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  • Rev Horror

Eaten Alive

Dir. Tobe Hooper (1976)

A redneck hotel owner feeds irritating guests to his pet alligator.

There's no question that Tobe Hooper is one of the masters of horror, with a career full of outstanding films and two that landed in our Top 10 of All Time. One of the most telling things about good directors is that even their bad films are pretty good, and even poor ideas seen through the eyes of an auteur are worth watching. Hooper is one such artist, someone who is able to create terrifying vignettes regardless of circumstance, and in the case of 1976's Eaten Alive, that circumstance is a redneck hotel owner who feeds his enemies (and people who just annoy him in general) to the alligator living outside of his home. They can't all be Mona Lisa's, I suppose, but Hooper does his best to make it art anyway.

Judd (Neville Brand) runs a roadside domisary called the Starlight Hotel in Texas, and he's exactly the type of person that gives the South a bad name: he's got a stupid accent, is clearly lacking in intelligence, and solves his problems with violence. As someone who hails from the great state of Georgia, I gotta say... yeah, that tracks. Anyway, Judd has had run ins with lots of folks, from escaped prostitute Clara (Roberta Collins) to a hotel customer's dog, and every time the people who go against him find themselves in the belly of his pet alligator. When Judd becomes obsessed with hotel visitor Faye (Marilyn Burns) and kidnaps her, things go even further off the rails as Clara's father Harvey (Mel Ferrer) and sister Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) come looking for the missing girl, upping the potential victims of the madman and his pet reptile.

Rather than handle the film in the same way that he delivered Poltergeist (shiny mainstream yuppie aesthetics) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (gritty and disturbing gut punches), Hooper leans heavily into a surrealist stageplay look that feels entirely unique from other horror films of the era. The music and sound effects are chaotic, giving the audience a glimpse into the minds of the film's disturbed antagonists, and the red-tinted lighting feels almost giallo in design and effect. The dialogue is bizarre and the artistic choices even moreso, creating a film that you don't watch so much as experience.

While all of that sounds complimentary, Eaten Alive is by far the weakest of Hooper's early filmography. As a followup to TCM, it's easy to see why he leaned into the backwoods bizarreness. It fails to live up to the magic of its predecessor, however, despite some truly rad gator carnage throughout. The story is severely lacking, with more of a focus on characters who are slightly off being portrayed by actors who embody their mannerisms in pretty creepy ways than in making a film that lived up to Hooper's previous masterpiece. There's something to be said, however, about a film that features a pre-Halloween Kyle Richards being chased by a crazy man with a scythe.

Despite the film's many shortcomings, it's still an entertaining watch. Marilyn Burns is fantastic as the protagonist lead, again doing a great job of portraying a woman who is out of her mind in terror. Brand is decent as well, though his particular brand (see what I did there?) of psychopath is a bit over-acted and at-times-obnoxious. The scythe-wielding killer is a decent slasher villain, however, despite the film barely fitting into that subgenre on its own merits. You can see the lineage of this film being traced back to TCM, and it also has some similarities with Craven's original Hills Have Eyes as well, which came out a year later.

Eaten Alive leans far too heavily into the hicksploitation genre without making a name for itself otherwise, featuring a wide-ranging cast of characters (including a very young Robert Englund) with just a few brain cells shared amongst them. Where Two Thousand Maniacs! nearly perfected the genre, Hooper's entry doesn't add a whole lot while still remaining very watchable. It's a decent film, but it's hardly what you'd expect if you came into it only knowing Hooper's other films. It's not nearly as good as those, but it's a cult classic in its own right, largely off of the reputation of its creator. There's also a good bit of completely unnecessary nudity near the end, totally fitting for the era in which it was made. The shades of brilliance are still there, however, as, even at its worst, Eaten Alive is clearly well done. Just don't expect anything too groundbreaking.

Who this movie is for: Tobe Hooper fans, Hicksploitation aficionados, Steve Irwin

Bottom line: Eaten Alive is not a great movie, but there's still plenty to enjoy. The alligator attacks are great, and the lead duo of Brand and Burns do a good job of keeping the tension just high enough to hold your attention. It's a low effort portrayal of stereotypical swamp folks, however, and even when it's good, it has a hard time escaping that. It's a cult classic regardless, however, and it's a must see for any fan looking to brush up on their horror history. It's streaming now on Peacock, so you can check it out for free right now.

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