Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, July 4, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1976)

3. Eaten Alive

With the massive success of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” Tobe Hooper went from being some nut job from Texas nobody had heard of to the hottest up-and-coming horror auteur. His follow-up feature would take three years to arrive. Like his previous movie, it’s a tale of murder, madness, and depravity set in the deep South. “Eaten Alive” would also draw loose inspiration from a real life murder. The movie’s killer was inspired by Joe Ball, the Alligator Man of South Texas. Apparently, “Eaten Alive” had a troubled production. Hooper would feud with the producers, causing cinematographer Robert Caramico to direct some scenes. This might explain why the final feature film is so disjointed.

Clara quickly realizes she’s not very good at being a prostitute. After refusing a vulgar client, madam Miss Hatty ejects her from the brothel. Distraught and alone, Clara wanders into the swamp bound Starlight Hotel. There, she is quickly murdered by the unhinged owner, Judd. He feeds her dead body to his pet crocodile. Clara is the daughter of Harvey Wood, who comes looking for her, alongside her sister, Libby. Soon, they discover how dangerous and insane Judd really is. Other tenants of the Starlight Hotel – a disturbed married couple, a little girl, the redneck ladies’ man – soon learn this as well.

In some regards, “Eaten Alive” is far more polished then “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The film was shot on Hollywood sound stages, providing Hooper far more control then his previous film’s ramshackle sets. A number of recognizable actors, such as Mel Ferrer and Carolyn Jones, appear in the film. Despite these upgrades, “Eaten Alive” is no less manic then Hooper’s most well-known film. The viewer is, once again, tossed into an insane world populated with raving lunatics. In some ways, “Eaten Alive” is even nastier in tone then its predecessor. A cute dog is eaten by a crocodile. A little girl is imperiled. A woman is beaten and tied to a bed. This is a story without hope or light, directed with a mean-spirited intention that seeks to punish all its characters.

“Eaten Alive” is certainly sleazier then “Texas Chain Saw.” The story is set among the world of prostitutes and their johns. The very first scene has a character named Buck, introducing himself as “rearin’ to fuck.” (A line later purloined by Quentin Tarantino for “Kill Bill.”) He then attempts to sodomize a hooker, who resists. When she tells the madam about the abuse, the madam kicks her out. Later, the same man has more success with a bar maiden, played by Janus Blythe of later “The Hills Have Eyes” fame. The camera lingers on Blthye’s body during the sleazy love scene. More female nudity is featured in the film, when Libby stripes down in her bedroom. If “Massacre” was an exploitation movie because of its gritty setting and camerawork, “Eaten Alive” is far more calculated in its attempts to appeal to puerile audiences.

“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” had a fairly loose plot, which worked towards the film’s benefit. (And it still had more story then the practically plotless “Eggshells.”) “Eaten Alive,” meanwhile, has a hugely unfocused screenplay. The film has no proper protagonist. Clara exits the movie early on. Her father doesn’t last very long either. Libby hardly directs the plot. If the audience is meant to sympathize with Judd, he’s far too repellent a character for that to work. Moreover, the script awkwardly lurches from one sequence to the next. “Eaten Alive” is a disorganized series of character encounters and events. People wander into Judd’s hotel and get killed. Some times they cross paths, some times they don’t. The imperiled little girl and her captured mother have no connection with Libby and her missing sister. On a story level, the film is a mess.

In some ways, it seems like Tobe Hooper was looking to top the insanity of “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” With Judd, all the craziness of Leatherface’s entire family is rolled into one character. Judd does not hide his lunacy. He rants, raves, and rambles to himself constantly. Many times, he seems to be carrying on a disjointed conversation with the voices in his head. Judd is so obviously mad that you don’t know how he runs a business. Several times, he acts out in a wild way, the type of behavior that would cause reasonable people to quickly leave. Neville Brand, a character actor who appeared in many westerns, is fully willing to play Judd’s psychosis to its full extent. The character seems like a genuine paranoid schizophrenic, wild eyed and totally bug-nuts.

Yet “Eaten Alive’s” excesses are not contained to Judd’s mental illness. He’s not the only crazy person in the movie. William Finley plays Roy, the husband to the bound wife and the unlucky little girl. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with this guy. He glares at his wife, playing with her hair in a very creepy way. He screams about undefined pasted indiscretions. He does the worst things at the worst times, like barking while his daughter morns the dead dog. Finley’s performance is completely unhinged, the man acting as if he’s on acid. Robert Englund’s Buck, meanwhile, is one of the sleaziest motherfuckers to ever grace cinema. The future Freddy Kruger ogles women without shame. He attempts rape twice, going unpunished both times. Both of these performances by future cult icons are on the same over-the-top, deranged wavelength as the rest of the film.

If “Eaten Alive” has any sort of motivating plot, it’s Mr. Wood and Libby’s attempt to find their missing daughter/sister. Yet this attempt to bring form to a formless story doesn’t begin until midway through the film. The scenes devoted to Wood and Libby following leads feel detached from the rest of the movie. The two interview Miss Hatty about Clara, who denies all knowledge. Libby forms a friendship with the town sheriff, played by another cowboy actor, Stuart Whitman. Yet it’s clear that Hooper’s interest lies more with Judd and his crazy world. I suspect that introducing a female lead, killing her off quickly, and devoting the rest of the story to her disappearance is Hooper’s half-assed homage to “Psycho.” Mel Ferrer is stately and serious as Harvey Wood. Crystin Sinclaire is rather understated as Libby. Neither character is that interesting.

“Eaten Alive” writhes around aimlessly for plot points. Aside from the missing Clara, there’s the business of Angie, the traumatized little girl. After Judd kills her father and attacks her mother, Angie spends the rest of the movie hiding underneath the Starlight Hotel’s porch. Her screams sometimes alert other characters, who then usually end up fed to the crocodile. Faye, Angie’s mother, is played by Marylin Burns. While Angie spends most of the movie hiding under the hotel, Faye spends most of the movie tied to a bed. She also attempts to make others aware of her torture, which rarely works out. Burns displays a little bit of the every-woman charm shown in “Texas Chain Saw.” However, being tied to a bed wouldn’t be a great oppretunity for even the best actor.

“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” kept most of its gore off-screen, increasing the impact of the violence. “Eaten Alive” is less interested in restraint. The murder scenes are bold, bloody, and in your face. Judd stabs Clara to death with a rake, bright red blood splattering out of her body. Later, the madman regularly utilizes a scythe to off his victims. William Finley is repeatedly slashed across the chest. Mel Ferrer is stabbed through the neck. All the victims end up as crocodile feed. The gore effects are convincing. The attack scenes are shot with a frenzied intensity, even if they’re less memorable then Leatherface’s murders. When it comes to gritty, horror movie violence, only the obvious rubber crocodile leaves the audience unconvinced. Despite what the title and posters might make you think, that croc plays a fairly small role in “Eaten Alive.” It mostly exist to dispose of little dogs and the evidence.

“Eaten Alive” is awkward and sleazy but it’s not exactly artless. Being shot entirely on sound stages gives the film an intentionally artificial feeling. This lends a certain dream like tone to the proceedings. A constant blanket of fog floats above the ground around the Starlight Hotel. A searing, bright red light frequently shines over the hotel and its inhabitants. The area under the hotel is filled out with spiderwebs, rats, and spooky pipes. Judd chasing Buck’s girlfriend through the forest recalls Leatherface running after Sally. Yet that was in an actual forest. This forest is fake, with odd looking tree branches and a soft blue color scheme. It makes “Eaten Alive” seem less real and even more like the kind of deranged hallucinations its villain must have.

The sound design in “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was unnerving. The metallic shrieks, slaughterhouse noises, and unnatural whines further established a nightmarish atmosphere. “Eaten Alive” attempts something similar but has far less success with it. The musical score was composed by Wayne Bell and Hooper himself. It’s primarily composed of high-pitch screeches, which aren’t creepy but are instead annoying. The constant din makes “Eaten Alive” into even more of a shrill, off-putting experience. The soundtrack is also filled out with obnoxious country and western songs, which Judd frequently blares from his record player.

Tobe Hopper and screenwriter Kim Henkle obviously hoped “Eaten Alive” would recreate “Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s” success. By so nakedly emulating his first film, Hooper creates a less convincing picture. Yet the disorganized script and bizarre (but not especially interesting) characters is a far bigger problem for the film. The movie’s extreme content would get it banned in the U.K. as a Video Nasty and dismissed by most critics. However, “Eaten Alive” has been reevaluated by some horror scholars, seeing the occasional artistry behind the movie’s shapeless insanity. It’s not an opinion I can share. Though occasionally interesting, “Eaten Alive” never holds together. [Grade: C]

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