EATEN ALIVE (1976)

Located on the “Horror on the Bayou” bonus feature on Arrow’s impeccable 2015 Blu ray release of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, the director spends seventeen long minutes uncomfortably spinning a tale of the production of his third feature from 1976. His recollection is so hazy, halting, and half-recalled that, given the final product that played on (mostly) drive-in screens across the land, I would be shocked zero to find out that Eaten Alive was something of a fantastic dream that escaped from Hooper’s subconscious rather than something that was in actual production at one time.

But produced on the sound stages of Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles, California it was. And though frequently misidentified as a tale of swampy Louisiana madness, Eaten Alive is another (and, for a while, last) tale from Tobe Hooper set in his beloved home field of Texas. If I had to place it, I’d say Eaten Alive is set somewhere around the Nacodoches area of the state given its proximity to Tyler and Huntsville, areas that are both referenced in the film. But all of that is really secondary as Eaten Alive is set in a very strange world that feels like a more structured universe than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre but yet doesn’t seem to really exist in any real time or place at all.

Set in the thick middle of nowhere, Eaten Alive is the tale of Judd (Neville Brand), proprietor of the Starlight Hotel, a dilapidated and tacky piece of gothic decadence that appears as if it is about to collapse into the moat that surrounds the structure and also houses Judd’s prize pet crocodile. People wander onto the premises with shocking regularity but less people wander away from it due to Judd being a homicidal maniac who flies off the handle with almost zero provocation.

Eaten Alive is the stagey inverse of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s disorienting and nightmarish, but the control put on the production renders it endlessly fascinating if not particularly terrifying. While it feels like a hell, it’s a different kind of hell than the feral family aping and perverting civilization in Chain Saw. In Eaten Alive, the rot from within is the grotesques on display. Marital discord, PTSD, and puritanical sickness are all pumped up to the wildest degrees. It’s a film where the sleazy Robert Englund character of Buck (“rarin’ to fuck”) is an accidental protagonist.

Eaten Alive almost defies logic. The hotel itself doesn’t look functional at all. What should be parking spaces is the enclosed crocodile habitat. Daytime is represented by a harsh red studio light that makes it appear as if the film is taking place on Mars or the inside of an oven set at 475. You know it’s a night scene when the set is draped in a velvety blue glow. Roberta Collins, portraying an outcast prostitute from Carolyn Jones’s pleasure house located in the vicinity, has to approach the hotel by coming upon it while walking through the woods as if this was a dark fairy tale and not a place in reality where it would be more conveniently located on the side of a road.

But, somehow, people seem to gravitate to this place and Eaten Alive becomes so overstuffed with stories and characters that the film becomes a cinematic turducken. Roberta Collins is murdered in the first reel so, naturally, her dad (Mel Ferrer) and sister (Crystin Sinclaire) come looking for her. Local miscreant Buck appears for a mysterious purpose and reappears later with a pickup (Janus Blythe) from a roadhouse bar. The Sheriff (Stuart Whitman) shows up and does absolutely no good. And somewhere in here, Marilyn Burns and leisure-suited William Finley saunter in as a married couple involved in a fracas the details of which are entirely fuzzy. Their daughter, Angie (Kyle Richards), becomes inconsolable when her dog cuts loose and ends up fucking around a little too close to the croc pen. The family drama becomes so heavy and awe-inspiring for them that, when in their hotel room after the shocking carnage, we’re invited to sit in an uncomfortable silence that culminates in a strange and primal scream by Finley which I’m not sure I want to understand.

Everything about Eaten Alive feels tight and claustrophobic. The wide openness that served as the hunting ground in Chain Saw is relocated to a crawlspace and through a not-so-convincingly-dressed sound stage. But, again, perhaps “convincing” isn’t the goal. Eaten Alive is more manufactured dark ride than ersatz cinéma vérité and more stage play than immersive cinematic experience. In fact, in some of the shots, it’s hard to miss seeing the fresh cut lumber used to build out the veranda of the house as if it were a junior college production. But these sets with their flyaway walls and heavy draping lend to the nightmare vibe as if everything is happening on a stage with something even stranger lurking behind the curtain.

Eaten Alive features far more graphic violence than Chain Saw what with scythe attacks ripping porous holes in torsos and folks getting chomped by the crocodile. But by throwing Kyle Richards’s shrieking moppet, Angie, on top of Marilyn Burns’s signature screaming, the film’s sound design, punctuated by a weird, dissonant electronic score by Hooper and Bell, becomes an entirely separate and nerve-wracking experience. Add Janus Blythe’s hysterical cacophony while being chased around the set by Judd in the third act and you’ve got an aurally shattering experience.

One of the biggest issues with Eaten Alive and its critical assessment over the years has a lot to do with the expectation level that was set after Chain Saw. The other issue would have to be sloppy job the producers did with the film as it was poorly marketed, causing the film to fall into a terrible distribution cycle where it was slapped with multiple titles as it played in different territories over the country. This naturally led to its neglect in the early days of home video where it existed in dark and muddy transfers that made the film look cheap and grungy and none of the lighting schemes or colors seemed as deliberate as they do when watched in a proper presentation.

Truth be told, Eaten Alive is a completely lovable film even if it’s an unholy mess of a movie. The feeling one has about the presentation of the film is going to be entirely a matter of taste. Either its stagebound look is going to work for you or it won’t. But, beyond that, this film elevates itself mostly due to the incredible performance by Neville Brand. By spending an inordinate amount of time with Judd as he wanders the dingy rooms of the hotel, muttering incoherently, and looking about ready to crack to a pressure unseen, Judd becomes an enigmatic puzzle that can’t help but intrigue the viewer. And, much like in Chain Saw, we’re forced to put the backstory together with everything that comes into frame. We’re never quite sure if Judd’s issues have arisen from seeing horrifying action in WWII (as the various mementos decorating his room would suggest) or what his mysterious connection is with Buck. Is there something to Judd having a wooden leg and Angie being in a leg brace? Are they the alpha and omega in this weird, upside down world? Is David Hayward on his way to Nashville?

Regardless of how it’s seen now, Eaten Alive was nothing but a horrific experience for Hooper and tempered his taste for the Hollywood system. He was still in it and would fight on as a working director but it would be a few more years before the big screen would see another film by him, thus beginning a career of false starts and breakneck stops. Maybe the shift to television was just what he needed to recharge his batteries. No matter. Eaten Alive has stood the test of time to emerge as a proud entry on his resume. If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was best experienced in the sweaty, claustrophobic interiors of a four-walled theater, Eaten Alive was pure drive-in food; a phony backlot monster movie meant to be enjoyed under the stars and without bucket seats to get in the way.

(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain

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