All Tobe Hooper wanted was to get Hollywood's attention. So in the blistering Texas summer of 1973, the fledgling 27-year-old director grabbed a 16-millimeter camera, a cast of complete unknowns, and a mask fashioned from artificial human skin, and spliced together a grainy horror film called The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It became a midnight movie sensation and Hollywood definitely noticed.
Now, 21 years after his basement-budget classic about a perverted killer named Leatherface virtually created the slasher genre, Hooper lives in Beverly Hills (along with his girlfriend, Marcia Zwilling; six dogs; two cats; and a cockatoo). But his approach to ''scaring the hell'' out of moviegoers with The Mangler, film No. 10, hasn't changed much since the $105,000 Chainsaw. ''Blood won't do it; that's not what fear's about,'' he says in a sandpapery voice. ''[In Chainsaw] the gore was left to the imagination.'' With a creepy chuckle, he adds, ''Of course, it's far worse there.''
Still, preying on viewers' sinister thoughts hasn't always worked for Hooper something he freely admits. ''I've made some wrong choices about what the public wanted to see,'' he says. But for every box office dud like Eaten Alive (1976) and Lifeforce (1985), he's helmed a killer chiller like Salem's Lot (1979's hit TV movie) and, of course, 1982's Poltergeist (which spawned rumors that cowriter-producer Steven Spielberg directed some of the scenes; Hooper, who's still close with Spielberg, denies this). Through it all, Hooper retained his faith in our insatiable taste for horror. ''People slow down on the freeway when there's an accident; there's still that dark fascination,'' he says. That philosophy helped fuel his two latest projects: the UPN-TV serial thriller Nowhere Man, to debut Aug. 28, and the big-screen sci-fi thriller The Dentist, starring Christopher Lloyd, which begins shooting late September.
Yet even now, Hooper finds it impossible to completely escape Leatherface. After all, it isn't always easy to be introduced as the Chainsaw Massacre's mastermind. ''People expect me to be not at all what I am,'' he says, letting out a slightly maniacal laugh. ''But if I find a spider in my house, I won't kill it; I'll bring it outside.''