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Watch Tobe Hooper’s “The Heisters”

In the run-up to the release of Hooper’s debut feature, Eggshells (1969), here’s his short comedy about three medieval outlaws.
The Heisters

In late 2010, a panel of judges that included John Carpenter, Wes Craven, John Landis, George Romero, Guillermo del Toro and Eli Roth put The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) at the top of Total Film's list of the "Greatest Horror Movies Ever Made." But five years before Tobe Hooper would carve his signature on the genre, leaving a proud and permanent scar, he made a feature for $100K called Eggshells — which, for decades, was believed to have been lost. But in 2009, a print was discovered and presented at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Hooper's hometown, and it's since seen the occasional festival screening — but never a full-blown release. Until now.

MUBI's proud to be teaming up with Watchmaker Films to present a proper worldwide release later this month of what Hooper himself describes as "a real movie about 1969, kind of verite but with a little push, improvisation mixed with magic. It was about the beginning and end of the subculture. Most of it takes place in a commune house. But what they don't know is that in the basement is a crypto-embryonic hyper-electric presence that managed to influence the house and the people in it. The presence has embedded itself in the walls and grows into this big bulb, half-electronic, half organic. Almost like an eye, but like a big light, it comes out of the wall, manipulating and animating. I've always described it as being a mixture of Andy Warhol's Trash and Walt Disney's Fantasia."

Tobe Hooper will have more to say about Eggshells when we host a Q&A — do come and bring your Qs! Thing is, even before Eggshells, Hooper was making movies. To hear LM Kit Carson tell the story in Film Comment some time back — and few can tell a story like LM Kit Carson — Hooper practically grew up in movie theaters and started tinkering with cameras even before his first day of school. To whet your appetite for Eggshells, we're presenting The Heisters, a short Hooper made five years before, in 1964. At the time, he was the only student in the Film Department at the University of Texas in Austin. Take it away, Mr Carson:

Hooper got a part-time job making 20-minute sales-tool shorts for a local insurance company — insidious little dramas to pitch fear into families. Like what happens after Dad gets mashed to death in a three-car accident: lose the home; the dog runs away; finally the 12-year-old daughter hits the streets hooking. Like what are the Odds For The Future: a hundred little golden plaster of Paris men standing on a wonderful wide horizon; 95 of these figures abruptly explode; that's the odds; don't bet on it, pal.

After he'd made almost 50 of these bum trips, Hooper got a call from the insurance company president congratulating him for helping to boost sales — plus a suggestion that Hooper start studying the obituary columns so he could go shoot telephoto footage of real grief-filled funerals. Hooper quit.

Then, unaccountably, the insurance prez called Hooper back. He had been truly impressed with Hooper's work in scaring lots of money out of insurance buyers. He offered to bankroll a short film, no joke.

At 21, Hooper wrote and directed The Heisters, a 35mm 10-minute color comedy about three medieval outlaws who get into an absurdly escalated Road Runner-cartoony fight over their stolen booty. It won awards at the Tours, Cannes, and San Francisco film festivals. And for better or worse, it made Hooper a big shot in and around his hometown.

"I got a little bit swelled up — some people said I got so high and mighty that you couldn't hit me in the ass with a red apple. Maybe so."

Over the next eight years Hooper schemed up his future. He formed three film-production houses in Austin; shot industrials and documentaries for PBS, the Texas Highway Department, etc. Finally he pooled enough money and power to finance his first feature, Eggshells. It was about the breakdown of a commune, a slightly surreal, end-of-hippiedom love story. This movie was going to be Hooper's ticket to Tomorrow.

But that's another story for another day. Coming soon. Today: Watch The Heisters.

Fuckin’ cool MUBI.
As a pioneer of Texan cinema, Hooper deserves more love and viewing from this native of the Lone Star State. Maybe this will encourage me to finally get a MUBI subscription. But what’s even cooler is the news that Watchmaker Films is back in business. After a bunch of their releases went OOP and a talk with Joe Swanberg revealed that he had not heard from them for a few years after their release of LOL, I was afraid they had gone under, leaving their release of Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo in rights limbo. Hopefully The Heister and Eggshells will get the same lovely treatment Watchmaker gave to A Hell of a Note and The Whole Shootin’ Match, and hopefully both the announced Hooper and the hinted-at Pennell will get blu-ray releases.

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