Eaten Alive, 1976.
Directed by Tobe Hooper.
Starring Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund, Carolyn Jones, William Finley, Stuart Whitman, Kyle Richards, Roberta Collins and Janus Blythe.
The redneck owner of a backwoods hotel keeps his guests in check with a large crocodile that he keeps in the nearby swamp.
So how do you go about successfully following up an instant classic like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Some would argue that director Tobe Hooper never really has but in 1977 his next project following that landmark film was another grubby little shocker set in the deepest, darkest backwoods of Louisiana, albeit a grubby little shocker with a different kind of bite to it.
After an uncomfortable run-in with randy redneck Buck (a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund), prostitute Clara (Roberta Collins – Death Race 2000) is given directions to a hotel where she can pull herself together after her ordeal, but when she arrives at the Starlight Hotel she is greeted by the curmudgeonly Judd (Neville Brand – Birdman of Alcatraz) who introduces her to his pet crocodile in a most unfriendly manner. This is because Judd is slightly unhinged and before long more guests arrive, giving Judd the chance to sharpen up his scythe and slice them up into pieces for his reptilian friend to feast on. Where will it end…?
Plot-wise Eaten Alive (a.k.a. Death Trap) isn’t a million miles away from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and stylistically it shares many similarities, but there are some differences that make it a very different beast from its predecessor. Most notably the film is shot entirely on a set, which gives it a very different feel, swapping the vast open landscapes of Texas for the stickier, more claustrophobic vibe of the Bayou, albeit recreated on a soundstage. What this does, however, is give Tobe Hooper a chance to light this film in a very lurid way, with all manner of neon lighting up the various scenes set around the Starlight, and this 2K restoration of Eaten Alive looks fantastic and brings the colour scheme alive in a way that previous DVD releases of the film never did.
But looking fantastic is different from being fantastic, and Eaten Alive is a film that, like most of Hooper’s work, could have been something special if it weren’t for some bizarre character decisions (like William Finley’s nonsensical eye-gouging ramble and proceeding dog impression) that Hooper peppers in for no good reason other than to add a bit of unnecessary detail to a plot that works better when it sticks to the simplicity of one (mad)man and his crocodile. The almost dreamlike quality that Hooper brings to the film reflects the unreal situation that he has set up, which is vastly different to the documentary feel of his previous film, but in doing so the film tends to drag and meander a bit when being more direct would have worked in its favour.
That said, Eaten Alive does have a very creepy atmosphere and when Hooper needs to turn up the action he does so in gloriously gory fashion, with arterial spray and bloody stab wounds filling up the screen along with the lairy neon lighting. It also helps that the crocodile itself doesn’t look that bad; granted, it’s no Rick Baker creature design but it’s not a CGI travesty and having a tangible prop, no matter how cheap it may look, is better than watching an actor kick and punch against nothing.
Whatever shortcomings Eaten Alive may have, this is more than made up for in the special features which bring a lot of new perspectives on the film from various cast and crew. There is an audio commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, actors Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon, a brand new interview with Tobe Hooper, an archive interviews with Hooper, Robert Englund and the late Marilyn Burns, a featurette about Joe Ball, the real-life bar owner who kept a crocodile and upon who this film is based, plus many other delicious nuggets to accompany the film. Along with the other Tobe Hooper films that Arrow Video have put out over the last year or so, this is definitely a package that doesn’t scrimp on the supplementary material and gives a decent snapshot of Tobe Hooper’s career at that point.
Overall, Eaten Alive is a stupid film but an entertainingly stupid one. If you think of the elements that make up a horror movie – gore, sex, nudity, violence, humour and most likely a huge monster – then Eaten Alive has it all but when put in the hands of a director who, although talented, was in a place where that talent had already peaked creatively the end result is something a little off-kilter and not entirely what you would expect. The acting is pretty good considering how bizarre and off-the-rails the film is most of the time, with Robert Englund being particularly memorable as the anal sex-seeking Buck – keep an eye on him in the bar scene where he is confronted by the Sheriff for some proto-Krueger facial expressions – and Neville Brand just being totally weird, but in a fun way. Hooper alumni Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) gets the short straw again by having to spend most of her screen time either tied up or screaming the place down but it’s fun to see this thread running through Hooper’s work. Eaten Alive is worth a look as a slasher film with a bit of a difference, and this gorgeous looking print is definitely the edition to pick up, but to fully appreciate it it’s best not to go into it expecting the frenzied intensity and more straightforward approach of what came before it because this film doesn’t quite offer up the same terrifying – and ultimately satisfying – experience.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★