Tobe Hooper’s follow up to his masterpiece, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, isn't the groundbreaking classic that its predecessor is, but it's still a prime example of exploitive horror at its untamed best. A history of bad theatrical distribution with supposedly five or six alternate titles, and with limited video distribution in the 1980s (and more recently, several DVD releases), EATEN ALIVE is an all-star sleaze gem that will hopefully find a new audience via this new Blu-ray/DVD combo from Arrow Video.
Neville Brand – a decorated WWII veteran and character actor known for playing heavies in the 1950s – stars as Judd, a sexually repressed nutcase who runs the disheveled Starlight Hotel somewhere in the swamps of Louisiana. It is never explained why he behaves the way he does, but in one single night, he decides to initiate a frenzy of bloodshed. The first guest is a wayward prostitute, Clara (played by women-in-prison film regular Roberta Collins, THE BIG DOLL HOUSE), who is released of her duties by the local madam, Miss Hattie (Carolyn "Morticia" Jones, unrecognizable in heavy repulsive makeup) after she refuses to indulge a client's awkward sexual fetish. Almost immediately after she arrives at the hotel, Clara (Collins, hiding her beautiful long blond hair with a silly-looking Harpo Marx wig) is slaughtered by Judd with his scythe, and then fed to his giant crocodile who wallows in a large pen surrounding the hotel. By the way, an encounter with his pet croc left old Judd with a one leg, so he know sports a wooden imitation.
Next up is a dysfunctional family: Faye (Marilyn Burns, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), Roy (William Finley, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) and their young daughter Angie (Kyle Richards, THE CAR). In the movie's most disturbing scene, the little girl's cute pooch is swallowed alive by the hungry croc, leaving the poor child traumatized. After settling into a room, Roy – who himself appears to be nuts – goes out to kill the giant reptile, only to be assaulted by Judd and fed to it. Judd then chases the poor little girl under the house (where she remains hiding until the finale) and gags and ties her mother to a bed (it feels as though Burns never left the horrors of CHAINSAW). Meanwhile Clara's father Harvey Wood (Mel Ferrer, CITY OF THE WALKING DEAD) and daughter Libby (Crystin Sinclaire, aka Lynda Gold, CAGED HEAT) show up looking for their long lost family member. They enlist the help of the kindly Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman, THE MONSTER CLUB) since nobody in town owns up to seeing Clara or knowing her whereabouts. They too stay at the hotel as the body count continues to rise.
With a plot that's anything but solid, EATEN ALIVE still manages to succeed as pure exploitation. The performances by the familiar cast let them really get into their assorted roles, and Hooper's proficient directing never allows the film to drag. There's no time to learn about all the characters, so the actors have to instantly convey what they're all about: Collins as the prostitute who is now sorry for running away; Ferrer as the terminally ill father determined to make peace with his daughter before he dies; Jones as the homely, masculine madam who doesn't want any trouble from the police, etc.
Best of all is Brand, who, with his long gray hair and hard features, allows his character to reek of insanity. Judd mopes around the hotel uttering gibberish to himself while the most hickish country/western music continually plays in the background. One minute, Judd just seems like an old, oddball hillbilly who is cordial to his guests. The next minute, he's a madman, viciously slaying just about anyone that shows up at his porch. Also in the cast is Robert Englund (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), who's excellent in an early role as Buck, the town's trouble-making young pervert. Sinclaire and adorable Janus Blythe (later in THE HILLS HAVE EYES and THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN) both delight us with some welcomed nude scenes that are thrown in for good measure. There's an ample amount of gore, as the crocodile attacks are well edited and quite impressive, despite the technical problems that were encountered while trying to pull off the special effects. Surprisingly, EATEN ALIVE (originally shot under the working title, "Swamp Beast”) was made almost entirely in a Hollywood studio next to the Paramount lot.
Arrow Video USA delivers EATEN ALIVE on Blu-ray in a brand new 2K director approved restoration, presenting the film in 1080p HD in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The transfer is more than a revelation in contrast to the previous, comparatively murky video presentations we have seen before. The film has been cleaned up nicely, with scrumptious detail and deep, vivid colors which show off the moody, occasionally filtered lighting schemes. Fleshtones are so natural, it now makes the grayish skin of Miss Hatie stand out to the point where she looks inhuman, and delightfully so. The original camera negative used also allows for very few blemishes and there’s solid grain structure. A terrific presentation in every way, Arrow’s Blu-ray makes EATEN ALIVE resemble a surreal gory fairytale (with its soundstage sets all too obvious), while still retaining the grindhouse illusion in all its HD glory. The uncompressed PCM mono track is also excellent, with clear dialogue mixed well with the music and sound effects, and optional English SDH subtitles are included. A standard DVD carrying the same HD transfer of the film is also included as a bonus disc.
Some of the fine extras on this release have been carried over from the 2007 Dark Sky Films DVD release (and sadly, Finley, Burns and Collins have since passed away). There’s a full audio commentary with co-writer/producer Mardi Rustam, make-up artist Craig Reardon and actors Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards. All of the participants were recorded separately, with Rustam (who shares a lot of production and background details) and Reardon (who shares more than a few fun anecdotes, including him having to apply make-up on one of the actress’s breasts!) given the most time. The three actors are heard briefly, usually accompanying the specific scenes they were in, and it’s quite interesting to hear their varied impressions about making the film. Collins reveals a pretty wild dinner date with Brand, Finley talks about how he approached his seemingly mentally unfit character, and Richards humorously recalls how genuinely frightened she was while making it.
Also carried over from the Dark Sky release is an interview with director Hooper entitled, "The Gator Creator: Tobe Hooper" (19:38). Hooper recalls how he got the assignment to do the film at a period when he waiting for the phone to ring after the success of CHAINSAW MASSACRE. He talks about the various cast members in a positive light (though Neville Brand – known for his fondness for the sauce – seemed too into his role!), and he also addresses the problematic spongy-material croc which apparently soaked up a lot of water overnight! "5ive Minutes with Marilyn Burns" (5:18) is just that, as the actress recalls her co-stars and her delight to be acting with a number of cinema veterans. Despite the abuse her character takes in the film, Burns seems delighted to have been involved. "My Name is Buck" (15:05) is a candid interview with star Robert Englund (discussing his early days as an actor and landing the role in EATEN ALIVE), and "The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball" (23:05) is a mini documentary about a real-life 1930s era murderer who allegedly fed several victims to crocodiles!
Three new interview featurettes include one with Tobe Hooper (“Blood on the Bayou”, 14:03) who talks about how he wanted to create an “unreal” world with the film, even though some of the film’s eccentric characters were drawn from real-life. He also mentions the squabbles he had with producer Rustam, partly because Hooper had expectations of the ending being more climatic. “Gator Bait” (11:38) is a new interview with actress Janus Blythe who talks about getting the role, and she reveals that her own car was used in the film. Blythe states that all her scenes were actually directed by Rustam, and then she describes auditioning for Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES, as well as getting the call from William Sachs to do THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN. Her Los Angeles public access talk show (“The Janus Blythe Show”) is also showcased along with clips, including a brief shot of Craven in the guest seat. “Monsters and Metaphors” (11:25) is a new interview with make-up artist Craig Reardon, who explains how he got interested in doing make-up growing up as a “Monster Kid” and describes the run-down studio that they shot EATEN ALIVE in and its rich low budget history. Reardon gives his philosophy on horror films, describes what Brand was like on the set (and that a human face like his was more intimidating than any made-up monster) and how Brand and Hooper got along together.
There are a load of different trailers for the film under various titles including “Death Trap” (both green band and red band versions), “Eaten Alive,” (both green band and red band versions), “Starlight Slaughter,” “Horror Hotel,” and lastly, a Japanese trailer (it was known as “The Devil’s Swamp” there). Two TV spots (under “Starlight Slaughter”) and two radios spots (under EATEN ALIVE) are included, as well as a different opening credit sequence (under “Death Trap”). There are three different galleries including a “Stills and Promo Material” section as well as a "Behind the Scenes Sideshow" section which is actually a generous display of on-the-set photos (the most amusing shows Roberta Collins next to her male stunt double, garbed in identical drag!). The "Comment Cards" is a section of questionnaire type index cards which sneak-preview audience members filled out, and some of the remarks are priceless. These cards also gave those lucky patrons the opportunity to create a title for the film, for a prize of $100! Only in the 1970s! The reversible cover sleeve features original artwork by Gary Pullin, and a booklet is included featuring new writing on the film by critic Brad Stevens, illustrated with original archive stills and posters. (George R. Reis)
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