“Eaten Alive” (1976)
Studio: Mars Productions Corporation
Starring: Neville Brand, Marilyn Burns, William Finley, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, Robert Englund
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Running Time: 91 min.
Synopsis: A twisted story about a crazy old man that runs a motel in Texas and feeds his guest to his pet crocodile.
Very bizarre is the best way to describe this Tobe Hooper film. In my opinion, the bizarreness makes the film a very good horror movie and an important one in the genre. Hot off making the horror classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper gives us another twisted gem that shows the very strange and bizarre vision of this director. This film features a whore house, a strange married couple and their daughter, a stud boy pre-Freddy Robert Englund, rednecks, different types of mood lighting and mist, and a crazy old man who runs a creepy motel with an alligator as a pet. That is pretty much all the key elements of the film and also plenty of killings from the old man and his pet gator.
During the 1970’s, they were a lot of nature gone wild or killer animal movies either in the theater or on television. The themes were either the animals against man or someone control the animal to make them do their dirty work. Eaten Alive kind of falls under the second one, but it’s not your typical killer animal film. Sure, the gator is one of the main elements of the film, but there’s so much more to the film than a gator eating people alive.
The film is about a twisted old man, Judd (played by Neville Brand) who owns this run down motel called the Starlight and has a very strange attraction which happens to be his pet alligator, which he claims is a crocodile from Africa. The movie starts off with a prostitute getting kicked out of a whore house and getting a room for the night from old Judd. At first he is kind to her in his strange way, but once he figures out she’s from Miss Hattie’s whore house he goes nuts and eventually kills her and feeds her to his old croc.
Throughout the night Judd is visited by a redneck, small time pusher, and a Miss Hattie regular, Buck (played by Englund) who sells some drugs to the old man, a very weird couple (William Finley and Marilyn Burns) and their daughter (Kyle Richards) whose little dog Snoopy gets eaten up by the crocodile, and the father (Mel Ferrer) and sister (Crystin Sinclaire) to the prostitute that Judd killed. The two of them are looking for her, but little do they know that she was food for his pet earlier that night.
What makes this film great to me is it’s nothing like I ever seen. The story is just bizarre and the cast of characters are the strangest bunch of ever on screen. Even the way the film is shot and the setting of the movie is very different. Hooper shot the majority of the film on a sound stage with sets built. A far cry from Chainsaw which was shot all on location. This gave the film almost a surreal stage play atmosphere almost. Then there’s the lighting and thick fog that surrounded the Starlight. Lots of blues, reds, and greens that give the film an Argentoesque look to it. The set, lighting, and fog give the film this isolated feel to it. Once you step foot on the grounds of the motel you are in another world cut off from everything else.
Just as the set is very similar to a play like setting, the characters are presented in kind of a play like matter. The film has many different subplots and is very character driven. There’s Judd, the strange couple, and the father and daughter and the sheriff who is helping them find the man’s daughter. There are a lot of scenes with all three of these subplots in one setting getting a closer look into their lives. Most of it gets stranger by the minute and even though we see a glimpse of their life, very little is explained to whom these people are and how did they get to this point in their life, with the exception of the father and daughter subplot.
One thing, everyone in this film is very tense or on the edge or just plain strange. Judd just goes through these crazy mood swings. In one scene he stands there mumbling when Marilyn Burns and her daughter see that Judd’s monkey in a cage is dead, then once the dog is eaten by the croc he flips out and as he helps the couple into a room in the motel he starts explaining about the crocodile, giving a history of the beast. Another scene has William Finley trying to shoot the croc and Judd is begging him to stop, then he turns away from him and starts running off at the mouth like a crazy homeless person. Then they are the times where Judd is killing someone and his mood changes left and right. First is wild and crazy as he stabs them with his sickle, then his mood changes and he seems frightened like he can’t believe what he did, then he starts to laugh and is happy with himself.
The married couple (Finley and Burns) are the strangest. We never really find out their back-story, but I kind of think they’re on the run because Burns is wearing a wig and Finley is packing a shotgun in his trunk. One of the most bizarre scenes in the film is not the croc eating someone or old Judd being Judd, but it’s when Finley, Burns and the little girl are in the motel room after the girl’s dog has been eaten. Finley is standing up while Burns looks over at him with a mean look. Finley starts to squeeze his fist and points it towards her, like he wants to crush her head. Then he starts to shake his head a bit. Burns just looks at him funny. The scene is very bizarre and some twisted music to go with it. There is even another part where he starts barking like a dog and chomping like a gator.
They are tons of bizarre things and stand out moments throughout the film. The music in the film seems to fit it perfectly. Most of it is just a bunch of noise that is kind of like Hooper’s Chainsaw soundtrack that is very creepy sounding. Then there’s the God awful country-western music that seems to play in every single low-budget horror film in the 70’s. This is playing non-stop on Judd’s radio and even though I hate it, this music fits the weird atmosphere. Of course all the croc attacks and Judd kills are great moments in the film, but there’s also another scene that stands out that takes place in a bar where this cowboy is checking out this girl. He has this strange cold stare on his face while he’s looking at her playing pool. Another guy goes up to him that looks like a bum and starts asking him what he’s looking at? Then he just starts to act very weird and starts to slap the cowboy. First it looks as if the cowboy is scared, but then he fights back and pushes him against the wall ready to fight. Buck saves the bum looking guy and they go back to their pool game. They are plenty of strange characters all through the film.
Eaten Alive is also a who’s who of genre favorites. First you have Robert Englund who has a memorable introduction when before you see him at all you see his belt buckle and he says, “The name’s Buck, I’m raring to fuck!” Miss Hattie is played by Morticia Addams herself, Carolyn Jones. You have Marilyn Burns from Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, William Finley from Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, and many others, Kyle Richards who was in The Car with her sister Kim and was terrified by Michael Myers in the original Halloween, Janus Blythe (who was one of Buck’s girlfriends) went on to be part of a crazy cannibal family in The Hills Have Eyes, Crystin Sinclaire from exploitation films like Hustler Squad and Caged Heat, and TV and film veterans Mel Ferrer (Nightmare City, Mangiati vivi!, which is the other Eaten Alive), Stuart Whitman (Night of the Lepus, The Monster Club), and Neville Brand (Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Twilight Zone) make up this excellent and strange cast.
Yes, most of the film makes no sense and there are tons of unanswered questions, but I think that’s what makes Eaten Alive so watchable. After twenty years of seeing it for the first time, the film still holds up for me. Just the pure bizarreness of it makes the film a cult classic and the characters strange as they may be are very memorable. Tobe Hooper gave us two twisted films of the 1970’s with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive. A director with a very disturbing vision made many cult classics in the realms of horror.