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Eaten Alive

Arrow Video // R // September 22, 2015 // Region 0
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 21, 2015 | E-mail the Author
How in the hell do you follow The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? What do you do next after co-writing and directing a movie that left that seismic an impact at the box office, in popular culture, and on the face of horror? For Tobe Hooper, the answer was clear: you make a flick about a peg-legged hotelier in the bayou who chases his guests around with a scythe and then feeds 'em to his pet crocodile.

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...and as far as the premise goes, that's pretty much all there is to say. No backstory. No mythology or lore to unearth. Hardly even anything in the way of subplots. Nothin' but Judd (Neville Brand) -- whose gravelly voice sounds like Tom Waits gargling hot asphalt -- frothing at the mouth and butchering damned near everyone who steps foot into his hopelessly remote, ramshackle hotel. What Eaten Alive lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in style and dementia. It's a fascinating successor to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, both in the themes and elements that Hooper carries over as well as in the almost unrecognizably different tack he takes. As notorious as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was, that earlier film suggested gruesome imagery rather than explicitly show it, while Eaten Alive is sopping with blood and showcases more than its fair share of gore. Drawing from Hooper's background in documentary filmmaking, 'Saw unnerved audiences across the globe because it felt so gritty and real. Eaten Alive, meanwhile, revels in the fact that nearly every last shot of the film was shot on a soundstage: swamp and all. Hooper makes no effort to mask that artifice and prefers instead to heighten it. If the camera were to be nudged over a few inches, you could almost picture a grip surrounded by bunch of exposed plywood and munching on a cheese sandwich. With its hyperstylized lighting, wildly exaggerated performances, and gonzo premise, Eaten Alive looks and feels like an EC horror comic brought to life.

Though Eaten Alive boasts a surreal streak that's worlds removed from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the two films still have quite a bit in common, and I'm not just referring to Marilyn Burns' starring roles. Both movies revolve around mentally unhinged outsiders we know practically nothing about. 'Saw was inspired by the all-too-real ghoulish acts of Ed Gein. (As anyone reading this almost certainly knows, Gein inspired Psycho as well, and I wonder if that in some way prompted the hotel setting here.) Eaten Alive is also very loosely based on a real-life murderer: Joe Ball, a Texan who may or may not have tossed the remains of his barmaids into his tavern's alligator pit once he'd had his way with them. In a motif that can be further extended to Hooper's The Funhouse, the movies' madmen are murderously protective of their territory and their "family"; just turns out that it's a crocodile rather than a blood relative in this case. There's something almost childlike about Hooper's psychopaths as well. That can be taken quite literally in the case of one of the The Funhouse's killers, and Leatherface, hulking though he may be, is clearly some sort of stunted man-child. Judd isn't a cold, calculating murderer. Rather than lure his victims into some sort of trap, Judd attacks very much in the heat of the moment. When he furiously strikes with a garden rake or with a scythe, Judd is initially mortified at the sight of what he's done. A disturbing smile soon creeps across his face, and that horror quickly makes way for childlike awe and delight.

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Eaten Alive is more intrigued by oddball characters than by any Grand Guignol gauntlet of grue. Seeing as how we're talking about a movie with a man-eating croc, it's to Neville Brand's credit that he's still the most memorable thing about it. Think of Judd as a six-foot-tall bottle of Coke that someone keeps shaking and shaking, and Eaten Alive is the misogynistic rage and psychotic fizz that spews out. Judd genuinely comes across as insane, and after listening to some of what's said in the extras on this disc, it sounds as if Brand himself was off his rocker as well. Few of Judd's victims -- liars, lushes, and ladies of the night -- are any more likeable or sympathetic than he is. Marilyn Burns' Faye is introducing hiding behind a dark wig for reasons that are never explained, perhaps on the run with her family from someone or something. As she loses that wig, her husband Roy (William Finley) barks like a slobbering dog, then starts frantically searching the floor for his missing eye which...well, he isn't actually missing. Why? Not a clue. Future horror icon Robert Englund makes a hell of an impression as a horny redneck itching for some backdoor action, and his opening line -- "my name is Buck, and I'm rarin' to fuck" -- would be recycled years later by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill. Also checking in and not necessarily checking out, the Starlight Hotel's guest book is rounded out by the likes of Mel Ferrer, Janus Blythe (The Hills Have Eyes), Kyle Richards (Halloween), and drive-in fixture Roberta Collins. Carolyn Jones -- the once and future Morticia Adams! -- is slathered in unconvincing, Sawyer-esque old age makeup as the local madame, and Academy Award nominee Stuart Whitman has a small but memorable role as the local sheriff.

An entrancingly strange cult classic...? Absolutely. Good...? Well, no, not exactly. Eaten Alive fails to fully seize advantage of its swampy, isolated, rundown setting. As unhinged as its final twenty minutes or so are, with endless havoc wrought on every level of the Starlight, the hour-plus to get there is too unevenly paced and bloated with uninvolving filler. The claustrophobic cat-and-mouse between Judd and little Kyle Richards -- who, a couple years later, would be terrorized by Michael Myers in Halloween -- make for some of the movie's only truly intense, suspenseful moments. Normally it's a given than any child in peril will make it out in one piece, but with Eaten Alive, that's not so certain. There's an element of edge-of-your-seat as you wait for Judd's stack to blow, but the horror sequences generally come down to a quick chase with a scythe, and it's all a little too ridiculous to land as scary. At the same time, it's deliberately absurd, so I'm just...not quite sure how to react. Anyway, it's easy to forget that there's a flesh-eating crocodile in the fray. More of a barely mobile puppet than anything else, the croc gets less screentime than pretty much everyone else in the cast. Hell, I think you see more of the little puppy he munches on at one point. Tobe Hooper was heavily involved in reworking the screenplay, but he was still kind of a gun-for-hire rather than this being any sort of passion project, and he either left or was ousted from production at some point. It's unclear to what extent this affected things; only Janus Blythe and makeup artist Craig Reardon bring it up in the extras, but Blythe says that she was never actually directed by Hooper.

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I'm fascinated by Eaten Alive but haven't managed to figure out if I actually like it or not. Still, Tobe Hooper's batshit insane followup to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre scratches a Southern-fried, backyard Bava itch I didn't even know I had, and if it goes down as a failure, at least it's an interesting one.

Tobe Hooper closes his brief introduction to Eaten Alive with "hope you like the colors". I do. I like damned near everything about this presentation, actually, which has been lovingly remastered in 2K from the original camera negative and approved by Hooper himself.

Let's talk about those colors, though. Eaten Alive's palette is jaw-droppingly vivid. For instance, when Clara first arrives at the Starlight Hotel, not only do its hues reinforce that storybook quality described by Hooper elsewhere on this Blu-ray disc, but they're on the brink of being Bava-esque. Much of the film is blanketed in red, and for the first time in ages, Eaten Alive truly does reproduce it as...well, red. Every aspect of this presentation is similarly extraordinary: the deft interplay between light and shadow, the striking level of detail, and a remarkably fine sheen of grain. There's no damage to speak of and very little in the way of speckling, and it's somehow appropriate that what few flecks of dust that are seem to be at their most frenzied in the moments leading up to a kill. Arrow Video's authoring is, as ever, flawless. Especially considering that we're talking about a film with a longstanding reputation as looking murky and grimy, this Blu-ray disc is an absolute revelation.

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This combo pack features both a dual-layer Blu-ray disc and an anamorphic widescreen DVD. Eaten Alive is lightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Eaten Alive's 24-bit, monaural audio similarly leaves no room for complaint. I'm floored by how clean and clear this uncompressed track is. I can hear a bit of hiss in the dialogue early on: Robert Englund's "my name is Buck, and I'm rarin' to fuck" is saddled with a little background noise, for example, though it's been filtered out of the spaces between words. Nothing like that ever grabbed my attention once Eaten Alive really gets underway, however, and not so much as a flicker of clipping or distortion ever threaten to intrude. The lower frequencies also pack a wallop, from Neville Brand's cigarette-ravaged bassy growl to the punch of some of the score's more electronic elements. An outstanding effort all around.

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Optional English (SDH) subtitles have also been included.

Not only lavished with the combo pack treatment, Eaten Alive also boasts reversible cover art and a collector's booklet. The insightful essay by Sight and Sound's Brad Stevens certainly eclipses anything I could ever hope to write. The Blu-ray disc is coded for play in both regions A and B, and the accompanying DVD is region-free. It's a small thing, I know, but I love how the DVD and Blu-ray disc feature different sets of screened artwork.
  • Optional Introduction (HD): Clocking in under twenty seconds, Tobe Hooper offers a very brief and newly-recorded introduction to Eaten Alive.

  • Alternate Titles (1 min.; HD): Among a half-dozen other titles, Eaten Alive made the rounds as Death Trap for a while there, and that's the handle it goes by in this alternate set of 1080p opening titles.

  • Audio Commentary: All of the extras from Dark Sky's two-disc DVD special edition from nearly a decade back have been carried over here, including this commentary track with producer Mardi Rustam, makeup artist Craig Reardon, and actors Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards. The commentary is screen-specific, but it's been recorded in the classic Criterion style, with everyone speaking separately and spliced together into a single track. Among the topics of conversation here are union hiccups, Mel Ferrer nearly being offed for real in his character's death scene, how profoundly different a presence Tobe Hooper is on-set, Richards' mother drawing the line at her daughter sharing the screen with live rats, and everything you wanted to know about Eaten Alive's finances but were afraid to ask. It's impressive just how candid this commentary can be, particularly Collins' horrifying story about how Neville Brand turned on her, something she's able to laugh off decades later but...good lord. Hooper's presence is missed, but this is still a terrific commentary, and being edited together this way ensures that there's never a wasted moment. With two of these actors since having left us, it's especially wonderful to have their thoughts preserved here.
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  • The Butcher of Elmendorf (23 min.; SD): Richard "Bucky" Ball speaks at length about his uncle Joe, whose murderous exploits and concrete alligator pit helped to inspire Eaten Alive. The focus is on Ball's life and what may have driven him to kill rather than getting too caught up in the more lurid details, but...well, that's because there aren't as many lurid details to share as True Detective would have you believe.

  • Interviews (77 min.; mix of HD and SD): Three newly-conducted interviews by Arrow Video are presented here, along with another three from the Dark Sky DVD set.

    Let's lead off with the new stuff. In the fourteen minute "Blood on the Bayou", Tobe Hooper speaks about how he wound up being attached to Eaten Alive as well as the craftsmanship behind its strange, surreal world. It's intriguing to hear what may have been if things had gone according to plan, particularly the intended climax with Buck's gang leveling the Starlight. Janus Blythe notes in her twelve minute interview that she never had a chance to be directed by Hooper, as he was off the project by that point. Blythe offers up several really terrific stories -- hey, that's her own Fiat she's driving! -- while also discussing at length her career in horror and the limited roles for women in '70s independent cinema. We additionally learn that Rob Zombie still wants to see her tits! The last of the new interviews is with Craig Reardon, who's credited as a makeup artist but by his own admission didn't really contribute that much. That's bound to happen when you're brought in to replace someone who never actually left. It's kind of a philosophical and analytical chat, including Reardon comparing and contrasting Neville Brand and Tobe Hooper.

    The other three interviews have Red Shirt Pictures' stamp on them, and that's always a good thing. This earlier conversation with Tobe Hooper, clocking in at twenty minutes, is wall-to-wall gold: stumbling upon a lion while location scouting at Tippi Hedron's ranch, Eaten Alive having nearly as many scripts as it has alternate titles, what an ineffective sponge the stage croc wound up being, and a story about the tank in this stage being sealed with plywood that ends just about as well as you'd expect. In "My Name is Buck" (15 min.), Robert Englund speaks in great detail about his early years on stage and as a fixture during the whole New Hollywood thing. His memories of Eaten Alive are almost entirely warm and positive, especially in how well he and Hooper -- with whom he'd work several more times -- clicked. Last up is "5ive Minutes with Marilyn", a conversation with the since-departed Marilyn Burns. Burns is as warm and charming here as ever, but she tends to speak in generalities, and there's not a tremendous amount of substance.
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  • Promotional Material (14 min.): Green band and red band trailers are offered under the titles Death Trap and Eaten Alive. Aside from those four trailers, there are also promos for the film as Starlight Slaughter and Horror Hotel. A Japanese trailer repeatedly flashes "Death Trap" in English but references something closer to The Devil's Swamp in its native tongue. Also on the promotional tip are a pair of TV commercials under the title Starlight Slaughter as well as two radio spots for Eaten Alive.

  • Galleries: Between the behind the scenes slideshow and a gallery of stills & promotional material, there are close to 150 images: a metric ton of photos snapped during production, poster art under numerous different titles, pages from the press kit, and lobby cards. A third gallery features comment cards asking audiences for, among other things, their suggestions for a new title. The cards tend to be intensely negative, but one of 'em actually suggests the title Starlight Slaughter! Hope you enjoyed your hundred buck reward, whoever you are.

The Final Word
Tobe Hooper's strange and surreal followup to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, and I haven't quite figured out which side of that deeply divisive line I fall on. No matter how you happen to feel about Eaten Alive, there's no denying that Arrow Video has lavished this seminal slice of '70s sleaze with the white glove treatment: a new and achingly gorgeous 2K transfer, crystal clear audio, and hours of compelling extras. So long as you know what you're getting into...? Highly Recommended.
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