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Eaten Alive

Year: 1976
Production Co: Mars Production Corproation
Director: Tobe Hooper
Writer: Alvin L Fast/Mardi Rustam/Kim Henkel
Cast: Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Marilyn Burns, Robert Englund

What Tobe Hooper did next. After the horror auteur helped blaze an entire new genre with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – the one that would morph into the scuzzy video nasty horror flick (and I'm sure some trainspotter would be only too willing to correct me and there's some obscure film movement or aesthetic that inspired him), this was his next effort.

I'm not sure if TCSM was an immediate success, but after shooting in the actual Texan backwoods someone gave him the money to shoot in a studio. Even while I was watching it looked to me like every location here – even the outdoor scenes next to the creepy Starlight Motel – were shot on sound stages.

The Starlight is owned and run by Judd (Neville Brand), a lanky, long haired lunk who's scary and psychotic and who continually mumbles to himself – actually forming one of the weakest aspects of the film, with Hooper staying on his hero/antagonist in long stretches watching him mutter complete gibberish as he goes about his business.

It effectively sets him up as an unhinged whacko, but at a certain stage you start to feel like there's no need to continually labour the point.

We actually meet Judd through Clara, a young woman working at a nearby brothel who gets kicked out by the incensed madam after her latest customer (Robert Englund as Buck, giving Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol 1 the immortal line 'My name's Buck and I cam here to fuck') wants to go too far and she refuses.

Clara finds the Starlight and checks in while Judd gets increasingly weird and leery. When it emerges that she's from the cathouse down the way he snaps, attacking her maniacally with his trusty scythe and shoving her barely-alive body over the railing of the front porch into the swamp where he has a crocodile penned up to eat his victims.

Various other fodder for Judd's delusions arrive. One is a young family with extreme dysfunction. TCSM star Marilyn Burns is the wife, Faye, who seems like the only one holding things together with their cute daughter as her husband Roy goes increasingly nuts (with no apparent relation to anything else in the plot).

The croc takes the family dog, the daughter has a meltdown and the parents argue, and when Roy goes down to confront Judd and try to kill the croc, Judd turns on him and he becomes its latest meal. Meanwhile he attacks Faye and ties her to the bed while the kid only just gets away, hiding in the crawlspace under the motel.

Then Clara's father and sister arrive, on her trail after she's run away, and Judd ties himself increasingly in knots trying to keep his story straight and everybody from learning the truth, especially with a little girl screaming under the house and a woman tied to a bed in one of the rooms.

While Clara's sister and father get the local sheriff involved, Buck and his latest girlfriend return to the motel for some shenanigans, and Judd is apoplectic from the stress of having to hide the truth about how many victims his crocodile has eaten and the murky swamp water truly hits the fan.

It's not nearly as successful as TCSM was, and certainly not as distinctive or with as long a shadow over the genre. The performances are pretty campy and the horror more tongue in cheek (maybe unwittingly so) than Hooper's previous effort.

Having been shot indoors, with sheens of sweaty, primary coloured light blazing through the windows, fog drifting everywhere and sopping black branches pressing in from every side, it's pretty stagey and while it might have helped convey a sense of sweaty claustrophobia in a different version of the same movie, here it just comes across as particularly well dressed play.

It also can't escape the trappings of the times and genre, with every young female member of the cast disrobing at some point in a way that has nothing to do with the story.

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