August 16, 2012
In 1974, director Tobe Hooper put himself on the horror map with his seminal fright flick The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. So, how does the next big thing in horror follow up one of the most influential films in the history of cinema? By making a movie about a serial killer who feeds his victims to his pet crocodile, which is exactly what Hooper did in 1977 with Eaten Alive.
Eaten Alive begins in a brothel, where a customer named Buck (Robert Englund, A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger himself) has paid for a prostitute named Clara (Roberta Collins from Death Race 2000). When Buck requests a service that Clara does not offer, she is thrown out by the owner of the house, Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones from “The Addams Family”) and seeks refuge at an old hotel up the road that is run by a crazy fellow named Judd (Neville Brand from “Laredo”). As soon as Judd discovers that Clara is a prostitute, he murders her, feeding her to a crocodile that lives in the swamp outside the hotel. Not long after the croc finishes, a strange couple named Faye (Marilyn Burns, one of Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre stars) and Roy (Phantom of the Paradise’s William Finley) pull up at the hotel with their daughter, Angie (Kyle Richards, who made a bit of a career playing the little girl in horror movies with roles in Halloween, The Car and The Watcher in the Woods before showing up on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” years later) and her dog, Snoopy, requesting a room. No sooner do they check in than Snoopy wanders too close to the crocodile’s pen and the monster has its second meal. After witnessing her dog’s demise, little Angie passes out from the trauma and is taken upstairs to the family’s room and Roy comes back outside with a shotgun, wanting to avenge the dog and kill the croc. This only seems to anger Judd and, after he and the beast take care of Roy, another father named Harvey (Mel Ferrer from “Falcon Crest”) arrives with his daughter Libby (Caged Heat’s Crystin Sinclaire). Harvey shows Judd a picture of Clara and asks if he has seen her, letting him know that she is his daughter. Judd sends them up the road to the brothel, saying that she might be there, but the act really only buys Judd some time because he is, after all, a psycho killer and he has a hotel full of prospective victims. As more and more people come and go from the hotel, the body count rises and the viewer is left to wonder whether anyone will survive Judd’s rampage.
Like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre before it, Eaten Alive was based on a real life serial killer. Instead of Ed Gein, Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Kim Henkel (who also worked with Hooper on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) based the character of Judd on a Texas murderer named Joe Ball, a Prohibition-era bootlegger who fed his victim’s bodies to his pet alligators because he believed that he couldn’t be charged with murder if the authorities couldn’t find the bodies. Once again, Tobe Hooper found inspiration in the dark annals of the history books and created another creepy horror movie villain.
Because Judd is a much more colorful character than the earthy Leatherface and the family, Eaten Alive has more of a surreal, comic book feel to it than the faux-documentary style that made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre so horrifying. Eaten Alive is bathed in blue and red light and the sets look distinctly like, well, movie sets. The costumes seem like outdated relics that were taken out of Hooper’s parent’s closet, and the characters are all so nut-bag crazy that it’s a wonder that Judd is the only killer in the bunch. And the crocodile looks like a rubber prop that only Ed Wood could love. The overall look and feel of the film comes closer to Creepshow or “Tales from the Crypt” than anything else that Hooper has done, and it’s perfect that way. Eaten Alive is shocksploitation at its finest, and no man, woman, child or animal is safe from the carnage.
The cast in Eaten Alive is exactly what the film calls for – absolute insanity. Neville Brand’s Judd is perfectly creepy, and Brand plays up the backwoods killer’s inbred craziness. William Finley is also typically offbeat, and Roy is one of the strangest characters that he’s played in his nutty career. And Marilyn Burns proves that her screaming pipes in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre were not just a one-time fluke, as her performance in Eaten Alive is more of the same; in fact, Eaten Alive’s Faye is almost interchangeable with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Sally Hardesty, and there’s even a similar staircase chase scene to prove it.
Another thing about Eaten Alive that is very familiar is the music, as Hooper brought back another The Texas Chain Saw Massacre alumnus, Wayne Bell, to collaborate on the score. Hooper and Bell pick up right where they left off on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre soundtrack, bringing in more of the uncomfortable dissonance and clanging noise that was a huge unsettling element of that film. The effect is the same in Eaten Alive; the music helps gives the audience the impression that they are witnessing all hell breaking loose on the screen. For as different of a film as Eaten Alive is from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the music is eerily similar.
Tobe Hooper would go on to solidify his place in horror legend with popular films like Poltergeist and Lifeforce and Eaten Alive would end up as one of his forgotten films. Although not as polished as his more famous work, Eaten Alive is the missing link between the Texas Hooper and the Hollywood Hooper.
**Watch Eaten Alive via instant streaming on Netflix now.**