Sunday, June 15, 2008

Eaten Alive

(1976, 96 min.)

Starring Neville Brand, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund, William Finley, Kyle Richards, Crystin Sinclaire, Roberta Collins, Betty Cole, Janus Blythe, with Stuart Whitman, Carolyn Jones, and Mel Ferrer.

Written by Alvin L. Fast and Mardi Rustam; adapted for the screen by Kim Henkel.

Directed by Tobe Hooper.

In a backwoods Texas town, working girl Clara (Collins) is having a crisis of conscience over her new position at Miss Hattie’s House, specifically the position that client Buck (future horror staple Englund) wants her to get into. Buck raises hell and Miss Hattie herself (Jones, who, with all due respect to the ravages of time, look all kinds of different from the woman who played the lithe Morticia Addams) rushes in to placate the assfreak and kicks Clara out. On the advice of housekeeper Ruby (Cole) – and with a stern warning not to reveal where she’s coming from – she goes down the road a bit to the Starlight Hotel. There, mumbly caretaker Judd (Brand) checks her in, but no sooner has she signed the register than he somehow divines where she’s come from and attacks her, ultimately running her through several times with a pitchfork. This whole opening bit is somewhat slapdash (a sign of the proceedings to come) and mainly serves to introduce Buck, who will show up again later, and Judd, along with the fact that the latter has some kind of misfire in his head and, more to the film’s selling point, a big fucking croc that he keeps fenced off in the hotel’s side yard.

While no Sea World, the Starlight does manage to attract its share of families, two on this particular day. Family number one consists of Roy (Finley), Faye (Burns, also the heroine of director Hooper’s previous Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and they must have had a pretty good working relationship for her to agree to be brutalized by freaks in two consecutive movies), daughter Angie (Richards), and dog Snoopy. From the second you see him you know what Snoopy’s fate is going to be, and sure enough he’s in the croc’s belly before the rest of the family has even entered the hotel. The entire family is understandably upset, with Roy and Angie competing for most hysterical. (She’s eight; his excuse is unclear.) After a near nervous breakdown, Roy runs downstairs to avenge Snoopy’s death only to follow him down the croc’s gullet with no small assistance from Judd.

Family number two is on a quest. Father Harvey (Ferrer) and daughter Libby (Sinclaire) are looking for a runaway second daughter, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s Clara. Upon being questioned, Judd mutters something about Miss Hattie’s, conveniently omitting that Clara had been there and was last seen traveling the croc’s gums one way to Digestionville, so Harvey and Libby go off to talk to Sheriff Martin (Whitman). Meanwhile, Judd attacks Faye, tying her to one of the beds while Angie retreats to the crawlspace under the house, which, while disgusting, does manage to make her safer than anyone else in this odd exercise in mania.

Hooper’s surprise success with the original TCM landed him this slightly larger budgeted gig, which wasn't nearly as well received. It’s not hard to see why. For one thing, the full-blown lunacy is pretty much right on display from the gitgo, as opposed to TCM in which it crept up on the audience like an odd figure approaching across a flatland. Secondly, the easily discernible subtext of TCM, former slaughterhouse workers driven out of work and into the depth of madness as symbols of dehumanization through hyper-industrialization, is replaced here by a hodgepodge of odd quirks. Judd rails against what goes on at Hattie’s but we then learn that he used to go there to watch. He scarfs down pain medicine after being shot only to reveal a moment later that the "wounded" leg is made of wood. What appears to be a Nazi flag can be glimpsed among his belongings. At one point, he stands staring wistfully into space as the radio plays a song about a man on the run. None of this coheres. And if there are any unifying clues to be found in his dialogue, I can’t tell you what they are. Amongst assorted mumblings about following rules and the dirty activity at Hattie’s, there’s a bunch of stuff that, even after seeing this at least three times, I still can’t quite figure out. Lastly, not to take away anything from Brand’s frenzied performance, he’s just no match singlehandedly for TCM’s mad parody of a family.

But leaving aside comparisons to its immediate predecessor, Eaten Alive deserves to be seen by more people (and may, in fact, have been given how many times it's been released under different titles), because, for all it shortcomings, it does have a persistently bizarre aura. It helps if you think of it as a comparatively well-filmed version of a stage production (which it sometimes resembles, backhanded compliment that that is), with the hotel as one gigantic set, and modern theatrical trappings to boot: Roy’s strange meltdown; the seemingly unnecessary wig that Faye wears and pulls off halfway through; Judd drifting slowly around the main room turning the lights on and off and rearranging papers while the music from his radio floats about him. Much of this could easily be imagined occurring in, say, a piece by Pinter or some other modernist. There’s even one sequence set in a bar in which a nervous cowboy ogles Buck’s girlfriend until he’s harassed by one of Buck’s fellow pool players. This bit doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything, and could reasonably be assumed to be filler, if it weren’t for the fact that the cowboy oddly resembles a young Judd. It doesn’t really make any sense, and yet I can’t fully discount it either.

If we are to take anything from Judd’s madness it seems most likely to be the danger of a certain type of insularity, all too sickeningly familiar these days, an existence led within an echo chamber of bad ideas, with little or no counterbalance making its way inside whether by design or indifference (the sheriff and the mutedly contemptuous Miss Hattie both have one thing in common with a number of the other characters: no one seems particularly concerned that this man keeps a giant man-eating reptile on his property). What happens in the film has virtually no rhyme or reason, but then neither does its main character, and the result suggests a world in which chaos is the status quo. The finale, set to the avant noise score co-written by Hooper with Wayne Bell that runs throughout the film, is a culmination of histrionics and subsequently only feels slightly madder than the rest of it. It does, however, lead up to one of the film’s most clear-cut moments…and it’s in service of a joke. Turns out, despite Judd’s assertions, that ol’ croc won’t eat just anything.

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