TOBE HOOPER WEEK: Eaten Alive (1977)

Tobe Hooper followed up The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with another film that examined the horror and depravity that existed with South Texas.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre co-writer Kim Henkel was inspired by Joe Ball, the Alligator Man, who owned a live alligator attraction in the 1930s. Despite being suspected of several murders, legend had it that Ball would feed the dead women to his alligators. Ball started as a bootlegger before opening his Sociable Inn in Elmendorf, Texas, which was surrounded by a pond where he’d charge people to watch him feed them live cats and dogs. After former girlfriends, barmaids and even his wife went missing, two policemen tried to question him. He pulled a gun and shot himself — either in the head or the heart. That said — there are many that believe the stories about Joe Ball to be simply Texas folklore. He did exist, though.

Working under the title Death Trap (the film is also known as Horror Hotel and Starlight Slaughter), this entire film was made on a soundstage, using the Raleigh Studios pool as a swamp. This enabled Hooper to create what he called a “surrealistic, twilight world.” True to form, issues with the producers took him away from the film before the shooting ended, but he had a decent relationship with the actors. Cinematographer Robert Caramico finished the direction of the film once Hooper left.

This movie starts grimy and stays that way. Buck (Robert Englund in an early role) demands kinky sex from Clara Wood (Robert Collins, Matilda the Hun from Death Race 2000!), who refuses. This scene contains the line, “I’m Buck and I’m here to fuck,” line that Quentin Tarantino used in Kill Bill.

No one says no in Miss Hattie’s (Carolyn Jones, who is better known as Morticia Addams!) house of women, so Clara is kicked out. One of the girls takes pity and gives her money to stay at the Starlight Hotel, a rundown motel in the swamp. There, she meets the owner, Judd (Neville Brand, famous for playing Al Capone in The Untouchables TV series and The George Raft Story), who we soon learn is a demented sex maniac. He attacks her, chasing her into the swamp where a Nile crocodile eats her. Yep — don’t get too attached to anyone here. This is very Psycho territory, where bad people meet even worse ends.

A couple soon arrives — Faye (Marilyn Burns, Texas Chainsaw Massacare) and Roy (William Finley, Winslow Leach from The Phantom of the Paradise), along with their daughter Angie (Kyle Richards, Lindsey Wallace from Halloween!) and dog Snoopy. Don’t get attached to Snoopy, who isn’t long for this world. As Angie finds a dead monkey and screams, the dog runs into the swamp where he is eaten. Roy goes to kill the gator, but is stabbed by Judd’s scythe. Then, the insane motel owner ties Faye to the bed and tries to grab Angie, who hides under the porch of the building.

Harvey Wood (Mel Ferrer, The Visitor, The Antichrist and first husband of Audrey Hepburn) arrives with his daughter Libby looking for Clara. Sherrif Martin (Stuart Whitman, Guyana: Crime of the Century, The Monster Club, Ruby) helps them as they search for Harvey’s runaway daughter. Libby goes out with the sheriff while Harvey stays back at the hotel. As he finds Faye tied to the bed, he’s also killed by Judd and his scythe.

The sheriff kicks Buck out of the bar — remember him? — and he goes to the Starlight with his underage girlfriend. While they’re having sex, they hear a scream. Buck discovers Faye, but is pushed into the swamp where he is devoured.

Finally, Libby comes back and saves her sister and Angie. Judd goes insane and chases them into the swamp where he’s eaten by his own gator. Or crocodile — the movie is never sure.

I’ve always joked that Rob Zombie is continually trying to remake Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. After watching this, I get the feeling that this is the movie he wants to make. It’s covered in a layer of filth from beginning to end, with characters coming and going, people getting killed horrifically and style triumphing over coherent plot. Even better, there’s a mix of actors that you instantly recognize playing some great roles, particularly Neville Brand, whose muttering insanity is total perfection. There’s also a great electronic score that really sets the mood — even ending in a crash after the final credits.

True to his promise, Hooper delivers a film that feels like a nightmare throughout. Its dream logic makes for an occasionally funny, often grotesque movie that is never boring.

UPDATE

Thanks to the well-informed Blake Lynch, here are the films many alternate titles:

“Bloodlust” in West Germany
Brutes and Savages
“Creepy Obsession” in Colombia
“Crocodile” in Turkey
“The Crocodile of Death” in France
“Dead Trap” in Spain
Deathtrap
“The Devil’s Swamp” in Japan
“Eat Live” in Romania
Horror Hotel
Horror Hotel Massacre
“The Inn of Horror” of Greece
“The Jaws of the Crocodile” in Greece
“That Hotel Near the Swamp” in Italy
Legend of the Bayou
Murder on the Bayou
Slaughter Hotel
Starlight Slaughter

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