A couple of years ago, when Chris reviewed Eaten Alive for Hooptober 2015, he asked two good questions. Why do we praise Tobe Hooper and what makes a film uniquely one by him? Out of the Four Horsemen of 70s horror (the other three being George Romero, John Carpenter, and Wes Craven), Hooper’s work might be the hardest to enjoy. Some of that can be attributed to Hooper never fully escaping the shadow of his first film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Also unlike the other three, his filmography often lacks surface comforts. Hooper tends to go out of his way to put you off. Elements in his work remains deeply unpleasant at times even today.
Yet, those qualities explain why we continue to praise Hooper and what makes his films unique. There’s something deeply and wonderfully off kilter about Hooper’s work, which according to all reports was what the man himself was like. This is the man who in an apocryphal story submitted The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for a rating and in all sincerity thought it would get a G. It does after all not have that much violence on screen. His films explore not just America’s dark side but a shadow America. A place where the American dream rots. Hooper’s Americans who populate these spaces aren’t really lost souls. The people who populate these spaces are like ghouls ready to devour anything they meet. Eaten Alive is a film about one of those ghouls. This film is an example of Hooper once again taking uniquely American storytelling to examine the darkest parts of American culture.
As The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was inspired by the crimes of Ed Gein, Hooper and early collaborator Kim Henkel took inspiration from the legend of Texas serial killer Joe Ball for Eaten Alive. Though never convicted (he committed suicide when confronted), police believed Ball of murdering several women and disposing of the remains to his crocodile. Eaten Alive tells the story of Judd, proprietor of the Starlight Hotel. Located deep in the swamp, this is the kind of place that hasn’t so much as seen better days but you doubt it ever saw a good day in the first place. Well known to all the locals is Judd not only owns the Starlight, but also owns a crocodile. Less known to the locals is anyone who crosses Judd gets fed to the crocodile.
Hooper’s stylistic approach to his follow up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre seems like a deliberate 180 degree turn. Hooper and cinematographer Daniel Pearl shot Chain Saw like a Southern fried piece of cinéma vérité. Eaten Alive though, as shot by cinematographer Robert Caramico, looks like a Universal or Hammer film with copious dry ice and lighting out of a Mario Bava movie. Only, it’s as if someone decided to transplant the proceedings from Transylvania to Texarkana. The mad scientist is instead a deranged hotel owner and his monster creation happens to be a crocodile. Adding to the strangeness of the proceedings, after a bit of a fake out, this all takes place in the modern day.
Eaten Alive makes a case for Tobe Hooper as a stylist. While this looks like a low budget film, the staged nature of this seems fully intentional. This works more as a companion piece with a film like Jack Hill’s Spider-Baby; an out there take on older brands of film horror. It also in parts comes across as a deliberate homage to Albert Hitchcock’s Psycho. There is the hotel with its bizarre owner but a murder in the opening prompts someone to come later investigating that person’s disappearance. Judd could have been Norman Bates if he denied his own insanity. Instead, Judd kills both for gratification and to feed his crocodile. Still, Judd feels like a distant cousin to Leathface’s family. Only he kills by crocodile and not a chainsaw.
Still this is only a film that Hooper could have made. Hooper at his best is a deeply political filmmaker. This film continues to explore the cinematic Southern Gothic style he started in Chain Saw to make statements about then contemporary America. He’s interested in the grotesque and putting an audience in direct contact with that. Once again a decayed building holds in it a mad man with a strange means to enact violence. There’s points where Hooper repeats himself from his last film, such as the run through the forest at the end, to lesser effect. Where an audience could interpret Chain Saw as a film about the industrialization of murder, Eaten Alive could be viewed as a film about an American who America forgot or didn’t care about when it didn’t need him. The film implies Judd was a veteran of a war. While released towards the end of Vietnam, a film willing to tell audiences vets don’t come back in one piece wasn’t common or that these had purpose after a conflict. His victims tend to be people who have things he wants but he doesn’t have; family, success, or even desirability. However, Judd is not a sympathetic character though and intentionally so. He never portrays himself as anything other than selfish. There’s a reason he’s been forgotten and it’s only through misfortune that people find him.
Eaten Alive is not The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. There’s a few parts and elements where Tobe Hooper repeats his first film. Yet, Eaten Alive shows what makes Hooper such a unique voice cinematically. Hooper marries the Southern Gothic tradition to the gothic filmmaking traditions of Universal and Hammer horror films. He explores issues pertinent to America through that lens. He uses the grotesque to keep his audience off balance. Hooper might be unpleasant on the surface but once you get under that, there’s plenty to explore.