It’s 1976, and you’re Tobe Hooper. You’ve made one of the most frightening and realistic horror movies ever committed to film with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Years from now, people will still use your masterpiece as a template for their own scary stories. But where do you go from here? You want to continue with horror, because it’s a genre that you truly understand and can use to convey your ideas, but you also know that you don’t want to repeat yourself, at least not exactly. How can you make another horror movie without it being compared to what you’ve already done?
Eaten Alive is the answer to these questions. Perhaps realizing that comparisons would be unavoidable, Tobe Hooper set out to film an adaptation of a real-life horror story about a rural Texas man in the 1930s who may or may not have been killing people and feeding them to his alligator. Kim Henkel, Tobe’s co-writer on Texas Chain Saw Massacre, adapted the screenplay from the historical case, and two other writers, Alvin L. Fast and Mohammed Rustam, finalized this story of a madman and his gator. Of course, fans of TCM will find lots to love here. We have another rural location set in the south, a truly bizarre cast of characters with very few redeeming qualities, and a redneck with no sense of morality whatsoever. Furthermore, we have gruesome kill scenes and a feeling of dread that permeates the entire film but becomes almost unbearable as we near the climax. On paper, this sounds like the exact same territory as Hooper’s previous hit, but in the hands of this able director, it becomes something completely different and unique.
Marilyn Burns, who was Sally in TCM, appears here as another girl who ends up in a horrible predicament. She also appeared in Helter Skelter, a 1976 TV movie about the Charles Manson murders. The great character actor William Finley (Phantom of the Paradise, The Funhouse) gives a great unhinged performance, while another wonderful character actor, Stuart Whitman (7 Men from Now), plays the sheriff investigating the case.
A Star Is Born and his part in the bodybuilding drama Stay Hungry. He also had a part in a Charles Bronson movie called St. Ives. He gets to do some of his dirtiest work in this movie, channeling the misogynistic nastiness he would bring to Freddy Krueger some years later. He’s so good at being a real piece of crap that it’s almost too convincing.
Yet, somehow, Eaten Alive manages something that I don’t know is true of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: it’s a lot of fun. Not fun in a “hee hee” kind of way, but fun in an “I can’t believe I just saw an alligator eat that” kind of way. Fun in a spectacle, carnival sort of way that I believe heralds the director’s future work, such as The Funhouse. I detect a sly, dark sense of humor at play here that I appreciate. It’s over the top in the best of ways. That’s not to say that Eaten Alive is not scary, because it is. The horror draws from real human atrocity, and that is (hopefully) always unsettling. But Hooper seems aware of the real horror and is willing to have some fun with his subject matter and with us, his audience. Whereas Leatherface is a truly terrifying creation, Judd the redneck with his scythe is played at top volume and comes off as a killer we kind of enjoy watching work.
Get more Heath Holland at his blog Cereal at Midnight!