In 1977 “Eaten Alive” was that “other” movie Tobe Hooper made. It was the redheaded stepchild of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” that was abused as much as it was ignored by critics and moviegoers alike. People who saw it were underwhelmed. It just didn’t stack up to its predecessor. Hooper’s sophomore effort, a fine one at that, was to go largely unnoticed for many, many years.
Like “Chainsaw”, and its roots to the Ed Gein event, “Eaten Alive” also derives from another true tale of American Gothic, the case of Joe Ball. While Hooper found a clever way to split Gein into three separate characters for “Chainsaw” he decided to remain somewhat more faithful to the source material this time around.
As the real-life story goes, Joe Ball was a bootlegger in the 1920’s and owner of the Sociable Inn situated near Elmendorf, Texas. Ball was one rough and tough cookie, and to entertain his clientele he installed an alligator pond where all could take in feeding time, which consisted primarily of cats and dogs. Soon several women vanished (prostitutes and the like) including two of Ball’s wives. Authorities, suspicious for some time but literally too scared to follow through, convened upon the Inn on September 24, 1948 in order to question Ball. Rather than answer one question Ball shot himself in the heart. Ball’s handyman finally came forward with the goods, but because the bodily remains had been fed to the alligators there was no actual evidence to be found.
Hooper stays very close to the actual occurrence with only a few minor changes. Joe Ball becomes Judd, but the most obvious alteration is that Starlight Motel (standing, or rather, leaning in for the Sociable) is on its last legs. The floors are rotting. The wallpaper is peeling. The beds are dilapidated. The plumbing doesn’t work properly, there’s a dead monkey in a cage where there was once a small petting zoo, and there is one crocodile in place of several alligators. Otherwise, Hooper plays very little with the facts.
One major criticism that “Eaten Alive” seems to be plagued by is that it was obviously shot on a sound-stage. Hooper wisely uses this setting to help create a maddening sense of claustrophobia, fear and dread. The viewer is rarely taken out of Judd’s wack-o surroundings. In “Chainsaw” the house setting was also claustrophobic, but once Sally escaped there was the big ole’ state of Texas awaiting her. In “Eaten Alive” there seems to be little else but the Starlight and its unkempt, uneasy and uncomfortable atmosphere. The Starlight Motel is the makin’s of Judd and Judd’s warped mind and warped sensibilities. Hooper does, however, allow the viewer a reprieve from the premises, from time to time; Miss Hattie’s whorehouse, but this is by no means a comfort zone.
Another tool used in helping to create the Starlight and its awkward facilities is the colored lighting. Hooper doesn’t employ the garish tones in an artistic fashion (though it is quite striking) as Dario Argento or Mario Bava would, but rather as another device in keeping the viewer unnerved and off guard. It’s as though the story and the setting is projected through Judd’s eyes and Judd’s twisted mind. Early on it’s apparent that Judd’s head is somewhere else, so it stands to reason that he would be incapable of perceiving illuminations properly, or anything else for that matter, and herein lies Judd’s biggest problem.
Judd has his boundaries and when folks cross them he flies at them with some good old backwoods justice just like Mother used to make. Of course murder is illegal, but this is Judd’s Justice and that’s not to be confused with that every day run of the mill stuff that law enforcement and officials try to lay upon the public. Still, unlike most psychopaths, Judd really does not enjoy the act of murder and this echos The Cook’s sentiment from “Chainsaw”: “I just can’t take no pleasure in killin’.”
From here Hooper’s patent black humor enters the playing field, but like Miss Hattie’s place, it simply is not enough to put the viewer at ease; Judd’s not trying to be funny. No Fred Krueger one-liners here. Judd is simply unstable. He’s not malicious, just unstable and unable to determine what is right and what is wrong in this modern society.
“Eaten Alive” really deserves a second look by those who were expecting another “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. What may have been a let down first time through could very well wind up being a rare treat on the next. It’s not as grueling as its big brother, but if “Chainsaw” is a five star movie then “Eaten Alive” is at least worthy of four. It’s only within the context and confines of “Chainsaw” and director Tobe Hooper that “Eaten Alive” seems to fall short of anything at all. On its own the film stands heads and shoulders above many others of the horror genre.
Actor Neville Brand aligns himself effortlessly with the character of Judd and manages to take the viewer on his journey as opposed to the film’s protagonist’s. Marilyn Burns returns to the Hooper fold and screams her head off just as valiantly as she had three years earlier in the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Fan favorites Carolyn Jones from “The Addams Family” does a nice turn as brothel owner Miss Hattie and a young Robert Englund delivers the immortal (and immoral) line, “Name’s Buck and I’m rarein’ to f**k.”
Apparently distributors hadn’t the foggiest what to do with the film either, and despite it being several cuts above the norm “Eaten Alive” underwent an obscene amount of title changes. “Brutes and Savages”, “Death Trap”, Horror Hotel”, “Horror Hotel Massacre”, “Legend of the Bayou”, “Starlight Slaughter” and “Murder on the Bayou”.
This DVD is released by Dark Sky Films and they’ve done a fantastic job of serving up the extras, and picking up the ball where Anchor Bay woefully dropped it years ago. The disc includes trailers, still galleries, audio commentary and two featurettes.