Sunday, April 25, 2010
EATEN ALIVE (1977)
You’d think after hitting the big-time (and not getting paid for it), Tobe Hooper would have had carte blanche to tackle whatever subject he’d like. After all, director William Friedkin (THE EXORCIST) and producer Dino De Laurentiis (DEATH WISH, KING KONG) were photographed walking out of a screening of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) together, which I personally think lends credibility to a film reviled by critics and audiences at the time of its release. But no, Hooper found himself helming another horror picture, and lucky for us, it was EATEN ALIVE.
Decorated WWII vet-turned-actor Neville Brand (STALAG 17) stars as Judd, owner of the Texas-based Starlight Hotel, which has the distinct honor of housing a hungry crocodile in a pond right in front of its porch. It doesn’t take long to see that Judd’s a bit crazy and prefers to kill the folks who show up at his hotel rather than give them a room. On this particular evening, Judd has an assembly line of victims (and croc treats): a failed runaway hooker (Roberta Collins, CAGED HEAT!), her father (Mel Ferrer, HANDS OF ORLAC) and sister (Crystin Sinclaire, HUSTLER SQUAD) who’ve come from Houston to find her, a completely dysfunctional husband and wife (played by TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’s Marilyn Burns and William Finley of PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) and their child (Kyle Richards, little Lindsey Wallace from HALLOWEEN), as well as local bad boy Buck (who’s “rarin’ to fuck”), a role perfectly realized by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.
That simple storyline is essentially the plot and does it ever show. The script by producer Mardi Rustam (EVILS OF THE NIGHT) and Alvin Fast (writer of many a Greydon Clark film) was obviously poor to begin with, but between a talented cast and the personal nuances given the characters by Kim Henkel (writer of LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO and the original CHAINSAW, given an ‘adapted for the screen’ credit here) and the inclusion of Hooper’s lighting schemes and CHAINSAW-esque direction, a terrible night at the drive-in became a strange and interesting failure that keeps you watching. With more thought and time, EATEN ALIVE could’ve been a modern day horror classic.
All in all, Neville Brand is the real winner here (uncannily resembling Grant Hart from the influential post-punk/hardcore band Husker Du). The personally troubled actor gives a tour-de-force performance as the psychopathic Judd; his offbeat, gravel voice sells his character’s insanity, as does the child-like mannerisms he affects during kill scenes.
Unfortunately, one of my main problems with EATEN ALIVE has always been why Judd kills people. I’ve always been left to wonder if he’s been killing guests for years or if this is the first night he’s gone off the deep end and into murder. At first, the script sets up collusion between local madame Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones) and the Sheriff (Stuart Whitman of GUYANA CULT OF THE DAMNED, and doing a damn fine Christopher George impersonation here, I might add). This development leads the viewer to think maybe the town knows about Judd’s handiwork but chooses not to deal with it, or actually endorses it to deal with nosy interlopers. Without giving away too much, they don’t, and once again this illustrates the failure of the script in regards to Brand’s character’s motivation and back-story, as well as that of the town’s.
EATEN ALIVE has always had a claustrophobic, shot-on-a-studio look that adds a touch of the surreal to the proceedings. As mentioned before, Hooper’s lighting and direction (especially in the adrenaline pumping finale), Henkel’s nuanced characterizations, and the altogether sleazy tone throughout make EATEN ALIVE a must watch 70’s horror film. More important, however, is to witness the undoing of a talented director and cast by a flimsy set-up and rushed production. You can really sense the movie trying to escape its exploitation roots, which makes it succeed despite its overall failure.
Recently re-released in a 2-Disc Special Edition by Dark Sky Films and available in Wal-Marts everywhere, EATEN ALIVE gets a total makeover that’s heads above the previous edition released by Elite Entertainment. Major kudos to Dark Sky for doing a bang-up job with EATEN ALIVE, from feature presentation to extras.
Disc 1 contains a remastered, 1:85 Anamorphic Widescreen transfer presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, with a choice of English, Spanish and French language tracks and an option of English subtitles. The film itself is rather low-lit at times and grainy, but in this instance it adds to the cheapjack, drive-in ambiance that endears it to many and, therefore, the transfer presented here is just fine. Extras on this disc include a feature-length commentary that provides an informative overview of the production with producer Rustam, drive-in queen Collins, Finley, Richards and make-up artist Craig Reardon. The inclusion of a still gallery closes out the first disc.
Disc 2 contains a load of extras, including the Red Shirt Productions featurettes THE GATOR CREATOR and MY NAME IS BUCK. The 20 minute GATOR CREATOR is an informative sit-down about EATEN ALIVE with director Hooper, while MY NAME IS BUCK, clocking in at about 15 minutes, does a great job introducing us to Robert Englund’s acting career and his thoughts on what was his first horror film.
Red Shirt also produced the 5 MINUTES WITH MARILYN interview included on the second disc, and other than getting to see what Marilyn Burns looks like now, I found it pretty much a letdown. Compared to the other two interviews, this one seemed rushed and lacking in information.
The featurettes are rounded out by the MPI produced THE BUTCHER OF ELMENDORF: THE LEGEND OF JOE BALL, an interesting 23 minute look at a vintage Texas true crime case that was an influence on EATEN ALIVE. At the start, I believed the mini-doc was going to be quite boring, but the more interviewee Richard “Bucky” Ball speaks about his titular uncle (the patented Texas ease with which Bucky explains his family history is interesting in itself), the more odd and fascinating this simple portrait of a madman becomes. Joe Ball was a “not quite right” returning WWI soldier/bootlegger who later turned tavern owner with six alligators in a pit behind his bar. Over the course of time (explained in a very succinct manner here), Ball murdered at least two women he had intimate relationships with.
Thanks to true crime magazines, his legend grew over the years, with the legacy embellished to 12 murders and the feeding of human remains to the alligators. Ball’s recollections of Elmendorf, TX and his Uncle Joe (his story of being a child and watching patrons bring stray dogs and cats to throw to the gators for entertainment is quite chilling) make for an intriguing documentary which paints a strange picture of the old rural Southwest.
Given that EATEN ALIVE had a host of theatrical re-releases with different titles, its most appreciated that we are provided with the alternate credits and title sequences for DEATH TRAP and STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER (but where’s LEGEND OF THE BAYOU?). Yet the real find included here are comment cards from original preview screenings of EATEN ALIVE that range from moderately humorous to laugh-out-loud funny. On them, filmgoers lucky (or for some, unlucky) enough to be involved with the process gave their uncensored personal opinions. After scrolling through these multiple times, I’ve come to the conclusion that these hilarious cards of uncensored, audience thought are worth the purchase price alone. TV and radio spots, theatrical trailers and a slideshow also make their way onto a well-researched extras disc.
As a whole, the 2-Disc Special Edition of EATEN ALIVE puts everything in place for its rediscovery. Oddly enough, that rediscovery may lead to the realization of how much a failure the finished film is. Seriously, the movie annoyed me like never before, sort of like a smart kid playing dumb. EATEN ALIVE is just one of those movies that could’ve been something given the proper time and money. If any movie was ready for a remake (which Hooper could direct), it’s the highly watchable, yet ultimately disappointing, EATEN ALIVE.
Neville Brand shot ripped from
Various EATEN ALIVE movie posters completely swiped from
STRAIGHT TO HELL
WRONG SIDE OF THE ART