10/2/10

Eaten Alive (1977) A Killer That's Got Real Bite

The second day of October cometh, and with it, riding along on a fall breeze full of crazy, comes Tobe Hooper’s 1977 film Eaten Alive, not to be confused with the Lenzi’s 1980 Italian cannibal mash-up of the same name. Adding to my own personal confusion, I picked this one up on a cheap DVD under the UK title Death Trap. It wasn’t until I got it home and fired up the good old IMDB (remember the good old days when it was easy to read) to discover that what I had was Hooper’s follow up to his 1974 horror classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Once more, the director chose a rural locale for his film, but in place of the stark realism of TCM, Eaten Alive is a schizophrenic impressionist nightmare awash with the same layer of dirty that Rob Zombie wishes he could capture on film. Plus, it has a crazy fake gator that takes a bite out of Freddy Kruger and The Phantom of the Paradise.

Hooper’s film begins on a moment that Tarantino fans will be very familiar with, “My name is Buck and I like to fuck.” The line isn’t delivered by a creepy orderly with a Pussy Wagon, but rather by horror icon Robert Englund as the previously noted Buck. Englund’s character is trying to corner prostitute Clara (Roberta Collins, Matilda the Hun in Death Race 2000) and do her somewhere that is very uncomfortable (not in the backseat of a Volkswagen). After causing a commotion, Clara is put out of the bordello, and with no where else to go ends up at the creepy Starlight Motel run by Judd (Neville Brand) , a crazy old coot that keeps a giant African crocodile as a pet. It doesn’t take long for Clara to become croc kibble, and no sooner is she gone than Judd is inundated with guests. First, a family arrives only to have their daughter’s dog gobbled up like an after dinner mint, and then Clara’s dad (Mel Ferrer) and sister (TCM’s Marilyn Burns) start snooping around. Before long Judd has his hands full taking care of all the guests, but with his trusty scythe and hungry croc, he’s going to really cut down on occupancy.

Just like Hooper’s previous film had taken some degree of inspiration from Ed Gein, Hooper mined the legend of Joe Ball, alternately known as “The Bluebeard of Texas” and “The Butcher of Elmendorf”, for Eaten Alive. Ball was suspected of killing as many as 20 women including barmaids, prostitutes, and his own wife before dumping the bodies into a pit of alligators he kept at his saloon, the misleadingly named Sociable Inn, as an attraction. When authorities came to arrest him on suspicion of crimes, Ball committed suicide instead of facing prosecution for the murders. Like Gein, Ball’s crimes served only as a skeletal basis on which the rest of the film was based. The story by writers Alvin L. Fast (Black Shampoo, Satan’s Cheerleaders) and script by TCM scribe Kim Henkel takes Joe Ball as a leaping off point, but Judd has little in common with the serial killer apart for a predilection for carnivorous amphibians

The role of Judd, which required an actor alternately to mutter like a crazy person and swing a scythe around, came to life thanks to Neville Brand. The actor, who started his career in films such as D.O.A and Stalag 17 before being cast time and time again to play Al Capone, made several drive in type pictures in the mid-70’s as well as the TV movie classic Killdozer. He brought a great presence to the character, and was able to carry the long monolog portions of film and make them interesting. The only thing that distracted me about his performance was that he kind of reminded me of Guitar Town era Steve Earl, a fact that won’t bother most viewers. There are several other good character actors in the film, Robert England as Buck, Phantom of the Paradise’s William Finley as the nebbish dad, actor/producer/ex-husband of Audrey Hepburn Mel Ferrer sleepwalking his way though his performance as the concerned father, and eight year old Kyle Richards also appeared the next year in John Carpenter’s Halloween, but the film belongs to Brand. From start to finish, all the horror issues from his character. His leering, erratic performance gave the film an unsettling feel that this was a window into the mind of a human monster.

While much of that was achieved with Brand’s performance, Hooper does a really fine job of maintaining a balance between his archetypical characters and the surreal world he’s created for them. Much of the film is awash in a dusky light that gives the tense set pieces an extra feeling of menace, and the interior of the Starlight Motel looks to be the kind of place that the Firefly family would be hesitant to stay at. Working with cinematographer Robert Carmico, Hooper gives Judd’s world a sense of dread that hides in every shadow. In fact, according to some sources, Carmico might have been a bigger influence on the film. As the story goes, due to disagreements between Hooper and the producers of the film, some of the scenes were actually directed by Carmico.

While horror fans love Toby Hooper for Texas Chainsaw 1 & 2, Salem’s Lot, and Lifeforce, Eaten Alive is often relegated to the same rung as Hooper’s lesser films. I can only assume that is because it doesn’t live up to the expectations of its direct predecessor, Texas Chainsaw. Taken by itself, Eaten Alive is a very interesting mixture of the gritty style of TCM and the surrealistic art house visions of Hooper’s first film, Eggshells (1969). For me, while it took a different route to get there, Eaten Alive achieved the same effect as ‘Saw. It left me feeling entirely creeped out and in no hurry to drive down a country road anytime soon. Halloween is the night when monsters come out to play once a year, but a film like Eaten Alive reminds me that there are monsters all around waiting to have their own brand of fun.

Bugg Rating

2 comments:

  1. Totally agree with you about the film belonging to JUDD, what a crazy freaking character! Most of the time I tried figuring out what he was saying, but I gave up and just decided to take his comments as the ramblings of a lunatic mind.

    Those scenes where he picks up the scythe and chops peoples head up, creepy.

    Also, totally agree with you on the atmosphere of the movie, it has that summer heat, texas afternoon feel to it.

    A very underappreciated Hooper film. Not his best, but certainly not his worst!

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  2. Excellent review. This is one of my favorite movies. You are right on. It's just as creepy as Chainsaw, the atmosphere is insane, and Neville Brand carries the movie.

    ReplyDelete

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