By Scott Dorward
Eaten Alive (USA, 1976)
“Why don’t you just take that cigarette and grind it out in my eye?”
Given how many of this month’s films I’ve picked at random, I’ve been pretty lucky so far. While a few have been a little dull, all have had at least some appeal. Well, today things change. Eaten Alive is a genuinely awful film, and not in a quirky, fun way.
Eaten Alive sets its cards out in the first scene, opening with an attempted sexual assault — the first of many. Clara, a new recruit at Miss Hattie’s brothel, is sacked after refusing the violent advances her first customer, Buck. As grim as the film is, this scene still comes across as uncomfortably titillating.
Now homeless, Clara ends up at the Starlight Hotel, a squalid dump in the swamp outside town. The mentally ill proprietor, Judd, goes into a frenzy when he learns that Clara worked for Miss Hattie. He mutilates her with a scythe and feeds her to his pet crocodile.
This cycle of stabbing new arrivals and letting the crocodile eat them continues throughout the night. As business models go, this seems to be an unsustainable one. Judd is not in his right mind, however, probably due to the deafening country music he constantly listens to.
Things unravel for Judd as the young daughter of one family of victims escapes into the crawlspace under the hotel. At the same time, Judd keeps her mother tied to his bed, gagged, but is still unable to stop her from rattling the metal bedframe. All of this threatens disaster for him as Clara’s family arrive, looking for her. Will Judd contain the situation? Is there a limit to how many people one crocodile can eat? And can he please tune his radio into another fucking station?
Eaten Alive was Tobe Hooper’s follow-up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and it is clear that he was trying to recapture the same grubby, transgressive magic that made his breakout film such a phenomenon. This attempt falls short, however. While Judd is as deranged and violent as any of his predecessors, he comes across as less a monster and more just a muttering misogynist with a farm implement and a menagerie. It’s clear that Hooper envisioned Eaten Alive as Psycho with a crocodile, but Judd is no Norman Bates.
For all its problems, Eaten Alive has an impressive cast. As well as an unnervingly young Robert Englund as Buck, we have the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, as well as television’s Morticia Addams, Carolyn Jones, and the rugged features of Stuart Whitman. They all deserve to be in a better film.
Eaten Alive isn’t the worst film I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s not even the worst film I’ve reviewed on this site. I did enjoy parts of it, especially the last five minutes or so. Overall, however, its grimy misanthropy just ground me down. This is a film that devours joy as Judd’s crocodile devours guests. By the halfway point, I was just wishing that everyone on both sides of the camera would get eaten and I could go on with my life.
There is a leering prurience to Eaten Alive that is deeply off-putting. This is hardly unique amongst ’70s horror films, but it is especially marked here. While the settings of its sexual assaults, abductions and blatantly gratuitous nudity are hardly glamorous, there is the uncomfortable feeling that we’re peeking into someone’s fantasies here.
Much of the presentation of Eaten Alive is puzzling. The entire production appears lit by 40-watt bulbs. Combined with the coloured gels on the lenses, the result is less atmospheric and more an advertisement for Specsavers. Similarly, the audio track sounds like it was recorded underwater. Judd’s mutterings are so muffled that whatever menace they might have carried is lost to inaudibility, especially when drowned out by the country songs blasting through his radio.
There are plenty of people out there who like Eaten Alive more than I do. I shan’t hold it against you if you are one of them. There’s undoubtedly a grindhouse charm to it. And, for all its faults, it rarely flags. Still, watching it has left me feeling grubby and even less happy with the world than I usually am. Maybe that’s what Hooper was aiming for.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!