Quite early in his career, Tobe Hooper became a formidable director with the success of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in 1974. There are some folks who dislike this film for whatever reason, but it has been championed by enough critics, professional and casual alike, to gain cultural significance. A print of the adrenaline gushing Massacre has even made its way into the holdings of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Hooper’s follow up, Eaten Alive of 1976, never garnered nearly enough recognition. In fact, a good majority of viewers including horror genre fans find the film awful. I suggest that perhaps they are viewing the film with the wrong expectations. Eaten Alive is a bizarre Grand Guignol yarn that subverts any kind of narrative tradition. It rejects any claim to reality and pleasures itself in a load of swampy southern muck.
Eaten Alive opens with a young Robert Englund (who went on to become Freddy Krueger) saying, “my name’s Buck, and I’m rearin’ to fuck,” a line that was later echoed by a character in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. The film cuts from Buck’s belt buckle to a sparse room in a whorehouse, brightly and boringly lit as if it were a porn set. The woman (Roberta Collins) he is with resists his advances and gets thrown out after he attempts to rape her. This nameless, blond-wigged woman seems like she will become the protagonist of the film, but after getting to the Starlight Hotel, she is quickly fondled, mortally injured with a pitchfork and fed to an alligator at the hands of Judd (Neville Brand), who turns out to be our leading man. Hooper manages to pack two sexual assault scenes into the first ten minutes of Eaten Alive, indicating its miserable, hopeless tone. While Norman Bates at least seems like a nice young man when Marion Crane arrives at the Bates Motel in Psycho, Judd over at The Starlight is immediately recognizable as some kind of unstable creep.
Next, a married couple arrives with their young daughter. The audience is once again given the opportunity to identify with some potentially “normal” characters, but we soon find out that the husband, Roy (William Finley, who got his start in DePalma’s early films) is completely unhinged. At one point he even begins nonsensically barking like a dog. While his daughter is recovering from the shock of the family dog being eaten by the gator, Roy decides to take matters into his own hands. This ultimately leads to the gator dragging him away to his death. Judd then proceeds to terrorize Faye, the wife left behind, played by Marilyn Burns who gets to reprise some of her screaming talent from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (it makes you wonder what motivations she had to do the new role after the insanity she had to go through in the earlier film). Another couple arrives, and the cycle continues. In between all of the violent scenes we watch Judd mill about his hotel taking part in random activities—quietly crooning, looking at magazines, dusting furniture, turning lamps on and off… none of this seems necessary, yet Hooper is obviously not playing with an average plot progression.
The thing that needs to be stressed more about Eaten Alive is its absolute digression from reality. It looks as if sunlight never reaches the Starlight Hotel, only a hellish, saturated red glow. Plumes of fog hang around the building and the swamp, creating a setting worthy of a theater production—sometimes they pump so many thick clouds into the frame it looks like something is on fire. Whereas The Texas Chain Saw Massacre succeeds in its semblance to reality, Eaten Alive takes viewers in an unexpected direction, truly reminiscent of Grand Guignol theater. It focuses primarily on one setting that is quickly stained with spurts of blood, high-pitched screams echoing in the swamp, and old Judd at the center, mumbling all the while. All of this is punctuated by the bare bones, twisted electronic soundtrack composed—and perhaps improvised—by Hooper himself and Wayne Bell.
Much like the family members in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Judd appears to be impotent, or if any of them do act on their sexual appetites, they are based on some necrophilial perversity and not nubile young women. Another way of looking at the scenario is by likening the hotel owner’s pet gator to an extension of, or rather replacement for, his penis. Like many horror movie antagonists, he kills with a phallic object, doesn’t fuck with it. Judd actually has many similar qualities to the old man in the previous film—later given the name Drayton Sawyer in the sequel—with many of the same mannerisms. Eaten Alive leaves the responsibility of lechery to young Buck, the entitled, smart-ass rapist who’s death is probably the most satisfying kill in the film. The women in Hooper’s early films seem to be there in order to be terrorized. Men are violent and pathetic, and women have to survive the chore of co-existing with them. Faye is tied to a bed with electrical tape around her mouth for about half the film. When Lynette (Janus Blythe) the sexy, underage girl who Buck brings back to the Starlight escapes from Judd, one gets the sinking feeling that the random guy who picks her up is probably not going to be the chivalrous type. This is the bleak, nightmarish world of Tobe Hooper: relentless, unfair, Southern Gothic gone crazy.
In short, Eaten Alive is a maligned masterpiece that needs everyone’s reconsideration. Those audience members responsible for a 30% approval rating on the rotten tomatoes film review aggregator website need to watch the film keeping in mind that its structure is subversive in itself, not some badly thought out disaster. While not as good as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive is still worthy of being a film in need of preservation and kept in MOMA’s holdings. It is a good thing that the folks over at Arrow Video understand the significance within the mayhem that is Eaten Alive, as they released a restored, high definition version of it within the past couple of years. Next, we need to have a theater established that can be a Grand Guignol revival, as Eaten Alive would make an excellent, blood soaked stage production.