After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had cut a bloody swathe through cinemas and drive-ins up and down America, maverick/lunatic Tobe Hooper had a decision to make – should he plough ahead with his particular brand of unhinged, gritty, real life horror or try something completely differ – oh no wait, he just went and made a virtual carbon copy of his searing breakout movie. However, while TCM was impressively controlled considering it’s deranged nature (a perfectly regulated slow burn, truly haunting images, surprising lack of blood), Eaten Alive was the cinematic version of listening to the rambling psychosis of a verbalized fever dream that made the southern fried insanity of Texas Chainsaw look like the very model of restraint.
Some territories saw it renamed as Death Trap, Horror Hotel or even Starlight Slaughter, but no matter what title you saw it under, there’s no mistaking that Hooper’s follow up to arguably the greatest horror movie ever made shows that it’s tough to make a classic, especially if you use a lot of the same raw materials but only a third of the class.
Somewhere in the steaming shitholes of Louisiana lays the Starlight Hotel and its gibbering, deranged owner, Judd, a man with numerous sizable mental issues and a hefty crocodile living in the Swamp on his property. As blatantly unhinged as a broken door, Judd’s triggered by the arrival of a young woman who has discovered the hard way that prostitution simply isn’t for her and has left the local brothel of Miss Hattie, looking for shelter and he acts on his confused, sexual urges by stabbing her repeatedly with a pitchfork and feeds her to that enormous reptile he’s so proud of.
From there on in, the “plot” of Eaten Alive – and I use this term in the loosest possible sense – sees random people rocking up the the hotel and eventually getting to meet their end at the business end of Judd’s scythe before he serves them up to his scaley pet. First there’s the disintegrating family unit of the pill guzzling, wig wearing Faye, her emasculated husband Roy and their polio suffering daughter Angie, whose visit to the Starlight hotel gets off to a shaky start when Judd’s croc eats the family pooch, Snoopy. Amidst the wailing and screaming, another visitor to the crumbling establishment is the critically ill Harvey Wood and his daughter Libby who is searching for his estranged, other daughter, Clara – aka. the prostitute Judd murdered at the start of the movie – and local horny tearway Buck who is just looking for places to screw.
In the mounting chaos, with a continuously crying child, endless questions and Roy attempting to prove his manhood by avenging Snoopy’s death, Judd’s gosimer thin sanity all but evaporates and if he’s not careful, his scythe-swinging antics is going to leave his pet croc becoming morbidly obese.
There’s always been a sense with Tobe Hooper’s work, that lying just under the surface of all the decadent trauma and suffering is some sort of Jerry Lewis-style screwball comedy; the kind that sets up a bunch of respectable eccentrics and then has a lovable goofball stagger in and prat fall his way into having the plot end with a lot of running around and yelling. If Eaten Alive is indeed an attempt to be a stunningly sleazy perversion of those tropes in, then I guess technically it’s something of a success, but if there’s always been an issue with Hooper’s particular brand of mayhem is that it often plays like a massive private joke on the audience that only the director seems to be in on. However, if this impressively grotty movie proves anything, it confirms without a shadow of a doubt exactly how accomplished The Texas Chainsaw Massacre really is as the true-life tale of a boy and his crocodile (based on the alligator-owning antics of a Texan called Joe Ball) consistently devolves into disarray while Hooper’s former picture kept a sharp focus throughout its frenzied final act.
However, while this movie repeatedly exchanges relentless terror for rampaging irritation, there’s a couple of aspects of Eaten Alive that manage to stand out and the first is the noticably steps Hooper has taken to stylise his visual skills with the entirety of the film (even the exteriors) shot on soundstages to give everything a subconscious sense of claustrophobia as he drenches everything in harsh, red lighting. Something else that has to be commended it the director’s devotion to making almost every single character as thoroughly unappealing as he possibly can with most of them showing off hard earned PhDs in sleezy white trash. The males also all seems to be linked by their distorted views on women, be it William Finley’s sweaty Roy, sniveling and screeching at his wife’s disapproval, Neville Brand’s puritanical psychopath, Mel Ferrer’s stern patriarch or Robert Englund’s anal sex obsessed Buck who exudes toxic masculinity due to how proud he is about the use of his overworked member. In fact, to highlight this, one of the first sights you’re treated to is a close up of Buck’s unzipped Jean’s as he leers “Name’s Buck, I’m a’ raring to fuck.” as Hooper seemingly tries to warn us right from the get go at the skeezy nature of the film he’s made where Judd’s ramshackle BnB should no doubt stand for Blood ‘n Breasts.
To be fair, the women aren’t used that much better and are predictably cast either as victims, whores or both and the exception is former Morticia Addams Carolyn Jones, whose prickly whore house owner comes encased under a solid inch of shitty, old age makeup that makes it look like she’s bizarrely wearing a rubber Halloween mask of her own face.
However, none of this excuses the fact that this is basically an inferior retread of past glories that simply just isn’t as gripping as Hooper’s earlier masterpiece. Neville Brand is almost too good as Judd, but his particular brand of raving incoherence just isn’t as interesting as Leatherface or any of his clan and the return of Marilyn Burns only to be beaten and bound once again simply belabours the point – although frankly I’m amazed Burns would agree to be in the same state as Hooper, let alone appear in another movie of his after the mountain of shit she had to endure during the filming of Chainsaw. As for the rest of the film, it’s a pretty standard copy with a deliberately uncomfortable score and extended chase scenes as Judd clumsily attempts to lure the little Angie (Kyle Richards who would go on to be menaced by Michael Myers in the orginal Halloween) out from the hiding place she’s found under his house.
Loaded with enough garish gore and unappealing nudity to anger english censors enough to ban it during the Video Nasty scare of the 80’s (the tug of war that ensues after Ferrer takes Judd’s scythe to the neck and a rubbery croc to the legs is fiendishly macabre), Eaten Alive is nevertheless only an interest to either die hard Hooper fans, Video Nasty completists and fans of unfeasibly grimy exploitation fare.