Saturday, February 5, 2011

EATEN ALIVE offers obscure meditation on sleaze

Dark Sky's DVD release a few years ago of Tobe Hooper's 1977 EATEN ALIVE is somewhat of a revelation since all previous home video releases of this exercise in scum (and I mean that in the best way possible) have been cropped and murky - a real struggle to watch.

Dark Sky's transfer is still worn looking but it does boast proper aspect ratio (1.85:1), which, in itself, is cause for minor celebration. But the image is loaded with scratches, pops, pings, audio fallout and general bad compression, giving home viewers an accurate grindhouse experience - and that ain't all bad in the case of this piece of dirty work.

EATEN ALIVE was originally shot 35 mm but on what must have been incredibly cheap film stock that barely survived one run through the projector. Dark Sky's source print must have been loaded frame-to-frame with damage, if this version is considered "clean."

But I'm not complaining because the movie is pretty much exactly as I remember it, having seen it at the Skylark Drive-in Theater in Aurora, Illinois, back in the summer of 1977. And I saw it as EATEN ALIVE not as DEATH TRAP, HORROR HOTEL, HORROR HOTEL MASSACRE, MURDER ON THE BAYOU, or STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER, which were some of the film's alternate titles.

At that time, I remember being stunned by the visceral violence, the intensity of the bloodletting, its sadistic content spiked with sheer insanity and - yes - its erotic undulations, even if those subverted normal sexuality.

The story really revolves around decrepit Judd (Neville Brand) who runs the Starlight Motel off-road in the swamps of Florida (though the film was shot on a set in Hollywood). The Starlight includes a "petting" zoo with a dying managerie including a bloodthirsty crocodile, which serves as Judd's clean-up crew. Judd's penchant is dispatching his guests with a scythe or curved pitchfork and he hates the hookers up at Miss Hattie's (Carolyn Jones) place so if one shows up at the Starlight, Judd'll be waiting pitchfork in hand. In fact, anybody who shows up is sure to greet the business end of his scythe. And, once cut up, served up fresh to his croc in the swamp just off the motel's wraparound porch.

The plot's simple: hooker shows up at the Starlight; Judd chops her up with his pitchfork; a dysfunctional family crash lands at the motel; pet dog is eaten by the croc; little daughter freaks out; dead hooker's father and sister show up searching; Judd gets his, etc.

EATEN ALIVE portrays a lysergic excursion into hell - a circular descent with victims unable to escape the horrors within - even when it looks like they can. Its not all that dissimilar to director Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE where victims were trapped in an endless grip of terror. But I think EATEN ALIVE reaches more psychotic depths and portrays deeper levels of perversion with more explicit results. Yet I believe Hooper's greatest influence was Hitchcock's PSYCHO, with Hooper lifting whole plotpoints from the Master's seminal work.

EATEN ALIVE has a lurid pallette (thanks to Hooper and cinematographer Robert SLUMBER PARTY 57 Caramico) with garish variants of greens and reds dominating every scene and lighting that comes from untrackable sources - there's a red floodlight shining under the swamp water that butts up to the hotel's porch for no other reason than to add menace to the environment.

Neville Brand as Judd is quite astounding and his slovenly appearance, vocal mumblings, disconnected thoughts may be due to the actor's propensity for alcohol, which was at an all time high during the time of filming. But Brand nails Judd's bizarre behavior and took the role, according to Hooper, because he "understood" Judd. And that's really what makes a good actor great, this level of "understanding."

William Finley as the father in the dysfunctional family is more bizarre than even Judd and is so pent up that you wonder who's going to slaughter his family first - him or Judd. Finley is completely unhinged - if not totally deranged - in his role as Roy with moments on screen that are so raw you forget this guy's only acting.

And I'd love to know how Kyle Richards (who was only 7 when this film was made) handled her experiences "acting" as Neville Brand ran her down with swinging scythe in EATEN ALIVE (Kyle, by the way, still acts and had an ongoing role in TV's ER up until 2006. Her sister is Kim Richards (NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR) and she's also Paris Hilton's aunt, for whatever that's worth). Perceived child endangerment at this level was and is strictly verboten...I don't know how Hooper got away with what he had little Kyle do in EATEN ALIVE.

Hooper claims that he was a "hired hand" on EATEN ALIVE and knew it wouldn't receive the accolades TEXAS CHAIN SAW did, so he shot EATEN ALIVE fast, with barely a script. Even so, Hooper's mark is so strong that he must be able to tap into what drives his psyche without conscious thought because whatever drives Hooper is up there on the screen.

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