Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the most terrifying horror movies of all time. It blisters with an aural assault over the last 30 or so minutes that underpins the feeling of discord and sets things on unsteady ground. Hooper continues his aural assault with Eaten Alive, the follow-up to Texas Chainsaw.
Like the minimalist 1974 classic, this 1977 outing examines some seriously strange characters. This time, it’s the mythical Joe Ball that receives Hooper’s attention. Known as the Alligator Man, Ball was said to have killed as many as 20 women in Texas in the 1930s. According to local Elmendorf folklore, the saloon owner fed the remains of his victims to a half-dozen alligators he kept on site.
Eaten Alive opens with a young Robert Englund playing Buck. He’s raring to do his thing to the prostitute Clara (Roberta Collins) but she doesn’t want what he’s offering. She gets tossed from the brothel and wanders down the road to the Starlight Hotel, which just so happens to be owned by the disturbed Judd (Neville Brand). One thing leads to another and Clara gets munched by Judd’s Nile crocodile.
Later, Faye (Marilyn Burns) and her husband Roy (William Finley) arrive at the Starlight Hotel with their daughter Angie (Kyle Richards) and her dog Snoopy. More disastrous hijinks strike. Harvey (Mel Ferrer) arrives at Judd’s joint looking for his daughter Clara, while Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman) also gets involved.
Most of Eaten Alive concerns Judd stalking his hotel guests with a scythe. Sometimes the croc gets involved and chomps on someone through the wood of his front porch. There’s always a sort of red murk gathering, like awful smoke was piped in from hell to cover the grounds of the Starlight Hotel.
But the most striking element of this picture is the sound. Hooper fills the air with shrieks, feedback and radio tuning. Richards’ Angie is one hell of a screamer and she spends most of the movie yelling at the top of her lungs. Her parents fight, which only introduces more irritation to the cacophony. And Judd listens to twangy country music because Eaten Alive just has to sound more distressing.
This orchestra of annoyance gives the flick an off-putting feel and sets the atmosphere well. Hooper’s interest in the people of the swamp is almost a continuation of his examination of Leatherface and his “typical American family,” with Faye and Roy setting up a cataclysmic family unit that ultimately leads to some great distress.
Judd is the real maniac and the crocodile is both his redemption and his damnation. He is tottered by Puritanism, a worldview that finds repulsion and arousal with respect to the women who find themselves in his presence. He pitilessly beats Faye after finding her in the bath, exacting a method of retribution for her iniquity of inadvertently arousing him.
Carla is punished for being a prostitute. She receives no moral justice. She dies because she wanders into the wrong place at the wrong time. Her decision to reject the sins of the flesh doesn’t matter. She is afforded no salvation at the hands of Judd.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre took note of the empty life of an abandoned working class family and raised the bar for horror movies through social consciousness. Eaten Alive shifts the focus to the wet shadows, where peculiar businesses hold toothy lures in the front yard and where men fend off the demons inside their minds.
It stands to reason that there are many dysfunctional creations in Hooper’s picture. From the blathering Roy to the uneasy Judd to the lubricous Buck, the men of Eaten Alive represent a degenerate cross-section. And the women are victims, from the squealing little angel and her lost dog to Burns’ Faye, once again the redeeming force and plagued quarry in the midst of a bitter backwoods landscape.