Saturday 4 June 2016

Arrow Round up:
Eaten Alive
(Tobe Hooper, 1976)

Independent producer Mardi Rustam must have thought he’d hit the grindhouse horror jackpot when he signed up the director of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (then still knocking people’s socks off on its initial theatrical run) to make a movie about a backwoods hotel proprietor feeding his guests to a giant alligator, starring a bus load of old-hand Hollywood character players and a handful of pretty girls.

Forty years later, when I threw this disc on without much prior research to headline a Friday night of mindless horror movie fun, I’ll confess I had broadly similar expectations…. but as it turns out, fate dealt both Mardi and I a pretty ugly hand on this one.

To put it plainly: ‘Eaten Alive’ (also widely known as ‘Death Trap’) is a real fucking weird one, and not necessarily in a good way. Despite the foolproof simplicity of its drive-in friendly premise (‘Psycho’ + alligators + tits & gore = $$$, basically), the film that eventually emerged from the production’s evidently quite troubled set is one of the most ramshackle, disquieting and uniquely off-putting attempts at making a commercial horror film I’ve ever seen. (1)

The reasons for this are many and varied, but I suspect, at the end of the day, there was simply a bad moon on the rise (or some equally calamitous astrological conjunction) the day that the film’s creative principals convened on a low-rent Hollywood sound-stage to throw this thing together. There is just something.. off.. about the whole venture. Depending on circumstances and personal taste, some may find that this freaked out, weirdie vibe could add greatly to the film, but…. well, let’s just say that on this occasion it didn’t do a lot for my proposed programme of popcorn consumption and solfa-based relaxation, and leave it at that.

Although ‘Eaten Alive’s consciously artificial, set-bound visual style – all glowing red gel-lighting, swathes of candy floss fog and garishly camp costume/set design – suggests an intention on Hooper’s part to take a 180 degree U-turn from the realism of ‘Chainsaw..’, the spirit of that film was clearly still very much on the director’s mind, and his actual direction here is just as disorientating and stylistically extreme as it was on his earlier classic. Dutch angles, sweaty facial close-ups and prolonged sequences of twitchy discomfort are all very much in evidence, whilst the director’s favoured soundtrack (recorded in conjunction with Wayne Bell, as per their work together on ‘Chainsaw..’) comprises a genuinely alarming selection of jagged, atonal noise loops that, combined with a near-continuous barrage of shrieking, squelching, canned animal noise and incoherent radio chatter, makes the film a constant, low level assault on the senses. (2)

Whereas this approach worked very well for ‘Chainsaw..’s assaultive “descent into hell” structure however, it wreaks havoc with the slower, more conventional narrative utilised here, leaving viewers lost and confused, unable to grab hold of anything to help us connect with or understand the parade of increasingly grotesque insanity unfolding on-screen.

One of the main problems here (if indeed you see it as a problem) is that, of the distractingly large cast of characters, most appear just as unbalanced and unpredictable as Neville Brand’s psychopath hotelier, leaving us searching in vain for the kind of vaguely sympathetic protagonist figures necessarily to anchor (and more importantly, drive the suspense of) this kind of slasher / bodycount set-up.

Robert Englund’s smirking cowboy rapist, Stuart Whitman’s sleazy, ineffectual sheriff, Carolyn Jones’ doddering brothel madam – all of these are potentially intriguing characters, but they’re also almost comically dislikeable and entirely absorbed in their own strange tangents, giving the film a rambling, “lunatics have taken over the asylum” feel that persists despite the belated introduction of Mel Ferrer and Crystin Sinclaire as a theoretically sympathetic (but actually also quite dysfunctional) father / daughter team about halfway through the run-time. (3)

I don’t know what kind of advice and/or freaky treatment Hooper gave his cast here, but, whether their characters demand it or not, just about everyone on-screen is completely out-to-lunch, which doesn’t exactly help matters. This is most evident early in the film, when a bickering family unit of rent-a-victims (the parents played by Brian De Palma regular William Finley and ‘Chainsaw..’s Marilyn Burns) pull up outside Brand’s decaying boarding house. Finally, we think, some normal people to help put things in perspective… but it’s not to be.

Shot dispassionately from above as they stomp around their hideously decaying hotel room, Finley and Burns’ domestic disagreements soon assume the quality of shrieking, operatic hysteria, with Finley in particular going so far off the map it’s hard to believe anyone let him get away with it. By the time he begins scrabbling around on the floor, apparently channeling some acid-damaged reject from a way-out experimental theatre production as he mimes a search for his “eyes”, which he accuses his wife of having scooped out of his skull, we’re forced to wonder whether the couple’s terrified child – currently hiding under filthy bed sheets having already been traumatized by the sight of her pet poodle getting chomped by the alligator – wouldn’t be better off taking her chances with the muttering, brain-damaged axe murderer downstairs.

So yeah – it’s that kind of movie.

At the centre of all this derangement, probably the most genuinely disturbing (as opposed to just fingers-down-the-blackboard grating) aspect of ‘Eaten Alive’ is the casting of Neville Brand in the central role of the aforementioned psychopath.

Apparently one of the most highly decorated American veterans of World War II, Brand often claimed that he initially turned to acting (with a particular emphasis on The Method) as a means of coping with the ravages of what we would probably now term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (back then, they probably just went with “shell shock”, or did that ‘silently tapping the side of yr head’ thing). Though extremely successful in his new career (his filmography is quite a read), by the time he got to ‘Eaten Alive’ Brand had also resorted to treating his condition through the more traditional means of raging alcoholism, resulting in a tendency toward dysfunctional behavior that shines through all too clearly here.

It is often difficult to discern how much of Brand’s incoherent performance is a result of his “immersion in the role” and how much is simply a reflection of his damaged mental health at the time of filming, but either way, he makes for an extremely uncomfortable presence on screen. Constantly muttering to himself and occasionally raising his voice to make odd, fractured pronouncements to whoever happens to be around, the vast majority of Brand’s dialogue is either inaudible or meaningless, meaning that, although we spend a great deal of time following him stomping about his living space as distorted country n’ western blares on the radio, we learn very little of his character’s personal history, or the motivation for his apparently random crimes.

He does sometimes seem to experiencing flashbacks or hallucinations of a military nature, suggesting that the character, like the actor playing him, is a traumatised veteran of some kind (thus aligning ‘Eaten Alive’ as a potential distant cousin to the sub-genre of “shell shock” horror flicks represented by Bob Clark’s ‘Deathdream’ (1974) and Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘Combat Shock’ (1984)), but this is never really explored, and again, the ratio of “stuff that was in the script” versus stuff that Brand was simply improvising on the spot remains unclear.

All we can say for sure is that, based on opinions culled from the extensive extras on Arrow’s release of the film, most of the cast and crew were frightened of Brand, finding his behaviour threatening and unpredictable (one interviewee recalls him eating from a huge jar of honey between takes, like some perverted Winnie the Pooh), whilst many of his scenes convey the impression of a man suffering from severe dementia who has been pushed onto the set and left to fend for himself.

As with many of his later films, Hooper himself doesn’t seem to have been an easy collaborator either, and his constant clashes with ‘Eaten Alive’s producers appear to have led to his walking off and returning to the production like a yo-yo, with many cast members recalling pivotal scenes instead being directed by cinematographer Robert Caramico (whose attitude could be summarised as “LET’S GET THIS FUCKING THING DONE AND GO HOME”), or by Rustam himself.

Under the circumstances, it is a testament to the strength of Hooper’s vision that the finished film continues to embody his directorial sensibility so strongly, but his obvious absence from large chunks of the shooting nonetheless lends ‘Eaten Alive’ a fragmented, piecemeal quality that makes it an even stranger viewing experience, full of threads left hanging, entirely gratuitous bits of character business and some sequences whose very existence remains entirely inexplicable.

An example of the latter is provided by one extraordinary diversion during a scene set in a local bar, when David Haywood, the wondering cowboy with the violin case from Robert Altman’s ‘Nashville’, turns up, apparently playing the same character he portrayed in that film. Haywood proceeds to be terrorised in an exceptionally odd manner by two unsavory gentlemen – cohorts of Englund’s character – who rival Brand in the “authentically fucking creepy” department, in a meta-textual bit of pre-Lynchian menace that defies any kind of rational explanation.

Buried somewhere beneath ‘Eaten Alive’s distressed, almost avant garde surface is a great little fun-time horror movie (the one Rustam initially wanted to make, presumably) just fighting to get out. It is ironic that, despite turning off most of horror crowd with its sheer, rambling weirdness, the film’s actual murder set pieces are outstanding. More audacious and explicitly gory than most mid-‘70s American horrors, they border on the cartoon splatter of ‘80s Italian fare in their best moments – in fact I’m sure a carefully assembled trailer of the bloodier highlights could have had gore-hounds queuing ‘round the block, were it not for the fact that the total failure of the movie’s animatronic crocodile (alligator? I dunno, who cares..) simultaneously undercuts the laudable achievements of the film’s effects team in other areas, making a laughing stock out of any hopes the producers might have had of scoring some topical, ‘Jaws’-style action.

The more acclaimed classics of 1970s American independent horror might have gained a rep for their dark, twisted innovation, but for sheer berserk extremity I think ‘Eaten Alive’ pretty much tops them all, even whilst it’s lavishly eccentric production design instead seems to hark back to the ‘60s gothics, or early Technicolor melodramas. Going considerably further in its audience alienation tactics than most viewers are liable to tolerate even today, I can only assume it must have been met with consternation, walk-outs and general bafflement when it first made the rounds of America’s grindhouse/drive-in circuit back in the mid ‘70s.

Like most of Hooper’s post-‘Chainsaw..’ films, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘Eaten Alive’ is a ‘good’ or artistically successful film – and it is certainly not one I’m be liable to recommend to anyone for the purposes of ‘entertainment’ – but it is definitely a unique experience, and that counts for something. Whatever you make of him as a director, Hooper’s bloody-minded pursuit of his own peculiar vision, combined with his apparent refusal to ever actually make the film his producers or audience want him to, is difficult not to admire.

Just spare a thought though for poor old Mardi Rustam, head in hands beside his account ledger a year or so after ‘Eaten Alive’ wrapped, wondering what the hell went wrong.


(1)Other AKAs include ‘Horror Hotel’, ‘Starlight Slaughter’, ‘Legend of the Bayou’, ‘Brutes and Savages’ (appropriate?), ‘Akuma No Nuwa’ [‘The Devil’s Swamp’] in Japan and, as demonstrated via the superb poster above, Quel Motel Vicino alla Palude [‘The Motel Near the Swamp’] in Italy.

(2) I’m sure all this has been widely discussed before, but with my “music fan” hat on, I can’t help but reflect on how ahead of their time Hooper & Bell were with their scores for ‘Chainsaw..’ and ‘Eaten Alive’, and how influential they must have been on the emergence what we’d today classify as ‘harsh noise’ or power electronics. I mean, who else, outside of the farthest reaches of avant garde composition, was busting out this kind of thing in the mid-‘70s?

(3)Amusingly, the perpetually dignified Mel Ferrer also ended up appearing in Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Eaten Alive!’ (1980).

1 comment:

Elliot James said...

I've only seen the film once. It reminded me of a Tales From The Crypt comic in style (art by Al Feldstein) and Warren Publications' Creepy/Eerie zines (art by Bernie Wrightson) and there's some Bava-esque setting and angles that impressed me. I can imagine the sight of Brand running with a giant scythe was more than scary to his co-workers. His over the top performance is what makes the film, in the long run, the way that Chuck Connors' completely insane persona in Tourist Trap was the centerpiece of that film. Both of them are great drive-in or midnight movie showings.