Eaten Alive (1976)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: September 22nd, 2015
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Discordance and incongruities define The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Tobe Hooper’s stunning masterpiece thrives on an aesthetic contradiction that gives the impression of a sun-soaked daydream giving way to a moonlit night terror. The gorgeous and the macabre constantly collide, leaving wreckage that’s beautiful and ugly all at once. Eaten Alive, on the other hand, simply plunges straight into the grotesque wreckage—this is an ugly film wrought from grime, mud, grit, blood, and sweat, not unlike Hooper’s previous effort. But unlike that seminal film, Eaten Alive has no time to even feign the pretense of pleasantries. Its title might as well refer to an audience swallowed whole by a maelstrom of rambling, cock-eyed lunacy.
This is a film that opens with a miscreant (Robert Englund) announcing his “name’s Buck, and he’s rarin’ to fuck” before trying to convince prostitute Clara (Roberta Collins) to try something new (and uncomfortable). Outside of his seemingly endless quest for anal sex, Buck has very little to actually do in Eaten Alive, but he’s our entry point into this sordid backwoods town situated somewhere on the purgatorial Texas-Louisiana border. Tucked not-so-safely away from the rest of humanity, this swamp town is the sort of hayseed locale where the sheriff can casually stroll into the welcoming arms of the local whorehouse. Beer-swilling roughnecks shoot pool and leer at uncomfortably young girls, their toxic masculinity threatening to spill out with every exchange. Down the road, buried even deeper in the heart of this hellish bayou, sits the Starlight Hotel, a decrepit haunt run by Judd (Neville Brand), an incoherent, shell-shocked owner prone to brandishing a scythe and feeding visitors to his pet gator.
It’s here that Clara flees from Buck, an “an out of the frying pan but into the fire” situation if there ever was one. Blondes and seedy motels in horror movies make for a deadly combination, of course, but others straggle into the Starlight soon enough, including Clara’s father (Mel Ferrer) and sister (Crystin Sinclaire), plus a family of three (the matriarch is Marilyn Burns, the daughter Kyle Richards), all of whom have no idea what they’re in for despite all of the obvious warning signs. With so many characters filing in and out (mostly to die, or, in poor Burns’s case, subjected to another round of Hooper-supervised torture), Eaten Alive eschews the razor sharp structure of its predecessor and opts for a more shaggy, roughshod approach that barely invites you to care about the victims in question.
By doing so, Hooper unchains himself completely and picks up the thread he left dangling at the end of Texas Chainsaw, where Leatherface howls in a desperate rage, unable to articulate beyond flailing his chainsaw about in the arid Texas wind. Eaten Alive is that howl stretched over 90 deranged minutes that push viewers to the limits of sheer abrasion. While much of the film can be described as a wild-eyed lunatic preying on unsuspecting victims, it’s somehow exhausting in its sheer noisiness: from the hellish bayou symphony of croaking frogs and screeching metal that score the opening credits to Judd’s incessant, maniacal chatter (and every ear-piercing scream in between), Eaten Alive is a cacophonous assault. It’s a noise rock album where the liner notes are filled with gruesome images of impalements and eviscerations. One doesn’t just watch it so much as they constantly hear its nonstop collection of grating, grunting, and groaning.
Eaten Alive probably shouldn’t work. Conceptually, everything about it seems terminally abrasive, including Hooper’s decision to deliver a film that lives up to the misguided reputation of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a notoriously disturbing film that’s actually quite restrained, all things considered. No one could reasonably accuse Eaten Alive of the same, as Hooper completely indulges the gory potential of a story featuring a bug-eyed lunatic and his pet alligator. Usually, such attempts to live up to one’s perceived reputation (or outdo it) are phony and desperate, and, while Eaten Alive still fails to do either with respect to Chain Saw, it misses the mark so wildly that you feel compelled to appreciate it.
By the time its insanity has completely washed over you (by the end of the first reel, more or less), Eaten Alive feels less like an attempt to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of its predecessor and more like an attempt to ingest that lightning-in-a-bottle without worrying about the after-effects. The result is a film far removed from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; where that film finds dread in the open-air isolation of rural Texas, this one suffocates viewers within an unreal, cluttered backlot surrounded by swamps and pines and bathed in an unnatural crimson hue that heightens the artificiality and gives the impression that Eaten Alive is unfolding under an unnatural blood moon.
Gone is the cinema verite of Hooper’s previous film, replaced here by an odd clash of anarchy and artifice, its trio of psychos reduced to the singular madness of Brand’s frazzled but indelible lunatic (the allusions to his war-based trauma even bring the Vietnam subtext of Chainsaw roaring to the surface here). Despite that streamlining, Eaten Alive is nonetheless a messier, more mangled affair whose wails still pierce nearly 40 year later. They may not be as refined as Hooper’s earlier buzzsaw yawps, but that somehow feels appropriate.
When Eaten Alive was the subject of a 2-disc special edition DVD 8 years ago, it was almost astonishing (our collective amazement is noted at the end of my review); after all, it was only a year removed from the first proper special edition for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and it’s not as if Eaten Alive has garnered the most glowing reputation over the years. The last decade-plus has truly been a blessed time for such films, however, as evidenced by Arrow Video’s bestowing a special edition Blu-ray treatment upon Eaten Alive. Delivered with a new 2K transfer and an uncompressed mono track, the film is accompanied by many of the same extras from the Dark Sky release, including interviews with Englund, Hooper, and Burns, plus a commentary with Roberta Collins, Kyle Richards, William Finley, producer Marti Rustam, and effects artist Craig Reardon.
A new introduction from Hooper opens the film here, and separate interviews with the director, Reardon, and star Janus Blythe highlight the newly-produced material. “The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball” is an interesting featurette about the south Texas bar owner whose exploits inspired the film (it turns out that Eaten Alive is about as “based on” these exploits as much as Texas Chain Saw is “based on” Ed Gein). A horde of promotional material (including separate trailers bearing each of the film’s various titles) rounds out the supplements along with Arrow’s usual embellishments, such as a reversible cover and a booklet. That we’re no longer all that surprised that Eaten Alive can receive such a treatment at this point is a testament to what Arrow (and other genre labels) have accomplished over the past decade or so. We almost feel compelled to take it for granted that Eaten Alive—Eaten Alive!—is more or less on equal footing with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the home video department. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: