Saturday, October 18, 2014

Eaten Alive

With the writers, director, and star of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; a deranged motel owner who feeds guests to his pet crocodile; Morticia Addams as the madam of a bordello; and Robert Englund as a redneck obsessed with anal sex, Eaten Alive (1977) is unsurprisingly a grindhouse picture, the kind of movie that forces you to wash your hands after picking up the DVD. It's undeniably sleazy, violent, and crude. What is surprising is just how boring it is, a plotless mess that goes nowhere and regurgitates the elements that made Chain Saw a success.

Eaten Alive was Tobe Hoopers's followup to his groundbreaking hit from a few years prior, and he is reunited with that film's co-writer Kin Henkel and star Marilyn Burns. He's also joined by a number of recognizable (or soon to be) Hollywood character actors and stars including Carolyn Jones, Englund, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, and Neville Brand. There's also the Phantom of the Paradise himself, William Finley, as well as Janus Blythe, one of the family members from The Hills Have Eyes.

Instead of a family of cannibals in the Texas countryside, the movie has Brand as Judd, the loony owner of the Starlight Hotel in a decrepit area of the Louisiana Bayou who murders pretty much anyone who stays at his place (so much for repeat business) and dumps what's left of them in the pit where he keeps his pet crocodile, a foam rubber creation the movie does a decent job of hiding and suggesting, but it is pretty fake-looking when we do see it.

Like Chain Saw, Eaten Alive's narrative unfolds over the course of a single day/night, but the earlier movie concerns one group of friends stumbling into a spiral of madness and macabre and has the gritty credibility of a documentary, and the followup feature feels contrived and melodramatic. Over the course of one night, we get a runaway prostitute, the prostitute's sister and dying father who have been searching for her, a family on the lam from something, a little girl's dog, the amiable sheriff, the hick looking to get laid, and the prostitute house. It's hard to buy that all these people would stumble on Judd's middle-of-nowhere motel over the course of a few hours and that all would have their own little soap operas going on.

The big issue is the nature of the performances. In a word, they're batty. In several words, they're loud, hysterical, over-the-top, shrill, campy, and completely insane. Pretty much every character is a screaming, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic, even the ostensibly normal characters. We expect Judd to be off his rocker, and he certainly is bizarre: muttering incoherent monologues, chasing people with scythes and rakes, lurking around on a wooden leg, giggling and hopping up and down when his beloved pet gets a meal. The problem is a little goes a long way. Too much time is spent watching him act weird without a whole lot happening, and like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, he's obviously bonkers from the very first time we see him, leaving him with nowhere to take the performance, and it gets tiring.

Everyone else is crazy and loud, too. The nuttiest of the meat on the hook is Finley who barks at his young daughter after her dog gets eaten, rants about extinguishing cigarettes in people's eyes, and argues with his wife Burns over a backstory we never understand or care to. Scenes of would-be suspense and horror are constantly undermined by the droning soundtrack, and constant shouting and screaming.

There is an overall weirdness that you'd think would make the movie more compelling. Judd's motel is on a stage-bound set, constantly shrouded in mist and bathed in hazy red and orange lights creating a claustrophobic, other-worldly atmosphere. It's an unglamorous look at the American backwoods, the kind of movie that shows us a monkey in a cage dropping dead. The movie is filled with random weird shit like that, but there's no reason to care about of any of it. There are no sympathetic characters to root for and little of the artistry Hooper and company brought to Chain Saw.

Trivia: Englund opens the movie by saying, "Name's Buck. I'm raring to fuck." Just in case you were wondering where Quentin Taratino got that line.

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