Firstly just to clear up any confusion, there were two films doing the rounds on ye olde video shelves during that fondly remembered golden age, both called Eaten Alive and both starring Mel Ferrer. This is not the 1980 Umberto Lenzi cannibal jungle / Jim Jones / cult leader romp which was great fun and is well and truly overdue for a Blu-ray release. What we have here is the Tobe Hooper film made in 1976 and one that was commonly known as Death Trap when released by labels like the infamous Vipco over here. Following on from his seminal Texas Chainsaw Massacre it’s a completely different tale but no less delirious. I have a lot more appreciation for Tobe after recently picking up Arrow’s Texas Chainsaw 2 and watching his first movie Eggshells which had never been released before anywhere. I guess it showed the more human side of an experimental student film maker and his hunger to succeed, as well as kind of explaining the director’s vices at the time too. Of course what followed went down in horror film history and if the TCM is not in your all-time list of greatest horror films ever made, then frankly you are a bit of a numpty. Hooper has flirted with genre film all of his career and made quite a few enjoyable flicks although none of them living up to the most infamous. Personally I have a soft spot likes of Funhouse, Lifeforce, Salem’s Lot, Poltergeist and even The Mangler and although Spontaneous Combustion was awful and I have only just discovered he made a movie called The Djinn in 2013, generally his output is normally watchable.
Eaten Alive was a bit of an odd film, coming before the deluge of stalk and slash films but still portraying many of the motifs that would become popular of the sub-genre. Hooper worked with many involved with TCM including having actress Marilyn Burns back to scream and scream again. If you watch the films back to back you will notice that the tone is similarly nasty and vicious and the tension and terror from the first certainly lingers into the second; atmospherically they are obviously from the same mind. Speaking of minds, not many people in this film actually have one, they are all barking mad. Firstly we meet young stud Buck (who likes to…) played by a youthful Robert Englund. He is hoping on some back door action in the local whorehouse but when the lady doth protest she is shown the other door and ejected into the harsh night in what I am assuming is the Louisiana swamplands. I am assuming this as the nutty owner of the local flophouse Judd (played brilliantly by Neville Brand) keeps a bloody huge crocodile in the water outside. Said ex lady of the night ends up there for a stay and bites off more than she can chew (really not her night) and you can no doubt guess what the main modus operandi of this movie is just by looking at the title. Naturally the croc isn’t going to go hungry as more people turn up including Burns with her nutty hubby, daughter and pet dog; the latter served up as a greatly appreciated aperitif. Mel Ferrer turns up with one daughter, searching desperately for his other one who may well have been today’s first course and naturally others including swaggering steer Buck pop up and have to contend with crazed old Judd, his whopping great scythe and his ever hungry crocodīlus.
It’s a fun film dished up with exuberance and despite the one obvious stumbling block being that the croc obviously ain’t real and a rubber one is always gonna look a bit on the hammy side, Eaten Alive has a lot of merits making it worthy of seeking out either for the first time or once again. Naturally this hi-def UK and USA premier makes all DVD versions redundant and the film has never looked and sounded so good. A couple of things I really noticed via this particular medium were the large emphasis on red lighting used by the director which gives it more of a sleazy feel and the exaggerated psychedelic sound effects heightening the terror and again really harking back to the TCM. Acting wise the guests are all perfect but it is Englund in a very early role and veteran actor Brand who really make the film. Brand’s Judd is obviously completely bonkers and possibly simple, playing the part in a way reminiscent of Lenny in Of Mice And Men. He’s not totally evil but just going about doing what he’s gotta do basically. He also reminds me a bit of Stephen King gooning it up too and if ever a remake were made he would be perfect for the part. Englund is a wild one and a complete and utter shit-kicker comparable more to James Dean and he swaggers and hams it up stealing every scene that he is in. A couple of thoughts and things are hinted at, is Buck actually Judd’s son and is Judd’s peculiar behaviour due to the fact that he is a war veteran? Perhaps the extras will answer some of these questions.
First up we have Hooper recounting his time in the bloody bayou likening it to a Grimm fairy tale in a surreal world. He lets drop that it was actually inspired by a true story and we will get to that more in a while. Developing a loose screenplay that had come his way with some real life events, things gradually came together. There’s lots of interesting points made and apparently the film was going to be a lot more ambitious than it turned out, for instance with Buck having a gang with him and a more explosive nature. Arguments with the producers are mentioned which is probably why that didn’t actually happen. Janus Blythe who people may well remember playing ruby in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes starred as Lynette in Eaten Alive, the jailbait girlfriend of Buck. She recalls her time in the next interview and mentions as did Hooper the fact that absolutely everything was filmed on a soundstage rather than on location. This was one of her first parts and she got thrown in at the deep end (literally) by producer Mardi Rustman suggesting her for the part. However on going to shoot her scenes she was told by Rustman that Hooper was out and he was going to film her parts so she never met Hooper. Sounds like there were all sorts of problems going on behind the scenes! After getting her breasts exposed to a whopping 35 feet on the big screen here she went onto better parts that were not purely T&A such as Hills, The Incredible Melting Man and even her own talk show. Next up its Craig Reardon make-up artist and hair dresser on his first ever production, the starting point that has led to a career spanning through the next 40 years in TV and film on some incredible titles. A love of old Roger Corman movies led him to the ramshackle soundstage and working on Eaten Alive, a film whose bleakness and negativity he seemed to love being part of. It’s the metaphors of the film and what was going on in America at the time he seems to have thrived on as well as working on make up with the now somewhat haggard and worn out actor Brand.
After these are some archive interviews most of which were never even on most original DVD releases so will be new to many too. A much younger and it has to be said more with it Hooper gives a clearer insight into things here. It would seem that Brand really got into his part and Hooper says that the levels of violence the actor portrayed on screen would probably have got both him and the director in trouble today. The world war two veteran who had lived through real life acts of killing obviously brought his experience to the screen making his characterisation all the more realistic. Hooper has plenty to say about the actors here and seems a lot more positive about the film than he does in the newer interview. If you want to compare the quality of old prints to the new here in the clips accompanying the interview you will see a world of difference. We also get his opinion of the crocodile and his wry grin says it all. I can only agree that this is not a film that is going to be seriously considered as anything else than a grindhouse movie; I don’t even think you could honestly even consider it a ‘cult’ movie per-se. Next its 15 minutes well spent with Robert Englund, whose really animated and tells us what got him interested and into his career which started out in productions like Aladdin and Peter Pan (is there an alligator / crocodile fetish in play here) at an early age. Politics in the theatre drove him back towards Hollywood and the rest is history. After seeing TCM in a near empty cinema (with people masturbating in the back row) he was more than keen to join in on the cast of Eaten Alive, especially as it meant he got the chance to work with Brand. Final interview is a very brief one with Marilyn Burns who sadly died August 2014. She describes working on the film as a ”really nice experience” rather surprising considering she had to put up with a lunatic husband and either being painfully tied to a bed or chased and terrorized through most of her time in it. Having just survived similar in TCM at least she knew what she was letting herself in for. I’m glad the archive interviews were included; they do give more depth and explanation to things and are well worth watching. Arrow provide their regular expected bits such as trailers, commentary and reversible sleeve art etc but there is also an extra documentary about the loose, real life inspiration for the film Texas bartender Joe Ball. If you want to find out more about him watch it yourself or look him up on the net.
Eaten Alive is a film that is definitely rough around the edges and one that surrounding drama no doubt stopped it short from its full potential but it is still very watchable and enjoyable. It could be looked upon as a precursor for all those dreadful Sharkanado films that seem to be popular these days but personally I’d much rather be bitten by this rubber croc than any of those CGI abortions and I hadn’t even got round to mentioning the rich history of other stars like Carolyn Jones and Stuart Whitman to help twist your arm round to my way of thinking here either. As for the crocodile I hear it was retired sick for overeating after filming, it was a very illigator!