Saturday, October 10, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 5: Eaten Alive (1977)

I cannot recall when or how I first learned of this film's existence, It may have been seeing it on a video store shelf or reading about it in a book on horror movies, though I'm guessing it was more of the former. What I do know is that when I was around 14, I began reading reviews of it online in the early days of internet review sites. I may have read Stomp Tokyo's review of it first, I can't be sure.

What I can be sure of is that I was overcome by a desire, not to see this film but to write a screenplay using its basic concept but doing it right. See, back then I had big dreams of being a movie director that would be dashed by the time I finally made it to film school--but that is neither here nor there--and every single review I encountered of this film said how awful it was or how it was an especially disappointing follow-up to Tobe Hooper's debut film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. So I felt the concept deserved a second chance.

I mean, homicidal maniac keeps a hotel in the Louisiana bayou with a pet crocodile and feeds his guests to them after--and sometimes before--he kills them? That's a slice of fried gold right there and it was apparently wasted.

Of course, I'm sure reading the script that I cranked out back then nowadays, I'd probably find my own work was not much better, After all, starting from the position of "I can do that better than you" is not usually the best way to go about something creatively. Still, I am proud of a few sequences I included and maybe someday I might revisit it, like many of my story ideas.

Now, you might notice that I didn't mention watching the film in there. That's because, prior to Tim of Checkpoint Telstar graciously providing me with a copy, I had never gotten around to watching it. Either by choice or circumstance, I had never, ever seen the movie I had written a remake of.

Though, based on some of the misguided Hollywood remakes of the last 20-odd years, that would put me in good company.

The film opens by telling you it's a "Virgo International Pictures" production and the more highbrow a movie's production company sounds ("VIP"), the worse you can expect it to be. The electronic blooping soundtrack does not exactly bolster my confidence, either. Apparently Tobe Hooper is partially responsible for the soundtrack, as well, so he's definitely no John Carpenter. The credits roll over footage of a full moon and then fade into a close-up of a tacky round belt buckle of the sort favored by shitkickers the world over.

The belt buckle comes undone while a blonde woman named Clara (Roberta Collins) is superimposed over this with a look of frozen indifference. The owner of the belt buckle announces that, "Name's Buck. I'm rarin' to fuck." I imagine he practices that line in the mirror before he visits every brothel. Yes, Clara is a sex worker and she's having some obvious second thoughts about her chosen profession, or at least she's re-thought it ever since baby-faced Buck (Robert Englund!) showed up. Buck implying that he wants to try to enter the establishment from the rear is clearly the last straw, and him trying to force the issue sends her across the room brandishing a chair like a lion tamer.

"This is called the 'Freddy's Revenge.' "
When he tries to throw her back on the bed, she screams for the madam, Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones, better known as the original Morticia Adams, under some not exactly stellar old age makeup). Miss Hattie kindly escorts Buck out, offering him two of her best girls instead for no extra charge. When he's gone, she turns on Clara and gets mean. If the girl isn't going to work for her keep, she's going be out on her ass. The friendly housekeeper, Ruby (Betty Cole) consoles Clara on the front porch and gives her some money for the road. Ruby also tells her there's a hotel down the road called the Starlight, which will do her just fine--so long as she does not tell the owner she's from Miss Hattie's.

By this time the wigs, the make-up, the costumes, and the obvious sets should be making any viewer feel like they're watching a recording of a stage play--but Clara's trek through the woods just seals it. The woods are so patently a set you expect to see stagehands dressed as trees walking by in the background. She comes to the Starlight Hotel presently and it is a dingy looking dump. There's a fenced in area next to the front and she hears something grumbling and splashing behind the fence but the smoke machine won't let her see what it is. (To the foley artist's credit, it does actually sound like a crocodilian) She sees someone moving inside the hotel and wanders in the open door.

She rings the bell and the proprieter, Judd (Neville Braand) limps out from his office, putting on his badly repaired glasses. He hands her the pen to sign in, making sure to stare down her cleavage as he does so. He notices her looking out the door at the pen and he informs her that, "That ain't no ordinary gator. That's a croc," before explaining that gators can only move fast in the water but a croc can outrun a horse. Yep, that's a crock, all right.

To be fair, a crocodile can conceivably outun a horse for a very short burst of speed, but they can't possibly match a horse for actual speed--and an alligator can move at exactly the same speed, anyways!

While showing her to her room, Judd relates a charming story of how his croc got out of its pen one day and chased down a "n***er mule" and bit it in half. He laughs at the memory of the two halves of the mule writhing around...and then suddenly asks if Clara is one of Miss Hattie's girls. He turns...more threatening and tries to tear her clothes off.  He calls her a whore and the two end up tumbling down the stairs. She gets up first but has broken her ankle and has to try to crawl away. Unfortunately she only makes it to the porch because Judd recovers much quicker and happens to have a large rake handy, which he uses to aerate her torso.

Afterwards he gets a look on his face like he just a teenager who just wrecked the family car after taking it without permission. He drags the still wheezing Clara down the porch and then throws her over the railing into the crocodile pen. You'd think he'd maybe want a bit more of a barrier between a croc that has chased down a mule than a flimsy wooden railing, but what do I know? As expected the sound effects confirm the crocodile happily disposes of her corpse.

The next shot is a monkey picking at the floor of its cage in boredom, so I guess Judd just has a thing for exotic pets. In his bedroom--which naturally has a fully made-up mannequin in one corner--Judd sits on the bed singing a song to himself while scrawling on a notepad and reading a magazine. He's trying on different glasses as he reads, so presumably these glasses came from previous guests who got an extended stay in the croc's stomach. The monkey looks bored and the crocodile keeps floating to the surface in shots that I assume are meant to be sinister. I have no idea how the monkey and the crocodile relate to each other in the scene so I have no reason to care, even if I liked monkeys enough to be sad that the croc wanted to eat it.

Just then, a car pulls up with an arguing family in it. The parents are having the cliche argument about directions and travel plans, while the little girl is just concerned that her little yap dog named Snoopy has jumped out of the car. The girl, Angie (Kyle Richards), chases Snoopy while mother Faye (Marilyn Burns!) and father Roy (William Finley, the Phantom of the Paradise, himself!) keep arguing. Judd limps out to greet them, Roy asks to use the restroom, which Judd directs him to. Faye asks Judd how far away Tyler is, which Judd advises is maybe an hour away.

And then Buck pulls up, to Judd's great annoyance. Buck is inquiring about a room, but Judd in no certain terms wants him off his property. Buck hands him a wad of cash before leaving, which only solves Judd's resolve slightly. While Angie plays on the porch and pokes the monkey with a stick, her mother watches the water in the pen nervously, and Judd mutters about how he won't have all this coming and going in his hotel, Apparently the monkey died of boredom, which upsets Angie greatly. Judd is somewhat unconcerned about his dead monkey.

Though if Angie was upset about the monkey, you can imagine how she feels when she sees Snoopy squeeze himself through a hole in the fence while barking his foool head off. Before Angie's horrified eyes, as she tries to grab Snoopy, a really bad alligator puppet attacks Snoopy. It's a quick glimpse, but there are so many things wrong with this puppet: A) It's clearly an alligator, B) its lower jaw is firmly locked in place while its upper jaw flaps open to swallow the dog, and C) it's maybe five feet long, tops. I mean, its head is smaller than the yap dog it's eating.

Now, a five foot alligator could certainly mess up your day, but it's not exactly going to be biting any mules in two.

To make matters worse, as the parents grab their crying daughter and Judd hurries them inside, we see the puppet again holding a struggling Snoopy in its jaws. This shot lingers longer and, again, the alligator puppet is clearly indicating an animal five feet long at most. Judd ushers them to a room, unable to stop babbling about how the old croc will eat anything and doesn't know any better. Inside the room, Roy lays Angie on the bed while Faye tries to calm her down. Roy sits in a corner, clearly trying to hold himself together as well.

Judd walks away from the room, seemingly more upset about the accidental death of a dog than he was about murdering a woman in cold blood earlier. Of course, that kind of disproportionate remorse is not uncommon even in neurotypical individuals. Roy and Faye snipe at each other, while Roy has a positive meltdown. He literally makes a fist towards Faye's head while clinching his teeth and letting air escape through those teeth like he's trying to crush her skull with his mind. Downstairs, Judd wanders around turning on lamps and dusting while listening to the sounds of Angie crying and her parents arguing. He's also listening to country music in case that noise wasn't objectionable enough.

And then another car pulls up. Jesus, this place seemed to be stuffed somewhere in the bayou earlier but now it's getting more traffic than rest stop with a fast food joint. The car's driver, Harvey Wood (Mel Ferrer!) gets out while his passenger, Libby (Crystin Sinclaire) stays put and watches him go with an odd glare on her face. Harvey asks to rent a room for himself and one for Libby, who is his daughter. He shows Judd a picture of Clara and Judd recoils, telling him to go to "the local prostitution house for that." That turns out to be a mistake because Harvey won't stop grilling Judd over whether he's seen the girl in the photograph and how he can get to the brothel. Clara is his other daughter, naturally.

Libby calms her father down--who then hilariously calls Judd "old-timer" despite him being clearly older than Judd--before she apologizes to Judd and explains it's been a rough day. Libby unloads their bags, which Judd helpfully takes inside but goes with Harvey when he insists on going into town to investigate the brothel. Back upstairs, Faye puts her cigarette out in an ashtray and Roy chuckles, "Why don't you grind your cigarette out in my eye?" What the hell are these two on?! Jesus, I've seen my parents have more sensible arguments than this on road trips.

Faye then takes her wig off, which means the movie is now deliberately messing with my ability to tell which wigs are bad on purpose. Roy's meltdown crescendos into him pretending that Faye has gouged his eye out and he's trying to find it on the floor. Faye has had enough by this point, but then Roy starts barking (!) and Faye breaks down crying and asking if he wants her to throw herself to the alligators. After pretending to be an alligator, this somehow inspires Roy to march authoritatively out of the room and down the stairs. Judd tries to stop Roy when he sees that the man is fetching his shotgun from his car's trunk and loading it with shells. Judd pleads with the man that it's no common gator in the pen but a croc from Africa. Judd goes on about how he got the crocodile from someone named Frank Buck and nobody has any idea how old the croc might be because "they don't never die!"

Sadly, that's somewhat less than true.

Judd begins overacting and ranting about "get me the uniform" while Roy overacts about how the dangerous animal has to be killed and throws stuff into the pen before firing wildly into the water. Upstairs, Angie freaks out but Faye just tells her, "Daddy's off to slay the dragon." (Did I mention that I called my remake "Dragonkeeper" instead of actually by this film's title?) At any rate, the dragon slaying is stopped when Judd runs up and buries a scythe in Roy's back. And then in Roy's chest. Roy shoots Judd in the foot before collapsing on the railing and dropping the shotgun into the water. Judd cackles and is about to finish Roy off when a bad crocodile puppet smashes through the railing (told you it wasn't safe) and grabs Roy in its jaws. You'll notice even in the quick shots of it that this puppet is a good three times the size of the one that ate Snoopy and is a little more vaguely crocodile-shaped. Of course, we're used to size-changing crocodiles around these parts.

"Mmm. Ham."
Even Judd looks terrified and runs off as Roy is dragged under the water. Meanwhile, Faye assures Angie that "Daddy took care of everything." Judd, for his part, limps back into his room and eats some white powder from a packet. Given he says, "Happy C make me feel better already," I'm gonna go ahead and say that this is cocaine. Oh, and his leg that was shot? It's a wooden leg. Hence his limp.

Well, now that Angie has fallen asleep, Faye decides to go take a bath. She stands at the stair railing and calls for Roy to bring up her suitcase, but when she sees Judd he just tells her that her husband will be up in a minute and scurries off. We watch Faye undress in real time, intercut with Judd bringing everyone's luggage up. It quickly begins to feel like the world's most lethargic burlesque routine.

Except when she gets to the point of shutting the water off and wetting her feet--while oddly still wearing most of her clothes--Judd barges into the bathroom. He rants about, "I know he seen it," before wrapping her in the shower curtain and tying her up while he slaps at her head. The screaming wakes Angie, who runs in to the bathroom to see her mom being attacked and runs outside. Judd pursues the little girl but is utterly unable to hit her with his scythe. She flees into the crawlspace under the porch, so he just locks her in. Faye gets free and runs downstairs screaming for her daughter and husband--but Judd chases her back up the stairs. Her pleas for mercy don't sway the madman.

When next we see Faye, Judd is sitting in her room hooting at her--while she is tied to the bed with tape over her mouth. Judd babbles about how he abided by the rules and regulations, but they didn't and they came for his uniform. Meanwhile, Angie finds one path to freedom is blocked by the crocodile and then gets cornered by rats. No one is currently available to answer her screams, though.

Harvey and Libby are meeting with Sheriff Martin (Stuart Whitman), meanwhile, and Harvey is antagonizing Martin about allowing Miss Hattie's to keep running. Libby calms the situation down and eventually convinces the sheriff to take them to Miss Hattie's to find out if Clara is still there. Back at the Starlight, Judd has decided to crawl under the porch after Angie, which seems like it would be an exercise in frustration for an old man with one leg.

Martin, Harvey, and Libby go to see Miss Hattie in her office. When she's shown the photograph of Clara she responds that she's never seen her before in such an obviously false manner, it's amazing that none of the characters pick up on it. Then she finds out they're staying at Judd's and she explains some fo Judd's backstory. He used to be a regular, but all he wanted to do was look at the girls and babble, so she eventually had to run him off because he was scaring them. She then says that Judd thinks his "big ol' gator" is really a crocodile from Africa that will never die unless it's killed and that it was the croc/gator that bit his leg off.

While I find the implication that Judd has decided an ordinary alligator is an exotic, immortal crocodile from Africa--and the uncertainty of its true nature does afford the filmmakers a bit of leeway in not having to actually make their cheap prop look like a crocodile or an alligator, specifically--having the beast be the one that cost Judd his leg doesn't really make much sense. The implication so far has been that he was a veteran who went off the deep end after being wounded in combat, so blaming the leg on the croc doesn't make any damn sense from that perspective.

The group excuses themselves from Miss Hattie's company. Meanwhile Judd, who hilariously brought his scythe along under the house, chases Angie around the crawlspace--but he's interrupted by Martin arriving with the Woods. Harvey is dropped off, while Martin and Libby head back into town for some food. Harvey is just entering the hotel when he hears Angie screaming. He goes to investigate the entrance to the crawlspace--and Judd rushes up from the porch and buries his scythe in Harvey's throat. Then, rather hilariously, Harvey stumbles towards Judd with the scythe stuck in his throat while Judd backs away in a panic.

"Sir, I believe you dropped this."
Judd then begins hopping around, laughing and clapping as Harvey collapses with his legs dangling in the croc pen. Judd goes to retrieve his scythe just as the croc grabs Harvey's legs. This leads to madman and beast having a darkly hilarious tug-of-war with the still-living Harvey. The croc wins, but Judd gets his scythe back. He then rants and raves to himself, in a bit that suggests he just might hear the croc talking to him. And for all Judd is an obvious loon from frame one, Neville Brand plays him to the hilt. It's easily one of the best performances in the film.

Granted, that's not saying much.

At a delightful local bar where we are introduced to one of the locals saying to his friend, "Colored, hell, God damn n***er if you ask me," in a hur, hur voice, Martin and Libby walk past our old pal Buck. Buck is playing pool with his date, Lynette (Janus Blythe), who is being ogled by every creep in the joint as she bends over to take her shot. Buck's friend, Marlo (David Carson), a spastic greasy sort you might call a hipster these days, tries to pick a fight with one of the creeps. Despite looking rather like Stephen King and avoiding confrontation, the creep almost kicks Marlo's ass but decides not to when Buck reminds Marlo that it's his turn at pool.

Martin apologizes to Libby for not being able to do more to help, while they discuss her sister. Martin orders coffee while Libby orders a chicken-fried steak (damn it, now I want some), and the waitress lets Martin know that Buck is causing trouble. Martin just tells her to let Buck know he's being watched, and after she leaves Libby reveals that the mad dash to find Clara began because their father is very ill and wanted to see his daughter one last time before the end. Well, I suppose he did at least get to be reunited with his daughter in a crocodile's stomach.

Martin tells Buck and Lynette to move out, which Buck throws a tantrum over but does eventaully leave--threatening a nerdy guy on his way out. Buck decides he and Lynette should go to the Starlight to fornicate. Judd is furious and jumps up and down, angrily telling them to "git, git, git", but Buck just grabs the room key himself while Lynette flirts with Judd (!) because she knows he just acts mean to hide that he's an old softie. Buck tells Judd that if he doesn't let them have a room, he'll come back and shove a stick of dynamite up the crocodile's butt--and then the lustful couple adjourns to their chamber. Judd is left to go back to grumbling and mopping up blood,

Martin drops Libby off at her car, while assuring her that Clara will turn up. Meanwhile, Faye tries to struggle out of her restraints; Buck and Lynette get naked (Buck wants to come in through the back door with her, too, which she is also not down for); Angie screams for help; and Judd cranks up the country music radio to try and muffle the sounds of his prisoners. However, even Buck can't hellp noticing something odd is afoot and he throws some pants on to go yell at Judd. Buck hears Angie and goes to investigate.

Unfortunately, Buck is kind of an idiot and does so by leaning over the porch into the croc pen. Judd walks up behind Buck, but somehow the muttering and ramblings combined with a terrified girl's crying don't clue Buck in--and into the water he goes. Buck hollers threats at Judd, while Judd laughs, "That old croc'll eat anything. Even old Buck!" And what do you know, he's right!

Man, those Dream Warriors really learned how to beat Freddy at his own game.
Lynette throws on a shirt to go investigate Buck's screaming, while Judd laughs maniacally as Buck is...what's the phrase? Devoured Conscious? Chewed Awake? No, no, that's right: Masticated Breathing! Lynette comes down to the porch and Judd chases her into the woods, wielding his scythe. Unfortunately for Judd, a passing motorist happens upon her and thus she is driven to safety while he gets himself lost in the woods.

Libby meanwhile, arrives to a seemingly empty hotel where the radio is now blaring what sounds like a polka in Spanish. She goes into her room and--sigh--gets undressed in real time. Although, perhaps to make up for rendering a striptease boring the last time, we find out after Libby unbuttons her dress that the only thing she was wearing under it was a pair of panties. It shows an interesting shift in the preconceptions of horror films that Libby reads as the "final girl" but she's one of the three women who get naked in the film.

Judd walks back to the hotel, worn out from his trek through the woods. However, he gets a wonderfully grinchy idea and decides to try and cut a hole in the fence between the crawlspace and the croc pen. However, the croc decides this means that it's time to try and eat its master so Judd is forced to pound it on the head with the scythe to keep it at bay. Libby is brushing her hair and generally wandering around topless when Judd finally succeeds in cutting open the fencing. The croc crawls through the hole--and we get a nice close-up of its tail that reveals it is far too round for a croc's tail.

Angie screams as she hides from the croc and Libby hears, but she also hears Faye and goes to find the  poor woman tied up. Libby unties her as Angie manages to elude the croc and climb out of the hole and up the outside fence of the pen. Libby and Faye run down the stairs, only for Judd to intercept them. He chases them into Libby's room and slices Faye good with the scythe but then stumbles and nearly goes out the window. Libby abandons Faye, fleeing outside, but she does try to rescue Angie from the top of the fence. Unfortunately, Angie has lost her balance and hangs precariously over the water, where the croc is waiting.

Judd throws Faye off the stairs and then runs outside and tries to knock Angie off the fence. He didn't bank on Faye recovering enough to push him over the railing. The croc decides it would rather go for the larger meal within easy reach and grabs Judd by the head to drag him into the water. Martin pulls up then in time to be no use at all, aside from comforting our survivors. And then Judd's wooden leg bobs to the surface of the water. The End, as that dreadful electronic score pounds on.

"You ungrateful suitcase! Who brought you up out of that New York sewer, huh?"
When your feature debut is considered to be one of the films that revolutionized the horror genre, it's going to raise the stakes for your follow-up a lot higher than is really fair. So the fact that Tobe Hooper was making this film as his follow-up to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre did the film no favors. It would have to have been amazing to not be seen as a disappointment, and boy is this film not amazing.

However, I have to say the extremely negative popular opinion of this film is exceptionally harsh. Yes, it is technically a killer crocodilian film--though, despite its release date and concept, there's almost nothing in this film that suggests it was intended to cash in on Jaws in any way---and we know how bad those can be. Most of the acting is hilariously dreadful in a variety of ways, particularly William Finley's truly inexplicable performance as Roy. And, as I said before, the entire film feels exceptionally cheap like an off-Broadway cast reunion show on PBS with a killer crocodile in the middle of it.

In spite of all that, I can't say I actually disliked this film. While Neville Brand's Judd is an obvious out-and-out maniac, in a way that makes him far less effective a villain than a seemingly harmless young man like Norman Bates, he's still an enjoyable villain. I mean, it's hard not to identify with the guy who doesn't want his pet killed because some bozo couldn't keep a better eye on the family dog--so he's a very briefly sympathetic villain. And the scene of Angie trying to elude the croc in the crawlspace is genuinely well-done and effective. The effects for the croc actually even get pretty good for a bit!

Ah, yes, I need to definitely rant a while on the crocodile. Or the alligator. Or the allodile. It's fitting that the movie can't decide if the beast is a crocodile or an alligator, because the effects folks sure as hell couldn't. The puppet that eats Snoopy, as I said, is very clearly an alligator--in addition to being way too small. The puppet used for the rest of the film is harder to pin down. I won't get super nerdy and say something like, "The osteoderm pattern on its back clearly is that of an alligator," because the people making the puppet obviously wouldn't know the difference. This thing looks like a rubber alligator toy. You can't honestly say what it's supposed to be because it doesn't actually look like either one.

The height of scientific realism.
The shape of the head is too rounded for a crocodile, but too long and narrow for an alligator. The teeth are all basically a uniform size and length, which doesn't describe either animal's dentition. You can call it a crocodile or call it an alligator and you're technically right either way. It's also pretty clearly a stiff prop that can only open its mouth--probably with the lower jaw locked in place while the upper jaw flops open, like the smaller puppet, but the large prop at least covers that a bit better--and is obviously just being thrust forward by some enthusastic stagehands. It kind of renders a lot of the tension inert when your monster is so clearly an inanimate prop.

It's really a shame they didn't spring for a more realistic prop, since it actually gets a fair amount of screentime. (Obviously, I'd have preferred even more screentime because I love crocodilians, but I'll take what I can get) I mean, I don't know how much of the budget went towards the prop allodiles, but it clearly wasn't enough and it doesn't appear to have been spent on sets or make-up. The only make-up effect more involved than some fake blood is Harvey's death scene and the old age make-up on Miss Hattie is truly unfortunate. She looks like a zombie that was given lines by mistaken.

As a horror film, this isn't exceptionally effective. I certainly can't imagine anyone seeing this and having nightmares about a one-legged man feeding them to a rubber crocodile, and there's definitely a reason I've never encountered a cult around this film--certainly not one anything close to the one for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Lifeforce has more of a following. (Not that surprising, though) This is not a very good film and there's no geting around that.

However, I still can't say I dislike it. The central premise is great, there are some memorable (if not horribly effective) set pieces, and while it starts slow the movie gets off to a roaring clip at about 30 minutes in and is rarely dull from then on. So while it may not be a good movie, I have to say that is actually a fun one.

Though, given the way this feels like a stage play, I was clearly wrong for not trying to write a musical version instead of a remake. Somebody find me a composer!

Today's review, brought to you be the letter E! Hit the banner for the other Celluloid Zeroes' reviews for E!

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