Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 2, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1969)

In the past, I've said some not-so-nice things about Tobe Hooper. Compared to other seventies horror wunderkinds like Craven, Carpenter, or Cronenberg, Hooper's career has had much more dramatic ups and downs. His place in genre history is secure because of "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and "Poltergeist." Many of his other films, meanwhile, vacillate between odd cult items, mediocrity, and obscurity. Or, at least, that's the perception. As I watch my way through Tobe Hooper's films, I'll see if his reputation as the lost master of horror is deserved or not. (Yes, I'll also be throwing in reviews of some of the other entries in those big franchises he launched.)

1. Eggshells

Before his name became synonymous with chainsaw murder and redneck depravity, Tobe Hooper got his start as an independent filmmaker working in Austin, Texas. After receiving some minor acclaim for his short film, “The Heisters,” Hooper went to work on his first feature, co-writing it with Kim Henkel. Filmed entirely within Austin, “Eggshells” was a hard to find film for years. Rarely screened in theaters and never released on VHS, it was thought lost. That is until a copy was rediscovered a few years back and went on a theatrical tour of the country. Later, it was packaged as a special feature on a Blu-Ray edition of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.” Now, it’s available through various video websites, like Vimeo. Whatever your preferred format, Hooper’s oddball feature debut can now be seen by all.

“Eggshells” centers on the residents of a home in rural Austin. Toes is a would-be poet who has a somewhat contentious relationship with his girlfriend, Pam, whom he bosses around. Also living in the home are Allen and Sharon, a young couple who plan on marrying soon. The four frequently have friends over to the cramped home, throwing wild parties. Each have anxieties about their lives but there’s not much drama. Mostly, they smoke pot, have sex, and discuss the state of the world circa 1968. Also, a ghost apparently lives in the house and a psychedelic portal resides in the home’s basement.

There’s not much to “Eggshells” in the way of narrative. The story is a thin sketch and I suspect that much of the dialogue, and thus the plot, was improvised. Instead, “Eggshells” is a combination of two separate instincts. The film is a docu-drama bout life among the hippies in the Texas countryside. Hooper successfully captures the atmosphere of the time simply by pointing his camera at people living their lives. However, the film is also an incoherent freak-out flick, filled with multiple “trip” sequences. One can’t help but assume that marijuana and L.S.D. were heavily indulged in by the cast and crew. I suspect the film was intended to be watched under similar circumstances.

I assume that most of the people checking out “Eggshells” will be “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” fans. I can imagine many horror fans getting quickly fed up with the film’s rambling, acid-head antics but there might be a few elements of interest to them. First off, “Eggshells” was shot in the same house, which means the staircase and various doorways will look awfully familiar. Secondly, the kinetic camera work that characterized Hooper’s horror classic is also present here. For that matter, there might be more swirling, handheld footage here then there is in his second movie. Hooper’s camera spins around the house as the various characters gets out of bed. Frequently, the point-of-view goes completely nuts, spasmodically blinking and swooping around the cramped locations.

Except for when the camera is standing perfectly still. Hooper has also described “Eggshells” as a part of a documentary he only partially completed. That docu-drama element is obvious throughout many scenes in “Eggshells.” Sometimes, the film focuses in on the characters, talking and living among themselves. While sitting in a bathtub together, Allen and Sharon discuss her father’s patriotism and hatred of Communism. Later, the quartet sit around, smoke pot, and discuss the pros and cons of drug use. “Eggshells” has also been called a time capsule of the late sixties. Which is accurate. If you ever wanted to know what it was like to hang out with hippies near the end of the subculture’s life cycle, “Eggshells” should give you a good idea.

That quasi-documentary style serves “Eggshells” well whenever it focuses clearly on an idea. Occasionally, a mildly diverting moment of lived-in humanity emerges from the film. Such as when a few friends gather beside the staircase and share an odd poem that Toes has written. Or when the strange mute boy, who may be a ghost, wanders through the forest with a bunch of balloons. Soon afterwards, he encounters a girl with a similar collection of balloons. The two quickly form some sort of relationship over their shared helium fandom. While the rambling discussions about Communism or society can often try the patience, at least they seem genuine. The characters are interested in these topics, their opinions sincere, their feelings passionate.

Yet too often, “Eggshells” descends into weird for weirdness’ sake nonsense. What does one make of the long sequences of the camera freaking out, whirling around the basement while discordant music plays on the soundtrack? Or the possible ghost boy zapping in and out of reality while dancing around the same area? There are also long shots of flashing lights and shifting colors. What it all means – if it means anything – is obscured. Yet occasionally, one of “Eggshells’” freak-out montage touches upon a poetic or interesting visual. Such as a room painting itself while Toes and Pam wash paint off themselves. Or the possible high-light of the film, when the mute boy has a sword battle with a double of himself, both versions of the man blinking in and out of reality, trading blows with the bladed weapon.

And what of that ghost? Early in “Eggshells,” the characters discuss psychic powers and the possibility that the house is haunted. Meanwhile, there’s a strange, unspeaking man living in the attic and basement who never interacts with the rest of the cast. No other review of “Eggshells” has assumed that this character is the aforementioned ghost. Yet why else doesn’t this character ever talk to the other residents? It’s not like “Eggshells” is without unexplained, supernatural elements. After all, there’s the aforementioned vortex in the basement. A spherical shape emerges from the wall. Whenever someone stares into it, very strange thing happens. Hooper has referred to this anomaly as a “crypto-embryonic hyper-electric presence,” which does little to clear up the specifics. Whatever the reasons are, it’s clear that “Eggshells” occupies a psychedelic head space, where events just outside of reality can easily happen.

If there’s any thematic concept running through “Eggshells,” it’s the role of sex and love among the hippy counterculture. Toes and Pam never have arguments. Yet the girl refers to her boyfriend as a chauvinist, who expects her to cook and clean while he lies around the house, writing his rambling poems. It’s an accusation that Toes in no way challenges. Meanwhile, Allen and Sharon are soon to be married. While Sharon tries on her wedding dress, the other residents of the home discuss the merits of marriage. Soon, they reach the consensus that there’s no point to it. When the wedding ceremony comes at the end, there’s an odd feeling of resignment in the air, like Allen and Sharon’s love is doomed even before they say their vows. Sex, meanwhile, provides little solace. Toes happily hits on other women, which doesn’t seem to bother Pam. The couples stand nude around each other, their nakedness devoid of meaning. The film’s lengthy sex scene, which is shot through a glass vase and set to a frenzied sitar soundtrack, provides little catharsis to the cast. The hippies of the house live a partially hedonistic life style but it doesn’t seem to provide them with any deeper satisfaction.

Then again, perhaps I’m understating the movie’s political aspects. Being set among a hippy residence in the late sixties, you’d think the war in Vietnam would occasionally be mentioned. Yet there’s no specific discussion of the conflict. Instead, the political statements boil under the surface. The hippies drive a patriotically colored car through town. Later, Toes drives the vehicle into a field. He stripes nude, throws his belonging into the car, sets it on fire, and watches it explode. Earlier in the film, the hippies carry a Plexiglas dome atop the car. Sharon and Allen lay inside the dome, discussing their love and life. That too is destroyed when the car explodes. If one is willing to read a political message into “Eggshells’” nonsensical images, perhaps this sequence represents the counterculture destroying the American establishment – the red, white, and blue car – and the ideas of traditional romance it represents? Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything.

If I mixed up any of the actors or character names in “Eggshells,” please forgive me. Being so loosely plotted, it’s hard to keep the characters straight. Most of the cast, meanwhile, never appeared in another film, making matching their faces to their fictional names tricky. Of the cast I can easily identify, co-writer Kim Henkel plays Toes. Henkel, with his greasy facial hair and lanky body, happily plays the self-involved, slightly combative hippy. The women of the film, Pamela Craig and Sharon Danziger, alternate between flat speech and wild moments of energy. Allen Danziger would later appear in “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which at least makes him easier to identify. His performance is fairly blank as the somewhat square Allen.

If you’re expecting “Eggshells” to come together and start making some sense as the end approaches, prepare to be disappointed. After the wedding, the strange entity in the basement awakens Toes. He grabs Pam and the two walk into the basement together. Soon, all four of the home’s residence are seated under hair dryer machines, starring into the electric vortex. After a long point-of-view shot of the car driving through Austin, we cut to the four hippies exploring a field with the ghost boy and the girl with the balloons. They sit under the same hair dryers and are sucked into black garbage bags. The machine devours the bags and then expels a brown liquid. A smoke escapes the device, floating through the air, dissipating. Does this represent the imminent death of the hippy subculture, disappearing into drugs and conflict? Does it represent anything at all?

“Eggshells” runs a little under ninety minutes. Its sluggish pacing and lack of coherent plotting makes it feel much longer. The psychedelic score, which is heavy on the guitar solos and jangling sitars, doesn’t make the film move faster. Though hugely flawed and difficult to get through, “Eggshells” does give us a peek at an interesting talent in his infancy. It shows that Hooper’s keen sense of place and kinetic camera work was already established. Whether anybody but devoted fans of the filmmaker will be interesting in sitting through all of “Eggshells” is another question. I watched it all and now wonder if it was worth the four dollar Vimeo rental price. Maybe I should’ve smoked some pot first? [Grade: C-]

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