Out of the Crypt: Horror Revisited: Tobe Hooper’s ‘Eaten Alive’

Hey, I’m Justin, and this is Out of the Crypt. In each column, I’ll highlight a different director while showing some love to the movies that did not make them famous. You might call them B-sides or you might call them unwatchable, but either way, these unsung slashics deserve our adoration and our remakes. 

It’s a relatable premise: a grumpy hotel proprietor feeds immoral and unpleasant customers to his pet crocodile in the swamp pool located in front of his hotel. We can all relate to this, right? Just me? Okay fine.

This week I’m dishing on 1976’s Eaten Alive. Directed by Tobe Hooper of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, this spiritual sequel finds Hooper exploring the moist and sticky swamplands of Texas, so in contrast to the hot and dry feeling elicited by TCM. Where TCM gave you daytime scaries, Eaten Alive is so dark you might find yourself squinting through the fog to see what’s happening.

On its surface, this film functions as a standard creature feature, but it doesn’t feel like a cash grab to leech off the success of Jaws, released the year before. The crocodile is not an independent evil; it is a tool to be used and manipulated by man.

Whatever this film is trying to accomplish is really unclear: it’s a feeling more than a movie. It’s atmosphere. It’s a mood. And it’s certainly spooky.

Is it good? Nope. But it never said it was going to be.

If you’re looking for a well-thought-out story: turn back now. What you get from this film is simple: a deep dive into the acclaimed director’s macabre mind.

We open on a brothel, not dissimilar to the house of ill fame showcased in 1981’s The Nesting. Clara (Roberta Collins) is new to the sex work industry and rejects the advances of her odious first client Buck, played by future Freddy Krueger Robert England, who wants to do kinky sex to her. The goofy madame – a nearly unrecognizable Carolyn Jones, the original Morticia Adams – fires Clara.

With nowhere to turn, Clara finds herself at a dilapidated motel where she meets Judd (Neville Brand), an awkward and slightly psychotic hotel proprietor, who in attitude and design serves as a prototype to Chop-Top from the Hooper-helmed Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Judd reminds everyone at home what a gifted conversational Norman Bates was. He attacks our poor Clara and then feeds her to his pet crocodile. That can’t possibly be good for their TripAdvisor rating.

A family arrives looking to use the bathroom. The child may look familiar to you. Two years after this movie, she’ll have a supporting role in John Carpenter’s Halloween, before becoming immensely successful on The Real Housewives. That’s right: it’s Kyle Richards!

Nearly unrecognizable in a black wig is Marilyn Burns, who returns to the Hooper Universe in the role of unhappily married Faye. She gets almost no character development. Faye does take off the black wig revealing Marilyn’s beautiful blonde locks but such a disguise is never explained in the film. Was she on the run? Did it just get too hot for a bad wig? Either way, it’s hard to put her role in Eaten Alive into conversation with her star turn as Sally Hardesty in TCM, yet it does add some joy to the film seeing her come back from another round of horror.

Clara’s father and sister also arrive, and the film starts to feel like it’s falling into a pattern… but then nothing happens.

The dialogue acts like a placeholder for the real thing, surprising considering Kim Henkel wrote the screenplay. While his work on TCM was hardly Scream, it was solid, compact, and relatable, like a Subaru. The dialogue in Eaten Alive often feels like a beginner’s improv troupe that took too many raspberry jello jots before the camera started rolling. In that sense, the dialogue is a loose tether, because what Hooper really wants to devote time to are the scenes of brutality which seek to confront, dismantle, and criticize the veneer of safety represented by the nuclear family.

I wanted more from Eaten Alive. I wanted more crocodile murders and better lighting. I wanted more of the swamp town and more of the quirky madame Miss Hattie, who walks like Urkel. What I really longed for was a more creative reason for the murders. A hotel proprietor who feeds his guests to a crocodile is brilliant. But shouldn’t it be tied back to the hotel? Did they steal towels or miniature bottles of shampoo? I guess what I’m really getting at is that I wanted Serial Mom but with reptiles.

Tobe Hooper’s credits beyond The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are admirable: The Funhouse, Salem’s Lot, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and Poltergeist. Although Eaten Alive has more flaws than successes, it is texturally true to the director’s vision, and for that alone, it is worth checking out.

While I appreciate that this film lives in the same atmosphere as TCM, Eaten Alive never does anything with its potential. This is the movie Netflix should have remade instead. Leave the successful horror properties alone, and give this imperfect creature feature a revival.

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Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.