Back in 1975, the world was introduced to Spielberg's screen adaptation of Peter Benchley's novel Jaws. Mardi Rustam, Tobe Hooper, and a handful of others hoped to capitalize on its success by making a flick about a man-eating gator, fed prey by the mentally unstable innkeeper next door. It wanted to blend the creature monster aspect of Jaws with the "You check in but don't check out" vibe of Psycho, and the "Backwater folks is crazy and homicidal" flavor of Hooper's own Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Eaten Alive was the product of this gruesome threesome, though it stands as less than the best work of those involved, and decidedly less than the sum of the inspiration equation.
Judd (Neville Brand) runs the Starlight Hotel, poised conveniently right up against a swamp where a crocodile alleged to have come from Africa spends its days and nights. At no point during the film does anyone seems surprised or unaware of the fact that the croc is right there, ready to eat anything that falls in. Judd makes every effort to tell everyone he sees. It's a mystery to me then why virtually every character in the film at one point or another puts themselves dangerously close to falling into the swamp without once considering that might be a terrible idea. One little push and they're done for.
Also, despite being the sketchiest, most out of the way, ramshackle dump of a "hotel" in the universe, there seems to be no shortage of people happening by who simply need to stop there for the night. Judd has an uncanny knack for attracting only the stupidest of visitors, it seems.
First up is Clara (Roberta Collins), a runaway-turned-whore recently expelled from the local brothel who decides after an abusive run-in at her workplace with local sleazeball and whorehouse regular Buck (Robert Englund) that she should stay at the Starlight while she figures out her next move. Judd welcomes her and her ample bosom in at first, but when he gets wind of the fact that she might be one of the resident hookers, he...I'm not sure what he did. He hugged her awkwardly but forcefully a few times, then tried to pull her dress off, then threw her down the stairs while yelling how he'd have "None of it." Sounded like he was against sinful, lusty, whoring behavior, yet he happily rents out a room later to Buck and his latest piece of tail, not to mention the girl Judd captures later and ties to one of his beds wearing only her undergarments. If that doesn't scream "rapist," I don't know what does. But anyway, he seems mad at the refugee whore.
Clara tries to get away, but Judd attacks her with what looks like a rake (it's supposed to be a pitchfork) on the porch of the hotel. In the included audio commentary, Roberta mentions how this was her only horror film and how highly she thinks of her skills at pretending to die. It was some of the hammiest acting I've ever seen, with cutaway shots back and forth so you never actually see anything gory. Judd throws her in the water and the $20 croc prop comes along and eats her.
More people show up, including a family of three who were so annoying I was just rooting for them all to get eaten sooner rather than later. Clara's father and sister show up looking for her, and of course nothing ends well for them. It almost feels more episodic than a wider arc of a single story, but some people don't die right away, which I guess helps connect the beginning to the end.
Judd lacks the menacing calm or malevolent cunning of Norman Bates. He lacks forethought. He's more annoying than he is threatening, and it's never entirely clear what his mental issues are, though it seems somewhat war/PTSD-related. He talks about the croc as if he admires it and coincides with it, rather than having some sort of twisted symbiotic relationship with it. There is a complete lack of intent -- when Judd clumsily swings his ridiculous scythe or throws someone over the railing, it's because of his short temper towards...whatever he's mad about in that moment -- perhaps not even the person he's confronting. He's not looking to kill everyone, but certainly more than not, and enough that I would think the sheriff would have figured it out by now, and might even be in cahoots. That would have been a much more interesting twist -- if Buck and the local police were funneling "undesirables" toward Judd to be disposed of, a la John Candy and Dan Aykroyd in Nothing But Trouble. Unfortunately, there's nothing that creative or interesting going on here.
I watch movies with subtitles on for various reasons, and the soundtrack of screes and other psychotic aural nonsense would have been really grating had it not been for the way it was creatively subtitled. My favorite was "cacophony of various sounds." Another was called "night swamp sounds," and good thing, because I wouldn't have been able to tell what I was hearing other than a guy having a seizure in the Foley room.
The entire film was shot on a single indoor set. Everything was built from the ground up aside from the water tank where ol' crocy lives (if he at least had a name that would be something). The wooded area, the whorehouse, the sheriff's office, the hotel, all of it, was built and operated indoors. This cut the costs of traveling to shoot on location. I just wish the savings had been passed along to work up a better script.
There are gratuitous boobs to the point where even I, a tremendous fan of the mammary, thought to myself, "That was completely pointless" after one scene that overstayed its welcome, and didn't benefit the story or the overall movie one bit, other than to say they squeezed one more pair (three total) into the 91-minute runtime. Then the girl you expect to get naked (she's preparing to shower) actually doesn't. What?
The editing of the whole film could have been tighter. The padded scenes don't improve the story or build up any characters in the least. They are just there to make sure viewers have to sit still for more than an hour. The altercation sequences always feel overacted and forced, with cheesy fight choreography. I suppose some overacting was par for the course in 1976, but it's hard to watch in 2015.
I thought having a big HD remastering of a movie like this meant it was a great flick. I wasn't thrilled with it and IMDB's sitting at a 5.4/10 on it. While the restored picture looks pretty good, some scenes look better than others, leaving some consistency to be desired. The original mono audio is present in uncompressed format. If you were hoping to hear the uncomfortable screechy audio cues in surround sound, you're not going to get it here.
There is a relatively broad selection of extras, however. Plenty of interviews, audio commentary, original theatrical trailers, TV and radio spots, alternate scenes, stills and promo material, reversible sleeve and collector's booklet inside the case, and much more, including an extremely brief introduction to the film by Tobe Hooper himself. Despite the brevity of the intro, he pauses as if the intro hadn't been rehearsed, and he says little more than the name of the movie you're about to watch and that he hopes you "enjoy the colors." That's it.
There's probably a cult following for this movie; there almost always is. For you guys and gals, go get it. It's probably about as definitive an edition of this movie as you're going to get. For everyone else, it's not nearly as good as the movies from which it draws its inspiration -- Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, or Jaws. It's not bad-good like Zombeavers, or nostalgia-good like Hatchet, or have "WTF" special effects like Society, or make fun of itself like WolfCop. It lacks proper suspense or gravity. It especially lacks that "It could happen to me" quality of a good thriller. It's just sort of "meh" in a genre that had already done better even by the time it originally came out almost 40 years ago.