While The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was (and still is) a memorable horror film experience, Tobe Hooper’s follow up, 1976’s Eaten Alive (released in 1977) was and is memorable for entirely different reasons. While it’s got a compelling and frightening performance from Neville Brand and that bathed in red sound stage set makes the film even more frightening, there’s a “too many hands” feel to the production process that makes the film more of a “B” than it deserves to be. That said, it’s yet another excellently produced Arrow release that’s worth a buy for the solid 2K restoration job and copious special features as well as the chance to see a film you may not have heard of previously (or had forgotten entirely).
Then again, given the incredibly sleazy origins of the “allegedly based on actual incidents” story here, Eaten Alive also works quite well as a pure “B” flick. Running a tidy 87 minutes, no time is wasted here as Brand’s psychotic veteran motel keeper, Judd, kills off a local lady of the evening after a tryst gone wrong at a brothel nearby sends her scampering for the hills after the madam (Carolyn Jones) gives her the boot. Judd runs the Starlight Hotel (one of the film’s many alternate titles along with Death Trap, Legend of the Bayou, Starlight Slaughter and Horror Hotel) which also happens to have a live crocodile as an attraction living in a penned in “swamp” outside. You know that Judd and his “pet” are going to be pretty busy as the film progresses and the victims show up as if there’s a massive magnet yanking their cars in that general direction.
A very weird husband and wife (Charles Finley, Marilyn Burns) drive up with their young daughter and pet dog drop in for a spell and let’s just say the holidays won’t be the same in that household ever again. That poor prostitute who refused the nasty advances of the yucky Buck (Robert Englund in his pre-Freddy Krueger days)? Well, her dad (Mel Ferrer!) and sister roll up to the Starlight on a mission to find her only to find Judd is not much help at anything other than being very good with a scythe and regular crocodile feeding. Even the immediately unlikable Buck shows up and gets the surprise of his short life after he drives up with some chick he’d met in a bar (Janus Blythe) for a long quickie.
The film is pretty relentless in its letting Judd do his thing and according to some of the special features, Brand’s wide-eyed, intense performance was pretty Method in that he was really messed up and a scary guy to work with at that time. That said, his Judd makes the film because he’s a bit crafty and (initially) smarter than his victims. While all the pieces seemed to be in place to make this one as cheerless and remorseless as Texas Chainsaw, creative issues between Hooper and the film’s producers led to scenes being added or re-shot later and it shows. For all the nervous energy and unpredictability Judd brings to the screen, there’s a feeling that Hooper wanted to tone other elements (the sex and gore) down so they weren’t as pushed to the forefront as they are here. His first film worked partly because much of the carnage was implied. Eaten Alive tries to “better” things with mixed results.
As usual, Arrow has packed the disc with a great bunch of features. Tobe Hooper provides a new intro to and two interviews (one archival, one recent) about the film where he discusses what went right and what went wrong. A commentary track featuring producer Mardi Rustam, make-up artist Craig Reardon and stars Roberta Collins, William Finley and Kyle Richards goes a long way in showing how chaotic the film making process was. Everyone wanted to make another modern independent horror classic along the lines of Hooper’s first flick, but that wasn’t how it turned out. Two short features on Janus Blythe and Marilyn Burns let the ladies get in a few thoughts on the film. The interview with Blythe is interesting because she went a long way past horror and into a successful career into the 90’s but passed up on the chance to appear more recently in Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem because she didn’t know who was directing the film (which required her to perform nude with other witches in a pivotal scene).
There’s also a great Robert Englund interview where he talks about the film and his early days of acting. Someone needs to nail the man down for a full-on feature documentary one of these days along with a few other horror stars of that era just to show these guys and gals have a lot more depth to them off screen. In The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball, there’s a look at the genesis to Eaten Alive’s story as a relative of Mr. Ball gives an interview on what may or may not have happened and how local legends often outstrip reality. A few trailers, TV and radio spots plus alternate opening credits round up a bunch of features that make the film a much better viewing experience at the end of the day. My review copy had no reversible sleeve or collector’s booklet, but once again it’s a case of Arrow going above and beyond the call with the contents of the disc that make for another must-own oldie for fans of theirwork.