While he still finds a chainsaw infinitely scarier, Judge Bill Gibron couldn't help but get caught up in Tobe Hooper's Massacre follow-up, a surreal selection of psycho-swamp frights.
You check in alive…but check out dead!
Somewhere in the heart of bayou country, a young lady tries her hand at prostitution, and fails miserably. Her unsatisfied client, a local dope named Buck (Robert Englund, A Nightmare on Elm Street) gets cathouse madam Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones, The Addams Family) to give him a two-for-one discount and the whore wrangler sends the unsuccessful strumpet to the bogside Starlight Hotel. There she meets decidedly deranged innkeeper Judd (Neville Brand, That Darn Cat!) and ends up becoming part of his pet alligator's nightly feedings. Not long after, a bickering couple (William Finley, The Phantom of the Paradise, Marilyn Burns, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and their highly-strung daughter stop for a pee break. Before you know it, the reptile has snacked on the little girl's dog, devastating the sheltered brat. Of course, the family decides to take a room. Judd dispenses a little misguided justice on our insane husband, chases the child into the crawlspace, and ties up the mom for further evaluation. Without warning, another car shows up. This one contains a father (Mel Ferrer, Lili) and daughter looking for their lost kin—the ersatz streetwalker from the opening. Judd sends them to the sheriff (Stuart Whitman, The Mark), who sends them back to the hotel. It will take some happenstance of Herculean proportions to avoid Judd's ever-present scythe and his desire to have his customers Eaten Alive by his marsh monster.
Eaten Alive is bad. Not so bad that it's good, however. No, this film is so undeniably inept, so horrendously hobbled, so gosh-darn godawful that it's FRIGGIN' GREAT! Now before you think this critic has lost in macabre marbles, let's look at the evidence. What we have here is the second film of Texas Chainsaw Massacre filmmaker Tobe Hooper, whose career was already tumbling. It stars stalwart B-movie actors like Neville Brand, Carolyn Jones, Stuart Whitman, and Robert Englund. It features those three requirements of a classic drive-in delight (at least according to expert Joe Bob Briggs): boobs, beasts, and blood, and it functions within a frighteningly freaked-out world of dead monkeys, man-eating alligators, bumpkin bordellos, and the very thought of the guy who played Freddy Krueger as a sex machine. Obviously riding the reputation he gained from his horrifying journey into the heart of the American scream, Hooper chose to make a virtual carbon copy of his initial classic. That is why we have a weird bayou hotel, an off-kilter killer running around with a scythe instead of a power tool, and a never-ending supply of unfortunate visitors just ripe for the slaughter. Move the first movie to the Everglades and toss in a croc, and it's the maw, not the saw, that's family this time around.
Granted, none of this makes a lick of sense. Hooper handles the sloppy script by buddy Kim Henkel and grindhouse giants Mardi Rustam (Psychic Killer) and Alvin L. Fast (Satan's Cheerleaders) like he's permanently on peyote, avoiding clarifying cinematic concepts like natural light, plot logic, and acting nuance. In their place are surreal primary-color sunsets, nonsensical narrative turns, and the typical Hooper villain histrionics. Neville Brand, more-or-less channeling a combination of Massacre's Hitchhiker and Massacre 2's Cook, has long meandering conversations with himself, riffing on military protocol, his own loathing of whores, and various forms of the word "git." Add in a tendency to switch mindsets at will and you might as well have called this film Mood Swing Manor (it wouldn't have been any worse than the other monikers the movie was released under, including Horror Hotel and Starlight Slaughter). Not content to have one miscreant mean up the place, Hooper also adds Englund to the bad-guy mix. Playing a supposed stud who hunts wild animals, Ross Allen style, our future Freddy is all oily horniness, capable of making the most seasoned skank scream with fear.
Adding to the confusion is the oddball collection of victims that keep streaming to old Judd's bed-and-alligator-breakfast. Marilyn Burns is back, apparently failing to learn her lesson as Leatherface's carvee of choice in Massacre. Here, she once again gets her scream queen on as she's beaten and bound by Brand. Instead of sitting in a chair and having an onscreen nervous breakdown, however, this time she's lying in a bed. Mel Ferrer shows up as a dying dad looking for his delinquent daughter. He's dispatched in one of the movie's more gruesome moments. Indeed, for anyone who thought Hooper's previous effort was light on the arterial liquid, there is tons of blood and gore in Eaten Alive. Even more shocking, little Kyle Richards gets to see her dog become a swamp side dish for our gluttonous reptile before spending the rest of the film skittering around the hotel's crawlspace, trying to avoid Brand's grim-reaping tendencies. Child endangerment is a big taboo in films, yet Hooper continuously hints that Richards is about to buy the farm—up and through the flaying finale. With Stuart Whitman as a relatively normal police officer and a caked-in-crappy-age-makeup Carolyn Jones as the local madam Miss Hattie, the cast is capable. Still, Hooper can't keep them in check. Instead, they often appear completely out of sync with his attempts at terror.
Unlike Massacre, which tried to say something meaningful about the clash of cultures occurring throughout a protest-plagued United States, Eaten Alive has no other agenda than to be a psychedelic slaughter party. It does such a jaw-droppingly bad job of it, however, that your dislike almost immediately turns to delight. You start to notice little laughable things—like how the movie resembles a Hustler magazine take on Manos: The Hands of Fate or the distinctly dopey set design that has brand-new banisters accenting moldy, fungus-stained stairwells. You find yourself lost in Hooper's head logic, understanding the disconnected links between Brand, Englund, and the swamp's scaly garbage disposal. When Burns and her bizarre husband—the incredibly weird William Finley - have a fight, you marvel at how insane his responses are. First he clenches his fist, then he sulks like a little girl, then he grabs a shotgun and starts shooting. In any other film, this would be a deal-breaking bit of bedlam, but in Eaten Alive, it's a welcome reminder of the narrative's other nonsensical components. Really, is Finley's deranged display any more peculiar than Brand's girl-groping tactics or Robert Englund's opening demand for a little "backdoor" action? If viewed as a mystifying mess from one of horror's most unfortunate auteurs (his career never matched Massacre's level of fear artistry), it's an unfortunate train wreck of an experience. For those of us looky-loos who can't resist such cinematic catastrophes, Eaten Alive is one shameful delight.
By all accounts, Eaten Alive had one helluva hard-luck story after its initial release. Less than successful compared to the bountiful receipts recouped by Massacre, the movie was cut, reedited, re-titled and reconfigured to try and earn back some of its money. As a result, few have seen the film in its completed form, while other countries, like the U.K. (where it was slashed to meet strict censorship codes) and Japan (where hardcore sex footage was spliced in) had their own decidedly different versions. Previous VHS and DVD releases have been spotty to shoddy at best, with a previous Elite disc being especially bad. Now, Dark Sky Films has stepped up and offered what has to be one of the most definitive presentations of the movie ever made. Offered in a near pristine—if still problematic—1.85: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, this relative rarity looks amazing. The colors are crisp and luminous (especially all those hyper-hued horizons) and the details are dense and decipherable. In addition, the Dolby Digital Mono is expertly modulated, lacking any substantive hiss or distortion. Your eardrums will be praying for relief, though. These gals can sure pierce up a storm with their screaming.
As for extras, there is an entertaining if odd commentary featuring actors Finley, Richards, and Roberta Collins. In addition, writer Rustam and make-up artist Craig Reardon are around to add their own considered comments. On the downside, it appears that everyone involved was recorded separately and there is a very disjointed flow to the discussion. In addition, many have not seen the movie since its initial release and they respond in mystified wonder at the macabre mindf**k playing out before them. While not the best alternate narrative out there, it still has some entertaining moments. Next up, Robert Englund sits down for a quaint Q&A about his role as the sex-starved Buck. It's fun—and a little frightening. We are also treated to a weird featurette entitled The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball. Centering on a serial killer who kept a pit of alligators for easier body disposal, the link to Eaten Alive is obvious, if a tad gratuitous. Finally, there's the standard photo gallery and trailers, rounding out what is, overall, a decent DVD package.
In truth, it takes a certain stunted mindset to appreciate the addled pleasures of this half-assed cinematic stool sample. Whatever talent Tobe Hooper once displayed has long since been siphoned away on absolute dreck like The Mangler, Spontaneous Combustion, and last year's Mortuary. Indeed, Eaten Alive is the true transition flick, the moment when a potential horror hero began turning into a fright film flop. But it's not bad, just baffling. Ignore its obvious flaws and you'll have a sleazy breezy exploitation experience.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dark Sky Films
• Full-length Audio Commentary with Actors William Finley, Kyle Richards, and Roberta Collins, along with Make-Up Artist Craig Reardon and Writer/Producer Mardi Rustam
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