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Eaten Alive (1977)
28th Aug 06
Crazy old fool keeps crocodile in his yard and feeds it with them pesky kids.
Exactly what Tobe Hooper did between completion of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1973 and this, his next movie, in 1977, isn’t known to your humble reviewer. Maybe he was enjoying TCM’s success and thinking to himself, ‘Shit, how do I follow this up?’ or perhaps ’Shit, we’ve been ripped off!’ He could’ve gone a completely different way, perhaps convince people of his versatility in an effort to not pigeonhole himself. But he didn’t. No. His next movie, after what is arguably the most significant horror movie ever made, is a sleazier, dirtier variation on his masterpiece. Comparative preoccupations became more like obsessions when I watched Eaten Alive. There were so many occasions when I felt like I was watching a continuation of TCM that it began to irritate. I wanted to accept his follow-up on its own terms. Unfortunately, Hooper makes it difficult for us to do that…
Opening with young, lusty ‘Buck’ (Robert Englund) playing rough with a hooker in a local house of ill repute, Eaten Alive swiftly takes us, and our young female victim to the centre of event attraction, Starlight Hotel. Situated in swampy, foggy Louisiana marshlands and owned by a curious “reprobate” by the name of Judd (Neville Brand), the dilapidated premises of Starlight are also home to a man-eating (man-made more like) crocodile and a host of pre-recorded jungle sounds. After our young good-girl-gone-bad-gone-good-again is hacked up and fed to the gator by Judd, a young couple (Marylin Burns and William Finley) and their daughter (Kyle Richards) stop at Starlight, whereupon their irritating dog gets gobbled by the strange immobile thing in the water. While their family unit is busy being dysfunctional (and just plain weird), grieving for their poor pooch, the first victim’s dad and sister turn up looking for her. But Judd ain’t as bright as someone who’s offing folk should be, and lets it slip that he’s seen her, directing them to Miss Hatty’s house of titties and fun. What follows is a sinister quest through the murky swamplands of Hicksville where the local Sheriff (played by Stuart Whitman) assists in trying to get to the bottom of it all.
There’s quite a lot to enjoy about Eaten Alive if you’re a horror fan. Firstly, it’s got a who’s who cast that includes William Finley (from Phantom of the Paradise) playing an intensely weird Roy, Mel Ferrer (from too much to mention) as a dying, heartbroken father, Robert Englund (do I really need to tell you who he is?) as horny ‘Buck’, Kyle Richards (Lindsey Wallace from Halloween) as little Angie, Carolyn Jones (from the original House of Wax) as Miss Hattie, Marylin Burns (Sally in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) as Faye, and last but not least, the wonderfully creepy Neville Brand as Judd. See what I mean? If that ain’t bona fide horror credentials I don’t know what is…
If Judd is like TCM’s cook, then his pet croc can only be Leatherface, nervously attacking anyone (or anything) that comes close - the interlopers. Hooper’s follow-up to TCM may possess more than a few similarities to the Hewitt family’s antics, but let’s not kid ourselves here – this film is nowhere near as good. How could it be? For a start, there’s no genuine sense of location as there most definitely was with TCM; Hooper has obviously shot the entire film on a soundstage and hence the supposedly exterior locations seem like interior sets, the smoke machines desperately trying to imbue the shots with some sense of atmosphere. Maybe that’s harsh, because in a crappy, low budget 70’s movie kind of way, it really works. It feels claustrophobic, damp, smelly, but in a strangely fake, low budget kind of way. The budget especially shows anytime we catch a glimpse of the crocodile – surely one of the worst fake animal killers in cinema history. Thankfully, Hooper was wise enough not to give it abundant screen time, but perhaps even less would have been in order.
And what of old Judd, the creepy, dishevelled proprieter of Starlight Hotel? Neville Brand turns in a blinding performance, totally entertaining as a crazy-old-fool-with-wooden-leg-who- mutters-incoherent-jibber-jabber-to-himself all night long. You can tell he's having a great time with the role. What’s more, you’d better beware when he retreats to fetch one of his garden implements, e.g. a huge scythe or pitchfork, because this is where Hooper ups the gore quota that was merely suggested in his previous film – you know, the one with the chainsaws. Judd massacres the unfortunates with impeccable style and verve, then his croc gets rid of the evidence. A perfect partnership.
If Hooper had continued churning out movies of TCM calibre he would no doubt have become one of the world’s most important filmmakers. Sadly this was not to be, but what this film did do is sustain the same kind of spirit, showing you what can happen when you stray from the main road and you decide to stop at that old run down house. Especially if you’re called Marylin Burns. If you’re called Marylin Burns, then you should really know better...
Some folk say this movie drags on and on (a bit like my reviews). Not for me. I thought the pacing was well measured and everything zips along nicely despite a dearth of different settings and locations. It should drag, but somehow doesn't. There's enough rural craziness going on to keep you tuned in until the end, even if you can see it coming a mile off.
-Feature-length audio commentary with producer / co-writer Mardi Rustam, actors Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon
-"My Name is Buck” Robert Englund featurette
-The The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball