Eaten Alive

Color, 1976, 91m.
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Starring Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Whitman, Mel Ferrer, Marilyn Burns, Carolyn Jones, William Findley, Roberta Collins, Robert Englund, Crystin Sinclaire
Arrow (Blu-ray& DVD) (US/UK R0 HD/NTSC), Dark Sky (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Elite (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Diamond (US R0 NTSC), Vipco (UK R0 PAL)

Eaten AliveEaten AliveFollowing the unexpected success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, director Tobe Hooper decided to switch cinematic locales from the arid landscapes of Texas to the sultry bayous of Louisiana. In Eaten Alive, also known on the drive-in and horror grindhouse circuit under such titles as Horror Hotel, Starlight Slaughter, Legend of the Bayou, and Death Trap, Hooper cranks up the sick humor with which he discreetly laced his first film. Unfortunately, few bothered to see or remember this little sickie, thanks to bad distribution and its notable departure from the Chainsaw method of guerilla horror filmmaking.

At a sleazy brothel run by Miss Hattie (Jones), a newly arrived hooker (Collins) with a bad wig decides she doesn't want to cooperate with horny cowpoke Buck (a very young Robert Englund, who delivers the hilarious opening line later made famous in Kill Bill). The naive girl gets kicked out and winds up at the Starlight Motel, where the owner, Judd (Brand), welcomes her with a particularly grisly form of hospitality. Soon after, a family comes to stay for the night. The father, Roy (Phantom of the Paradise's Finley), gets extremely peeved when the family dog gets eaten by Judd's pet crocodile. When Roy tries to take a shotgun to the hungry croc, Judd pulls out his trusty scythe and takes care of his rude guest. Roy's daughter, Angie (a pre-Halloween Kyle Richards), soon winds up orphaned, but more company arrives in the form of the hooker's father, Harvey (Ferrer), and sister, Faye (Burns). As the unhinged Judd tries to cover up his ghastly crimes, Eaten Aliveevents soon spin wildly and violently out of control. Eaten Alive

While Texas earned respect for depicting violence almost entirely through suggestion rather than graphic bloodletting, Hooper pulls out all the stops here. People munching, dog munching, slashings, and shootings are all splashed across the screen, but fortunately Hooper keeps his tongue in cheek by depicting the murderer as a quirky, wooden-legged backwoods yokel who elicits as many nervous chuckles as screams. Filmed almost entirely inside a single set, the film makes good use of its claustrophobic environment and some surreal, stylish visual touches, though mainstream horror fans may find the pace too slow and erratic to build much momentum. The actors generally do a good job, with movie tough guy Brand gleefully chomping the scenery (this was during his odd drive-in period, which also included Psychic Killer). And once again, Hooper and Wayne Bell have crafted an unnerving music score that drives up the suspense as much as the events onscreen.

Eaten Alive first surfaced on DVD as a wretched bargain title from Diamond (presumably bootlegged) that was eclipsed soon after by a damaged but watchable no-frills version from Elite. However, fans waiting for a genuine special edition were far better served with by Sky's much later and much-needed upgrade, which features an anamorphic transfer that's certainly better than before but still not all that hot. (A mediocre single disc edition was replaced with a dual-disc edition soon after the first pressing.) The troubled production was shot on the cheap and has always looked rather soft and grungy, but Hooper's audaciously sleazy color schemes at least get something of an approximation here, or at least as far as NTSC would allow at the time with such heavy primary color saturation. Finally the story behind the film gets something of an authoritative treatment here, at least with some of the participants. Collins, Finley, Eaten AliveRichards, producer/co-writer Mardi Rustam, and FX artist Craig Reardon team up for the entertaining and fast-paced commentary track, apparently cut together from separate sessions and designed to give a linear, Eaten Alivemostly scene-specific account of how the film came to be. Englund pops up separately for "My Name Is Buck," a nice video interview about his early horror days in this film and with other major horror directors, while "The Butcher of Elmendorf" covers a real life Depression-era serial killer who disposed of his prey with a handy crocodile. As with Hooper's previous film, the real-life connection is pretty thin but interesting to contemplate. The savory package is rounded out with a solid 19-minute Hooper interview about the film's outgrowth from Hooper's prior classic (and his status as a pioneering Austin, Texas filmmaker, his distaste for the original script, and the limited functionality of the crocodile), as well as a 5-minute chat with the late Burns about the casting challenges posed by her star-making role and her fondness for her famous co-stars on the production. Also included are two similar trailers (one as Death Trap and the other under its current title), a still gallery, and bonus trailers for Texas Chainsaw and The Devil's Rain.

In 2015, Arrow Films expanded considerably on the prior special edition with a massive Blu-ray and DVD set in both the US and UK. The excellent commentary is carried over along with the "Butcher" featurette and three cast member interviews as well as the usual trailers, here coming up with a total of seven including alternate red and green band versions and the Japanese trailer. However there's a nice helping of new material, too, with Hooper getting an updated second interview, Eaten Alive"Blood on the Bayou," running 14 minutes and covering his intention to create an unreal atmosphere with the soundstage, his clashes with the producer, and the real-life basis for Brand's white powder chugging, among many other topics. An 11-minute interview with actress Janus Blythe, "Gator Bait," features her memories of the start of her acting career as well as making this film just before two other well-remembered genre films, The Hills Have Eyes (in which she played Ruby) and The Incredible Melting Man, with her scenes directed by producer Mardi Rustam while Hooper Eaten Alivewas off the project. She also mentions being approached for a role as one of the nude witches in Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem, which she didn't pursue. The clips from the obscure The Janus Blythe Show are pretty priceless, too. Then Reardon has a new, separate 11-minute interview, "Monsters and Metaphors," about being brought on to replace an unsatisfactory original makeup artist, the "seasick quality" of '70s indie filmmaking and reliance on downer endings, and the therapeutic role of acting in Brand's turbulent life. Also included is the alternate Death Trap title sequence, a very brief new Hooper intro to the film, two Starlight Slaughter TV spots, two Eaten Alive radio spots, and three separate galleries (behind the scenes, stills and promotional material, and hilarious audience comment cards - "strung out with death!" being a standout). The reversible packaging sports the original poster art and a new design by Gary Pullin, while the insert booklet features liner notes by Brad Stevens.

However, the main reason to get this disc is the quality of the film itself, a new 2K scan from the original negative that's so vastly superior to any prior home video version they barely even look like the same film. (Here's a grab from the Dark Sky release to give you an idea.) The heavy red saturation finally looks like the correct hellish shade it's supposed to be rather than the toned-down orange we've seen before, and the amount of detail and color fidelity is such a vast improvement that anyone left cold by the film in the past would do well to give it another shot here as the enjoyment factor increases tremendously. As usual, the PCM mono track sounds very solid (with optional English subtitles), and the electronic score is sharp enough to drive you to insanity by the end of the film. An essential part of any '70s horror home video library, finally given the treatment it's desperately needed for years.

Updated review on September 7, 2015.