Saturday, June 3, 2017

Eaten Alive (1976)

          The best horror filmmakers realize there’s a lot more to disturbing audiences than gore—fictional worlds populated by weird characters often make viewers more uncomfortable than onscreen bloodshed. Consider a pair of early Tobe Hooper movies. His breakout hit, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), imagines a remote pocket of the Lone Star State where insane cannibals prey upon innocent visitors. His follow-up, Eaten Alive, presents a rural hotel where the proprietor is a psychopath who kidnaps people, slaughters them with scythes and other instruments, and feeds their bodies to the gigantic alligator he keeps in a pond behind the hotel. Whereas many horror pictures frighten viewers by inserting a chaos agent into the normal world, these Hooper films drag normal people into chaos.
          That said, there’s a massive difference between these two pictures. Shot on location and featuring a no-name cast, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an immersive nightmare. Shot on soundstages and featuring several Hollywood actors, Eaten Alive is fake on every level, and therefore much less effective. Other problems include a slow-moving script, threadbare characters, and the vulgar intrusion of gratuitous nudity. Nonetheless, there’s a certain compelling derangement to Eaten Alive. After all, the first scene features a pre-Freddy Kreuger Robert Englund as a redneck who introduces himself to a prostitute by saying, “Name’s Buck—I’m rarin’ to fuck.” Later, the movie includes a woman stripped to her lingerie and bound and gagged for days; a young girl trapped in the crawlspace beneath the hotel, with the psychopath coming at her from one direction and the alligator coming at her from the other; and various persons impaled, stabbed, and swallowed in grisly death scenes.
          Nihilism hovers over this flick like a dark cloud.
          Yet it’s the bizarre throwaway scenes that make Eaten Alive unsettling, more so than the ho-hum creature-feature moments. In one bit, a weirdo played by William Finley, known for his work with Brian De Palma, engages in a masochistic conversation with his wife. (“Why don’t you just take that cigarette and grind it out in my eye?”) In another scene, the hotel proprietor tries on various pairs of glasses while reading porno mags and ignoring the pet monkey that’s dying in a nearby cage. The strangeness extends to the actual filmmaking. Hooper often bathes his sets in garish red light, so characters seem as if they’re in hell, and the editing lingers on lurid images—the dying monkey, a nubile young woman stripping—so the whole movie has the air of deranged voyeurism.
          Neville Brand’s leading performance is obvious and silly, but his character is so grotesque that Brand’s work gains a sort of unpleasant power, and onetime Addams Family star Carolyn Jones adds a peculiar quality with her small role as an alternately courtly and cross madam who wears men’s clothes. The performances are hardly the point, though. As a straight-through narrative, Eaten Alive—which was inspired by the crimes of a real-life killer—is a dud, too campy and episodic to maintain real suspense. As a journey into an otherworldly headspace, it’s fairly effective.

Eaten Alive: FREAKY


Marc said...

Think "gratuitous nudity" is a problem for most viewers of horror/exploitation films? This ain't Masterpiece Theatre.

Jocko said...

Dead monkey in a cage? I'm in!