Saturday, 29 September 2012

Eaten Alive (1977)

Country: USA

Brutes and Savages
Death Trap
Horror Hotel
Horror Hotel Massacre
Legend of the Bayou
Murder on the Bayou
Slaughter Hotel
Starlight Slaughter

Few filmmakers are burdened with the kind of expectation that Tobe Hooper endured when he came to make his second feature film. His first just happened to be The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), a film that to this day has a visceral impact that remains undiminished. I’m happy to go on record in stating that I think it to be the greatest American horror film of the last forty years, and it is the sole entry in Hooper’s filmography that enables me to forgive him the celluloid offal that he has since produced. Hooper’s career has been a lamentable, pitiful, and at times desperate, search to recapture the waking nightmare of his first film. It is in itself a noble aim, but his debut picture was made without consideration of its commercial prospects, and Hooper has since worked largely as a director-for-hire; a position which immediately undermines and weakens a filmmakers attempts to develop his/her thematic passions. Of course many of the projects directors-for-hire work on are tailored to what the producers believe are the strengths of the filmmaker. The Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike for example, has over eighty credits to his name, but not a single one of them originated from his own mind. Yet Miike has been offered films which have enabled him to build a distinctive thematic universe which seems uniquely his. Hooper has been less fortunate, and one need look no further than his second film Eaten Alive (one of numerous titles the film was marketed under) to see how everything went wrong for the man that just a few years before created a horror masterpiece.

Although Hooper was armed with a slightly higher budget of $520,000, no amount of money can rectify a compromised screenplay. The original was written by Alvin L. Fast and Mardi Rustam and was apparently so poor Hooper felt obliged to bring in Kim Henkel who co-wrote The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for rewrites. One can see why the producers thought of Hooper though as Eaten Alive is a bizarre southern gothic horror film featuring a scythe (and sickle) wielding psychotic redneck, a disenfranchised rural locale, whores galore, and a hungry crocodile only too eager assist the mumbling maniac in dispensing with the evidence of his sadism. Neville Brand is given the same kind of role essayed by Gunnar Hansen in Hooper’s debut film; a guy that ultimately wants to be left alone, whose only response to the chaos that surrounds him is to cut it up. But there is a wealth of difference between the skilled butcher Leatherface, and Judd, the owner of the rundown Starlight Motel. The difference lies in the performances of the two actors. Brand is given a ridiculous freedom to construct one of the most absurd and exaggerated performances to feature in a horror film. He mumbles incoherently to himself, he conducts demented and repetitious monologues; his mannerisms are twitchy and fevered. He is so clearly warped and insane that ones instant reaction to seeing him behind the desk of a motel is to get the hell out of there! Yet, the screenplay is asinine enough to have a whole troupe of individuals turn up at the rotten ramshackle doors of his motel for shelter.

The Starlight Motel itself though is a very successful space, and this is partly due to the unusual decision to shoot the entire movie on a soundstage. This is a novel approach which certainly gives the film an odd sense of claustrophobia. The sequences set in the wider world, such as at the police station, or a local bar, feel as though they’ve been edited in from a different movie. The art direction of Marshall Reid is a great triumph; the interior of the motel is as repulsive as its proprietor; although the odd choice of having a sofa draped with a Nazi flag adds nothing to the proceedings, apart from bad taste. It all adds up to a quite remarkable culture of seedy shabbiness. In this respect Eaten Alive offers a continuation of the vile rural backwater seen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, of rot and decay, of death and perversity. You can almost smell the pungent stink of the surrounding swamp. Further visual interest is provided by the surreal lighting design adopted by experienced cinematographer Robert Caramico (who also shot The Doberman Gang [1972], Blackenstein [1973], and Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural [1973]) which makes intriguing use of sickly putrefying reds and greens, and gives the film an unreal lustre. But it is almost a necessary decision because the plot is so utterly devoid of logic, and so reliant on contrivance, that the only route out for this mess is through the path of a dream-like surrealism.

The other intriguing aspect of this misguided aberration is the casting. In addition to Brand’s spastic convulsions (did I say he also has a wooden leg due to an earlier incident with the crocodile?) we have a frankly astonishing display by William Finley who pulls a lot of faces, barks, and eventually becomes croc food. Mel Ferrer does an able job as a dying father searching for his lost daughter (she’s already been eaten) and he soon joins her. Marilyn Burns turns up again and spends much of the film tied to a bed, and even more peculiar is Stuart Whitman whose local sheriff serves no purpose whatsoever. The only actor to emerge with credit is Robert Englund who is suitably disgusting as perverse redneck trash with the obvious name of Buck. This a true menagerie of mindlessness and Hooper’s outright failure to rein in the excesses of certain cast members is incredibly damaging to the film. There is a certain hard luck element to the fortunes of Eaten Alive. It was certainly very badly distributed, and it didn’t help that each time it was, it went under a different title. In the UK it even managed to fall foul of the DPP and was banned as a Video Nasty in the early 1980’s. Though the decision to also ban The Funhouse (1981) suggests the film was prohibited entirely because Hooper’s name was attached. Despite this bad luck though Eaten Alive deserved to fail; it’s an incoherent carnival of inanity, populated by a depraved concoction of freaks and perverts. As a follow up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it was an unmitigated disaster. But Hooper’s later career is polluted by such a volume of celluloid effluent, that Eaten Alive has been a source of recuperation for some horror fans; such wasted revisionism has no place here.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Totally agree, a sad follow up to TCM, but I did enjoy that atmosphere and lighting, as you said, it makes everything seem nightmarish and surreal. I liked that, and the performance of the villain, the crazy mumbling Neville. If only the film could have pulled itself together a little better...sadly, it's another bad film in Hoopers crown. He's always been a hit or miss filmmaker, to his credit I will say that he has made a lot of films that I have liked. Like Poltergeist, Lifeforce and Salems Lot. And I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 a whole freaking lot, even though its extremely different in tone then the original.

  2. Yes a lucklustre and feeble effort overall, but it does still retain that odd sense of primal chaos which was such a distinctive aspect of CHAINSAW. I think the fact that the story idea and screenplay didn't originate with Tobe Hooper (or his TCM collaborator Kim Henkel) may have had a lot to do with it. I'd say Hooper is certainly more miss than hit, though I did enjoy SALEM'S LOT and LIFEFORCE is hard to dislike. However I thought TCM 2 was beyond dreadful...Thanks for the comment Franco!

  3. Nice write up, Shaun. I pretty much agree with you on this one. Eaten Alive, like several Hooper films, retains an odd sense of primal chaos. I loved the atmosphere and production in this one - the decision to film on a soundstage with all that lurid lighting really lends it a claustrophobic feel and spooky atmosphere. Too bad it's wasted amidst all the cartoonish acting and turgid scripting. There's a few of his films I enjoy (The Funhouse, Salem's Lot etc), I even have a guilty pleasure in The Toolbox Murders; but none of his films even come close to touching The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
    Hope you're well and had a nice Halloween.


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