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The Test of Time: Eaten Alive (1977)

09.07.2017by: Jake Dee

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY TOBE HOOPER

STARRING: NEVILLE BRAND, ROBERT ENGLUND, MARILYN BURNS, MEL FERRER, CAROLYN JONES

With two consecutive Black Sheep articles (HERE, HERE) and now a Test of Time piece on the man’s films, it seems I’m either more despondent than most over the untimely silence of authorial horror voice Tobe Hooper, or simply more ready to fete his still unheralded career. Not that I’m weepy over here or anything, it’s just that I really do love those first five films the man made from 1973-1982. And while one may positively or negatively label Hooper the Orson Welles of horror films by virtue that he’d never quite replicate the grandness of his first foray into filmmaking (I do not count EGGSHELLS) as he did with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (yes, the CITIZEN KANE of horror films), anyone who knows much about Hooper’s career understands full well what a dirty, deliriously dizzying, delectable dish his sophomore horror joint is, was and will likely forever be.

That’s right y’all, EATEN ALIVE marked the 40th anniversary of its release in the U.S. this past May, and frankly, there’s no better occasion to revisit the flick and see how it’s aged over the past four decades. They say love fades, but I have a sneaking suspicion no love will be lost when putting EATEN ALIVE up against the Test of Time. You down? Let’s get it!

THE STORY: Just typing the storyline to EATEN ALIVE always plasters a giddy grin over my mug. The plot follows the sordid likes of a homicidal hayseed hotelier named Judd (Neville Brand), who runs the seedily moldering Starlight Hotel – a steaming cesspool of a backwoods brothel in the swampy bayous of rural East Texas. When customers run afoul, or his hookers merely run their lip, old Judd gorily gouges them to near-death with the long swipe of a scythe blade before dumping their moribund remains in the fetid swamp-pit on the side of the motel. Not for fun, mind you, but so his pet alligator can masticate the remains. Now, this would be a solid setup for any outright sleazy grindhouse horror joint from the 70s – as it brilliantly blends slasher tropes with creature-feature tenets - but many people fail to realize that Hooper actually based this story on a real life happening in the 1930s. Check it…

Per IMDBs trivia section on the film:

Loosely based on the story of Joe Ball (also known as the Bluebeard from South Texas or the Alligator Man from Elmendorf, Texas,) which took place sometime after Prohibition ended. Ball owned a bar with an alligator pit serving as an entertainment attraction. Several murders of women ensued that Joe Ball was suspected of, but it was never proven that the flesh found in the pit was human. However, Joe Ball committed suicide at his bar on September 24, 1938 when he was about to be arrested by the police in connection with the murders.

Damn, that’s some real life crime story. Never proved that the flesh in the pit was human? Seriously, just a filth-ridden, muddy soup of rotten flesh, bone and blood? That’s about as nasty and gnarly as it gets! Yet, just as he did with Ed Gein in CHAINSAW, Hooper took a true tale, transcended reality and made something unique and wholly his own. In EATEN ALIVE, set on the other side of Texas, he did the same!

WHAT HOLDS-UP: As a quintessential brand of raw Hooper horror – the low-budget ingenuity, the grit and grain, the foul ferocity, the scratch and hiss of imperfect analogue - most-to-all of EATEN ALIVE still retains its icky power. Much of that has to do with the way the movie punctuates a brand of bleak humor while moving back and forth between straight-forward slasher fare, pop-up creature-feature sensibilities and smuttily perverse sense of exploitation. The bizarre surrealism, delirium and overall sense of genuine insanity imbued in the reels of film become palpable by the third reel. The kind of movie that demands a pair of showers directly after seeing it. Not one, two!

In fact, it’s so Hooper through and through that I have a hard time buying reports from makeup man Craig Reardon that DP Robert Caramico directed several scenes due to creative differences between him, Hooper and the producers of the movie. Seriously, if POLTERGEIST is quintessential Spielberg under the guise of Hooper’s name, EATEN ALIVE is prototypical Hooper no matter who is said to have been behind the camera. Seriously, who the hell is Bob Caramico? This guy’s only directing credits? Peep this: a porno mockumentary called SEX RITUAL OF THE OCCULT (1970) and an 1994 episode of New Lassie? GET THE F*CK OUT OF HERE!

"My name is Buck, and I'm rarin' to F*ck!"

You know what else holds up? Bob Englund. So sturdily propped in fact that Tarantino stole a line he utters in EATEN ALIVE and let Michael Bowen repeat it in KILL BILL. The line? “My name is Buck, and I’m rarin’ to f*ck!” Pre-Freddy Krueger Englund spouts the line with a greasily untoward glint in his eye before desperately trying to sodomize a portly hooker. Sick F*ck! This sets the tone for what ultimately becomes an unadulterated barrage of steamy, quasi-smut, semi-snuff oddball mania that carries all the way through to the end. It’s also damn good to see Marilyn Burns show up onscreen after being left scarred for life as Sally Hardesty at the end of CHAINSAW. A bit different fate for her this time, but damn I love that chica!

Other aspects of EATEN ALIVE that stand tall today are the overall look, sound and feel of what’s essentially an exploitation grind-house drive-in B-movie. The humid neon lighting, the ambient rising smog, the discordant film score and jagged sound FX, the distinct, starkly unpolished visual style Hooper brought to CHAINSAW and THE FUNHOUSE, etc. These deft directorial flourishes are the perfect way to mirror the seedy and sordid subject matter. And even if it lacks the slick elegance of A-list productions nowadays, it remains true to itself, and therefore is hard to assail as anything other than the genuine article. It’s a damn shame this movie got lost in the shuffle through all of its various titles, DEATH TRAP, HORROR HOTEL, STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER, etc. etc. But anyone who’s anyone knows in their hearts and minds EATEN ALIVE is far more of a towering Test of Time champion than a panned and glanced-over Black Sheep. It’s one of Hooper’s best films!

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Oh those hopped-up hookers and salty slatterns sure blow a great deal, if you catch the drift. Shout out to Carolyn Jones, Roberta Collins, Kyle Richards, Janus Blythe, Betty Cole, Crystin Sinclaire and the other game and nameless gals willing to be so objectified, so misogynistically defiled on screen in the name of achieving Hooper’s unflattering vision. Straight up, they have more grit, guile and gumption that I would have, that’s for damn sure! Other than that, outside of a dubious performance or two, there isn’t a ton to grouse about in terms of EATEN ALIVE losing its steam. The potency has staying power!

VERDICT: I adore EATEN ALIVE. To me, it’s the second best Hooper horror film behind CHAINSAW, and that says a lot considering what a nearly perfect movie POLTERGEIST is. Of course, we all know the nubilous controversy about that film and how much Speilberg may or may not have lent a hand, so it’s a bit difficult to qualify that one. Still, I prefer the ribald revelry of EATEN ALIVE, the unapologetically depraved and deeply perverse sense of menace, the unfiltered filth, the bleary delirium it conjures, the f*cked up fusion of slasher and creature feature mores, all of it. I can’t get enough of it. I couldn’t when I first saw it as a teenager, and now that it’s clearly defied its age at 40 years old, I still can’t get enough. RIP Mr. Hooper, like all your other horror classics, this one will be forever EATEN ALIVE!

GET EATEN ALIVE ON DVD HERE

GET EATEN ALIVE ON BLU-RAY HERE

Extra Tidbit: What's your favorite part of EATEN ALIVE?
Source: AITH

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