Tobe Hooper gets a bad rap as a director. Sure, he gets credit for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and if you’re the right sort of horror fan, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), but beyond that, his filmography is often glossed over, ignored, or credited to other collaborators. Yet Hooper directed several impressively creepy (and occasionally, wickedly funny) horror films that did not involve Texas or chainsaws. One such film worthy of reconsideration is his 1976 feature, Eaten Alive! (aka Starlight Slaughter, aka Horror Hotel, aka Death Trap, aka Legend of the Bayou)
Loosely based on the true story of serial killer Joe Ball, the “Alligator Man” (also known as “the Bluebeard of South Texas”), Eaten Alive! is set in and around the rundown Starlight Hotel, where proprietor Judd (Neville Brand) keeps a pet crocodile (NOT an alligator, as he is quick to remind his guests) fenced into the swamp adjacent to the hotel. Ostensibly, Eaten Alive! is a creature feature, but really, it’s more like a Southern Gothic fever dream variation on Psycho than it is a Jaws knock-off. What plot exists involves a family searching for a runaway daughter, but that isn’t really what drives the film. This isn’t a film driven by deep thoughts about the ills of society, although there is certainly some subtext to unpack if you are so inclined. Much like a good giallo, Eaten Alive! is more about grimy, sleazy vibes than it is plot twists or narrative cohesion, and that loose structure is an excuse for a parade of genre character actors to demonstrate a full range of eccentricities and fetishes.
In addition to Neville Brand (who definitely understood his assignment), Robert Englund gives a memorable performance as Southern fried slimeball Buck. William Finley plays the neurotic Roy, and Mel Ferrer and Marilyn Burns play the father and daughter looking for the missing woman. Plus, original Morticia Addams, Carolyn Jones, appears as the business-minded madame of the local brothel, which is more than begrudgingly tolerated by Stuart Whitman’s Sheriff Martin. In some respects, Eaten Alive! is the antithesis of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Whereas in that prior film, much of the horror came from the authenticity gained from shooting in a real location, Eaten Alive! was shot entirely on soundstages. This gives the film a claustrophobic, dreamlike atmosphere, which is further enhanced by the grainy cinematography and very extreme and theatrical lighting design, heavy on red and blue filters.
Admittedly, Eaten Alive! isn’t for everyone. It was one of the first Video Nasties in the early ’80s. There are several scenes, mostly in the first act, that are unpleasant to sit through; past those scenes, however, Hooper’s sense of dark comedy inflects the film’s tone in a way that critics at the time either didn’t, or wouldn’t, acknowledge. Eaten Alive! is a 91minute time capsule of a movie that evokes a very specific sort of Southern drive-in exploitation fare. It frequently makes the rounds on streaming services, bouncing between Tubi, Amazon Prime and the like. However, the Blu-ray restoration done by Arrow Video is phenomenal and the ideal way to see the film – preferably as a midnight movie, on the second half of a double feature.