EVENT | TOBE HOOPER RETROSPECTIVE | VENUE | THE EMPIRE LEICESTER SQUARE, LONDON

Eggshells, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
and Tobe Hooper Total Icon Interview Q&A

Welcome Step Up For Still Imperfect FrightFest


To boost the profile of the 2010 FrightFest and to keep sweet the major online and high street retailers—as well as the Phoenix A.C., Total Film magazine and crucially headliner Film4 on whose sponsorship deals the festival so depends—the organising committee for the U.K.’s dominant fantasy/horror film tribute have secured several U.K. premieres ahead of this Autumn’s L.F.F., and invited a handful of directors, some populist and inventive, some pretty mediocre, to make a contribution. This year, the major star to excite anticipation across the P.R. departments of all its investors is Eli Roth. The Last Exorcism, which he’s publicising in his capacity as star producer, rounds out the festival on Monday evening and is bound to gratify sponsors, punters, organisers all. Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship and Videotape, on the other hand, sounds far more deserving of its premiere. A historical account of the so-called “Video Nasties” fuss which descended on the country in the eighties, the documentary promises a comprehensive overview of film censorship and classification at a time when the B.B.F.C., under the direction of James Ferman, struggled with the implications of home-video exhibition, as well as new criteria for assessing the nature of cinematic violence. The premiere also gives occasion for an as yet undisclosed celebrity panel discussion immediately afterwards.

Without some rehearsal, though, these onstage events can reflect poorly on the subjects they’re intended to receive. Friday afternoon’s Total Icon attraction (27 August), which welcomed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) director Tobe Hooper for a retrospective of his work in the enormous space of the Empire 1 auditorium, should have been compelling but was a bit drab. There were some shortcomings for which the interviewer, Total Film journalist Jamie Graham, cannot be blamed: I generously include here the onstage seating and lighting arrangements, the muddling of which meant Hooper’s face was perpetually in Graham’s shadow (come on, sort that out); and the positioning around the stage of other Film4 and Total Film people, synopsising and videotaping for their online channels, must have riled those unfortunate to be seated, and thus not compensated, directly behind. However, other weak points in Graham’s control undoubtedly diminished the experience. Less inquisitorial interviewers get away with their style because, more often than not, they’re being harried for time (for the opposite approach, see comedian Joe Cornish’s brilliant Q&A with Edgar Wright, the main event two weeks ago at the B.F.I.), in which circumstances the quality of interview is largely set by the interviewee (and based on their appearances in London over the last two years, Danny Boyle and Terry Gilliam, both funny and extrovert, are great at steering interview). Hooper, however, is an introspective man: serious and contemplative onstage, cheery and interested when one-to-one with fans, if evasive when questioned he is unlikely to expand an issue (and why would he?) unless an interviewer persists or relaxes his approach. Graham’s stiff questioning, however, reflected the tone of the magazine he co-edits, which has never done much to help its readership understand the cinematic works that so inspire either its staff or its commercial alliances with D.V.D. retailers. Far better would it have been to shake up this antiquated routine, thematise the questioning in line with the two Hooper works in exhibition (The Texas Chain Saw, and his 1969 debut, Eggshells), and throw the rest out to the FrightFest audience who are far more adept at cross-referencing Poltergeist (1982) with Invaders From Mars (1986) and Death Trap (1977). In such a case as this, those who attend the more upmarket In Conversation events at the B.F.I. Southbank must bear in mind the FrightFest’s humble origins as a celebratory knees-up in the Prince Charles ten years ago, a vital qualification, still relevant today, which does little for the Head of Film4 Julia Wrigley’s claim that while “some cultural commentators may look down on horror,” and hence by extension this festival, they’re fools for doing so.

Tobe Hooper is an introspective man: serious and contemplative onstage, cheery and interested when one-to-one with fans, if evasive when questioned he is unlikely to expand an issue (and why would he?) unless an interviewer relaxes his approach

Those who left the room early, however, diverted by the need to claim a spot in the autograph queue (and damnit, I envy all who now own a signed Texas Chain Saw poster), missed a treat. The interview may have been short and routine, but the five minute Q&A afterward elicited some really fun responses: from Hooper’s tactful assessment of Eli Roth’s career to date (more a delicate sidestepping) to his high praise for Guillermo del Toro’s, from his fond memory of working with British icon James Mason on the Stephen King miniseries ‘Salem’s Lot (1979) to the friendly gibe he made at compatriot Gunnar Hansen for his similarly congenial historical embellishments. Spirited, as well as candid, we glimpsed in this brief final session a clever and important director, the once ambitious filmmaker responsible for one of the most gruelling productions in North American movie history, whose distinctive Texan growl so familiar from commentary was like some kind of music to many ears, mine included.

29 August, 2010

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