Following up a breakout hit is really hard, and, especially in the horror genre — it can be life or death for some filmmakers. John Carpenter followed up Assault on Precinct 13 with Halloween; a definite step forward. Wes Craven followed The Last House on the Left with The Hills Have Eyes; again, pushing the envelope further. But if you’re Tobe Hooper and your first film is the already-grueling The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, how on Earth could you possibly follow that up? Turns out, with one of the ickiest, strangest, and least warm-feeling movies of his whole career. And that’s really saying something. It’s his 1977 film Eaten Alive. (Not to be confused with the 1980 film Eaten Alive that’s just another in the span of Italian cannibal movies that came out.)
This is a movie that took a while to get going, after several starts and stops by Hooper to make his Chain Saw follow-up, and when he finally got around to Eaten Alive, he wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a ripoff of his first film. That movie was known for its location filming in the hot Texas sun and for having unknown actors, giving it the feel of a snuff film.
By contrast, Eaten Alive (also called Death Trap) was a studio-bound affair, despite the low budget, and was populated with people you’ve seen before or would see soon after. But the two films are linked by their sense of unease and unending upsettingness, of course.
The movie starts somewhere in the swamp country of South Texas (which I guess is a thing) in a brothel owned by Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones, you know, from The Addams Family). A prostitute named Clara (Roberta Collins, a veteran of Roger Corman movies) decides she doesn’t want to submit to the kind of thing the client named Buck (a young Robert Englund) wants to do. So she fights back, and when Miss Hattie comes in to see what the commotion is, Clara gets fired and kicked out and Buck gets two other girls as compensation. Real high class place, this.
So Clara goes out to try to find somewhere to stay and ends up at the Starlight Hotel owned by Judd (Nevill Brand), an older guy who clearly has some repressed sexual hang-ups. Needless to say, he beats Clara to death with a rake and then feeds her body to his pet Nile crocodile. Oh, I’m sorry, was that not needless to say?
Other people show up to the hotel, including a family made up of a mom (Marilyn Chambers, from Texas Chainsaw Massacre), a dad (William Finley, from Phantom of the Paradise), and a daughter (Kyle Richards, who’d soon be in Carpenter’s Halloween and who is currently a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills). The dad is crazy and the mom is wearing a horrible wig for some reason. They stop to get their car fixed, but the family dog gets eaten by the croc and scares the daughter.
After going into one of the rooms, the wife stares at the husband until he makes a really weird face and then goes downstairs to kill the croc with a shotgun. Naturally, Judd doesn’t want this, so he slices the husband with a scythe and the croc eats him. He then ties the wife up, after beating her as she’s trying to take a bath, and chases the daughter under the motel. He spends most of the rest of the movie trying to get her out from under there.
And if that weren’t enough, Clara’s father (Mel Ferrer) and her sister (Crystin Sinclaire) stay at the hotel while meeting with the town sheriff (Stuart Whitman) about what might have happened to their missing relative. Oh boy, that’s a lot of people for the slaughter, especially when Buck brings another young lady around to the hotel, even though Judd explicitly forbade him from doing so. Lots of people get menaced by Judd and his scythe, then they get killed in nasty ways and eaten by the croc.
If I’m being 100% honest here, the movie should not be called Eaten Alive. I think only one person is actually eaten by the crocodile whilst they are still alive; every other meal is had while they’re dead, or at the very least almost dead. This is similar to how Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a complete misnomer given that only one person in the whole film is killed with a chainsaw.
There’s an undeniable, pervasive creepiness in this movie that, like Chain Saw, is hard to define but completely evident. Hooper certainly isn’t working with realism in performance here, but there still manages to be a grimy realness to what we’re seeing. Judd feels like he absolutely should have belonged to the Sawyer family along with Leatherface and the Hitchhiker. Maybe a cousin. He’s absolutely insane, mumbles to himself, and is implied to be impotent which apparently explains his violent lashing out. Brand gives a superbly twisted performance and is truly frightening once he gets hold of the scythe and gives chase. Hooper also used Wayne Bell again for the music, which gives the movie a tinny, industrial thunk throughout that continues and builds upon the often unending screams of the victims.
This is a loud and abrasive horror movie that gets under your skin. Unlike Texas Chain Saw Massacre, though, it’s not nearly as good, so you end up feeling really gross AND unfulfilled.
Eaten Alive was branded one of the infamous Video Nasties in Britain but was not one of the 39 successfully prosecuted in court. It wasn’t a big hit anywhere, but it did keep Hooper working and led to him directing the TV miniseries Salem’s Lot in 1979 and eventually Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist in 1982, even if just in name. Hooper’s had a very strange career, but he definitely has an auteurist stamp, and that’s evident in Eaten Alive, even if you are acknowledging it while wincing.