Now all you CineSchlockers out there know who the great Tobe Hooper is, but for the benefit of the rest of the class, allow me to introduce the auteur with three gruesome words: Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That's right, Saw first ripped across screens way back in 1974 and even today folks STILL point a freakafied finger at it when they talk about what's WRONG with Hollywood. We're talking coeds on meat hooks, a geriatric psychopath knonkin' gals on the head and probably the most imitated horror icon ever -- the chainsaw two-stepper Leatherface. Now Saw threw folks in to such a tizzy back in the day, well, Tobe and his accountant up and decided they wanted to keep the heads rolling, literally. His, and Saw collaborator Kim Henkel's, answer was Eaten Alive (1976). A tender love story between a misunderstood inn keeper and his pet crocodile. But I'll get to that. After Eaten, there was yet another horror classic, The Funhouse (1981), before Tobe ran off to Hollywood and let Steven Speilberg teach him how to REALLY make a horror of a movie, Poltergeist (1982). That's when Tobe went all Hollywood on us and the body count has never been quite the same. Sorta makes me tear up to be honest.
The movie: Tobe knew what worked, so he chose another rural spot in Texas to set the movie. And like Saw, and Funhouse that would follow, Eaten Alive also takes place during the course of one night. I'm not going to run y'all through the whole story, because after all, this is Tobe's character piece.
There's some fine performances here, the greatest of which is by veteran actor Neville Brand as Judd. Keep a sharp eye on him. Half his dialogue doesn't make a lick of sense and THAT'S what makes him so dern creepy. He oscillates from being downright cordial to pitching giggle fits that end with folks meeting the business end of his pet gator. Soon after each munch down, Judd gets all remorseful and he starts to mutter to himself, trying to rationalize what happened. You see actors "play" crazy in movies all the time. Here, you'll have a hard time believing Neville Brand isn't REALLY wacko.
Saw's Marilyn Burns is back and still screamin'. She spends most of the movie gagged and tied to a bed, but in the final reel, she looses the gag and makes up for lost time in a hurry. Your neighbors might call the police if the sound's cranked.
What'll interest a lot of you is the fact that Eaten Alive was one of the first big screen roles of Robert Englund (aka. Freddy Krueger and that mousy lizard in "V"). He plays a real horny toad by the name of Buck who tries his darnedest to coax every woman he runs across into some "unconventional" lovemaking.
The movie has a lot of uncomfortable stuff in it, including a crippled little girl, Angie (Kyle Richards), who is first terrorized by seeing her little dog eaten by Judd's croc and almost becoming a snack herself. Then she's subjected to her folks' mean-spirited bickering, which ends with her drugged-out poppa crawling around on the floor looking for an eyeball that ain't even there. And if THAT weren't enough to warp the little yard monster, Judd chases her into the crawl space under the house and she has to hide under there, listening to everyone else's screams.
One thing I love about B-movies is BAD special effects, especially beasts. The crocodile is pure art. It looks like one of those egg-crate alligators we used to make in Sunday school back in East Texas, only a heck of a lot bigger. And ours were scary. The croc effects are credited to a Bob Mattey, which is most likely a joke, because Robert A. Mattey did the notoriously disastrous Great White in Jaws the year before.
Notables: Six breasts. Five chewed corpses. One dead dog. One dead monkey. One plastic crocodile. Shotgun to the leg. Rat parade. Gratuitous bird calling. Scythe THROUGH the neck. Blood mopping. Drug-fueled bickering. Gratuitous horny, but socially awkward redneck.
Quotables: Cheers to Robert Englund who announces, while loosening his belt, "I'm Buck and I'm here to f@#%!" To William Finley as Roy who tells his wife, "Why don't you just take that cigarette and grind it out in my eye?!" Also, any rambling stream of nonsense Mr. Brand comes up with.
Time codes: Ruby gives a heart-felt pep talk to a would-be prostitute and then unknowingly sends her on to her death (4:55). Little Snoopy becomes gator chow (20:40). Judd's scythe gets stuck in a fella's neck (59:00). A full screen view of Lynette's (Janus Blyth) enormous talents (1:20:00). Ms. Blyth went on to star in another horror classic The Hills Have Eyes and its equally memorable sequel.
Audio/Video: Distributors never knew quite what to do with this one and renamed it a bunch of times (Death Trap, Starlight Slaughter, Legend of the Bayou, Horror Hotel Massacre, Brutes and Savages, Horror Hotel, Murder on the Bayou). And for a long time folks called it Tobe's "lost" movie, so the print has definitely seen better days. But Elite has done an outstanding job with it. The colors are often bright. The film is widescreen (in its original 1.85:1 ratio). Plus, I think the aged quality of the film only enhances the creepy vibe. What really shines is Wayne Bell and Tobe's score, which is every bit as bizarre and disturbing as that of Saw.
Extras: Not much. A trailer. But I think we're lucky to have the film at all.
Final thought: Not nearly as frightening as Saw, but almost as dark. Neville Brand's performance is very memorable. And ol' Tobe slipped some topless babes into this one. Recommended.
G. Noel Gross is a Dallas graphic designer and avowed Drive-In Mutant who specializes in scribbling B-movie reviews. Noel is inspired by Joe Bob Briggs and his gospel of blood, breasts and beasts.