When Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel hit pay dirt in 1974 with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, arguably one of the finest horror movies ever made and certainly one of the most intense, it probably didn't surprise anyone when they teamed up again a few years later. The resulting film, Eaten Alive, also starred Marilyn Burns, who earned her place in horror history with her performance as Sally in the earlier film. Would they be able to create the same kind of magic this second time out? Not really, but Eaten Alive is still pretty enjoyable and it's certainly entertaining.
When the film begins, Buck (Robert Englund of A Nightmare On Elm Street in a role that obviously inspired Michael Bowen's performance in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1) is raring to do a prostitute named Clara (Roberta Collins of The Witch Who Came From The Sea) where she isn't interested in being done. Not content to take no for an answer, Buck raises a stink until the brothel owner lets him pick two other ladies instead of the one he paid for, and soon Faye is sent packing by Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones of The Addams Family!), the madam in charge.
With nothing more than a few dollars loaned to her by a friend, Faye takes shelter at The Starlight Hotel, the only place in town to lodge, which lies deep in the woods away from the rest of town. The peg-legged innkeeper, Judd (Neville Brand of Birdman Of Alcatraz) takes her in after she lies and tells him that she isn't one of the girls from the brothel and it soon becomes obvious that something is a little off with the man when we realize that he's got a giant crocodile living next to his place of business to whom Faye is promptly chopped up and fed to.
Soon after, a family shows up - Faye (Marilyn Burns), Roy (William Finlay of The Phantom Of The Paradise) and their young kid, Angie (Kyle Richards who played Lindsay Wallace in the first two Halloween films) - looking for shelter for the night. Judd gets them a room but the family dog ends up a snack for Judd's pet. Roy isn't too impressed and so he opts to go kill off the beast himself, but of course, this doesn't work out and he too finds himself turned into croc-chow after Judd makes short work of him. Once he's done with Roy, Judd ties Faye to the best and little Angie hides out under the hotel while Clara's dad, Harvey (Mel Ferrer of Nightmare City) and her sister Libby (Crystin Sinclair of Ruby) show up looking for their late, lamented family member. When know one in town will own up to ever having seen Clara, they bring Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman of The Treasure Of The Amazon) in to help them out. Unfortunately for Harvey and Libby, there's only one place in town to stay... The Starlight Motel!
Eaten Alive is a weird film. While it isn't particularly frightening it does have a few disturbing moments and a completely sleazy atmosphere from start to finish makes it eerie enough even when it probably shouldn't be, given that this is primarily a film about a crazy guy and his pet crocodile. This earned the film a spot on the UK's infamous Video Nasties list where it was released as Death Trap and trimmed by a few seconds until it was eventually released uncut in 2000. Neville Brand is pretty manic in his performance, coming close to going over the top in a few spots and bringing a really strange intensity to the role that makes it a little more frightening than one might expect. Though the film never comes close to matching the intensity and sheer balls-to-the-wall terror that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is so well known for it does have a similar lily unseemly atmosphere to it that works really well.
Also worth noting about the film is the lighting used for any scenes shot at or around the hotel (which makes up the bulk of the movie). Hooper used cinematographer Robert Caramico, the same man who gave Lemora: A Child's Tale Of The Supernatural its distinct visuals and who here also employs some fantastic colored lighting gels to unusually appealing effect. Though the film is rough looking, Caramico paints it with bright reds and eerie, swampy looking greens to really bring an almost alien feel to these scenes. The hotel and the surrounding foliage and swamp is obviously a set, but that just adds to the odd ambience created for the film.
The biggest flaw in the film is the crocodile itself, which for certain scenes (the dog eating scene for one), is obviously fake. This takes some of the shock out of the scenes and it dampens things quite a bit. Other than that, however, you're left with a really sleazy movie that makes good use of its rather eclectic ensemble cast. The film reads like a veritable whose who of seventies drive-in movies and that, coupled with the weirdness factor, makes Eaten Alive well worth seeing, even if it isn't really a classic in the true sense of the word.
Dark Sky presents Eaten Alive in a good 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film in its original aspect ratio. The film was originally intended to be released as a single disc affair a year or so ago and while review copies made it out, that disc was pulled when new elements were found and a new, improved transfer was struck - the transfer that we see on this disc. While there's still some print damage and debris here and there, for the most part the picture looks quite solid. Grain is there but never a problem and there are no issues with heavy edge enhancement and only some very slight mpeg compression artifacts are evident. Flesh tones look good, color reproduction is appropriately freaky, and in short, the movie looks good.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound on the disc is fine. There are a couple of spots where you might pick up on some mild hiss if you really want to listen for it but otherwise there are no real issues here. The score is mixed nicely, the levels are properly balanced, and you shouldn't have any problems following the performers or understanding the dialogue. Optional alternate language dubs are available in Spanish and French, while subtitles are provided in English only.
Dark Sky have done a nice job with the supplements here, kicking things off on disc one with the commentary track (which originally appeared on that recalled DVD) that features insight from the film's co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, make-up artist Craig Reardon and performers Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards. Each of the participants was recorded separately and the track was edited together from the various interviews so don't expect a lot of scene specific material (though portions of the performers' discussion is edited to match scenes they appear in). That being said, some of what we learn here is pretty interesting as those involved cover shooting the film on a studio lot, some of the effects work, what it was like working with Tobe Hooper and how they feel about the movie looking back on it years later. Finley is the most animated of the group, and his memory of the time he spent on the set is as sharp as ever and his comments as to how he got into character are quite amusing. Also included on disc one is a still gallery. Animated menus and chapter selection options are also provided.
Two more featurettes are also provided (again carried over from the aforementioned recalled DVD), the first of which is a fifteen minute interview with Robert Englund entitled My Name Is Buck... which gives the man a chance to talk about his on set experiences and what it was like working with Tobe Hooper and a few of his co-stars. He covers his career in a bit of detail as well and talks about how he ended up on the film in the first place as it was an early part for him. The second featurette is The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball which runs for just over twenty-three minutes in length and covers Joe Ball, a serial killer who ran rampant in the 1930s feeding various people to his own pet crocodiles.
Never before seen until the release of this two-disc set is Gator Creator which is a fun twenty-minute interview with director Tobe Hooper who explains how and why he came on board to direct this film. He talks about shooting on location and about his fondness for a few specific cast members and of course, he talks about the now infamous crocodile prop used in the picture. Another new featurette, Five Minutes With Marilyn Burns is, as the title implies, a five-minute interview with Ms. Burns who talks about her experiences working on the film and her professional relationships with a few of the cast members. Both Burns and Hooper seem quite jovial here and recall the shoot with some obvious fondness.
Rounding out the extra feature on the second disc are two trailers for the feature as Eaten Alive, two under the alternate UK title of Death Trap, and one each under the alternate titles of Starlight Slaughter, Horror Hotel and The Devil's Swamp. A couple of radio spots are included, as well as two alternate versions of the opening credits sequence. The Sideshow feature is a still gallery of behind the scenes photos, while a second gallery showcases Comment Cards that were handed out to and filled out by screening audience members before the film hit theatrically. Animated menus appear throughout the disc.
Those expecting the sheer terror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre might walk away unhappy but Eaten Alive definitely works on its own, quirky, darkly comedic level and Dark Sky has done an excellent job with the new and improved transfer and the extensive, interesting supplements. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.