October Horrorshow: Eaten Alive, or, Avant-Garde Horror à la Texas

Tobe Hooper established his bona fides, and his place in film history, with his 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That film is such an icon of the genre that sequels and remakes are sometimes produced concurrently. People just can’t seem to get enough Leatherface. But, Hooper did find time to take part in other projects.

Eaten Alive was Hooper’s follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, coming together two years after that film’s surprise success. Hooper directed, while Texas Chainsaw co-writer Kim Henkel, along with Alvin L. Fast and Mardi Rustam, penned the screenplay.

Eaten Alive does not begin as a promising film. After the opening credits, the first shot of the film is a redneck’s be-jeaned crotch. The first line is, “My name’s Buck, and I’m ready to fuck,” said by horror legend Robert Englund, in an early role. Guess what? He plays a character named Buck. I suppose his introduction is one way to establish the tone of the film. The other way is how the film treats poor Clara (Roberta Collins). She’s a prostitute at a local bordello called Hattie’s and her only scenes in the film are the first two, where two different men try to rape her, and one succeeds in killing her. This flick is not for the faint of heart.

Eaten Alive is not an easy watch, and that’s not because of slowness or anything else similar. In fact, the film zips by at a pretty decent pace, despite being from a time before movies were competing with the shortened attention spans of modern audiences. Rather, this film is tough because it’s an example of a style in horror films where the goal is not to frighten the audience so much as it is to make the audience really, really uncomfortable.

The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave, Eaten Alive, and many others from the time, eschewed typical horror tropes that had become a little too rote, and replaced those tropes with rape. No longer was it enough for a female character to break a heel and fall while she runs from a horror flick bad guy only to be hacked to pieces. With films like these, she had to be sexually assaulted, as well. Times being what they are, this movie could easily be considered vile by any viewer. It’s a shocking and repulsive film, and it also has a thick patina of cheapness. Yet, this is the product of a good filmmaker. Tobe Hooper was very good at pacing and tension, and these were not abilities that would suddenly disappear just because the subject matter was more objectionable. Horror flicks used to be disturbing like this. Eaten Alive is supposed to be this way.

Eaten Alive tells the story of Judd (veteran Hollywood TV and film actor Neville Brand), the owner of the rundown Starlight motel somewhere in rural Texas. It must be the only motel for a hundred miles in any direction, because it’s a shithole, yet people keep showing up for rooms. That’s not a good idea, as Judd has a temper that can be set off at the drop of a hat.

Judd is a killer. He will chop and stab his victims with all manner of farm equipment, then feed the body to his pet crocodile to dispose of the evidence. It’s difficult to tell when Judd will lose his temper and kill. His insanity does well in disguise as frantic behavior or exasperation. Judd will rant and rave, but until he starts swinging a scythe back and forth, he’s easy to dismiss as simply an old man with a case of the red ass. There are no whys to Judd. He just does what he does.

As people continue to trickle into the motel for rooms (including the sister and father of poor Clara), Judd gets crazier and more homicidal. By the final act, the film is a constant struggle for survival by the remaining hotel guests. They’re clued in to Judd by then, but it might be too late.

This film is cheap, with a budget of only around half a million bucks. The muddied film stock, the muddled sound, the inconsistency in talent, the aversion of the camera to any special effects that cost money — are all signs of a film made on a shoestring. It’s not rare for a cheap film to be good, but the degree of difficulty is definitely higher. Eaten Alive also has a few too many film school moments, or, as I like to think of them, attempted filmmaking. I’m pretty sure there’s deeper meaning and symbolism when one of the characters goes on one of many bizarre rants, but this only causes headaches. There is no why. There is only movie.

Eaten Alive has kind of slipped through the cracks of horror film history. It’s not a well-regarded film among professional critics, and this not-professional critic is struggling with his perception of it. As an archeological relic of horror, it’s a fantastic watch, and I was entertained by it. But there is a strong possibility that among viewers who are not into horror, this is a hateful, unwatchable, nasty film.

Of final note is the production. The film has a very unique look and feel to it. That’s because every single frame was filmed on a soundstage. There is no location work at all — not even a shot of a car driving down a highway. It makes the film a horror stage play, of sorts, and once a viewer gets used to the weirdness of the technique, it works to accentuate the overall style of the film. It should not work as well as it does.