Times Staff Writer

In sleepy suburban Eagle Rock, it’s tough to determine which aliens could terrify the local populace more--Martians or a Hollywood film crew.

Both arrived in town recently as Cannon Films’ “Invaders From Mars” landed at the Eagle Rock Elementary School for a brief visit.

Passers-by may have spotted the invasion’s fearless leader--director Tobe Hooper--as he zoomed around the playground on a sporty red bicycle chatting with his cast and crew during a lunch break.


Hooper’s remake of William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 cult classic about a town terrorized by Martians lurking in a nearby sand pit stars Karen Black and her son, Hunter Carson (“Paris, Texas”), as well as Laraine Newman and Timothy Bottoms.

“I haven’t had this much fun making a movie since ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre,’ the 42-year-old director enthused.

Affable and laid-back, the Texas-born Hooper was never too far from a fat cigar, which he puffed occasionally--usually when mulling over a question. However, he was straightforward about the turns his life has taken over the last few years . . . even the unpleasant ones.

Like “Poltergeist.”

Hooper’s joy over that film’s spectacular opening in 1982 was marred by allegations that “Poltergeist” producer Steven Spielberg had more to do with directing the film than Hooper.

(Spielberg, under orders from the Directors Guild of America, subsequently took out full-page ads in Hollywood trade papers reiterating Hooper’s role as director.)

Hooper still says he’s puzzled by the “Poltergeist” affair. “I wasn’t even aware of any ‘controversy’ until I read about it,” he said, easygoing drawl suddenly tightening. “The picture was run like any other one. I had an extremely talented producer, I was doing my job as director and we were good friends who got along extremely well. I think we both complemented one another in our thinking and our style as film makers and storytellers.”


Nonetheless, while Spielberg unofficially was crowned the new king of Hollywood after that summer (“E.T.” also was released), Hooper more or less found himself exiled.

“Things were hard right after ‘Poltergeist,’ and they shouldn’t have been,” said Hooper, who--ironically--bears more than a passing resemblance to Spielberg. “It was a hit picture and at the very least one would think that, regardless of the controversy--just by association--I should have gotten work.”

However, after a project at Fox (set before “Poltergeist”) fell through, he received no offers for close to a year. “I learned a lot about Hollywood,” he commented vaguely.

Speaking haltingly as he carefully selected the right words, he elaborated: “I didn’t learn as much about furthering myself as a director as I learned about the industry--and its politics. I think I learned to be a better, more integral part of the business. The initial value of all that made me more responsive as a producer” (which he will be on the sequel to “Chain Saw” planned for later this year).

His “Poltergeist” problems continue to this day--although not directly with Spielberg. Hooper parried questions about a rumored lawsuit by saying, “This is really between the distribution company (MGM/UA) and myself over the profit participation. It’s a really touchy area I’d rather not go into.”

When asked if Spielberg had ever called after the incident to explain, Hooper shrugged and smiled enigmatically.

Discussion on the subject had been closed.

Tobe Hooper’s erstwhile exile ended when Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus offered him a series of projects--”Lifeforce,” “Invaders From Mars” and “Spider-man,” based on the comic book superhero.

The first, “Lifeforce,” budgeted at $24 million (a hefty sum by Cannon standards), took two years in London to complete.

“I knew I wanted to do it from the moment I read it (the movie was adapted from Colin Wilson’s ‘Space Vampires’),” Hooper said. “When I agreed (to direct), it was a ‘go’ project without all this business of going through lengthy development stages.

“That’s what I love about Cannon. It’s more like the picture business should be. Every shop has its own rules and politics, but I really enjoy working this way.”

The movie reunited the director with vampires (he had directed the TV-movie version of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot”) as well as with his favorite film genre: “cinema fantastique.”

“I think after ‘Chain Saw,’ I got typecast as a ‘gore film’ director,” he commented. “Just to make the bridgework from horror to science fiction has taken some time to do.”

Hooper tackled his new project in a first-class manner, using an art design crew that included several who worked on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the special-effects wizardry of John Dykstra (an Academy Award-winner for “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”).

“Blue Thunder” co-writers Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby adapted the novel for the screen. (The two also co-wrote “Invaders From Mars.”)

Before “Lifeforce’s” June 21 release, Hooper spoke confidently about his latest undertaking. The special effects-laden extravaganza seemed a natural box-office draw and would, perhaps, remove the “Poltergeist” stigma.

Instead, most movie critics took simultaneous vacations from the superlatives they’d laid on many summer films and panned “Lifeforce” with a vengeance.

The New York Times called it “vampire porn” and “bewildering” while Washington Post reviewer Paul Attanasio wrote that the movie “is about Halley’s Comet (in which the vampires hide), and if we’re lucky, we won’t see another like it for 75 years.”

Moviegoers spurned the movie as well. Distributor Tri-Star Pictures stopped tracking the film’s grosses after it took in little more than $11 million dollars during its first 30 days in release--hardly respectable figures. The film currently is playing in only a smattering of theaters.

On the “Invaders” set, Hooper still talked just as calmly about his expectations for “Lifeforce,” despite its frosty reception.

“I’d expected mixed reviews, but I was even a bit surprised,” he commented, chomping on the ever-present cigar. “I think part of it was due to the title change.”

Hooper explained that Cannon changed the name from “Space Vampires” to “Lifeforce” for the movie’s U.S. release “because the budget of the picture and the title didn’t seem to go together.”

He speculated that “Lifeforce” created a framework “where everyone expected it to be more serious, rather than satirical. It isn’t quite camp, but we intended it to be funny in places.”

Hooper’s que sera, sera attitude was better understood when he explained that the film--because of exhibitors’ pre-buys worldwide--was already in the black.

“I expect it to do much better in Europe,” he speculated. “It already has been critically well accepted in France” (during early previews for reviewers).

Cannon assured Hooper that it planned no title changes on “Invaders,” he said, grinning.

“Basically the story is a contemporary version of the original,” the director explained, adding that James Hunt, who played young Jimmy in the original, will return this time as the chief of police.

He selected Eagle Rock Elementary School, with its long, narrow, high-ceilinged halls, as part of his tribute to Menzies’ original “Invaders” concept. Although he directed the film, Menzies was better known for his production designs (“Gone With the Wind,” the non-animated “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Thief of Bagdad” are just a few).

Before Hooper returned to the day’s filming, he emphasized, “It should be known in advance that this is going to be a zany, warm, wonderful film--not dark and deadly. It’s gonna be entertaining!”