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 god awful that it’s friggin’ great! Now, before you think this critic has lost his macabre marbles, let’s look at the evidence. What we have here is the second film by Texas Chainsaw Massacre maker, the already career tumbling Tobe Hooper. 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, and bumpkin bordellos.
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. Instead of Texas, we are somewhere in the heart of steamy swamp country, where a young lady tries her hand at prostitution. She fails miserably. Her unsatisfied client, a local dope named Buck (Robert Englund) gets cathouse madam Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones) to give him a two-for-one discount, and the whore wrangler sends the unsuccessful strumpet to the bog-side Starlight Hotel. There, she meets decidedly deranged innkeeper Judd (Neville Brand), and ends up becoming part of his pet alligator’s nightly feedings.
(Mars Production Corporation)
US DVD: 26 Sep 2006
Not long after, a bickering couple (William Finley and Marilyn Burns) 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) and daughter duo looking for their lost kin. Turns out it’s the ersatz streetwalker from the opening. Judd sends them to the sheriff (Stuart Whitman) who sends them back to the hotel. There, they have to avoid Judd’s ever-present scythe as well as his desire to have his customers consumed by his marsh monster.
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 hookers, 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.
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 lunch 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 as before 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 his previous power tool effort was light on the arterial spray, 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 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 even today, 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 make-up 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 all 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 you’re 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, almost understanding the disconnected relation between Brand and his scaly swamp 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 sulks like a little girl, then 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. If viewed as a mystifying mess from one of horrors most unfortunate auteurs (his career never matched Massacre’s level of fear artistry) it’s an inopportune train wreck of an experience. But for those of us looky-loos who can’t resist such cinematic catastrophes, Eaten Alive is one shameful delight.
Truth is, it does takes a certain stunted mindset to appreciate the addled pleasures of this half-assed cinematic slop job, and 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.