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Eaten Alive

Arrow Films

Eaten AliveAs I write this, the horror community is mourning the loss of Gunnar Hansen, whose turn (yes, that one, round and round with a buzzing saw in the middle of the road in the blazing sun) as Leatherface helped put Tobe Hooper on the map, Texas Chainsaw Massacre having not only been a huge hit, but unbeknownst to anyone having also changed the face of horror forever.

Hooper’s follow-up film, Eaten Alive (also released as Horror Hotel, Horror Hotel Massacre and Amok for starters, and also known by Hooper as Death Trap), just re-released by Arrow on blu-ray and DVD, is a very different beast. Instead of giving us more of the same, he gave us a campy, colour-saturated nightmare that juxtaposes a fairly silly plot with a genuinely chilling central performance from Western and Twilight Zone veteran Neville Brand as Judd, the proprietor of the Starlight Hotel. As you may have surmised, this is the kind of hotel where people check in, but only check out in the most metaphorical sense.

Essentially, it’s Psycho with a crocodile. But that’s not in the sense that it’s Psycho with a crocodile instead of a deranged killer — it’s Psycho with a crocodile AS WELL AS a deranged killer. Add a very young Robert (Nightmare On Elm Street) Englund as ANOTHER creepy sex predator (one whose ghost Quentin Tarantino would raise in homage nearly thirty years later — you’ll recognise his opening line in an instant), and it’s quite a lot to pack in in an hour and a half, but Hooper really goes for it. In this modern age of committee-written, major financial investment movies, it’s a nice reminder of a different age. It’s an unashamedly grindhouse piece, and a prime example of the often-overlooked artistry involved in the genre.

Eaten Alive

Eaten Alive may not quite be Suspiria or The Last Emperor in its use of colour, but it’s certainly something of a visual feast, all fog, blood-red lighting and darkness. As an amiable Hooper says in one of the appended interviews, he wanted to go for a kind of Alice In Wonderland feel, and to my mind he pretty much nails it. What sets itself out as your run-of-the-mill slasher (albeit with a crocodile) ends up being more of a surrealistic fever dream. There are points in this movie where it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Judd’s not the only one who’s insane, especially when William (Phantom Of The Paradise) Finley‘s Roy starts chewing the scenery in a spectacularly bizarre argument with his wife Faye, played by Marilyn Burns.

Eaten Alive

There’s more of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in its DNA than there is of, say, Poltergeist, but it eschews TCM’s claims at reality in favour of creating a self-contained and claustrophobic world (outside the bar, the hotel and the brothel, it’s as if the rest of the world doesn’t exist at all in any meaningful way) which doesn’t even offer the promise, let alone the potential, of escape for its characters. It’s almost theatrical rather than cinematic, a blood-spattered Technicolor melodrama. Eaten Alive is unashamed about its status as a B-movie, but it works within that to make something quite odd. But the thing that holds it together, apart from its own bloody-mindedness, is that amazing performance from Brand, a performance which, according to Hooper’s interview, may not have been entirely down to acting.

Eaten Alive

There is also an informative interview with Englund, who speaks with genuine affection of his time making the movie, and of the changing horror movie landscape. A third, shorter interview with Texas Chainsaw Massacre alumnus Burns rounds off the package. For all its gore and horror, it’s one of those movies where it looks like everyone had a hell of a time making it, and she pretty much confirms that. It’s certainly a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and hopefully this re-release will bring it to a whole new audience sick of the glossy, soulless production-line crap that passes for 80% of horror cinema these days.

-Justin Farrington-

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