Ah fate, that fickle bitch! You never know where she's going to strike next, do you?! Dark Sky Films was all set to release a special edition one disc version of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive when, pow!, they suddenly found new print elements, bonus material, and the support of the reclusive director. Soon after, the one disc package went out of print (now a collector's item). The result? A delightfully demented two-sic set that gives a misunderstood underground classic its due!
Securing his importance in genre history with the psychological realism and fetishistic brutality of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE in 1974 -- a film that derived the majority of its power from suggestion and suspense rather than the gore which is often erroneously attributed to it -- low budget cinematic naturalist Tobe Hooper followed this unprecedented artistic and commercial success with the less effective EATEN ALIVE. Debuting in 1976, this feature wasn't as visually powerful as the iconic symbolism of CHAINSAW, nor as atmospheric, also lacks narrative complexity. Characters are unsatisfactorily explored, and Hooper is only partially effective in making the disturbed psyche of its major POV character the unifying thread of a plot more interested in piecing together various scenes of graphic carnage than establishing a satisfying central conflict.
Not as visually arresting as CHAINSAW, neither is EATEN ALIVE as honest or uncompromising. Whereas the former was a well paced, shocking vivisection of the hypocrisy of American society, focusing on a simplistic story of survival as its adolescents struggled to avoid the dismemberment and cannibalism threatened by a retarded image of the 'All American' family, EATEN ALIVE attempts to draw complexity by interweaving disjointed subplots into the major emphasis of a maniac's violent breakdown. While this is partially achieved, and disturbing in its own right, too many ideas diminish the effect of any one, and what could have been a potent study of a madman struggling with his conscience and appetites instead focuses on the effects of said breakdown, with violence taking precedence over psychosis.
All this doesn't mean that the movie is completely unsuccessful. If not resonating with the brutal power or stylistic integrity of Hooper's freshman effort, EATEN ALIVE is nevertheless an admirable exercise in bloody good exploitation! Perhaps such close comparison to its predecessor is even unfair, as Hooper was clearly trying to make a different statement with this picture, testing his growth as a storyteller. Still in evidence is Hooper's ability to find the heart of 'character' in his settings, in this case, the sweat-dripping decadence and grime of Louisiana. In addition, his moments of suspense are as taut as ever. Human characters of various sorts appear for our titillation, from opportunistic Madams and lustily leering sheriffs to hookers with hearts of gold and so-called normal folks every bit as disturbed as the central maniac. These are believably flawed Outsiders, struggling to understand both the world around them and themselves. Hooper's simplistic yet effective treatment of these figures, and his camera set-ups, are evocative in their very simplicity. Of course the primary aesthetics he's going for in this picture are violence and raw sensation, both of which are presented in a rough down-and-dirty gratuitousness.
A story that attempts too much with too little, EATEN ALIVE is quick to refer to and/or establish conflicts and secondary characters without tying them together or, just as agitating, not joining them to the central plot. Regardless, or perhaps as a result of the ensuing chaos, a sense of disorientation is maintained. At a small town brothel run by Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones), a na´ve runaway trying to make it as a hooker (Crystin Sinclaire) finds herself unable to pleasure horny hired-hand Buck (Robert Englund). Kicked out onto the street, the runaway seeks a night's shelter at the ominous Starlight Motel (whose exterior deterioration physically embodies its owners rotting frame of mind). When the unhealthy-looking, unwholesome owner, Judd (the wonderful Neville Brand) discovers that she comes from the whorehouse, his fanatic desire for/hatred of sexual wantonness rears its genuinely frightening head. Not long after we've been introduced to Judd's self-abusing, darkly comical, muttering mania, various other bit-characters seek rooms at his hotel. First is a dysfunctional family consisting of an unsatisfied wife, a perpetually crying little girl, and unbalanced father Roy (William Finley), whose hysterics make one wonder just how closely Hooper believes 'normal' folk are to the mental deviation of Judd. Following shotgun frolics, a hungry crocodile who eats family pets, and increasingly graphic decapitations, gut stabbings, and neck-chocking, a father and daughter team consisting of Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and sister, Faye (Marilyn Burns), shows up searching for their daughter (the hooker). From here, the movie focuses primarily on Judd's attempts to find the aforementioned little girl, who hid beneath his house when he was tying up her mother, and his attempts at disguising his crimes (with unnecessary padding of Burns and the local sheriff drinking too much coffee).
There are two stars in this film, neither of which are people. The first is violence, the second, setting. EATEN ALIVE lives up to the gory associations of its name, featuring a carnal catalogue of body-munching gators, gory scythe work, and copious dismemberment splattered across the screen, close and personal-like, in what can only be described as a poor man's ballet of blood. Juxtaposing the violence with humor, Hooper embodies in Judd (a really commendable performance!) a poor slob, a figure who almost elicits pity every bit as much as fear -- and even a certain degree of humor. Of course the violence wouldn't be half as effective, nor the film as a whole, if not for the living, breathing sense of place that Hooper evokes with his swampland. Deterioration, in-breeding, and lax moral standards -- all hidden beneath a skin of mock respectability -- scream out from ramshackle houses, Judd's own Starlight Hotel, and the very sweat laden fog. You can almost touch the atmosphere, the sweat running down shapely thighs, the desperation of fear, and the lusty hatred. It is in this arena, the sphere of mood, that Hooper triumphs, making the movie far more than just another 'slasher', intriguing despite its surface flaws.
Featuring a wonderful new print, re-mastered and considerably refined from its previous public domain VHS and DVD incarnations, Dark Sky treats EATEN ALIVE like a star (when most companies would treat it like a shameful second-cousin!). Whereas in the past you could only see this problem mother fucker in subpar VHS and DVD releases (Elite being one of the more depressing examples!), Dark Sky worm their way into the hearts of any right minded genre freak by giving us one of the most technologically advanced and loving releases yet. Exchanging improper ratio prints for sterling 1.85:1widescreen, the picture has largely eliminated such surface flaws as soft colors, uneven lines, and drab colors. There is little trace of speckling, the picture is crisp and detailed, and colors bold, with realistic skin tones. Colors are crisp and bold. Dark Sky have truly achieved a minor miracle of production magic here, one that needs to be mentioned. Audio, featured in 2.0 mono is serviceable, bringing the soundtrack, screams, grunts, and mad mutterings home in satisfying clarity.
If Dark Sky's visual and audio treatment of this flawed but emotionally effective psychodrama is impressive, even more enticing -- and itself enough reason to purchase this edition -- is the company's carefully chosen, professionally polished extra features. Wile not as impressive as their upcoming TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE special edition 2-disc set, EATEN ALIVE features supplements that go far beyond average DVD fare. First off is an insightful, personable, and quite detailed audio commentary. Featuring Mardi Rustam, the producer and co-writer, and actors Roberta Collins, William Finley, and Kyle Richards, this track explores the film and some of the personal histories of the people behind it, mixing with technical details of the script and filming with more juicy reminiscences. Of these, perhaps the most touching, and most disturbing, involve Neville Brand and Crystin Sinclaire. Also of note are the contributions of make-up FX wizard Craig Reardon. These people actually have something to say about their experiences, and you end up learning just as much about their own outlooks and prejudices as about the film. Covering the production's start, filming schedule, and its somewhat lacklustre release, this makes for engaging listening.
Less comprehensive if just as enjoyable is the always insightful Robert Englund in the "My Name Is Buck" featurette, wherein our favorite character actor waxes enthusiastic about his early roles as Faerie tale figures and theater, his move to Hollywood, and his first starring roles. One of the good guys, Englund is intelligent and cultured, and never badmouths a genre which he shows great understanding of, and appreciation for. Fondly recalling Hooper, Brand, and the atmospheric set of the film, Englund is fun to listen to. In a dramatic shift of tone, a sombre if fascinating documentary explores the mishaps, murderous spree, and resulting urban legends of one Joe Ball. Culturally intriguing, exploring the connection between fact and folklore, and life and cinema, "The Butcher Of Elemendorf" reviews in discussion, interview footage, and written text the bizarre, genuinely disturbing murders committed by Joe Ball, a World War I veteran whose fighting experiences allegedly unhinged him. Believing to have murdered and dismembered two women, Joe was the owner of a tavern with crocodiles outback. The sadness and honesty of Bucky Ball as he recounts his uncles story is touching, as poignant as Joe's crimes were haunting.
New to this presentation are question and answer sessions with director Tobe Hooper and star Marilyn Burns. Both show their subject in good form, full of interesting trivia and memories. Hooper is particularly vocal, re-living for us the trials and joys of the experience, taking us through the story, this era of his career, the origin of the plot, etc. Stills gallery, behind-the-scenes slideshow, comment cards, alternative credits/title sequences, and trailers round out this impressive package.
Review by William P. Simmons
|Released by Dark Sky Films|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|