The HOOPER posts, they just keep on a’ coming! I can’t blame some folks for not cuddling up to EATEN ALIVE. It’s scattershot, brutally blunt and sometimes feels like it’s held together with spit and crossed fingers. Like the run down hotel it takes place in, the overall structure comes off as flimsy and second hand and the walls literally wobble. Yet it’s also strangely eerie and I don’t know what your nightmares look like but mine don’t look too far off from the random, nausea-toned whirlwind found here.
There’s not much as far as plot goes, sad sacks line up to be scythed and fed to a crocodile, but genuine sense-defying horror hovers about like an impenetrable wall of humidity. Bottom of the barrel country tunes bleed together with manic music box chimes (and a chorus of wails) and even as the whole package plays with pointlessness, it’s so darn expressive that you have to take a step back and gawk. EATEN ALIVE’s commitment to chaos makes it a slippery fish and hard to get a handle on but as a surreal horrific mood piece, it works big time for me.
There’s really no identifiable reality to cling to here for comfort. EATEN ALIVE, with its makeshift, puke-toned, sets comes off as a hellish high school stage production or a cancelled Satanic soap opera. HOOPER, having just exited the bleached bone dust bowl dimension of THE CHAINSAW MASSACRE, flipped a switch in his head and got down to experimenting with garish unnatural color and lighting, a proclivity that will come to full fruition with THE FUNHOUSE.
The film texture itself is collage-like sometimes stark and brazen, sometimes shrouded and hazy. Maybe it’s just grindhouse sloppy but it jars regardless. I can’t help comparing it to the mash-up, psychedelic roulette wheel visuals that ROB ZOMBIE puts to use in his films. HOOPER may have been paying a bit of an homage to horror comics with his color palette but I’m also reminded of the plethora of neon-soaked eighties music videos that EATEN ALIVE predates as well (or stranger still, ROBERT ALTMAN’s FOOL FOR LOVE). The clash of “real” weathering and grit and “unreal” otherworldly color may throw some off but maybe that’s the point. So much of what is going on here comes off as a slap attack on the viewer.
Speaking of the ROB-ZOB, EATEN ALIVE definitely digs dumping its ladle in hillbilly sleaze and stirring the white trash gumbo. It’s not only the local yokels like the TARANTINO-quoted Buck (a young ROBERT ENGLUND whose, “I’m Buck and I like to fuck” resurfaced in KILL BILL) who come off as less than noble characters. Even TCM survivor MARILYN BURNS is difficult to relate to or rely upon completely. First of all, she’s not a very good mother and second of all, I still can’t for the life of me figure out why she wears a “new Jan Brady” wig at the start of the film and then discards it without ado. Her husband is bat-shit crazy for what purpose to the story I don’t know and her daughter (a pre-HALLOWEEN KYLE RICHARDS) does little more than scream at the top of her lungs (not that that didn’t work for BURNS in TCM).
If you want to know how much EATEN cares about your sensibilities just check out how it milks poor RICHARD‘s peril. I won’t reveal her outcome but her safety is not the usual assumed “given” based on her child status. That’s really one of EATEN ALIVE‘s biggest strengths, the fact that you can’t trust the film or anybody in it at any time. Everybody we meet is crazy, duplicitous or falling apart in some way and weirder still, the victims all but take numbers and volunteer for their savage fates.
The crocodile is paper mache phony and the sets are about as convincing as a SID AND MARTY KROFFT production. Nobody, not MEL FERRER (who is presented as little more than an animated portrait painting) or THE ADDAMS FAMILY‘s CAROLYN JONES (made up for the most part like a hunch backed cartoon witch) or main loon Judd (a wild-eyed and mumbling NEVILLE BRAND) is identifiable as an authentic human. I guess these are all reasons enough for some viewers to put up their hands and decline. When presented with wild arbitrary violence such as this maybe it’s instinctual for some to automatically comb for any evidence of falsehood to keep their footing and/or distance.
Perhaps it’s a cop out on my part but I don’t think a film like this needs to be bound by rational laws. In fact, I think its main agenda is to stick its tongue out at rationality in general. The truth is, when real horror does find its way into your life that old pal rationality is the first to yell, “Check please!” Real horror really can render everything senseless and the familiar world a false cardboard stage.
There’s an intense (though relatively short-lived) chase scene within EATEN ALIVE that almost takes place on a fairy tale page with prop trees bending to impossible winds amidst swirling, machine made mists. It’s a raging, Southern gothic storm and it’s cheap and lovely like a plastic champagne flute. Whether you buy into the situation or not HOOPER does orchestrate a multi-layer cake of suspense with several floors of his Starlight Hotel reaching fever pitches of the grotesque simultaneously. If EATEN were a dream this is the moment of crescendo right before the sleeper wakes. No, it’s not very believable at all but every dreamer knows it’s quite real enough.
I love character driven psychological horror; I love expertly timed set pieces too but there is a special place in my heart for films like EATEN ALIVE that rattle and run on simple unleaded insanity. The adult me protests and throws down barriers but the primal me rolls over like a sniveling dog. I suggest watching EATEN ALIVE alone without the distracting voices of sense and reason, preferably late at night when the walls between “awake” and “asleep” grow soft and blur. I’ve come to see it as a blood-stained music box with a headless, spinning hillbilly ballerina inside. Sure, this is some frayed, imperfect jacked-up business and it’s no TCM but when baby Leatherface has a bad dream, it just might look like EATEN ALIVE.