Tobe Hooper, a 29-year-old Texan and film-school dropout, had wanted to make a work of art — a cinematic masterpiece in the mold of his Italian idols, directors Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Walking through a bustling Montgomery Ward department store days before Christmas in 1972, he found inspiration for a grislier kind of movie in a display of gleaming chain saws.
“I thought, ‘I know a way I could get through this crowd really quickly,’ ” he told Texas Monthly in 2004. “I went home, sat down, all the channels just tuned in, the zeitgeist blew through, and the whole damn story came to me in what seemed like about 30 seconds.”
The resulting film — “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” (1974) — was a low-budget, blood-soaked horrorfest made with college students, teachers, a menagerie of dead animals and two human skeletons, one of them real.
Most critics were disgusted, with one Harper’s Magazine reviewer calling it “a vile little piece of sick crap.” But its reputation has improved ever since, winning praise as one of the greatest horror films of all time, credited with popularizing the slasher genre in the 1970s.
Mr. Hooper, who went on to direct the Steven Spielberg-produced “Poltergeist” in 1982, died Aug. 26 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 74.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner’s office confirmed his death but did not provide a cause.
Mr. Hooper (his first name is pronounced Toby) directed nearly 20 films, numerous TV episodes and the zombie-populated music video for the Billy Idol song “Dancing With Myself.” But he remains best known for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” which he produced, directed and co-wrote.
He described it as an updated version of the Hansel and Gretel story and likened its villain, a 300-pound butcher known as Leatherface, to the 1950s cartoon duck Baby Huey. (Both characters were stuck in childhood, he said.)
But while Mr. Hooper’s story retained the cannibalistic element of the Brothers Grimm fable, it was far more sinister, replacing a pair of sweet-toothed children with a group of five young hippies, and swapping the witch’s oven for a butcher’s hook and a sharp-toothed power tool.
Mr. Hooper and his co-writer, Kim Henkel, based their story in part on Ed Gein, a Wisconsin serial killer who made masks out of his victims’ faces. But they filled in their own gruesome details for a plot that pit Leatherface, played by Gunnar Hansen, against a blonde-haired heroine played by Marilyn Burns.
The movie was “as violent and gruesome and blood-soaked as the title promises,” Roger Ebert wrote in a two-star review. “It’s also without any apparent purpose, unless the creation of disgust and fright is a purpose. And yet in its own way, the movie is some kind of weird, off-the-wall achievement.”
Despite being banned in England and other countries, it went on to gross more than $30 million and became a mainstay at drive-in theaters and a favorite of horror directors such as John Carpenter.
The movie, Carpenter once said, “pacified my soul.”
Willard Tobe Hooper was born in Austin, on Jan. 25, 1943. His mother reportedly went into labor while at a movie theater, and his father was a film buff who owned a hotel. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father died when he was a teenager.
Mr. Hooper began shooting movies at 3, using his father’s 8-millimeter camera, and studied film at the University of Texas before dropping out after two years. For his first major work, he shot and directed a public- television documentary of the folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. He followed that with a more drug-infused film about the 1960s counterculture, “Eggshells,” before turning to horror.
“I thought, ‘The only way to get the kind of attention I wanted was through genre film, horror genre film,’ ” he told the Montreal Gazette in 2014. “I didn’t need stars. All I needed for it to work was to scare people.”
Mr. Hooper directed “Salem’s Lot,” a 1979 CBS miniseries based on a vampire novel by Stephen King, before making “Poltergeist,” a hit about a family that moves into a haunted house where demons emerge from a TV set.
The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards, but credit for its success was given by many critics not to Mr. Hooper, but to Spielberg, who co-wrote the movie and was credited with developing its story and picking its cast.
Mr. Hooper directed a 1986 sequel to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” with Dennis Hopper as a retired, revenge-seeking Texas Ranger, although the film proved less successful than its predecessor.
A half-dozen sequels followed from different directors, while Mr. Hooper worked on horror films including “Invaders From Mars” (1986), a remake of William Cameron Menzies’s science-fiction classic, and “The Mangler” (1995), which adapted a King story about a murderous ironing machine.
Survivors include a son, William Tony Hooper.
Mr. Hooper insisted that “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was not nearly as bloody as many critics said it was, pointing out that many of his quick cuts were designed to hide the movie’s most violent moments. He told Texas Monthly that he frequently consulted the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood’s rating agency, in an effort to ensure a PG rating.
“ ‘I have this scene where a girl gets hung on a meat hook.’ Long silence. ‘What could I do?’ Long silence. ‘I guess it would help me if there was no penetration shot.’ ‘That would be correct.’ ‘And no blood?’ ‘That would help.’ ”
Mr. Hooper decided to keep the blood, and his movie was rated R.
Correction: An earlier version of this obituary incorrectly reported Tobe Hooper's birth name. It was Willard Tobe Hooper, not William Tobe Hooper. The story has been revised.