The latest installment of Kevin Maher & Rusty Ward's web-series looks at EATEN ALIVE (1977) a.k.a. Death Trap, a.k.a Horror Hotel, a.k.a. Starlight Slaughter, a.k.a. Legend of the Bayou, a.k.a. Brutes & Savages.
Director Tobe Hooper is probably best know for two films: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1975) and POLTERGIEST (1982). But in the years between those two classics, he directed a handful of other films, including: VENOM (1981), THE FUNHOUSE (1981) and the made-for-TV movie of SALEM'S LOT (1979).
But the most stylistic and bizarre offering from that period has got to be EATEN ALIVE. The movie plays like a Carol Burnett Show parody of CHAINSAW, complete with hokey sets, colorful costumes and lots of wigs. Storywise, the film's first act has a lot in common with PSYCHO, where a young girl escapes a Cathouse and seeks shelter in a run-down motel, where she is murdered. But instead of being hacked to pieces by a transvestite with Mommy issues, she's beaten by a long-haired war veteran and fed to a giant alligator (or maybe it's a crocodile. This detail is never made clear. Motel-owner Judd claims it's a crocodile from Africa, but he proves to be an unreliable narrator.)
Previously I'd included EATEN ALIVE as part of the post-JAWS knock-offs that feature other aquatic monsters. (Like many of those titles, it had a trailer that compared it to JAWS.) But watching the movie it seems to belong to a different sub-genre entirely: Fear of the South. Certainly this genre (which was popular in the late 60's and 70's) includes TEXAS CHAINSAW, but it has roots in EASY RIDER and maybe even the Zapruder film. On the surface, there's obvious differences, like Yankees do not know how to deal with a 'gator the way Floridians might. But on a deeper level, I wonder if the real horror comes from Northern liberals who fear the Americans that elected Nixon. (This genre can be summed-up beautifully by an old National Lampoon comic book parody "Tales From the South", see below.)
CHAINSAW has the advantage of a Texas filmmaker portraying the villains as monstrous Texans, EATEN ALIVE never really pinpoints a geography. It's just "the South", it could be Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, we never know...
Part of the reason CHAINSAW is so powerful is that it has the look of a documentary. But with EATEN ALIVE, Hooper goes 180, embracing every form of artifice, with a broad location, corny wigs, and a hokey sound-stage swamp. I don't know what exactly he's going for, but somehow it all works and makes for a good time. Adding to the madness, are the over-the-top performances from Neville Brand and William Finley. Plus horror fans will delight in seeing Robert Englund (in one of his first roles) as "Buck", a horny young man who is repeatedly seen trying to convince women to engage in anal sex. He's like the Trix Rabbit of Sodomy.
Genre fans will also be delighted to see Marilyn Burns (Sally from T.C.M.) appearing as a morose housewife. It's like seeing an old friend! I wish she'd made more movies. EATEN ALIVE is so star-studded that the film's poster actually puts a box around all six actors. They're that impressive!
I also like that the poster (see right) refers to Judd and the 'gator as friends.
While researching the film, I came across this odd poster for the version titled LEGEND OF THE BAYOU. Apparently, back in the day, you could build a movie's Ad-campaign around creepy teeth. (again, I credit JAWS. It always comes back to JAWS.)
Watch the trailer for EATEN ALIVE
Buy the DVD (single disc, widescreen)
Or purchase the Special Edition 2 DVD set (with featurettes on Tobe Hooper, Marilyn Bruns, and the real-life story of Joe Ball)
warning: Netflix is streaming EATEN ALIVE, but the movie is only 31 minutes long. This isn't a "reader's digest" cut-down, it's simply the first act of the film, and then it stops. Don't bother.