a.k.a. Death Trap, Legend of the Bayou, Murder on the Bayou, Starlight Slaughter, Horror Hotel, Horror Hotel Massacre
**½/**** Image C+* Sound B Extras B+
starring Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns
screenplay by Alvin L. Fast, Kim Henkel and Mardi Rustam
directed by Tobe Hooper
by Alex Jackson The disparity between the reputation of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and that of everything he made thereafter had been eating away at me ever since I polished off his 1977 follow-up, Eaten Alive. You see, Eaten Alive seemed to me to be very much the same movie as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, only instead of a maniac with a chainsaw and a sledgehammer, it had a maniac with a sickle and a man-eating crocodile. Why exactly is it that critics and audiences alike consider The Texas Chain Saw Massacre canonical, a masterpiece of the genre, while Eaten Alive floundered in relative obscurity until being referenced in a Quentin Tarantino film?
The question bothered me enough that I actually rented the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and watched it for the first time in eight years. My first viewing of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre left me bored and underwhelmed, and while the film continues to keep me at a distance, my newly-lowered expectations helped to improve the overall experience. The film has a number of truly iconic moments that support its masterpiece status: the cutaways to the drooling cows outside the slaughterhouse; the slamming metal door; the low-angle tracking shot of Teri McMinn trudging through a sea of grass to her inevitable doom; the extreme close-ups of Marilyn Burns's eyes at the supper table; the last shot of Leatherface swinging his chainsaw in the rising dawn, et cetera et cetera et cetera. Nevertheless, I continue to have serious problems with Edwin Neal's performance as the hitchhiker: he's over-the-top and goofy in a way that violates the snuff-film realism Hooper has tried so hard to cultivate. None of the characters, victim or killer, are particularly memorable, and Hooper does surprisingly little with the idea that these serial killers are a family. Their banter throughout the dinner sequence sounds especially overwritten and forced. I'm not particularly impressed with the lack of graphic violence, either. This is a different animal than John Carpenter's eloquent and as-justifiably bloodless Halloween--this is a piss and shit, balls-out horror movie: not showing us the nasty bits is, as Roman Polanski put it, like telling a dirty joke and leaving out the punchline.
What has ultimately made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre a horror classic is its nihilism. It's an ugly, meaningless piece of work, offering no reason for nor relief from the constant onslaught of terror. If anything, this attitude is accentuated in Eaten Alive. We vaguely understood that the Leatherface clan was trapping and murdering tourists because machinery had outmoded them at the slaughterhouse: they need to know that their slaughtering skills still serve some sort of purpose. This requires a bit of projection and interpretation on our part; aside from a brief shot of a worried-looking Leatherface running his face through his fingers after clubbing somebody who wouldn't stay dead, Hooper keeps to the perspective of the victims and doesn't really bother to explore the psyche of his monsters. But still, there seems to be motivation if we want to look for it.
Not so in Eaten Alive. We spend considerably more time with Judd (Neville Brand)--a motel owner who kills his guests with a sickle and then feeds them to his pet alligator--than we did with the Leatherface clan, but it's not quality time. Whenever he's on screen, we feel as though we're doing little else but staring at a lunatic through a two-way mirror. In this sense, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is the less disturbing film. The insensitivity towards rural poverty and mental illness that Hooper portrayed in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre proves to be more than a function of the film adopting the subjective stance of the victims--it's characteristic of Hooper's actual worldview. He doesn't humanize Judd, because he doesn't view Judd as being "human." Asking why he kills people is kind of like asking why a dog licks his balls: that's just what dogs do. Trying to relate to him as a creature of reason capable of needing motivation to circumvent conventional morality is grossly anthropomorphizing him. Just because we share the same genetic material doesn't mean we're of the same species.
Hooper considered himself a devotee of Alfred Hitchcock, and the lack of reason or resolution and emphasis on terror over suspense in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre suggests that he saw it as loosely inspired by Hitchcock's The Birds. Along that vein, with its homicidal hotel clerk picking off offending guests, Eaten Alive might have been loosely inspired by Psycho. There is definitely a sense in which, like Norman Bates, Judd murders his victims in a sexual frenzy and later to protect his alligator from persecution, much like Bates protected his mother. His first victim in the film is a wayward prostitute (Roberta Collins) he had tried and failed to rape. His second victim is a boarder (William Finley) who wants to kill the alligator for eating his daughter's pet dog. But, of course, Hitchcock made us sympathize with Bates and understand him on a human level, while Hooper regards Judd like a monkey in the zoo.
There truly is a detachment between Judd's actions and his demeanour over the course of the film. I think his eyes get a little wider and dartier when he goes into a frenzy, and it's plausible that his mental state totally changes as he is killing, that he's not incredibly sentient of his behaviour. I'm not sure how far I would want to go with that, though: Hooper doesn't concretely differentiate the killing self from the sentient self, unlike what Hitchcock did with Psycho. Judd doesn't dress up like his mother to go killing, you know--the divorce of the id and the superego is never properly externalized. Through the cold objectivity of that two-way mirror, it's all muddy and indistinct.
Psycho is known for being economical and tightly-structured; you can understand how and why Gus Van Sant would do a shot-by-shot remake. Hitchcock thought of storyboarding as akin to a composer writing sheet music. If this were so, a filmmaker would be able to "play" Psycho in very much the same way that a pianist can play "Für Elise." When heroine Janet Leigh is murdered a third of the way into the film and our sympathies realign with Bates, narrative norms are decidedly violated, yet Hitchcock is still working with the narrative form. Particularly by violating our expectations, he's exhibiting fidelity to narrative and, by implication, artistry. In Eaten Alive, we begin by following a prostitute as she refuses anal sex from a paying customer, is fired from her brothel job as a result, finds her way to Judd's motel, and is murdered. The prostitute turns out to have been a runaway, and her father (Mel Ferrer) has come to town looking for her, though Judd kills him off, too, before anything substantial can develop. We don't sympathize with anybody in Eaten Alive, not because they are unlikeable, disgusting people, but because Hooper hasn't properly encoded any of them in terms of protagonist or antagonist. He turns the Janet Leigh murder on its head: rather than experiment with narrative filmmaking, Hooper more or less rejects it altogether. He kills off his characters before we can grow properly attached to them, significantly diluting the impact of their deaths and leaving us perversely unsatisfied.
Eaten Alive is artless. More so than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which, while revered on similar grounds, escapes such categorization with its numerous "iconic" moments. There are no such signature scenes in Eaten Alive. This artlessness renders it so much more nihilistic than the decidedly artful Psycho. Art exists to assign order in a chaotic meaningless universe. It's an attempt to make sense of it. Real life doesn't have a plot, much less plot twists or resolutions. Art is, in a sense, a lie. A beautiful, comforting one, but a deceptive falsehood all the same. To see a truly artless film like Eaten Alive is slightly shocking. Because the surrounding world is not encoded into some sort of palatable comprehensible form, we're forced to acknowledge the chaos and meaninglessness of the universe head on, in all its rawness. Eaten Alive is a "badly"-made movie, I guess, and I suppose that if I were to defend it I would have to defend pretty much anything. Hooper isn't glib or lazy about any of this, however, and the artlessness of Eaten Alive seems borne from an active but reverent denial of the comforts of art, not a naivety of them.
The second shot of the film is a crotch-level close-up of Robert Englund unbuckling his belt and uttering the immortal line, "My name is Buck, and I'm rarin' to fuck." I think it's that kind of thing that turned many critics off of the picture. Eaten Alive is an ugly-looking film about ugly people doing ugly things, but it's not going to give you the opportunity to condescend to it. That line, the more you think about it, is manifestly not funny. It is attractive, however, in its simplicity, economy, and utter lack of pretension. You got his name and what he likes to do, and the two things even rhyme so it sticks in your head. There is nothing left to say after that. When Quentin Tarantino appropriated the line for his 2003 film Kill Bill, Vol.1, I'd like to think it was for those very reasons. Comparing Tarantino to his principal influences Jean-Luc Godard and, in particular, Brian De Palma, we can see why "trash" films like this are important. By mixing in a good portion of the piss-and-shit/blood-and-semen grindhouse aesthetic, film brat Tarantino has avoided much of the smug callous attitude typical of those who only watch--or, at least, only revere--"good" movies. True misanthropy comes when we lose our ability to love human beings in their actual as opposed to their idealized states.
For whatever its worth, Dark Sky appears to be polishing a turd with their DVD restoration of Eaten Alive. This was obviously not a well-made or well-preserved film and it isn't fair to expect these guys to be miracle workers. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer preserves the feeling of a print but works no real magic on the sometimes-blotchy colour and underlit, soft-looking outdoor scenes, although combing artifacts are unnecessarily introduced into the image. If the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is free of distortion and replicates Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper's pulsating score in all its glory, dialogue sounds diffused and mumbled. I was grateful for the optional English subtitles.
Extras begin with a film-length commentary featuring actors Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards (who played Finley's daughter in the film), make-up artist Craig Reardon, and co-writer/producer Mardi Rustam. The participants were recorded individually and edited together, eliminating the possibility of rapport and making the track only occasionally scene-specific. While the general tone is one of cautious admiration of the film, Brand, and Hooper, a good deal of dirt does come out. They make no secret of the fact that the crocodile was very cheap-looking and didn't work (Reardon even compares the death of one character to Bela Lugosi's filming of Bride of the Monster in Ed Wood); that Brand was a recovering alcoholic and seemed to have had a relapse during the shoot; or that Hooper left the set for a time, leaving the directing chores to his cinematographer! It's an anecdote-heavy yakker, but for me the key revelation was Richards finding Eaten Alive too unpleasant and frightening to be enjoyable as it unspooled. She didn't like making the film, either. Unlike Halloween, which she remembers as a very pleasant experience, she found this to be a horror film 24/7 and no fun at all--a perspective that, again, strengthens comparisons to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
"My Name is Buck" (15 mins.) is an interview with Robert Englund wherein he talks about why he got into the movie business and how he wound up in Eaten Alive. Pleasant enough stuff; although he came off as kind of condescending on the track for Freddy vs. Jason, it would have been nice to hear Englund on the one for Eaten Alive. "The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball" (23 mins.) interviews the nephew of Joe Ball, a Texas-area tavern owner who killed his wife and a handful of people who found out about it. He had a pet crocodile, but as to whether he disposed of his victim's bodies by feeding them to it is not clear. While no real explanation is provided for why he killed his first wife, a good deal of time is spent on his time in World War I and his transforming his speakeasy into a legitimate tavern once Prohibition ended--providing us with genuinely disturbing footage of both deformed war veterans and Depression-era all-you-can-drink hourly rates at the tavern, should you suspect that the killing urge in either Judd or Ball was somehow rooted in either his post-war trauma or the economic depression within the Deep South. A stills gallery plus trailers for Eaten Alive, Eaten Alive under the title Death Trap, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Devil's Rain round out the disc. Originally published: September 18, 2006.
*Please note that Dark Sky has since remastered the video transfer of Eaten Alive; this review refers to a version that was sent to press but quickly pulled from store shelves when superior picture elements became available.