Eaten Alive (1976) Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Deep in the Louisiana bayou sits the ramshackle Starlight Hotel; destination of choice for those who like to check in, but not check out! Presided over by the bumbling, mumbling Judd (and his pet croc, which he keeps in a large pond out front), the patron of this particular establishment may seem like a good-natured ole’ Southern gent – but he has a mean temper on him and a mighty large scythe to boot… (From Arrow’s original synopsis)
Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) was the ultimate visceral expression of the underlying cultural dissonance of the 1970s. There were politics and social messages hidden beneath its horror, but it was its intense aesthetic that galvanized creative filmmakers in the years that followed. Hooper had invented a new kind of audio/visual sensation on the level of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. He inspired everyone from the genre underground to studio darling Ridley Scott, who regularly references Texas Chain Saw Massacre as the major filmic influence on Alien (1979). Yet Hooper’s professional career rarely delivered on the promise of his horror debut (his second feature overall, following Eggshells, 1969). His reputation soon soured. He was fired from The Dark (completed by John 'Bud' Cardos, 1979) and Venom (completed by Piers Haggard, 1981), he had three films significantly recut by distributor Cannon (Lifeforce, 1985; Invaders from Mars, 1986; and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, 1986), and lapsed into taking low-budget television jobs. Even his biggest hit, Poltergeist (1982), has been retroactively credited to producer Steven Spielberg by fans and critics – a distinction both filmmakers have denied.
Hooper’s downturn started as quickly as second horror movie, Eaten Alive (aka: Death Trap, Horror Hotel, and Starlight Slaughter, 1979), which suffered from behind-the-scenes strife, critical disinterest, and disappointing box office receipts. It took the film quite some time to finally find a nominal cult audience on home video. One assumes that the initial audience disappointment tended to stem from the fact that it was sold as a killer crocodile movie in the wake of the runaway success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). In contrast, Eaten Alive isn’t a creature feature or an adventure story and it has almost zero blockbuster appeal. The crocodile does attack and kill people (and a dog), but it’s main function is as Judd’s weapon/garbage disposal/representative id. It’s not a major antagonist, like the malevolent crocodilia of Lewis Teague’s Alligator (1980), Arch Nicholson’s Dark Age (1987), or Steve Miner’s Lake Placid (1999), and it appears quite briefly.
In Hooper’s hands, the croc is an extension of the oppressive environment that is the Starlight Hotel, which is a surreal, southern-fried answer to the Bates Motel in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Both inns are run by madmen at war with their carnal desires, situated well off the beaten path, and seem to attract hopelessly damned individuals. Hooper extends the Hell metaphor by shooting the Starlight sets through smoke and searing neon color schemes. Often compared to Argento’s Suspira (which was released the same year), I assume Hooper was actually attempting to evoke the stagey appearance of Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle movies. The film flounders into predictability anytime it cuts away from the evocative Starlight sets, but these comparatively boring scenes do effectively demonstrate the contrast between the environments and emphasize the hellish presence of the hotel. Hooper’s attempts to revise Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s story and set-piece structures aren’t as successful. Eaten Alive is too easily broken down into a prototypical slasher movie framework – characters arrive in a hostile environment, they are murdered, a young woman among them survives and escapes. These expectations are verified further by reintroducing Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s survivor, Marilyn Burns, as another central character that endures the murderous ordeal.
Hooper’s visual ambition is impressive enough to guide Eaten Alive through its roughest spots, but, nearly 40 years after its initial release, the spectre of Texas Chain Saw Massacre still looms heavily upon its shoulders. The nightmarish otherworldliness of the Starlight sets are a step in the right direction and Hooper’s attempts to building upon the previous film’s underlying themes are admirable. Beneath Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s nerve-shredding terror was the still-relevant story of resentment in the American South. In the ‘70s, the region was still nursing a chip left on its shoulder by the Civil War when it became a battleground all over again during the Civil Rights Movement. For better or worse (usually better), the Southern way of life was frequently challenged by progressive Northern interests. In reaction, the Southern rebel – a former hero of the matinee era – was cast as the villain in Hollywood movies and their ‘B’ counterparts. However, as a native-born son of Texas, Hooper understood his Southern-born monsters and treated their plight with some affection. Leatherface’s family is frightening, but they’re also sympathetic creatures that have been burdened by the changing standards of the post-Civil Rights era.
Eaten Alive’s antagonist, Judd, portrayed by a completely unhinged Neville Brand, is another Southern monster reacting to political/social changes with paranoia and violence. He’s not a cannibal (as far as we know), nor is he making furniture out of his victims, but he vehemently justifies his crimes to himself via a series of rambling diatribes – a personality trait that was again magnified for Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2, in which the heroes and villains rant deliriously to themselves. Judd’s severe psychosis (I assume he’s meant to be a schizophrenic) likely stems from Hooper’s aforementioned love of Psycho, which was one of the first fictional adaptations of a non-fictional murderer’s exploits. Both Psycho and Texas Chain Saw Massacre were based on the crimes of necrophile killer Ed Gein – along with Jeff Gillen/Alan Ormsby’s Deranged (1974), Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991), and others. It’s likely that Hooper, writer Kim Henkel, and (especially) producer/co-writers Alvin L. Fast & Mardi Rustam all thought that it was important to draw from the true crime well again, so Eaten Alive’s murderous hotel proprietor was also based on a real-world serial killer, in this case Joe Ball (aka: The Alligator Man, The Butcher of Elmendorf, and The Bluebeard of South Texas). Ball was a one-time bootlegger who murdered between two and twenty women and (according to unsubstantiated legend) fed their remains to his pet alligators during the 1920s and ‘30s.
Hooper’s film was originally banned as part of the UK’s video nasties debacle under the alternate title Death Trap. It is a much bloodier movie than Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that’s not a tall order, considering how little actual violence Hooper showed in that film. In the grand scheme of ‘70s horror, the gore and violence is standard-issue. It’s likely that the British censors, who had already banned Texas Chain Saw Massacre for theatrical release (it was never classified as a ‘nasty’), were only reacting to the fact that Hooper made it. After all, The Funhouse (1981), Hooper’s direct theatrical follow-up to Eaten Alive, was on the original list, too (in any case, neither film was officially prosecuted). It is also possible that the censors confused Hooper’s Eaten Alive/Death Trap with two Italian cannibal films that ultimately weren’t officially banned on video – Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive! (Italian: Mangiati Vivi!, 1985) and Joe D'Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (aka: Trap Them and Kill Them, 1977).
Eaten Alive has been released on North American digital home video three times, including a non-anamorphic widescreen release from Elite Entertainment, a full-frame grey-market disc from Diamond Entertainment, and a loaded, anamorphically enhanced special edition from Dark Sky Films. Arrow’s simultaneous US/UK Blu-ray marks the first HD availability in any region. According to the collection’s booklet, the original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 2K and digitally restored, though some CRI elements were also scanned ‘for completion’ (I guess some stuff was missing from the negative). I assume that the CRI elements in question are a select few moments where the resolution dips and the image appears fuzzy very briefly. Details are much crisper than the standard edition releases, especially the scenes shot in and around the hotel set, where the elaborate production design fills all corners of the shot.
Every version of Eaten Alive I’ve ever seen has had different color grading. I don’t know what the film is ‘supposed’ to look like, but the booklet claims that Hooper himself approved the grading here (the director says something similar in his introduction), which leads me to assume this is close to an original theatrical print as we’ll ever see. The effect is appropriately vivid and expressionistic, though not quite as overwhelming as some of the DVD transfers. The colors cut nicely against each other without unintended bleeding (obviously, much of the red lighting is meant to bleed somewhat) and there are plenty of subtle variations on display. Gamma levels are much different than the dark and high contrast Dark Sky release, but not at the risk of the gloomy shadows that are so vital to Hooper and cinematographer Robert Caramico’s compositions. The most offensive print damage has been removed, but there are still a handful of scratches as discolored patches.
Aside: the single strangest experience in my eleven years writing for DVD/Blu-ray reviews came when I was sent a review copy of Dark Sky Film’s Eaten Alive DVD, which was to be the first anamorphic version. I was instructed to put a hold on my review by Dark Sky and waited an entire year for a new disc to arrive. To my surprise, it wasn’t only a matter of copyright or changing extras (the extras did change slightly), but the new disc featured a completely different transfer – one that was much darker and muddier than the initial non-release. I still have that DVD in my collection somewhere, because it was, as far as I was concerned, the best version of Eaten Alive available. But it was never released, so I didn’t see much purpose in preparing comparison caps for this review.
Eaten Alive is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 original mono. The track gets the job done as well it can, based on the age and state of the material. There is some minor distortion at high volumes – usually when characters are screaming – but the baseline sound floor is free of abrasive crackles and buzz. Dialogue is rounded and clear without too much of the flattening effects that tend to crop up with single channel mixes. Hooper himself supplied the film’s score with the help of Texas Chain Saw Massacre co-composer/sound designer Wayne Bell. It’s difficult to discern a difference between what’s considered ‘music’ and what’s considered ambient effect work, but the results are quite well layered and busy for a film of this kind. Even dialogue-heavy sequences are underscored by natural noises and the steady drone of country western radio. The crocodile’s growls help to fill out the bassy bottom, despite the lack of a discreet LFE channel.
Commentary with co-writer and producer Mardi Rustam, actors Roberta Collins, William Finley & Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon – This group commentary, which made its first appearance on Dark Sky’s DVD, is mostly made up of a series of interviews, though Rustam seems to have been seated to record a screen-specific track. The information and tone varies from person to person, but the mix and match qualities do ensure that there isn’t a lot of space wasted.
New introduction by director Tobe Hooper (00:20, HD)
Blood on the Bayou (14:00, HD) – A new interview with Hooper, who discusses the film’s genesis, his early career, his surrealistic imagery (inspired by Grimm fairy tales), production difficulties, his cast and their weirdo performances, and the on-set monkey death.
Gator Bait (11:40, HD) – Another new interview, this time with actress Janus Blythe, who appears towards the end of the film as Robert Englund’s new girl (she was also Ruby in the original The Hills Have Eyes). Interestingly, she says she was directed almost exclusively by producer Rustam, who wanted to add more T&A against Hooper’s interests.
Monsters and Metaphors (11:30, HD) –The last of the new interviews is with make-up artist Craig Reardon. Reardon talks about working on the indoor set, the filmmaking environment in the 1970s, Eaten Alive’s themes as metaphors for real-world problems, but never mentions his effects work.
The Gator Creator (19:40, SD) – This archive interview with Hooper also appeared on Dark Sky’s DVD. It covers a lot of the same ground as the new interview. It includes SD footage from the DVD for those that might want to compare transfers.
My Name is Buck (15:10, SD) – The second of the Dark Sky interviews is with actor Robert Englund, whose contributions to the discussion are welcome. He runs down basically his entire career, from childhood to Eaten Alive.
5ive Minutes with Marilyn Burns (5:20, SD) – One more Dark Sky interview with the lead actress and star of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Burns briefly chats about both of her early films with Hooper.
The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball (23:10, SD) – A look at the true-life story of the South Texas murderer/bootlegger that Hooper used as a basis for Neville Brand’s character (it also popped up on Dark Sky’s DVD).
Alternate opening titles (1:10, HD)
Stills and promo material gallery
Audience Comment Cards
Trailers under various alternate titles (all HD)
TV and radio spots
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.