Opening on a flock of birds gathered in a great tree against the orange Texas sky right before they launch themselves out and flutter away, Tobe Hooper’s Eggshells announces itself is a movie about transitions. From the leaving of the nest to the building of the nest and everything in between which even includes, according to my wife’s observation during a recent late-night screening, a bird-like mating ritual played out with colorful balloons, Eggshells experimentally flits from one episode to the next, weaving a somewhat familiar but uniquely envisioned, impressionistic tapestry of a transitional generation navigating an America in similar flux.
While the film is a free-floating examination of four different couples on either side of the line of unionized domesticity, the crux of the story concerns Mahlon (Mahlon Forman), a young girl who has left her dusty Texas home to the University of Texas in Austin. There, she engages and moves in with David (David Noll), Amy (Amy Lester), Toes (Kim Henkel), and Ron (Ron Barnhart), a group of hippies who live together in a house that becomes possessed by a spirit which enters the house and resides in the basement.
This being 1969 and an independent movie beholden to no oversight, Hooper, working as director, co-producer, writer, special effects supervisor, and camera operator/cinematographer, employs a great deal of cinematic masturbation to get his story across. This is not a complaint, mind you, as most all of it is very clever and some of it pretty awe-inspiring. But the film is very experimental and surreal, ditching traditional narrative for sensory engaging visuals which helps it work wonders in retrospect. If Hooper would have been more concrete and straightforward in some of what he’s trying to say here, it may come off now as quaint or, worse, stupid. But by keeping it experimental at heart and execution, the film challenges the audience to work for it just a little bit and he keeps just enough of it opaque so it will be forever mysterious and charming.
Right from the outset, Hooper aims to show Texas as a place that’s engaged and Austin as a place that’s progressive, inserting a shot of the clock tower where Charles Whitman created much wreckage to reclaim it for the good. If the aim of the Allman Brothers was to show the relaxed and integrated virtues of The New South, Hooper wanted to do something similar for Texas through cinema. In an montage featuring the student war march which is mostly smiles and handshakes with the cops, Hooper preaches an infectious brand of optimistic peace and continues to leak goodwill throughout the rest of the film even if the film subtly deals with the natural tension that occurs with major shifts in life.
What’s kind of astonishing is that although this film only tangentially touches the paranormal as to render that portion of the film forgettable, the movie’s aesthetic is 100% the same as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper’s sophomore film that would come five years later. As in that film, Hooper’s ability to articulate the seasonal specificity of that part of the country is utter magic. The heat waves, the thick humidity, and the dusty, dead clumps of vegetation at the feet of still-brilliant green trees are instantly familiar to the region and Hooper’s love for old architecture and victorian-style homes, always hinting at something “else” hidden within, are also palpable.
Hooper likewise captures a natural mood and cadence between his characters that feels so true that it’s almost heartwarming, achieving a kind of southwest Cassavetes vibe in his moments in which the players naturally bounce off of one another with he kind of halting and overlapping thoughts that occur during normal conversation. This also means that Eggshells bears direct resemblance, and was no doubt an influence of sorts, on Slacker, Richard Linklater’s 1990 ode to college town denizens, as the ever shifting points of view and overlapping narrative style shrinks Linklater’s portrait of the whole town of Austin down to the residents of one house where Amy and David hold court while shiftless roommates like Toes and Ron seem to exist in different phases of maturation.
But what of the spirit mentioned before and what does it mean? With what’s given in the narrative coupled with Hooper’s well-done and economical in-camera special effects, it seems to guide the characters into a certain kind of enlightenment like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film which most definitely was an influence on a young Tobe Hooper. And, for certain, the road forward to which it points is a wonderful one even if there is a natural resistance in taking it. The ending suggests that time is up for these folks as we’re headed into a new frontier so they move into spiritual form to influence the next generation. But as the yin to Poltergeist’s yang, Eggshells is the canary in the coal mine as it subtlety warns these free-minded characters who are beginning a new life of pseudo-conformity to avoid getting too comfortable. For a complete submerging of those ideals that makes them unique just might come back to haunt them later.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain