Eaten Alive: Special Edition (US - DVD R1)
Gabe stops into a hotel run by a man with mommy issues, and a hungry croc
Out in the bayou, Ol' Judd (Neville Brand) runs a hotel called the Starlight. Judd isn't all there, and hasn't kept up the hotel in a while. The only thing Judd seems to care about is his 'pet' alligator, which he swears is actually a gen-u-ine African crocodile. When a handful of tourists and locals looking for trouble show up one night, it looks like Ol' Judd's croc will be eating extra good on 100%, bona fide, American human flesh.
It's pretty well known in the film world that director Tobe Hopper never recovered the magic that was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His immediate follow up, Eaten Alive, was met with critical venom and audience indifference. Several years later, the film was rediscovered on home video, and a new generation of fans started making claims on the film's quality. As a result, the film has gained a cult following, and has gone from underappreciated to over-praised.
Though I struggle to think of a single mention of the State in which the film takes place, the general consensus seems to be Louisiana (though the box art states Texas), which seems to be a logical follow up to Hooper's first hit. What's the one place in this great United States that could possibly be found scarier than the heart of rural Texas, but the dark and musty bayous of Creole State? Fairly or not, the area does have a lion's share of spooky myth surrounding it.
This is the first of many direct comparisons I will be making throughout this review to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, because one cannot fully appreciate the success or shortcomings of Eaten Alive without acknowledging the connections between the two films.
The second connection is the character of Judd, who is technically based on Texas serial killer Joe Ball, but bares an undeniable likeness to Wisconsin killer Ed Gein. More specifically, Judd bares a thematic and physical resemblance to Norman Bates, from Robert Bloch's original novel Psycho (not necessarily Hitchcock's famous film version). Bates is a sexually repressed man who blames his murders on an alternate personality. Judd is just as, if not more sexually repressed, but is less shamed by his murders, though he does seem to leave a lot of them to his pet man-eater, which has some definite Freudian undertones.
Norman Bates was himself based on Gein, as was the most memorable killer in Hooper's previous film, Leatherface. Leatherface is a voiceless, physical embodiment of the real life mother killer; Judd is an embodiment of the tortured human being beneath. In some ways the director seems to be balking at the surface level bogeymen he himself helped to popularize. A monster with a chainsaw is scary, but an old man talking to himself can be much scarier.
TCM was just as famous for its flamboyant art direction as it was for its genuine sense of danger. Eaten Alive is even more flamboyant, to the point of almost being monochromatic for large stretches of screen time. Hooper's film has been compared to the films of Italian horror-maestros Mario Bava and Dario Argento, most specifically the extravagant excesses of Suspiria, Baron Blood, and Blood and Black Lace. Hooper's film takes place mostly on the hotel set, which changes lighting colours as the film progresses, from bright red to a cooling blue. These stylistic choices also lend themselves to a theatrical representation, and any theatre troop with a half decent budget could easily adapt the film to stage.
TCM couldn't ever be mistaken for anything other than dark and nightmarish, but there is the sense of a carnival ride, and the real psychological torments are left almost entirely on a surface level. For Eaten Alive Hooper has attempted a deeper, and more human based nightmare, and the film's extremely dark tone is unrivalled by anything else in the director's filmography. Judd isn't even the film's most frightening character, that award goes to William Finley as Chain Saw alumni Marilyn Burns' husband Roy, who seems to go mad the second Judd's croc makes short business of the family pooch.
The film is nearly plotless, and what little plot there is (most of which involves a father, daughter, and sheriff looking for the girl Judd kills in the first act), gets in the way and brings the film to a halt. The nightmarish quality of the film is experimental, but almost enough to have kept the film going. The hotel serves as a sort of weigh station for tortured souls on their way to the other side, and the fact that Judd wields a scythe when killing his victims seems to lend some credence to this metaphorical reading. But what, if any, purpose does the crocodile serve in this case?
This is a very ambitious but utterly confused film. Hooper tries to revisit the themes of his previous film, including that of wealth and progression versus poverty and casualty, and tries to up the ante on all accounts, but always comes up short. The film's experimental nature is interesting to say the least, but doesn't make for an entertaining experience.
What we have here are four different films crammed into ninety minutes of screen time: a B-movie about a giant, man-eating crocodile, a psychoanalytical study of a tortured killer, a basic slasher movie, and a visually experimental art film. Had Hooper focused on any one of these aspects we may not have been talking about the death of his career only a few years later. This is not a case of a good or bad film, but an admirable and somewhat memorable failure.
After the revelation that was Dark Sky's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre transfer, not to mention a favourable Trilogy of Terror transfer, I was maybe expecting too much from the MPI subsidiary. Beyond the anamorphic enhancement, which is key, I'm not noticing much in the way of improvement over earlier DVD releases. The film has always been dark and muddy, somewhat on purpose, but the details have always suffered on every video release of the film. I still remember watching an old VHS that looked like it'd been through the Vietnam War. This isn't a horrible transfer, to be sure, but I'm still pretty disappointed.
There's a lot in the way of dirt and scratches, not to mention some artefacts and a series of track lines. Quite often the image is murky when not fully intended and low-lit areas are often hard to discern. It's a fine line between losing a film's tactile feel due to digital enhancement and a hard to watch picture, but I think this particular transfer trips into the latter territory. If you own older releases you might want to update for the anamorphic enhancement alone, but don't expect any The Texas Chainsaw Massacre miracles here. I might even say, based on these screen caps (new release top, old Elite release bottom) that the Elite DVD has superior detail and brightness levels. I don’t own the Elite disc myself (thanks to Matt for the screen grabs), so I can’t vouch for the way it looks in motion.
I should note here that this review has been sitting in limbo for an entire year because of Dark Sky's postponement of this release. Everything I said above still applies, but this new DVD does utilize a noticeably different transfer, and one I think is overall inferior to the previous one. There are moments where the image is sharper and colours brighter, but the dark scenes are now even darker, and artefacts are more prevalent. The only reasoning I can think of for the use of this new transfer, which is still not as good as the Elite release (minus anamorphic enhancement), is the framing. There is more information on the sides now.
The original Mono soundtrack follows the transfer's lead, and is merely adequate. There is often a slight distortion and echo to voices. Music, which was composed by Hooper himself, is lacking in fidelity, and often muffled. Louder sounds, like screams, can become distorted. This is many steps beyond the old VHS audio, of course, and there is evidence of enhancement and cleaning, so perhaps this is as good as it gets. I'm not very picky when it comes to this kind of flick.
Dark Sky is doing a good job so far in giving themselves a slight edge in the extras department over their biggest genre competitors Anchor Bay and Blue Underground. This disc isn't loaded, but there are some choice bits within.
First up is a commentary track featuring producer/co-writer Mardi Rustam, actors Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards, and make-up artist Craig Reardon. The track is very enjoyable. Usually I don't care for tracks that are edited together from so many sources, but fortunately enough for me each participant has just enough trivia and memories to fill out the hour and a half runtime almost perfectly. There is some very trivial stuff here, but it's all in good fun. One of the better edited together tracks I've ever heard.
So why did it take a year for this DVD to be released to the public? The answer is two interviews, one with director Tobe Hooper, and another with one of the original scream queens, Marilyn Burns. Hooper's interview is great, and he has plenty to say that wasn't already covered in the commentary. Most interesting are his memories of Neville Brand, who was pretty easy to direct because he was a genuine drunken psychopath. His twenty minutes weren't entirely worth waiting a year for, but they're pretty interesting none-the-less.
'5ive Minutes with Marilyn Burns' is um, a five minute interview with actress Marilyn Burns. Burns is a pleasant person, and warmly recounts the actors and Hooper, but she doesn't have any real insight. Mostly it's five minutes of fluff, though she is aware of the film's fairy tale qualities.
From the original release are two more featurettes, the first of which is entitled 'My Name is Buck'. Anyone who's seen both Kill Bill[i] and [i]Eaten Alive will know where Tarantino took the name and catch phrase of the vile hospital orderly at the beginning of the first film in his epic ode to grindhouse. In Hopper's film Buck is a young punk with a cowboy hat, played by everyone's favourite child murdering dream master Robert Englund. Englund not only recounts his experience on Eaten Alive, but of his early career, which is a pretty sad story, as Englund was a bit of a stage prodigy before dawning the dirty fedora and striped sweater of Freddy Kruger. For the record though, the line at the beginning of the film is "My name is Buck and I'm raring to f*ck.", Tarantino altered it to " here to f*ck".
Next is a mini-doc devoted to one of Hooper's main inspirations in creating the character of Judd: the Butcher of Elmendorf, Joe Ball. I have a passing interest in true crime history, but I'm not an expert, and I knew nothing of Ball before viewing the featurette. The main interviewee is Ball's nephew, who recounts the events of his uncle's life, while a faceless narrator fills in the gaps. Ball's infamous reputation was somewhat unfounded, as it's never been proven that he fed any of his dead wives or girlfriends to his pet alligators, rather, he just shot them in the head and buried them. A fine addition to the disc. Perhaps an Ed Gein doc should've been included with the previous The Texas Chainsaw Massacre release.
The second disc is finished off with seven, count them, seven different trailers for the film (some of which weren't on that original release), TV and radio spots, alternate credits, and a fun collection of comment cards from the film’s original testing.
Eaten Alive is a fun curiosity, and if you consider yourself a horror fan you might want to give it a go. It's nowhere near as bad as early estimates would have it, nor is it the revelation that more recent fans seem to think it is. It'll prove most interesting to fans of Hooper, and is an interesting example of an ultimately unsuccessful marriage of art and entertainment. The DVD isn't astounding, as the studio's previous The Texas Chainsaw Massacre release, and I'm not sure the new extras were worth the wait, but kudos to Dark Sky for not simply re-releasing the disc a year later. Avoiding a double dip is worthy of a back-pat in my book.
And make sure you don't mistake this Eaten Alive with Umberto Lenzi's 1980 cannibal shocker Mangiati Vivi (English title Eaten Alive), or you will be indubitably disappointed. Also beware that the film's alternate title Death Trap is also shared with another Italian cannibal opus, this one by Aristide Massaccesi.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 1st January 1995
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Producer/Writer, Cast, and Make-up Artist Commentary, "My Name is Buck" Featurette, "The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball" Featurette, Stills, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund
Length: 91 minutes
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