2-disc special edition DVD review
NOTE: If there are out-of-place references in this review it’s because I originally submitted it to The Ain’t It Cool News. However, due to its controversial nature (i.e. nobody gives a shit) they didn’t run it so here it is.
This week the 25th anniversary edition of Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST comes out, you may have seen that mentioned once or twice. But this week also marks another important landmark for Tobe Hooper: the two week anniversary of the release of Dark Sky’s EATEN ALIVE (aka DEATH TRAP) special edition.
Okay, yes, this review is two weeks late. I wish I got it up before September 26th, but let’s just say it got delayed. The EATEN ALIVE (aka STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER) DVD itself almost got onto the shelves a year ago just as they discovered new materials in the Disney Vault (or some kind of vault anyway, they didn’t specify if it was the Disney Vault) and decided to start over. At least my delay wasn’t that long. In my opinion this is actually an early review, somehow. So just drop it.
Tobe Hooper is a real mystery to me. He directed pretty much my favorite movie of all time (SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION) but has never reached those heights again. Most people tend to say all his other movies are garbage, and in many cases I have to agree with them. These days he keeps churning them out, but he doesn’t have the opportunities somebody who directed one of the greatest American independent films of all time oughta get. He’s always straight to video or TV. And although I’m starting to enjoy his stuff again (MORTUARY and especially TOOLBOX MURDERS were surprisingly watchable DTV – no, seriously guys) he’s about 93 million miles away from the guy he was when he directed that masterpiece all those years ago.
Okay first of all I was just jerkin your chain, SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION is not his masterpiece. You know which one I was actually talking about (not THE MANGLER either), and alot of people say that one was some kind of amazing fluke. I don’t buy it though because Hooper also directed you-know-which-one-I-was-actually-talking-about Part 2 which is totally brilliant in different ways than the original. And I think Hooper has alot of other flawed but interesting movies, mainly THE FUNHOUSE and LIFEFORCE and I guess SALEM’S LOT and of course there’s always the ol’ POLTERGEIST, which I figure has his fingerprints on it no matter what Zelda Rubinstein tells Quint.
But of all his movies it’s the movie in question here today that puzzles me the most. I’ve watched it a couple times over the years, always hoping to appreciate it better this time. And it never turns into a good movie but it keeps getting more interesting. Especially this time.
EATEN ALIVE (aka MURDER ON THE BAYOU) is about a weird one-legged redneck named Judd (Neville Brand) who runs a shitty hotel called the Starlight and enjoys murder. He’s not like Norman Bates though because he’s not charming, he’s obviously crazy as soon as you see him. He accuses people of being whores (sometimes correctly), kills them with a scythe or just tosses them to his huge African crocodile.
Come to think of it I’m not clear if he is the owner of the hotel or just the manager. Because if there’s another owner somebody might want to write and complain about this guy.
Anyway that description might sound like some good ol’ TEXAS CHAIN SAW fun, but the opening shot is of the moon. The opening shot of CHAIN SAW is the sun so that kind of shows how they’re opposites. Instead of the scorching Texas sunlight this one takes place entirely at night. Instead of documentary-like realism it’s all shot on a soundstage with stylized lighting like an Italian such as a Bava or an Argento might do. Alot of the scenes outside the hotel are so drowned in red lights it looks like it’s shot black and white and tinted red.
Let me give you a scenario that exactly describes the feel of EATEN ALIVE (aka HORROR HOTEL). You have a 110 fever and you’re laying in bed for hours not able to get to sleep. You got nothin to do but lay there and sweat so in your boredom you turn on your clock radio and are able to almost tune in to some weird classic country station. Eventually you finally drift off and suffer through what seems like hours of a crazed fever dream, still hearing the fuzzy country tunes the whole time, trying to wake yourself up so you can turn it off, but you just can’t do it.
Judd is playing that damn radio through most of the movie, so you can usually hear it at least off in the distance somewhere, overlapping with the sounds of crickets and bird calls, or the muffled cries of Judd’s victims which if you listen carefully you can sometimes hear through the walls. And then there’s the score by Hooper and Wayne Bell, which takes the moody noises of TEXAS CHAIN SAW a step further. This one is bizarre electronic blurps, wind chimes and broken music boxes.
You know what else this movie is sort of like? Trying to listen to two radio stations at the same time. It’s all very chaotic and has no sense of momentum. When people say a movie has no plot, even though it technically does, they are talking about a movie like this. There are long scenes of people doing ordinary things like getting ready for bed in real time. Gus Van Sant probaly got the idea for his last three movies from this one, except he didn’t know how to get the crocodile in there.
Judd fills the role of the crazy TEXAS CHAIN SAW type – with his shag hair and glasses he even looks like Chop Top before he loses his wig. But I had a harder time enjoying his craziness because he spends most of the movie pacing and mumbling to himself and I couldn’t tell what he was talking about. The DVD does have English subtitles, but I thought that would be cheating since they didn’t have that option when this showed in drive-ins.
Another thing that’s hard to take is that most of the victims are almost as insane as Judd is. For example there’s this family whose dog gets eaten by the crocodile. The daughter (HALLOWEEN’s Kyle Richards) won’t stop crying, so the parents (TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s Marilyn Burns and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE’s William Finley) bring her into the hotel, and the dad freaks out, cries, rants about his eye being poked out, barks like a dog, and then suddenly turns vengeful, gets a gun and goes to put down the croc. Also there’s Buck (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s Robert Englund), and he opens the movie with the famous line “Name’s Buck and I’m rarin’ to fuck” and proceeds to try to rape a prostitute. Not cool, Buck. Not cool. That whiny Franklin in TEXAS CHAIN SAW is god damn Cary Grant next to these freaks.
It’s all this craziness and it doesn’t even build to a whole lot. The climax keeps cutting between Buck having sex with an underage girl (HILLS HAVE EYES’s Janus Blythe, I think), Marilyn Burns gagged and tied to a bed trying to escape, her daughter crying and crawling around beneath the hotel, and Judd pacing in the lobby. Or just sitting there. Mumbling to himself. Turning off a lamp. Listening to Robert Englund’s door. This seems to go on forever. And the whole time that radio is playing. And you can’t wake up. This god damn fever is eating you alive.
Eventually Robert Englund comes out, pissed and yelling for Judd to turn off the radio. But he hears the little girl, so he goes outside and gets eaten by the crocodile. This is the type of excitement you’re in for. But mostly the pacing and mumbling and turning off lamps.
Okay, I admit it, I kind of like this movie. More as a curiosity than as a movie. If you have any interest in it you must check out this excellent DVD. The new transfer is a nice improvement without taking the rough edges out. It’s not one of those slick, pristine transfers like the TEXAS CHAIN SAW ultimate edition. That one is amazing but this one seems more appropriate for the material. There are scratches and it’s still real grainy. But the image is so much clearer, the colors so much more vivid than it ever was in those dark, blurry VHS versions. I never realized what a great look this movie has.
I can’t say enough about the extras, which seem to be mostly or all produced by Red Shirt Productions, same guys that did the featurettes on the recent CHAIN SAW DVDs. There’s an interview with Hooper where he gives a pretty good explanation of what he was trying to do with the movie, which he calls “such a damn carnival of insanity” and “kind of like a slice of something that I don’t think you can get any place else.” Then there’s an interview with Robert Englund. A short interview with Marilyn Burns. There’s an interesting documentary called “The Butcher of Elmendorf: The Legend of Joe Ball” about this WWI veteran who had an alligator pit outside of his tavern, who murdered a series of wives and was rumored to have fed them to the gators (although his nephew, whose interview is the basis for the documentary, doesn’t believe that part). Weirdly this guy is not mentioned anywhere on the DVD as an inspiration for the story, but the parallels are undeniable.
Then of course you got your various trailers and radio spots, even a super rare Japanese trailer, and alternate credit sequences with some of the many titles it was released under.
The commentary track doesn’t have Hooper or writer Kim Henkel on it, but it still manages to be great. It alternates between businessman producer Mardi Rustam, William Finley (who says his character was supposed to be retarded), Kyle Richards (whose childhood trauma seems to be coming back to her as she comments) and make-up artist Craig Reardon (who is a good old Hollywood storyteller type). They all have good stories and insights but definitely the greatest OH SHIT moment is when the actress Robert Collins shows up during her scenes. She talks happily about what a great time she had on the movie before launching into a scary story about Neville Brand inviting her over for dinner, flipping out and attacking her so she had to flee for her life and never saw him again. She laughs about it and says it’s too bad because they had been such good friends.
All this stuff is good but definitely my favorite extra is the one that sounds least impressive on the packaging, “Comment cards.” It’s a gallery of comment cards filled out at some screening, and all but one or two hated the movie. The cards range from the person who just writes “SICK” in huge letters across the whole card to the film student who fills the card in tiny letters offering suggestions for better camera angles. One commenter crossed out the part that says “FILM WAS: FAIR___ GOOD ___ EXCELLENT ___” and put a check next to their own category, “ABSOLUTE, UNREDEEMED TRASH.” For “COMMENTS” they wrote “BURN IT.” There’s a contest on the cards for the person who can come up with the best new title for the movie, and some suggestions include “BORED TO DEATH,” “TO NEVER BE RELEASED,” “BURP,” and “FORGET IT.”
EATEN ALIVE (aka BORED TO DEATH) has always been the key to the Tobe Hooper mystery, and this DVD does a good job of trying to explain it. As far as the business of telling some coherent story and not boring the shit out of the audience – two important goals for filmatists, in my opinion – the movie is a failure. But the general vibe is so sleazy and weird and fucked up and the photography and sets are so beautiful – I just don’t know another movie like this. It’s a nice try by Tobe Hooper, anyway. Good effort champ. Way to hustle.
Of course, that makeup artist Reardon says during some of the scenes that Hooper wasn’t there when they were shot, because he had quit at that point. Nowhere on the DVD is this explained. He says the director of photography was directing, but I bet it was actually Spielberg. I’ll see if Quint can ask Zelda Rubinstein about that one. Anyway, the mystery continues.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.