Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #482
Also known as Death Trap, Horror Hotel & Starlight Slaughter
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: May 1977 (USA)
Country of Origin: United States
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Tobe Hooper
Producers: Alvin L. Fast, Larry Huly, Robert Kantor, Mardi Rustam, Mohammed Rustam, Samir Rustam
Screenplay: Kim Henkel, Alvin L. Fast, Mardi Rustam
Special Effects: Robert A. Mattey, Ken Speed (uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert Caramico
Score: Wayne Bell, Tobe Hooper
Editing: Michael Brown
Studio: Mars Productions Corporation
Distributors: Motion Picture Marketing (MPM), Dark Sky Films
Stars: Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund, William Finley, Stuart Whitman, Roberta Collins, Kyle Richards, Crystin Sinclaire, Janus Blythe, Betty Cole
Suggested Audio Candy:
The Union Underground South Texas Death Ride
How do you possibly even think of following up a movie as iconic as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Over forty years on, Tobe Hooper’s nerve-jangling masterpiece has lost absolutely none of its raw edge and still makes my flesh crawl even now. So where do you go from there? It only took two years for Hooper to provide horror enthusiasts with his next offering and, when Eaten Alive showed up in 1976 like an unruly house guest, it left audiences similarly thunderstruck, although not necessarily for the right reasons. Also known as Death Trap, this off-the-wall number was swiftly condemned by critics as being little more than sleaze of the lowest order and largely shunned by its target audience also. Indeed it was beginning to appear that a psychiatric evaluation was perhaps the best course of action for the Texan filmmaker.
Years later, with the crowd-pleasing Poltergeist and his sturdy adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot having bolstered his reputation as one of the true up-and-coming talents in the industry, Eaten Alive once again found itself under the microscope although this time it was the BBFC who took particular exception and it wound up on the 72-strong list of video nasties published by the DPP and was removed from circulation. While never officially prosecuted, general consensus was that it was not only deeply unsavory but also poorly made drivel, not fit to find any kind of audience. It may have taken the best part of four decades, but that is exactly what has transpired and, finally, Hooper’s psychobilly trash fest has itself something of a cult following. That makes it ripe for another look-see.
Let me start by making one thing abundantly clear before we venture any further. Eaten Alive is the runt of this particular two-strong litter and not worthy of being uttered in the same breath as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Having said that, I feel that folk may have been a little too quick to dismiss it. It’s all too easy to criticize when you’re not aware of the director’s intention and Hooper had far more in mind than simply regurgitating his winning formula. There are actually numerous parallels between the two movies although here he is more focused on creating an homage to the kind of forgotten fifties treasures he grew up idolizing. The fact that ten-years later he went on to remake William Cameron Menzies’ 1953 sci-fi romp, Invaders From Mars, should act as some indication of his fondness for this era and this too is an intentional throwback to times past.
Barely a minute has passed and it feels as though we have mistakenly booted up a Herschell Gordon Lewis flick. The color scheme he incorporates gives the impression that Eaten Alive was originally filmed in black and white and the print then colorized at a later date. He is prolific in his use of red in particular and this supplies with a feeling of constant unease as it always feels as though danger is a mere banjo lick away. It will come as no surprise to learn that the entire production was filmed on a sound stage and it is no coincidence that the film has a theatrical feel to it as this was exactly what he is driving at.
Straight off the bat we are introduced to the kind of white trash that frequents this particular backwards town. Robert Englund, in one of his earliest roles, sets the tone with the immortal words “name’s Buck… and I’m rarin’ to fuck” as he prepares to assume position with a somewhat uncooperative lady of ill repute. This catchy slogan pretty much sets the tone for the next 91 minutes as there isn’t a great deal of moral fiber going spare in Eaten Alive although the shaken slapper in question Clara (Roberta Collins) jumps from the frying pan straight into the furnace after vacating Miss Hattie’s whorehouse and making her way across the swamp to an altogether more dubious kind of chop-shop.
Situated deep within the mist-strewn bayou is the Starlight Hotel and this decidedly run-down establishment makes Bates Motel seem like the Hilton. Where Norman would at least let you set your bags down and warm up the shower before slaughtering you, scruffy proprietor Judd (a wonderfully unhinged Neville Brand) wastes no time in revealing his true intentions. Shortly after perforating her with his pitchfork and feeding her remains to his resident crocodile, business really begins to boom. Through the night all manner of weary travellers turn up searching for a warm bed and Judd can barely keep up with the sudden influx. Thankfully he has his trusty scythe on-hand and the perfect method of disposal as this cranky croc has something of an insatiable appetite and isn’t fussy over whether or not the meat is spoiled.
So about those patrons. First we have Roy, Faye and their cute-as-a-button daughter Angie. As Roy, De Palma regular William Finley gives a performance so utterly off-the-chain that you simply cannot look away for a second. Meanwhile, poor old Marilyn Burns is put through the ringer a second time as his long-suffering wife and, after already being subjected to a chainsaw massacre, she spends almost the entirety of her screen time bound and gagged while her panicked cherub crawls about beneath the hotel’s rafters. Then there are Clara’s worried father Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and his sexpot daughter Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) who show up searching for clues to her whereabouts, unaware that she has long since been digested and shat back out in the quagmire. To top things off, Buck just can’t resist turning up to taunt Judd and brings his new piece of ass Lynette (Janus Blythe) along to make up the numbers. It’s a real southern fried free-for-all.
Brand gives a suitably deranged performance as Judd and blathers on incoherently throughout, stopping only to let off the occasional unnerving chuckle and generally amusing only himself. His character is actually based loosely on Joe Ball, better known as the Alligator Man, a Texan bar owner suspected of the murder of several women in the thirties but never actually charged through a lack of substantial evidence. Hooper loves nothing more than tackling the kind of American horror which really plays out off the beaten track and Brand provides the ideal vessel for the madness he is looking to court. In addition, Hooper and Wayne Bell provide a score which echoes his composition for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and cannot help but set your teeth on edge. If you’re looking for a film to unwind with after a hard day’s grind, then Eaten Alive ain’t that movie.
For those who initially suspected that Hooper was simply looking to cash-in on his earlier success, I would urge that you take another look. Expectation is a bitch at the best of times and Eaten Alive will never fare favorably through comparisons. Is it scuzzy trash? You’re darn tooting it is. Will you be required to use a lens cleaner on your DVD player directly after viewing? At least twice. Will you follow that with a long soak in the tub? Sure thing but only after checking the water for lurking reptiles. Most critically, is it actually any good? Despite all the naysayers who will lead you to believe the opposite, it actually ain’t half bad.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 7/10
Grue Factor: 3/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: This time Hooper is less inclined to leave things to our imagination and Judd’s scythe gets a decent workout as he prepares the meat for his pet croc. While I would imagine Eaten Alive landed itself in hot water with the censors more because of its tone as opposed to an over-abundance of visceral splatter, there are numerous moments to savor. Throw in a handful of bare-chested ladies and you have yourself some good old-fashioned all-American exploitation. Yee haw.
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