After the runaway success that was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, producer Mardi Rustam invited Tobe Hooper to direct this story about a crazed old man who runs a ramshackle hotel on the edge of the Louisiana bayou, killing his unfortunate guests and feeding him to the croc he has caged in the swamp right next to the hotel.
Perhaps due to the grueling location shooting that occurred on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and wanting a completely different stylistic look for this film, Hooper chose to film entirely on a sound stage where he could not only manipulate the temperature but also the lighting and many other physical aspects of the film. The result is a bizarre and slightly surrealistic film that was every bit as carnival-colored as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was washed-out and dusty.
Bringing Chainsaw scripter Kim Henkel to rewrite the original story that had been presented to him, Hooper set about casting an astonishingly talented mix of up-and-coming talent with several screen veterans, including Neville Brand as Judd, the owner of the Starlight Inn, Carolyn Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family) as the local madame, Miss Hattie, character actor Stuart Whitman as the local sheriff, William Finley (DePalma’s Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise) and Chainsaw’s famous femme fatale, Marilyn Burns herself as a genuinely weird married couple. Also along for the ride was relative, but obviously talented, newcomer Robert Englund as well as perky, pretty Janus Blythe, who starred in tons of genre fare like The Hills Have Eyes, The Incredible Melting Man, and Drive-In Massacre. And to sweeten the pot just a little more was veteran Mel Ferrer, who plays the father of a runaway daughter. Along with his other daughter, he’s come to this out-of-the way locale in search of the pretty, naïve—and unlucky—girl.
Hooper’s career has been troubled throughout, punctuated by controversy all the way back Chainsaw. Notoriously fired from 1979’s The Dark, he followed that film with 1982’s Poltergeist, a film which still swirls in rumors about Spielberg taking the helm to save the production, and followed that with the very adult-oriented Lifeforce. The production of Eaten Alive was apparently no different as Hooper argued with Rustam on several occasions, even storming off the set multiple times and leaving others to film segments of the film before finally finishing it himself. For many films, this spells doom, but Hooper is talented enough to elevate the production to something more than a troubled little low-budget film.
Conceived as a way to leverage the immense popularity of 1975’s Jaws, the production had the same trouble with their croc as Spielberg had with his mechanical shark. But between the veteran actors and the wonder of editing, Hooper manages to keep the picture from falling into total schlock by showing as little as possible of the alligator and its attacks.
The acting is really a high mark. Neville Brand as the off-kilter Judd stumbles and mumbles his way through as if he really were schizophrenic. A highly decorated war hero with symptoms of the not-yet described PTSD, he was an on-again, off-again alcoholic who credited acting with saving his sanity, though you wouldn’t know this by his performance. It’s as if he had been waiting his entire life for this role. Brand mumbles, starts and stops, then starts again, repeating himself as if he’s unsure what he should say. He creates an awkward character who doesn’t surprise the viewer when he finally completely breaks down. It truly is a stunning performance of madness and paranoia.
Add to this some really strange stylistic choices by Hooper and the result is really just a strange little picture. Burns and Finley are about as surreal a couple as can be found in film. She is a beautiful woman who hides under a hideous wig while he is an impotent, incoherent, and totally incompetent husband and man. Her patronizing comments merely prolongs his torture in this horrible marriage, and pushes farther into unhinged delirium. Finley’s portrayal of the character is spot-on but doesn’t really fit the story. His crazed reactions to his wife on a couple of different occasions showcases his acting abilities but don’t make much sense in the scheme of things, ultimately adding confusion where there shouldn’t be any. An occasionally screechy and annoying score doesn’t help the film either.
But apart from several flaws in the film, there is enough good material to outweigh the bad. The end result is a quirky, fun, but ultimately uneven film. Hooper sweetens the deal with a few decent gore effects as well as several beautiful women who undress for the camera.
Never the classic that other Hooper films became, Eaten Alive, has nevertheless persisted if for nothing else but its general quirkiness. Arrow Video USA has released a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack featuring a 2K restoration that really allows the colors to pop. As bizarre as this film is, it’s also loads of fun to watch simply for the color schemes and set decoration. As usual, the package is loaded with special features, including a commentary cobbled together from cast and crew like producer Rustam, special effects maestro Craig Reardon, and Roberta Collins, William Finley, as well as Kyle Richards who plays the little girl, Angie. It’s a fun and informative commentary. There is also an isolated music and sound effects track, though I found the music irritating enough during the film that I’m not particularly interested in listening to it by itself.
There are several interviews included like “Blood on the Bayou,” a 14-minute interview with Toby Hooper, “Gator Bait” with Janus Blythe, “Monsters and Metaphors” with Craig Reardon, a Hooper archive interview called “The Gator Creator,” “My Name is Buck” with Robert Englund, and “5ive Minutes with Marilyn Burns.” There is also a short documentary on a local Texas serial killer who killed and fed at least two wives to some alligators he kept behind his bar, called “The Butcher of Elmendorf.” Along with these features, there are tons of movie trailers with alternate titles for the film, TV spots, and several galleries. My favorite gallery is the preview audience comment cards which simply tear the film apart. It’s funny to read the hateful comments people put when the film was in preview.
Not Hooper’s best film, but definitely not his worst, Eaten Alive deserved to be considered for what it is: a unique, slightly experimental tale based on true events in post-WWII Texas. Available now, you can order from Amazon or directly from Arrow at http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk/category/usa