Hidden deep in the Texan bayous you may stumble across the dilapidated Starlight Hotel and its rambling psychotic proprietor Judd and his pet crocodile. Whatever the reason you find yourself seeking shelter in the swamp, be sure to get to your room and lock the door until sun-up for Judd does not have many folk check in to his hotel… And even fewer check out.
First things first, Tobe Hooper is an absolute hero of mine. Depending on what way the wind’s blowing, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is hands down my favourite horror film of all time which I can view repeatedly, revelling in its pitch perfect terror. I will not have a bad word said about Mr. Tobe Hooper – which may make reviewing Eaten Alive a tad tricky.
Loosely based on the unproven ‘true story’ of the alligator killer Joe Ball, Eaten Alive (or Death Trap as it was marketed in the UK) is the 1977 follow up to the infinitely wider recognised The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with which it shares absolutely no comparisons apart from a director. For this is a true genre piece, a test in pushing the boundaries of popularity with an exercise in sound and colour. The best I could label Eaten Alive would be quirky with its soundtrack adding much of the personality to the plot (and almost drowning it out on occasion) and red hue constantly baking the misty swamp and rotting shell of a hotel.
Despite director Tobe Hooper placing much emphasis on the colour palette of Eaten Alive, his greatest success is in creating another backwater simpleton who could easily have been plucked directly from Leatherface’s family dining table. Played masterfully by the late Neville Brand, this nervous, sweaty loner is equal parts Southern hospitality, moral fortitude and scythe waving lunacy. Clearly nursing some lady issues, Judd’s isolation, torment at the hands of locals and need to feed his exotic croc is the closest we come to justification of his murderous actions but he sadly falls short of inducing the levels of terror required to carry a horror of this vein.
At its heart, Eaten Alive is pure seventies exploitation with lingering shots of breasts which contribute nothing to the story and the infamous Buck who’s raring to f*@k (as immortalised by QT in Kill Bill). The inexplicably wacky guests are so ludicrous there’s a distinct lack of jeopardy and elation when somebody inevitably survives their ordeal preventing this from joining the pantheon of great terror movies but it certainly has a home amongst more quirky horror fare. A particular favourite scene has Judd and his wooden leg chasing a small child in leg braces which is more akin to C3PO hunting down Warwick Davis (is that ok to say?).
Shot entirely on a set in California rather than on location in the Texas swamplands, Tobe Hooper’s ambitions for this film may have outstretched the budget but surprisingly, the killer croc with its savage instinct and blood lust is rendered fairly realistically however this tends to focus all the killing on and around the hotel’s decking area allowing the creature to get involved should he be feeling peckish. This element of the story exists only to root the plot in the so called reality of the mythical alligator killer but could omitting this thread of the film have produced a darker, classic horror? Possibly.
Eaten Alive may take a while to find its feet but when it does, it’s a film I would encourage all genre fans to endure but probably only the once.