Eaten Alive

US | 1976 | Directed by Tobe Hooper

Logline: A psycho, redneck hotel owner kills various guests who upset or annoy him, and feeds their bodies to his pet crocodile.

Eaten Alive is a strange Southern brew. Desperately trashy, yet undeniably eerie, it lingers in the mind for days after viewing, like the mood of a creepy dream. It was known as Death Trap in the U.K. (and on the notorious video nasties list) and alternately in the U.S. as Horror Hotel, Starlight Slaughter, and Legend of the Bayou. 

Judd (Neville Brand) an extremely dodgy, disheveled man, with sex-crimes on his mind. He owns the run-down Starlight Hotel on the edge of the East Texan bayou. Alongside the porch is a murky pool where Judd keeps his large pet alligator (although he claims it to be an African croc). All Judd needs to feed his, and his reptile’s appetites, are suitable clientele. 

Along comes troubled whore Clara (Roberta Collins). Judd tries his way with her. Along comes a dysfunctional family; Faye (Marilyn Burns), Roy (William Finley) and young Angie (Kyle Richards). Judd interferes. Along comes Clara’s father Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and her sister Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) wondering what’s happened to her. Judd provides details. Along comes cocky butt-lovin’ Buck (Robert Englund) and his squeeze Lynette (Janus Blythe) to use one of the rooms for a little hanky-panky. Judd accommodates. 

Y’see all Judd wants is a piece o’ the action, but he’s got murder on his mind … and a hungry croc to boot. No plot, just piece meal, yet there’s something about Eaten Alive; a kind of studied exploitation. It’s loosely based on the real-life post-Prohibition exploits of a seedy hotelier known as Joe Ball and his pet crocodiles. Like a Dario Argento movie, the tone and atmosphere floats with mysterious menace and languid intrigue. Characters don’t do much, and yet they still manage to behave in oddly interesting ways, just enough quirks to beguile you and keep you wondering where this crazy, mixed-up movie is plunging.  

Although shot entirely within a studio (when characters start raising their voices in exterior scenes you can hear the roomy acoustics of the voices bouncing off the studio walls), it is this cost-cutting measure (the shooting budget was probably less than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, although it probably cost Hooper more to hire the actors on this film) which actually adds to the movie. The dreamlike mood is enhanced by the unreality of the sets. 

The intense, moody lighting, the over-use of the fog machine, and the histrionics of the acting makes Eaten Alive behave like some kind of wayward nightmare pantomime, or like you're poring rain over a lurid, pulpy dog-eared paperback about southern sexual shenanigans soaked in a bourbon haze. Then there’s the hysterics; Tobe Hooper enjoys hysterics very much, and Marilyn Burns has got a great pair of lungs. 

The special effects are pretty darn cheesy, yes, the mechanical crocodile has to be seen to be (un)believed! Very curiously there was an end credit which read: “Mechanical alligator and crocodile furnished by Bob Mattey”. The producers would’ve been wiser spending money on footage of a real croc and editing it in. But then the fake croc adds a little more gamey flavour to this surreal gumbo stew. 

Robert “Freddy Krueger” Englund has a hoot playing the redneck booty-lover, poor Marilyn Burns (whom Hooper had so ruthlessly terrorised in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) spends most of her time gagged and trussed to a bed, little Angie (Richards would play young Lindsey in the first two Halloween movies) spends nearly all her time hiding under the hotel amongst the rats and creaky foundations. Neville Brand mutters and splutters from his hoarse throat (he’s a human reptile!), relishing his own perverse form of justice: if you come to my hotel be prepared to be devoured. 

Yes, Eaten Alive is a curious creature, ripe for the plucking, late night popcorn fodder. Arm yourself with a large bourbon tumbler and a cut-glass ashtray full o’ bayou roaches, there's some country crooner lamenting a long lost love, and behind him the deep growl of a scaly beast swishing its tail in that pungent swampy corner.