If there was ever a movie made that I desperately want to like, it’s Tobe Hooper’s 1977 born on the bayou thriller Eaten Alive. It should be noted that I also want to like doing chores- then they’d be "fun time", not "chores". Alas, alack, however…like my gramma always says, “Wish in one hand, shit in the other”.
Wow, that’s really gross…and I’m not even sure if it makes sense. Oh, gramma!
On paper, though, Eaten Alive sounds so good! It’s got enough ‘60s & ‘70s TV actors to fill an episode of Battle of the Network Stars; it’s set in a rundown hotel on a swamp, a location filled with potential; it’s got a scythe-wielding cuckoo nutso killer and an enormous…err, tooth-wielding crocodile; it’s from Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel, who’d brought audiences the masterful The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a mere 3 years prior; it’s got Robert Englund and Marilyn Burns and…and…
As I said, I want to like Eaten Alive, but in the end I simply can't. I’ve even sat through this flick more than once, thinking to myself “This time…this time I’ll love you, Eaten Alive. This time I’ll take you back and you won’t hurt me anymore and we can live together forever in blissful, loving bliss. Yes folks, Eaten Alive turns me into Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed as it heaps abuse after abuse on my submissive self. What Eaten Alive needs to remember, however, is that Farrah Fawcett set her abusive husband on fire in that movie. Heed my words, Eaten Alive! I won’t take you back next time! I won’t!
Probably. God, this is so like my relationship with Prom Night. What can I say, I'm forgetful...and easy!
Robert Englund’s crotch fills the screen and he intones “I’m Buck…and I’m rarin’ to fuck”. To open the film this way is to let the audience know that they’re in for a simply ribald good time! Buck, it seems, is rarin’ to fuck a prostitute who's wearing a truly awful Little Orphan Annie style wig. Rarin' indeed- Buck has even paid brothel owner Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones) extra to ensure some backdoor shenanigans on this fine evening. When the prostitute refuses, Miss Hattie kicks her out into the night and gives Good Ol’ Buck a two-fer for his troubles .
La Prostitute ambles down the road a stretch to the Starlight Hotel, an establishment so disgusting that using the term “fleabag” to describe it is being too kind. When weirdo hotel owner Judd (Neville Brand) learns that the girl has come from Miss Hattie’s place, he attacks her and feeds her to the giant crocodile in the swamp out back. The prostitute is…EATEN ALIVE, and we surmise that Judd has “women issues”.
Moments later a car pulls up and out pops The Weirdest Family Ever for a pee break. Their dog wanders too close to the swamp and is promptly EATEN ALIVE by the gator…err, the croc...err..sorry, it was referred to as both a gator and a croc during the course of the movie, and if the filmmakers can’t keep it straight, then why the fuck should I? In light of this tragedy, the family naturally decides to spend the night at the Starlight. Once they get to their room, we see why they are, in fact, The Weirdest Family Ever. As daughter Angie (Kyle Richards) lies on the bed whining about her dog, mom Faye (Marilyn Burns) and dad Roy (Stuart Whitman) start to argue…I think. It's a little unclear exactly what's going on, but at any rate they yell at each other a lot. Faye inexplicably pulls off a wig and Roy starts acting truly bizarre- he clenches his fists in a vaguely threatening fashion, he whines more than his young daughter does, and he starts barking to torment Angie, Faye, and the audience. He storms out of the room, grabs a shotgun from the car with the intent to seek vengeance on behalf of his daughter, and is set upon by Judd and his scythe. In a shocking twist, Roy ends up EATEN ALIVE by the crocagator. Judd snatches Faye and ties her to a bed, whilst Angie flees to the crawlspace beneath the hotel.
Before Judd can…do whatever it is he wants to do with Faye, however, another car pulls up. This time it’s the father (Mel Ferrer) and sister (Roberta Collins) of the dead prostitute who come a-callin’, looking for the wayward girl. They make a stop by Miss Hattie’s, but the only fruit borne by that tree is the nagging question “Is Carolyn Jones actually super old and disgusting or is that just some really weird bad makeup?”
Over the course of the next 40-odd minutes, both Mel Ferrer and Robert Englund are EATEN ALIVE, Neville Brand bounces up and down and goes “Huh huh huh huh!”, Kyle Richards crawls around in the dirt and whines more, Roberta Collins shows us The Girls, and Marilyn Burns remains tied to the bed. Eventually Roberta Collins unties her, the ladies run and scream, and then, in a moment that seems pulled straight from an episode of 48 Teeth of Justice, Judd ends up EATEN ALIVE himself. The film ends as tastefully as it began as Judd’s prosthetic leg floats by in the murky water.
Eaten Alive is remarkable in that it manages to be both sleazy and boring at the same time. Were it strictly boring, it wouldn't be such a frustrating film and no one would ever talk about it; on the other hand, were it strictly sleazy, at least it might be interesting and fun. Sadly, it’s neither of those exclusively- instead, it’s largely an excruciating affair.
How can someone who got things so right with Chainsaw get things so wrong in the follow-up effort? At the beginning of this review, I mentioned everything the film has got going for it- so how does it get so fucked up? In lots of ways, that’s how. This movie just screams “inept filmmaking” from every corner. There’s not a single moment where the set doesn’t look completely artificial- like a set. The Starlight Hotel isn’t some real location that has character; this is very obviously a soundstage, and for every appropriate piece of set decoration, such as moldy, peeling wallpaper, there’s a glaringly inappropriate piece, like the brand-new-looking banisters. Where’s Bob Burns when you need him? Eaten Alive makes it obvious just how much the late production designer brought to Chainsaw.
The lighting never looks natural, though to be fair that could be intentional. Regardless, however, the film is consistently dark and murky, and at times it’s difficult to discern what’s happening onscreen. The characters are bizarre, which is fine- they’re so thinly drawn that they’re inconsequential, which is not. The pacing is dreadful, there’s no mood, there’s no atmosphere, there’s no terror, and the crocagator is very obviously a fake. At times, it’s obvious that Hooper is trying to recreate Chainsaw, but the results pale so much in comparison it comes off as desperate and sad. Eaten Alive is definitely a ‘coulda been’- it coulda been creepy and scary, it coulda been a strict sleazefest, and it coulda been a throwback to the monster movies of the ‘50s. It’s none of those things, though- it’s plainly and simply a mess.
The one bright spot in this film is the performances- everyone does the best they can with the dreadful material, and it's a pleasure to watch Stuart Whitman, Neville Brand, Marilyn Burns, and Mel Ferrer regardless of the dreck they're mired in, while William Finley's performance is so damn odd it's intriguing. It's too bad they're saddled with this script; they're all mere mortals, however, and none of them can save this film.
Of course, neither can trying to hide the truth behind alternate titles! We're hip to your ways, Eaten Alive, and we know you stink whether you're called Eaten Alive, Death Trap, Horror Hotel, Horror Hotel Massacre (that one's really despicable), Legend of the Bayou, Murder on the Bayou, or Starlight Slaughter.
Think of it this way: Eaten Alive is your drunk, lechy uncle who gropes your best friend's ass, pisses his pants, and passes out in the corner under the ficus. You might be able to laugh about it later, but when it’s happening you’re astounded, ashamed, and embarrassed- you’re not sure whether to smile, hang your head in disgust, or flee the scene.
Crikey, whatta stinka!
*yes I realize that Hooper made Eggshells before he made Chainsaw, which would technically make Eaten Alive his third movie, but who’s seen Eggshells? Does it really exist? Don’t be so uppity, you!