The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a tough act to follow, in the dual sense that those who didn’t think it was one of the seminal examples of modern American horror (e.g. MOMA) thought it was the most extreme example of senseless cinematic profligacy, bloodlust masquerading as social commentary. Consequently, Hooper’s swampy, candy-colored follow-up feature Eaten Alive (a.k.a. Death Trap) was received as an unacceptable mess. Critic Ken Hanke blamed other critics for the indifference in The Official Splatter Movie Guide (as decisive a collection of film criticism as Manny Farber’s Negative Space or Pauline Kael’s Deeper Into Movies to a certain strain of cinephile—namely, my kind of cinephile—disregarding editor John McCarty’s lamentable and repeated dismissals of both Dario Argento and Brian De Palma). Hanke forges on with an attempt to reappraise the film as a misunderstood albeit minor masterpiece from a major talent, something like a cross between The Old Dark House, William Faulkner, and Southern drive-in fare, the sort of which would normally feature Dub Taylor and/or banjo accompaniment. It’s “probably the best cinematic attempt to date to capture the other-worldly madness of the death of the amateur-night-in-Dixie brand of the American Dream.” With all due respect to (and camaraderie with) Hanke, McCarty, and company’s cause to rescue the critical reputations of unspeakable piles of trash, Eaten Alive is not only inferior to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it may even be inferior to Invaders from Mars, which at least gave the world the spectacle of Louise Fletcher swallowing a frog whole. Whereas Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s sense of humor was so dark it nearly made the madness of the surrounding mayhem seem rational and comprehensible in comparison, Eaten Alive plays the “it’s this heat” cesspool delirium as broadly as third-rate late Tennessee Williams. (I hardly need to mention that, as far as broadly comic poison pen letters to the homicidal, crepuscular South go, Hooper’s own Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a far more accomplished bit of frenzied nonsense.) A fragile little whore escapes Carolyn “Morticia” Jones’s bordello with only her dignity and her Little Orphan Annie wig intact, only to die at the business end of a pitchfork. Pre-Krueger Robert Englund struts around itching his pec like a flea-bitten Hud as Buck, who’s always rarin’ to fuck. William Finley accuses his wife (Marilyn Burns, who memorably escaped Leatherface braying like a punch-drunk donkey) of taking his eye out—even though both of his immortally buggy peepers are clearly intact—and begins to search the floor on all fours, barking like a dog. With an enviable, well-stocked cast of character thespians and a carefully dilapidated motel set, Eaten Alive is all ingredients, no recipe.
Looks like a well-worn drive-in print, which I'm just anti-A/V geek enough to appreciate in cases like this. Hooper's oddly flamboyant colors are bold, but there's a visible white scratch that runs along the left side of the screen in fits and starts, as well as a constant soft focus. The sound is a little cramped, befitting a mono mix, but each of the film's approximately 350 screams come through with maximum distortion.
First up is a commentary track that was stitched together from five separate viewings. Producer Marti Rustam gets the lion's share of the time. William Finley shows up long enough to note that he didn't really have any idea of what was going on in the script, and that he apparently didn't think much of his son's scream. Makeup artist Craig Reardon provides a nice advertisement for Dark Sky's video transfer, calling it "beautiful" at one point. And both Kyle Richards and Roberta Collins appraise their performances, the latter noting that she developed a nervous tic after working on the set of this film. There are also two featurettes, one a straightforward, interview-laden look at Robert Englund's career (starting in theatrical performances of Disney fables and winding up you know where) and one an unbelievably slow and portentous history of a man who, I guess, fed people to alligators in Texas around WWI. I dunno, I ended up tuning out once the History Channel production started to ferment. Rounding the set out are trailers and a still gallery.
Despite the incongruously sexy presence of Buck, Eaten Alive doesn't fuck with your head like Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre films.