EATEN ALIVE: It Ain’t CHAINSAW, But This Flick’s Hardly a Load of Croc (UPDATED WITH BLU-RAY REVIEW)

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Between the modern horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and his first big-studio feature Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper made this eerie, intense, and oddly amusing slice of humid backwoods Southern Gothic with a unique visual palette and a cast comprised of young turks and old timers who could’ve been plucked from a Screen Actors Guild picket line. Often unjustly overlooked, Eaten Alive is a true gem of 1970’s exploitation cinema and a lurid little anomaly from the horror revolution of that decade ripe for reappraisal.

If you’re ever traveling through the bayous of Texas then stop off at the Starlight Hotel and stay a spell. Your host is a friendly old codger by the name of Judd (decorated WWII vet Neville Brand). Judd is a deranged combat veteran with a wooden leg who gets the urge to talk to himself every now and then. Out in the back he keeps a rather large crocodile that will anything thrown in its wading area, including people and the occasional adorable puppy. Over the course of one enchanted evening Judd is getting his largest influx of customers ever. First up is a runaway prostitute (Roberta Collins, Death Race 2000) who has just been fired from her position at the local whorehouse run by the pasty-faced Miss Hatty (Carolyn Jones, the original “Morticia Addams”). Judd is all too happy to meet new people, but when he realizes that this lovely young lady happens to be a lady of the evening something snaps in him. Before he even gets a chance to ring for the bellhop Judd takes a pitchfork and makes ground round out of the hapless hooker, then feeds her remains to his aquatic pet.

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Before the evening is finished our scraggly and unhinged hotelier will encounter a young married couple (screamin’ Chainsaw heroine Marilyn Burns and William Finley of Brian DePalma’s Phantom of the Paradise) and their daughter (Kyle Richards of the original Halloween), a dying man (Mel Ferrer) who has come looking for his daughter (the dead runaway hooker) along with his other daughter (Crystin Sinclaire), and local shitkicking horndog/all-around pain-in-the-ass Buck (Hey kids, it’s Robert Englund!). Several of these individuals are going to end up on the crocodile’s dinner plate unless they can escape Judd and his deadly scythe.

With no artistic pretensions or even the desire to please your average movie going audience, Eaten Alive winds up and lets ‘er rip! This sucker is pure crazed grind house cinema. It doesn’t have the primeval dark power of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but then you can’t fault director Tobe Hooper for not wanting to be viewed as a one-trick pony. Whereas Chainsaw sported an unnervingly gritty and uncomfortable visual quality, Hooper and cinematographer Robert Caramico (whose past credits include Orgy of the Dead, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, and 18 episodes of….eek….The Waltons) gives Eaten Alive an almost dreamlike look more on par with the films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.

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At times the movie resembles a bizarre Tennessee Williams stage play crossed with a 1950‘s EC horror comic book: most of the characters have interesting back stories that are vaguely hinted at but are there for the viewer‘s interpretation; Judd is given several crazed monologues, mostly to himself; and the movie essentially takes place on three or four different sets with the primary location being the Starlight. Much like Francis Ford Coppola’s much-maligned 1982 romantic musical One from the Heart, Eaten Alive was created on a large soundstage as opposed to utilizing realistic locales. This adds immeasurably to the film’s nightmarish atmosphere, as does the hideously entrancing lighting and the consistently enveloping mists cutting this motel of pure evil off from the rest of the civilized world.

As previously mentioned, Hooper has assembled quite an eclectic cast to populate his uncanny story. Unfortunately the quality of the acting is all over the place, but at least this means that each individual actor is fun to watch. The true stars of the movie are Neville Brand, William Finley, and a fresh-faced Robert Englund. Let’s start with the esteemed Mr. Brand. One of the last great old-school Hollywood tough guys, Brand earned his stripes first as a highly-decorated Marine serving in World War II. When he entered the entertainment biz his personal demons caught up with him and slowly decimated a promising career as Brand drank his paychecks away. His performance as Judd, the insane proprietor of the Starlight Hotel, is the sad culmination of his life and his career, even though he would live another 16 years after starring in Eaten Alive. Brand goes full-tilt boogie with his acting, getting so much into his part that many of his co-stars were intimidated and/or scared to death of him. Whether he’s mumbling to himself or bemoaning his past while singing quietly, Brand sells the character’s lack of sanity and humanity. Judd is a great madman in contrast to the generic masked psychopaths that would follow.

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Following close behind Brand in the crazy stakes is the underrated William Finley as the henpecked husband Roy. Maybe he doesn’t have the capacity to sail off the deep end like good ol’ Judd, but Roy isn’t exactly 100 % there himself. There’s a complicated history between him and his wife Faye, played by Marilyn Burns, that we the audience are never privy to. Finley gets the opportunity to go a little mad towards the end when he goes after Judd’s pet gator with a shotgun as if he needed to prove himself to his wife and daughter. It’s an interesting character and Finley has a ball playing him. Last but not least is horror cinema legend Robert Englund as Buck, the loathsome shitheel with a wicked smile and a perpetual hard-on. Hell the first real shot of the movie after the opening credits is a close-up of his belt buckle being unfastened while he intones the immortal line, “Name’s Buck. I’m rarin’ to fuck.” Buck is a world-class dickhead who Englund plays to a hilt with wild energy and dangerous charisma. You could tell from this performance that this young actor was going places. Almost a decade later Englund would nab his signature role as Freddy Krueger in the first of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. But you can also tell the seeds were being sown for the creation of one of horror’s greatest monsters in Englund’s performance as Buck.

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The remaining members of the cast each do what they basically do best, and when they‘re so good at it who‘s to complain? Marilyn Burns played the screaming victim so well in Chainsaw that she’s brought back to do the same thing here. Another weathered Hollywood veteran Stuart Whitman plays the town sheriff like a old time cowboy with a sense of authority and a cool head. Mel Ferrer plays the missing hooker’s concerned father with poignancy and conviction. Carolyn Jones looks appropriately blowsy and dowdy as the hard ass whorehouse madam Miss Hatty. It looks like the only thing she brought to the role was the decision to wear an ugly green visor cap that makes her look like the world’s worst blackjack dealer. Hard to believe this woman was once the gorgeous Morticia Addams. Roberta Collins plays the “Janet Leigh” character as a sad and ruined beauty and gives a fine show. Kyle Richards plays a scared little girl who hides from Judd a lot and screams. She does it well. Crystin Sinclaire is Ferrer’s daughter and does decent work.

It’s all worth mentioning that for Eaten Alive Hooper piles on the exploitable elements he wisely kept in check for TCM. There’s a few buckets of blood, some gruesome death scenes, and one poor sucker gets a scythe in the neck. But what would a true drive-in movie be without a little bare female flesh? There’s plenty of that on display. It’s just a shame that the damn crocodile looks pretty cheesy, but perhaps that’s why Hooper uses it sparingly with the assistance of quick cut editing and darker lighting.

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People tend to forget that Tobe Hooper is an excellent filmmaker who has made more than his fair share of bad films (The Mangler anyone?) and guilty pleasures (Viva Lifeforce!) in the wake of his groundbreaking debut feature. Maybe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a freak occurrence in his career, but Hooper has proven time and again he knows what’s scary. Then again he’s also adept at finding strange humor in the most tasteless of material, which is probably why his 1986 sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is just as maligned as most of the films he’s made.

Eaten Alive won’t probe the depths of your mortal soul and give you nightmares for years afterward, but there’s no denying the film’s relentlessly entertaining. Leave your morality at the door and enjoy.

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 10/6/2015

Eaten Alive has been begging for a proper restoration since the dawn of the video age, and luckily for all fans of this delightfully demented gore farce Arrow Video is on the scene with a fully loaded Blu-ray that is by far the definitive edition of Hooper’s film to be date. I doubt it will ever get any better than this.

For starters, Arrow presents the movie itself in a brand new 2K high-definition transfer sourced from the original camera negative and framed in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. It’s a really beauty, with improved details all over the place and the best representation of the garish color scheme since the theatrical release. Arrow has also provided this Blu-ray with enough bonus features to choke Judd’s carnivorous croc, most of which were ported directly from the two-disc Region 1 DVD special edition released by Dark Sky in the fall of 2007 (I have fond memories of chancing across that edition late one evening at Wal-Mart). That’s not to say there isn’t anything new to be found on Arrow’s edition.

All told we get a producer and cast commentary track pieced together from separate interviews a la the Criterion Collection, vintage interviews with Hooper, Englund, and Burns, new interviews with Hooper, Blythe, and make-up effects artist Craig Reardon, a short documentary about the true Texas crime story that loosely inspired the movie, various trailers and TV and radio spots for Eaten Alive (some of which used alternate titles such as Death Trap and Starlight Slaughter), and a huge collection of stills, posters, lobby cards, and preview screening comment cards. Hooper even recorded a brief introduction exclusive to this edition, and the package wraps up with a collector’s booklet and reversible cover art featuring the original poster image (which I prefer) on the flip side. A bonus DVD copy containing the main feature in standard-definition and the accompanying supplements is also included.

Order one of the finest horror Blu-ray releases of 2015 HERE!

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