Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive

This week I caught a screening of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive, a film I hadn't seen in quite some time probably owing to Elite's no-frills DVD edition which suffered from excessive digital fog. In 2007 Dark Sky Films put out their DVD edition which added a second disc of extras but more importantly featured a much improved transfer. I picked up the Dark Sky disc soon after its release and quietly filed it away on the shelf and forgot about it - until now. Thankfully the intervening years haven't dampened my enthusiasm for Hooper's so called difficult second album (actually his third film, if you include his rarely seen 1971 debut Eggshells) and Eaten Alive remains as sleazy and violent as you imagined 70's drive-in films to be when you were too young to rent them at the video store.

Unlike George Romero who did an about-turn after Night of the Living Dead with the romantic comedy relic There's Always Vanilla, Tobe Hopper took a job directing a screenplay which was so slavish of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the comparisons between his breakthrough film and Eaten Alive seem unavoidable. The plot sees a disparate group of people wind up at the decrepit Starlight hotel in Louisiana to be picked off by a madman who's weapons of choice are a scythe and a ravenous alligator. As with Chainsaw, Eaten Alive was inspired by another American serial killer, this time, one Joe Ball, a WWI veteran who disposed of the bodies of over 20 women in a makeshift pool of alligators. Story wise both films may be cut from similar cloth, but Eaten Alive abandons the stark realism of its predecessor for something far more akin to a weird fairy tale, the stagnant bayous of Louisiana entirely recreated and reimagined at a soundstage in Los Angeles.

Watching the film again I was struck by the odd moments of strangeness - actor William Finley barking like a dog, for no apparent reason, or the surreal cutaways to a caged and starved monkey, balanced by scenes of pure menace, like the sequence where 8 year old Kyle Richards is terrorized by the scythe-wielding Neville Brand (a scene which probably caused the film's brief detention as a Video Nasty in the UK). Hooper had reigned in the bloodshed for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in an attempt to secure a PG rating from the MPAA but producer Mardi Rustam had no such concerns and the film doesn't shy away from bloody carnage. More problematic are the scenes of nudity which feel tacked on and probably were - Hooper left the film before completion and there are stories of additional scenes filmed following his departure.

Hooper's direction isn't as fluid as his other films, there's little of the show off camerawork that you might expect from the director, perhaps as a consequence of the limited scope of the sets, but the film conjures up a thick sinister atmosphere with its baroque lighting and the eccentric musique concrète soundtrack of tweeting electronics and music box chimes, meshing with the sounds of a radio spewing forth dreary country ditties. And there's the splendidly repellent art direction - the hotel, all mouldering wallpaper and strewn with discarded bric-a-brac, magazines, spectacles and a half-dressed mannequins. Of the cast Marilyn Burns spends most of her time gagged and tied to a bed while a young Robert Englund playing an obnoxious cowboy with a penchant for sodomy bags the film's famous first line. Stuart Whitman equips himself well as the helpful sheriff, Carolyn Jones acting underneath some old-age make plays the wizened brothel madam trying to unload some useless real estate, while a shell-shocked Mel Ferrer looks like he's wandered into the wrong the film. Effortlessly stealing the show however is Neville Brand who seems genuinely beyond the pale and clearly channelling a wellspring of alcoholic rage into his performance. Brand's hard-drinking had just about finished off a distinguished career and despite later appearances in The Ninth Configuration and Without WarningEaten Alive is effectively Brand's acting swansong.

No word about Eaten Alive is complete without mention of the film's numerous retitles. Years of choppy distribution has left the film with at least five official titles, 3 of which have been used elsewhere. Eaten Alive! was chosen as the export title for Umberto Lenzi's 1980 cannibal film (starring Mel Ferrer!); the film's UK title Death Trap is also the name of a 1982 Sidney Lumet film, and Horror Hotel was previously used as the US title for John Moxey's 1960 film City of the Dead. Apparently, the film might have been issued at one point as Brutes and Savages, also the title of a dreadful mondo from 1977 but I've yet to see anything that proves this. Personally, I like the eerily evocative Starlight Slaughter best. And finally no one it seems can agree on whether the creature in the film is in fact an alligator or a crocodile, least of all the person who compiled the closing credits, assigning effects artist Bob Mattey a credit for Mechanical Alligator and Crocodile...


  1. Great review. The theatrical sets are a highlight adding to the weird fairytale atmosphere you mention. Will check it again for the electronic score. Seems that Hooper knows what makes these demented characers tick.

  2. Yep, I think if this had been shot on location it would have been a very different, even lesser film. It seems people are mellowing out about this film these days, for years I never saw a good word about it, even dismissed within two pages in Stefan Jaworzyn's otherwise excellent Texas Chain Saw Massacre Companion