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Saturday, 29 November 2008

Eaten Alive (1977)

You know you've got a sleazy horror movie on your hands when it opens with good ol' boy Robert Englund trying to rape a hooker in a terrible wig. She fights him off because while she may be a hooker she certainly won't do that, but that proves to be a pretty bad call. Miss Hatty, the madam, kicks her out so off she goes to the Starlight Hotel down the road and that's about the worst call of all. Nobody in their right mind would go anywhere like the Starlight Hotel. It's a broken down, seemingly empty place on the edge of the bayou, run by a total nutjob with taped together glasses who mumbles to himself incoherently. And he has a pet croc right outside to feed people he doesn't like. As he doesn't like anyone from Miss Hattie's, sure enough the hooker is soon croc food and just as sure she's but the first of many.

What's most joyously delirious about this film is that this unnamed runaway turned hooker may just be the sanest character in the entire film (with the exception of her sister who arrives later). Judd the Starlight Hotel manager, who is our central character, is crazy as a loon, but he's not the only one to be a little lacking in the sanity department. Usually you'd expect characters like a family of paying customers who turn up to book a room at the hotel to be pretty normal, there to ground the rest of the film and become victims too, of course. Yet Tobe Hooper, who directed this after his runaway success with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre didn't make anything so obvious. There are scenes of complete genius here everything gets awesomely reversed.

Judd the loon does completely normal things like dust his rooms and listen to the radio while the 'normal' family bicker and rage at each other, probably not just because Snoopy, the little girl's dog, thinks he can take on the croc. Roy, played by William Finley, makes weird clutching signals with his hands while raging at his wife for 'gouging out his eyes', which she completely hasn't done, even metaphorically. He notably takes everything an extra step or two too far, which is interesting as his wife Faye is played by Marilyn Burns, whose screaming scene towards the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is about as powerfully over the top as anything in horror cinema.

That makes a number of major names involved and they're not the only ones, not even just from a horror fan's perspective: Miss Hatty is played by Carolyn Jones, Morticia Addams herself, in her last but one movie. Kyle Richards is here, in between The Car and Halloween. Janus Blythe would soon move on to The Hills Have Eyes and The Incredible Melting Man. There's also Mel Ferrer as the father of that hooker at the beginning, come to search for his runaway daughter only to unknowingly stay with his other daughter at the Starlight. Coincidentally he was also in the other Eaten Alive, the otherwise unrelated Umberto Lenzi cannibal movie of only three years later. There's Stuart Whitman as the local sheriff.

However the actor who shines brightest is Neville Brand. It isn't just that he's the lead, he really gets into the character of Judd the crazy hotel manager and embues him with a depth that isn't common in sleazy horror films. While waiting for the next gruesome death scene, we can't help but wonder about what makes him tick, because there's far more there than in someone like Leatherface, for instance, which has to be the most obvious comparison, especially given the chase scenes and the way he waves his weapon, albeit a scythe rather than a chainsaw.

Judd is functional enough to run a business, though given that all his customers seem to end up the same way, I'm not sure how. He relishes the death scenes, literally jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear as the croc or his scythe claim another life, but he has tenderness too. Even when dealing with a woman that he's attacked, viciously slapped around and tied down to the bed, he courteously wipes the sweat from her face more than once. We don't know his intentions, but they don't seem to be sexual. He rages often about Miss Hatty's brothel and apparently used to be a regular, but she kicked him out for good because he never did anything there except talk to the girls. The reasons for his wild idiosyncracies are never explained but it's easy to guess at many sources. I learn towards him being a traumatised soldier suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

As great as Brand is the way the film feels. The set decorators and the casting crew did an awesome job of making this film look and feel sleazy and dangerous and populated with characters who aid that no end. The opening scene looks and feels like a dubious porn film, then as it progresses into more traditional horror fare, continues with an excellent use of colour. The Starlight Hotel's colours are a bizarre combination of seedy and garish. The unusual soundtrack with its strange noises often merges with the sound effects of the story, screams and cries and such, so that it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between them, especially with the faceless country music (so faceless that I don't even recognise the names of the artists in the end credits) playing continually from Judd's jukebox. All this sound and light and colour, along with dust and fog makes for a palpable atmosphere, which is there regardless of the fact that there's a croc living in the swamp right next to the Starlight not because of it. It didn't hurt that it took me three weeks to watch the movie, for reasons completely unrelated to the film itself. Highly recommended.

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