Shaggy maniac Neville Brand was born on the bayou. He lives by his high morals and so just can’t resist feeding random visitors to his gargantuan crocodile. If they resist that idea, he uses a giant scythe for a persuader. Tobe Hooper’s sopho-gore feature boasts several name stars, plus, in this new edition, a brightly colored, picture-perfect transfer.
Blu-ray + DVD
Arrow Video (U.S.)
1976 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 87 min. / Death Trap, Starlight Slaughter, Horror Hotel / Street Date September 22, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, William Finley, Stuart Whitman, Roberta Collins, Kyle Richards, Robert Englund, Crystin Sinclaire, Janus Blythe, Betty Cole.
Cinematography Robert Caramico
Special Effects Robert A. Mattey
Makeup Effects Frank Gluck Confirmed
Original Music Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper
Written by Alvin Fast, Mardi Rustam, Kim Henkel
Produced by Mardi Rustam
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tobe Hooper is an odd duck among the horror directors that rose in the 1970s. First Wes Craven, then Hooper and then Carpenter made gruesome subject matter into box office bait too popular for the industry to ignore. Hooper’s 16mm regional film The Texas Chain Saw Massacre still holds up. It’s original, it’s scary and it has something powerful to say. Tobe’s sophomore effort Eaten Alive has everything he wanted — name stars and elaborate sets he could design himself — but always seemed insubstantial. Even the original Cinefantastique review expressed frustration with its plot-challenged parade of people arriving at a substitute Bates Motel, there to be hacked to death and / or fed to a king-sized crocodile. Hooper’s producer probably asked for a laundry list of generic content, for a brutal picture that fills a quota of blood, profanity and nudity. The shame is that Hooper has the ingredients to make something much more memorable.
Eaten Alive was listed as one of England’s certified ‘Video Nasties,’ a distinction that has by default found it a place in horror film history. I’ve met a good number of highly motivated horror fans, for whom the Video Nasties phenom was a phormative inphluence.
Out in the Texas bayou country, a runaway by the name of Clara Wood (Roberta Collins) is fired from the brothel of Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones) for refusing the rough sex games of a customer, local ignoramus Buck (Robert Englund). She ends up at the broken-down Starlight Motel run by the deranged Judd (Neville Brand). It’s bad news for Miss Wood when Judd decides that she’s a ‘loose woman.’ Then a family arrives, neurotic Roy (William Finley), wife Faye (Marilyn Burns) and their daughter Angie (Kyle Richards). Roy makes a quick exit, while poor Faye ends up lashed to a bed frame, listening to little Angie screaming as she hides under the house, just out of reach of both Judd and his insatiable crocodile. None of this is resolved before the sickly Harvey Wood (Mel Ferrer) comes looking for his missing daughter. His other daughter Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) accompanies him, protectively. They consult with Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman), who is distracted by that troublemaker Buck. As we already can guess, Harvey and Libby will keep their own appointments with destiny at the Starlight.
Forget originality for a minute, as there’s considerable potential for fun here. A couple of years later, the copycat picture Motel Hell gave us Rory Calhoun in a similar role… but with a more active sense of humor. Eaten Alive seems alive for most of its first reel. Opening in a bordello, it promises kinky stuff it doesn’t deliver. Then it takes pot shots at the institution of the Family Movie. For at least seventy minutes of film, a screaming child is stuck between a madman and a hungry croc, with various characters not sure that they hear her cries. The film’s one great joke gives us a little dog, the cutest puppy ever in a movie of this type — and instantly turns it into a croc-snack. Little Angie is screaming because the monster ate her doggie! Her mother treats the situation as if Angie needs to be calmed down after dropping an ice cream cone.
Unfortunately, more guilty pleasures like those are not forthcoming. The balance of the show plays out as flat as a metronome. There are really no engaging characterizations and no engaging play with the ingredients of backwoods horror. We can imagine a tired traveler turning in at Norman Bates motel. But after seeing the rotting shack The Starlight and its filthy proprietor, most rational humans wouldn’t get out of their cars. Since we don’t believe what we see, Hooper’s show is best taken as an exercise in style, something that once was difficult because of the poor quality of original release prints.
Neither does Hooper have any particular control over his actors. It’s always fun to see familiar faces working in oddball movie fare — maybe they know the producer, or maybe they welcomed the idea of playing something unusual. In Eaten Alive the name stars look like deer caught in the headlights. They saw the impressive set and got the producer’s money up front, and now they have to go through with the god-awful thing. Stuart Whitman’s scenes are fairly straightforward. Our beloved Carolyn Jones has seemingly disguised herself so that nobody will recognize her from stills. Her old age makeup looks like spilled cake batter. We never even see her eyes. Mel Ferrer seems the most horrified, although he’s a trouper all the way. He stumbles through an absurd death scene. As Ferrer chokes and grimaces his way to a watery grave, we can almost her him cry, ‘Please don’t tell Audrey.”
The biggest disappointment is Neville Brand, who long before established himself as a great actor, a menacing presence in pictures like D.O.A. and Riot in Cell Block 11. As Judd is the cracked master of ceremonies for this demented circus, the part has potential. I have to say that Neville Brand gives it everything he has, but there’s not a lot to work with. Thirty pounds lighter than we’re used to seeing him, Brand looks shriveled under his long hair. To be intimidating he must wield a huge, ungainly scythe. It’s like trying to kill people while carrying around an old automobile bumper. As the screenplay is an unbroken string of physical murders, there’s no room for character depth or even last names. The most we get for drama is Crystin’s new acquaintance with Sheriff Martin, and that amounts to some pleasant words.
I believe that few of the megabucks earned by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre found their way back to any of Tobe Hooper’s talented crew. I like to think that the director took on the job of Eaten Alive to pay them back with a paying job. (Believe me, it happens). The talented Marilyn Burns gets a busy part, even if it’s not as good as her stunning Chain Saw debut. Hooper allows her to keep her dignity, as opposed to the other actresses who are hired to basically get naked and then get slathered in gore makeup.
Hooper lays on the commercial ingredients, straight from the sleaze discount horror film mart. We can’t let the yokels get bored, so every reel has a nude scene. Two leading ladies and a couple of cute young things check into the incredibly insecure Starlight, lose contact with their companions, and then all do the exact same thing: take their clothes off. Hooper films the displays in extended wide shot, as if their roles in Eaten Alive were an audition for Brian De Palma. They all come across as good actresses, but the viewer’s mind is elsewhere.
We soon learn what kind of monster crocodile lives in the muck just over the back rail of Judd’s rotting motel. Despite the effects credit given to Robert Mattey (Jaws), what we get is a generic rubber alligator, one that could have been hanging in the prop shot right next to Bela Lugosi’s rubber octopus. Some shots aren’t bad but most show us exactly what’s there. It never looks alive and it’s never scary. Mel Ferrer and especially Robert Englund do admirably, ‘animating’ the big lizard even as they’re miming being eaten by it.
That’s about all there is to Eaten Alive’s story. Everybody performs mostly in isolation, so Marilyn Burns doesn’t get a decent scene to play opposite De Palma’s interesting actor William Finley, or a scene with Robert Englund, the future Freddie Kreuger. Tobe Hooper assembles a straight compendium of generic shock scenes, with few surprises. He seems more intent on the film’s interesting soundtrack, and some smooth camera moves that have inspired a number of horror fans to call him a genius. Hooper would soon do far better with the structured screenplay of his TV miniseries Salem’s Lot. His big-budget quasi-Quatermass sci-fi show Lifeforce sees him reverting to his disorganized, creatively out of control style — but it’s highly entertaining anyway.
Arrow Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Eaten Alive is going to make a lot of Tobe Hooper fans happy. The people I’ve talked to all say that the movie always looked terrible, even at the cast and crew screening. General release prints were miserable and I’m told that it even looked drab when shown on TCM awhile back. Arrow’s copy is a new 2K restoration from the original camera negative, approved by director Tobe Hooper. Formatted in a proper widescreen ratio, the film now looks immaculate, with very attractive lighting that encourages us to be more understanding of Hooper’s desire to create an irrational southern gothic nightmare. The whole film was shot on interior stages (at Raleigh Studios, about five blocks from Savant central) and heavily stylized, at least for color. A number of scenes are really startling. The light on the Starlight Motel’s wooden veranda (make that the crocodile’s breakfast nook) is often bright red and orange, lending a theatrical-surreal glaze to the proceedings.
Also more in evidence is the eclectic soundtrack-music score by Tobe Hooper and his Chainsaw cohort Wayne Bell. It’s more of their wind-chime + odd instruments + what was that noise? tonal meandering, but it does have a definite impact on what we see. Eaten Alive is still a ’70s horror worth checking out.
Arrow has recycled a stack of extras from older video releases, with Tobe Hooper on tap to discuss every aspect of his show. They have also commissioned several new HD extras interviewing crew and cast members as well as having Hooper give a brief introduction. The docu is offered, about a serial killer from the past, a supposed real-life inspiration for the Starlight Motel’s jolly Judd. It’s on the slow side. The older docus let us see older-quality film clips, which make a good comparison with this frankly gorgeous new transfer. The extras also contain ad material under the movie’s several alternate titles… the full list is below.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Eaten Alive Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Fair ++
Video: Excellent +
Supplements: Isolated Music and Effects Soundtrack, commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon, new introduction by Hooper, Hooper interviews Blood on the Bayou and The Gator Creator, Gator Bait interview with actress Janus, Monsters and Metaphors new interview with makeup artist Craig Reardon, My Name is Buck interview with Robert Englund, 5ive Minutes with Marilyn Burns interview, The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball docu featurette, theatrical trailers for the film under alternate titles: Eaten Alive, Death Trap, Starlight Slaughter and Horror Hotel; TV and Radio Spots, Alternate Credits, behind the Scenes slideshow, audience Comment Cards, stills and ad gallery, reversible sleeve with alternate artwork, illustrated collector booklet with essays by Brad Stevens.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: One Blu-ray and one DVD disc in Keep case
Reviewed: September 9, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson