In his new interview conducted for inclusion on this Arrow Films Blu-ray, director Tobe Hooper seems unable to convey the reason behind his decision to shoot Eaten Alive on a soundstage, stating only a desire to do it.
Between this discussion and the included archival interview, Hooper implies a desire to give this backwoods oddity a nightmarish, or otherworldly, feel. And unlike his previous Texas Chain Saw Massacre, revered for its realism, Eaten Alive’s design places it firmly inside the far-gone psyche of its antagonist (Neville Brand) with its desolate, dilapidated location and boosted color palettes that heighten his isolation and madness.
It’s not perfect, but Eaten Alive is unique for several reasons, from its structure right down to its overt weirdness. It’s just creepier than expected. In his interviews, Hooper seems proud of the fact there are very few films like it, and he’s right. The narrative is repetitious. For much of the running time, it’s just scenes of people checking in to this dingy hotel, to either be dispatched by our lunatic via his massive scythe blade or fed to his pet crocodile that inhabits the front yard bog. And while it may sound like Eaten Alive is your typical mid-to-late 70s proto-slasher, there’s hardly anything typical about it.
First of all there’s a mean streak that cuts a swath straight through the center. It isn’t just watching people show up and die; it’s watching people suffer some pretty nasty abuse at Brand’s hands. It gets worse when the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, and his family pop in for an overnight stay where he proves to be just as disturbed as Brand. He heaps all sorts of verbal and mental abuse on his wife and child–especially insensitive since her dog was just devoured by the resident croc. Also of note, Robert Englund! His character, Buck, leaves one of the deepest impressions (deep enough for Quentin Tarantino to mostly repurpose it in Kill Bill Vol. 1) in a genuinely skeezy performance as our local womanizer/misogynist.
The influx of weirdos leads to a bonkers climax where all hell breaks loose. As Judd, Neville Brand is exactly the right kind of crazy. The moments where he loses his cool and pursues his victims are an odd mixture of frightening and baffling, while the death scenes remain disturbing even by today’s standards. They’re all heightened by an electronic sting that underscores every cut and stab, making viewers feel the impact as much as the victims. Coupled with the brazen and ever changing color scheme, and the movie is a deeply visceral experience. Despite its flaws, this is an approximation of one man’s personal hell, and it can be damn effective if you let it.
In some ways, Eaten Alive feels like the product of a very cynical “hey, let’s get that guy from Texas Chain Saw Massacre to do it again!” style cash-in from producers looking to recapture lightning in a bottle. Viewing this through that lens, it’s easy to see Eaten Alive as a failed effort. No, it’s not on the level of Chain Saw, but it’s fun if taken on its own terms. It must’ve been frustrating for Hooper to become “that guy” in the business so quickly, especially since he was trying to get an LA noir made following Chain Saw‘s success. So even if Eaten Alive‘s intentions were somewhat cynical, it remains a curiosity that’s worth checking out.
And true to form, Arrow’s Eaten Alive disc is the definitive edition. For starters, both Hooper interviews bring good information to the table. The archival one, previously found on the Dark Sky special edition, runs 20 minutes and nicely covers the experience of shooting this movie through Hooper’s eyes. He’s never explicit in detailing his clash with producers, although it’s strongly hinted at. It’s also nicely supplemented by a new interview with the director that recounts his attachment to the project in a rather vague way, along with his desire to shoot it on a soundstage. I still don’t know exactly what the hell Hooper is saying with Eaten Alive, and these features don’t necessarily help with that, but they’re worth a look for any curious parties.
The troubled production is covered in a little more detail via the audio commentary (also ported from the Dark Sky release), which features producer Mardi Rustam, actors William Finley, Roberta Collins, and Kyle Richards, along with FX artist Craig Reardon. This is one of those frankentracks where everyone’s participation was recorded separately and “stitched” together to match relevant action on screen. With so many different perspectives, it’s worth a listen. Rustam provides a little additional context for scenes he shot once Hooper left the project (interestingly, these are the worst in the film), while the actors are generally relegated to their screentime and offer some great recollections about working with Neville Brand.
Beyond the new Hooper interview, the director does a very brisk intro. Arrow also produced two new conversations for this release. The first, and my favorite extra in the set, is an incredibly vibrant and enjoyable discussion with actress Janus Blythe. Such a fun and energetic presence, Blythe is incredibly frank about the types of roles women could get in the 70s (“I mean, I have nice tits but come on…”) and recalls how the horror genre treated her a little better. Make-up FX man Craig Reardon recollects working on this in one of the dodgiest studios in town and takes an opportunity to wax philosophical about the appeal of horror films, especially in the socially turbulent times of the 1970s. Pretty interesting stuff.
Other supplements from the old Dark Sky SE include a lengthy chat with Buck himself, Mr. Robert Englund, who is never without stories to tell. These range from his early career as an actor to the challenges of going long stretches in between paychecks when you’re just starting out. He reveals his approach to Buck was to recreate a role he played on stage in The Rainmaker, only with added skeeziness, and has no shortage of complimentary things to say about Tobe Hooper. There’s a five-minute featurette with the late Marilyn Burns, which is slight but sweet.
We also get a documentary on the real life case that served as the inspiration behind this film. It’s called The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball, and it covers his murder of several women, each of whom were fed to his pet alligators. It’s interesting, and one wishes the 20-minute history lesson had been a bit more expansive.
Rounding out this set are plenty of radio and TV spots, as well as the alternate opening credits (where Death Trap is the on screen title), a DVD copy of the film, reversible cover art, and a booklet essay penned by critic Brad Stevens.
Eaten Alive may not be as good as some of the director’s efforts, but it’s a worthwhile curio all the same. Atmospheric and crazy, it’s perhaps too bad Hooper had to return to such familiar territory so soon, but nearly 40 years later it’s a movie worth appreciating for its own merits (or lack thereof).
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