tetsuo The Iron Man. Two people make love and are transformed into abstract blobs of dripping melted wax (a scene reminiscent of Saul Bass' distorted credit sequence for Seconds), there's some Stan Brakhage-like color animation, a 2001 style star-gate sequence through the cosmic avenues of Austin, and in the most extraordinary sequence of all, a man has a swordfight with himself, an effect achieved with some ingenious jump-cutting. Tobe Hooper devotees will look of comparisons between Eggshells and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and while there are some interesting if superficial similarities (Eggshells begins with a shot of a girl in the back of a pickup, Texas Chainsaw Massacre ends with one), the film would be better placed with the likes of the Roger Corman's The Trip, John Carpenter's hippie space oddity Dark Star, and Richard Linklater's experimental 8mm film It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, another film featuring a cast of Austin odd-balls and eccentrics

Arrow's Blu-Ray of Tobe Hooper's Early Works presents The Heisters & Eggshells in fine form. The Heisters looks the better of the two, with eye-popping colors and clarity. Eggshells looks far more grungier, however the Blu-Ray edition looks extremely good considering the rarity of the film (the screenshots above are ripped from the DVD edition). Both Blu-Ray and DVD discs also come with a director's commentary on Eggshells, a 25min interview with Tobe Hooper, and a whistle stop tour through the ups and downs of Hooper's career with trailers for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre through to 2006's Mortuary

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