Eaten Alive ★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Daddy’s off to slay the dragon.”

They were lost.

They were driving, driving endlessly, and they were lost. Their daughter was increasingly agitated—a child can handle only so much time cooped up in a hot car. The dog was barking and pacing the back seat restlessly. They were sniping at each other, the dank, dreary heat exposing fault lines long simmering in their marriage. The roads were poorly marked, the map was no help, the countryside all looked the same, all brushy and marshy and rundown. If only they could find somewhere to stop, if for no other reason than to stretch their legs and use the bathroom.

Finally, a hotel. A dilapidated shack, really. Filthy, nearly falling down. Set next to a swamp in which a large crocodile swims. Run by an obviously deranged man muttering incoherently to himself. So out of the way, it’s not even clear how they ended up here. But here they are. How badly, really, do they need to stop? Tyler can’t be more than an hour away, maybe two. Surely they can hold out that long? Things may be bad, but a detour to the gates of Hell is unlikely to improve them. Or so one would think. In the world of Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive, however, logic need not apply.

In 1974, Hooper shocked the world with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a horror landmark, a masterpiece of terror, a relentlessly morbid and nihilistic look into the heartland’s heart of darkness. Audiences flocked to the film, making it the twelfth highest grossing picture of the year. It played the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Its influence was vast and continues to spread.

Following up that tremendous success could have been no easy task. Expectations would be high, stereotypes would be formed, critics dismissive of the film’s exploitation roots would be out for the blood they so very much disliked seeing onscreen. So on what did Hooper settle for his next project? A de facto remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, only incoherent and devoid of tension and much, much worse. It was a peculiar choice.

The one front on which Eaten Alive undoubtedly outdoes its predecessor is nihilism. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre mined the hopelessness of a Watergate- and Vietnam-weary era by suggesting the possibility of evil everywhere, waiting to strike essentially at random. It was brilliant and utterly terrifying, but it sat well within the story’s internal logic. Eaten Alive ups the nihilism quotient by suggesting that the world is nothing but randomness and evil, abandoning any pretense of story or logic in favor of an episodic, almost dreamlike non-narrative that may more closely resemble real life’s aimlessness than the more straightforward plot of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but sacrifices the viewer’s interest in the process. The similarities between the two (both are low-budget, grimy affairs with odd mixes of seriousness and high camp; both involve a madman killing passersby in a rural, broken-down setting) only serve to further dampen the viewer’s enthusiasm by inviting comparisons Eaten Alive should be seeking to avoid at all costs. (Oddly, the primary divergence from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—other than, you know, quality—is Eaten Alive’s employment of substantial arterial spray where the former film resolutely eschewed gore.)

Eaten Alive is a film of many questions, questions of the sort one would not wish the viewer to ask while watching. The mind wanders to the illogic of the proceedings, the inconsistencies, the choices made that no real person would make, the endemic arbitrariness. In a better film, none of those things would matter—at least, not during the runtime—because the moviegoer would be caught up in the thrill of the moment. In Eaten Alive, the primary thrill to be had is the one the audience supplies for itself by wondering what in God’s name is going on.

There are interesting dribs and drabs to be found, though, in addition to the larger fascination with watching a film with no discernible interest in making the slightest bit of sense in even a surrealist, Buñuelian manner. Eaten Alive is not so much a terrible film (though it is quite bad) as it is a bizarrely misguided film, but for Hooper completists or fans of 1970s grindhouse pictures or notable oddities, there is plenty of memorable weirdness to be gleaned. Therefore, in honor of Hooper’s shapeless, ramshackle mess of a film, I present a catalog of unsorted oddities and notions that ran through my mind as I desperately hoped that this hodgepodge would, upon rewatch, coalesce into a lost horror gem, or perhaps at least a sensible misfire. I make no claim that reading these tidbits will provide any entertainment—but it will take less of your time than watching Eaten Alive, which is not nothing.

- A young Robert Englund plays Buck, a degenerate whose favorite pastime will be familiar to fans of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. The thought of Freddy Krueger as an anally fixated sex machine is one that, shall we say, lingers unpleasantly in the mind’s corridors.

- Clara (Roberta Collins), erstwhile hooker, is wearing perhaps the world’s most obvious and unflattering wig. Or so we believe until Faye (Marilyn Burns) shows up, stealing the crown. At least Faye’s wig turns out to be a wig—she removes it later in the picture to reveal Burns’ trademark long blonde tresses—but, confusingly, no reason is given as to why she might have temporarily borrowed Dixie Carter’s hair. It’s just one more strange detail to add to the pile.

- The Starlight, the hotel/death trap (hey, that’s one of the film’s many alternate titles!) run by Judd (Neville Brand), is thoroughly disgusting. Truly unappealing in every way. It is set on a marsh. It appears to be on the verge of collapse. It is coated in grime. It is run by Judd, whose GQ subscription ran out many a year ago. Oh, and there's a killer croc living there. The notion that anyone would stop at such a place is utterly ludicrous in a world where there are trees behind which to squat in order to do one’s business. One would have to be desperate beyond measure to resort to the Starlight. No one in the film (save Clara, possibly) qualifies.

- Furthermore, how can there possibly be this many people at this scuzzy rural motel? Over the course of one evening we see no less than eight people stop there, which one would be tempted to say was some large factor greater than a typical evening were it not for the fact that multiplication by zero equals zero. And has no one noticed Brand’s murderous ways before tonight—he seems to make no distinction between killing local residents or out-of-towners—or did he suddenly snap? And if the latter, what broke him? Were the film more engaging, these plotholes could gladly be overlooked, but as it is, they scream at you like the unforgiving soundtrack.

- Brand gives it his all as Judd, but the character is woefully underwritten, and not in a way where his opaqueness adds to the terror. Judd mutters about his pet crocodile’s actions being all according to instinct, you gotta do what you gotta do, crocodile makes no distinction between man nor beast—is this a distillation of Judd’s worldview? Perhaps. Or perhaps Judd has psychosexual issues—he is certainly enraged when he learns Clara was a lady of the evening, and he loathes the hypersexual Buck (though that merely makes Judd observant). But this doesn’t really gel with the other murders or attacks that Judd commits. (Relatedly, why does he tie Faye to the bed when he seems eager just to kill everyone else? Not, apparently, for sexual reasons, since there’s no hint of interest in him for her.) Judd also mutters things about his uniform and keeping a log of his murders for purposes of regulatory compliance and seems to have a persecution complex. He’s a grab bag of impulses that, try as he might, Brand cannot shape into a coherent character.

- Miss Hatty (Carolyn Jones), the proprietress of the local brothel, wears old-age makeup that would be less out of place in a Romero zombie picture. Is her skin supposed to have a weirdly greenish/purplish cast? Is she suffering from a vitamin deficiency? Is this a joke on Jones’ most famous (undead) television character? One doubts Hooper knows any more than we do.

- Speaking of odd colors, why is the Starlight bathed in a perpetual vermilion glow? Is it located next to a nuclear waste depository? Is this an attempt at the creation of “atmosphere”? Was there a discount on a gel filter overrun?

- Roy (William Finley), husband to Faye and father to Angie (Kyle Richards), enacts a small one-act play with his wife that defies any and all explanation. We get the sense that there are marital troubles stemming from financial troubles, and we understand how this might lead to an argument. We do not, however, understand why Roy grimaces and squeaks and stretches out his hand toward Faye in a bizarre gestural display, or why he claims that she has removed his eyeball and goes scrounging on the floor looking for it. Given Roy’s obvious groundedness and stability, we can be thankful that he carries a shotgun.

- Judd repeatedly claims that no harm was done when the family’s dog, cleverly named Snoopy, was eaten by the crocodile. This is legitimately funny.

- Angie, whose constant shrieking, viewers of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills will be delighted to know, is less irritating than any of Kyle Richards’ behavior on that program, has a leg brace. Judd has a wooden leg (which he got by virtue of a shooting, or perhaps thanks to his pet croc—accounts differ). Does this tie them together metaphorically? I would like to think so.

- The filth and disrepair of the Starlight, already mentioned, cannot be ignored. Faye decides to take a bath in a bathroom that makes most gas station restrooms look like surgical theaters. There are streaks down the side of the toilet, and on the list of nouns that should not be paired with the word “streaked,” “toilet” is near the top (just below “your mom”). Similarly, no one seems to notice either the broken railing on the porch or the fresh blood stains next to it, even though several individuals walk right by them. Perhaps the orange glow smothering everything fooled them, or perhaps they are merely character’s in Hooper’s fever dream and thus need not operate according to our plebian standards.

- Judd has a pet monkey. The pet monkey dies (I believe it caught a glimpse of the dailies and committed seppuku). Angie discovers the dead monkey and informs her mother. Judd is thoroughly unperturbed by his pet’s demise, and Faye is thoroughly unperturbed by a motel that houses at least two non-native wild animals and is run by a man who nonchalantly glosses over his pet’s passing. Wait, am I trapped in Hooper’s dream, too? Surely I’ll wake up soon, no?

- Why is Charles Manson in this rural Texas bar flapping about like a bird whose wings have been clipped? Then again, it is more interesting than listening to Angie continue to scream. Carry on.

- Judd earns points for running about wild-eyed while brandishing a scythe—a weapon too often ignored in horror films.

- Hooper tries to follow the Jaws model of keeping his terrorizing animal offscreen or viewed in glimpses so as to compensate for the creature’s patent fakeness. But there is a fine line between acceptably fake and distractingly fake, and Hooper’s killer croc—which appears to achieve the monumental feat of moving its body without ever moving its legs—most certainly lands on the wrong side of it.

- In the interest of fairness, there are some good things scattered about. As with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the soundtrack is thoroughly punishing, with its constant din of groans and hums and whirs and odd music and yelling. It adds a great deal to the demented atmosphere. In addition, the laconically violent country music playing throughout is nicely undercut by the genuinely twisted behavior on display—a neat juxtaposition of romanticized Southern wrongdoing and actual Southern Gothic terror.

- Though the performers are given little with which to work, many of them are rather good, including the afore-mentioned Brand, Burns (who gives the best line delivery in the film with the quote above), Stuart Whitman as Sheriff Martin, and Crystin Sinclaire as Libby, Clara’s sister.

- The final image of Judd’s wooden leg floating in the swamp is nicely haunting, though a bit empty—in a world where everything is meaningless, it’s hard to conjure too much poetic resonance.

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