Saturday, January 09, 2010

Murder On His Mind

Director Tobe Hooper’s followup to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE was a black-comic killer-croc thriller released under an incredible number of titles in the late 1970s and probably even into the 1980s: HORROR HOTEL, HORROR HOTEL MASSACRE, DEATH TRAP, BRUTES AND SAVAGES, LEGEND OF THE BAYOU, MURDER ON THE BAYOU, and STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER, among them. The most common title—and the one used on Dark Sky’s lovingly presented 2-disc DVD set—is EATEN ALIVE. By any name, it’s an impressive, intense scare ride.

A long-haired Neville Brand (RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11) plays Judd, the crippled, sexually repressed doper owner of the Starlight Hotel, who enjoys hacking up his guests with a scythe and feeding them to the crocodile that lives in the swamp next door. His guests include a naive prostitute, a family of three (including a little girl), the father and sister of the young runaway hooker (who have come looking for her), and a local redneck stud. Stuart Whitman (THE COMANCHEROS) plays the local sheriff who pooh-poohs the notion of any fishy stuff going on at the Starlight. Carolyn Jones (THE ADDAMS FAMILY) is the local madam, and Mel Ferrer becomes, with this and GREAT ALLIGATOR RIVER, one of the few actors to do two killer croc/gator flicks.

Producer Mardi Rustam didn’t fork over much dough to work with—most of the action takes place in and around the Starlight, which is an obvious though atmospheric soundstage set (including the exteriors)—though Hooper manages to generate a good deal of suspense anyway, especially during the scream-filled climax, which is almost as tense as the end of TCM. Brand, who specialized almost exclusively as killers and psychos at this stage of his long career, is amazing to watch. The old ham rants to himself, rolls his eyes, screams, yells, and generally acts like a lunatic. It isn’t exactly a subtle performance, but it is fun (though I can’t imagine what kind of desperate traveler would agree to spend a night at a rundown hotel run by this crackpot). The screenplay by Kim Henkel (who also scripted CHAINSAW), Rustam, and Alvin L. Fast is serviceable in that it introduces one character after another, merely to kill them off (which is the point of the movie anyway). It lacks focus, which keeps EATEN ALIVE from attaining any sort of classic status.

Also with William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE), totally off the wall in a confusing role as a button-down father and husband who barks like a dog; Kyle Richards; a pre-Freddy Robert Englund, whose character was spoofed by Quentin Tarantino in KILL BILL; Roberta Collins, beautiful in a curly wig and charming in a small bit as Brand’s first victim; Crystin Sinclaire and Janus Blythe, who have nude scenes; and Marilyn Burns, the lone survivor of TCM, who screams a lot here too. The creepy score was composed by Hooper and Wayne Bell (another TCM alum).


Robert said...

If you listen to Roberta Collins on the disc's special features Neville Brand did crazy both on screen & off.

Bob Lindstrom said...

Brand's performance is a classic IMO. Just brilliant, even if it may not have all been "acting." I'd give almost anything to see the unbutchered original cut of the film, which has many of the hallmarks of early Tobe Hooper (and which always makes me wonder where that talent went to.)