It's not breaking any big news in the blogosphere to say that Tobe Hooper is a director with a rather...problematic filmography. After he famously caught lightning in a bottle with his justly revered debut effort, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Hooper was quickly lumped in with contemporaries John Carpenter and Wes Craven (and often slightly pre-contemporary George A. Romero) as one of the Next Great Horror Directors.
But while his other classmates went on to forge bodies of work adhering to recognizable levels of excellence in form, theme, and style, Hooper seemed to go a little crazy. All but abandoning the gritty, realistic style for which his first film was praised to hell and back, Hooper went on to tackle such subjects as space vampires, exploding humans, and possessed laundry presses, all in a dayglo, EC comics style about as far removed from the "documentarian" laurels of TCM as one could imagine. Certain recurrent themes popped up in every third or fourth film--the Outsider Family being perhaps the most recognizable--but even his follow-up to the movie that put him on the map had more of the comics page and less of the found footage mystique than fans and critics could make themselves comfortable with.*
*I don't mean to suggest that his efforts in this vein don't have their fans--I know TCM 2 is well loved by a certain viewing segment, and while I appreciate the original TCM for its historical significance and stylistic impact, I find myself watching and enjoying Hooper's The Funhouse much more often and vehemently. I only posit that their stylistic difference from the director's best-loved effort works for some to their detriment.
I count myself a fan of Hooper's post-TCM output, for the most part (I'm one of the few I know who really, really liked his Toolbox Murders redux, for instance), and the more of his work I watch, the more convinced I am that people looking for a return to the TCM style and calling everything else "atypical" are coming at things bassackwards. Because that EC Comics color was there, if not from the very beginning, certainly from Hooper's second horror film and today's review, the 1977 backwoods psycho/killer croc movie Eaten Alive. It seems clear now that TCM was the anomaly.
We open with a tight close-up of a belt buckle, so already I'm in love. (The only other movie I know that opens this way, Pick-Up, was absolutely batshitastic.) We then find ourselves in a suitably grimy scene in a backwoods whorehouse, where new girl Clara (Roberta Collins) has been chosen to receive the attentions of Louisiana Lothario Buck (a very young and gangly Robert Englund). After the young gentleman introduces himself with the appropriate formality and dignity--I believe the exact phrase is, "My name is Buck, and I'm ready to fuck!"--they sashay upstairs to get down to bidness. However, when Buck reveals his hankerin' to take a drive up La Strada Chocolata, Clara calls the whole thing off and has to be replaced by two of her coworkers--as part of the longstanding whorehouse policy, "satisfaction guaranteed or double your pussy back." Downstairs Clara sobs to the madame, Miss Hattie (Carolyn Jones, later Queen Hippolyta of TV's Wonder Woman!), "Maybe I'm just not cut out to be a hooker!" Agreeing, Miss Hattie sends to failed courtesan packing into the swampy wilderness.
The only other place to rent a room is apparently "The Twilight," a bed-and-breakfast in the middle of the swamp that has clearly seen better days. Proprietor Judd (an excellently unhinged Neville Brand) lives there alone except for the unexplained mannequin in his bedroom (ooer) and the tourist-attraction he has penned in the water off the porch, a 15-foot crocodile! (Which ain't like an alligator, Judd explains, in that they'll eat just about anything they can get their teeth around. Because alligators, as we all know, are nature's most finicky eaters.) Recognizing Clara from Miss Hattie's place, Judd woos her with even less subtlety than Buck, which leads to a surprisingly brutal beating for Clara followed by a tumble down the stairs and then a rake to the rack that leaves her bloody and broken but still breathing. Horrified by this turn of events, Judd does the only reasonable thing--he pushes Clara over the porch railing to be eaten by the croc, then goes for the mop to clean up the blood.
By this time the aesthetic of the movie is well established, and seems to inhabit a stylistic country somewhere between Bava and Creepshow. Everything is lit in stark blue or red gels, giving a somewhat unreal, expressionistic tone to the piece, very like a comic book. Adding to the comic book vibe is the absolute over-the-topness of the characters on display, from harem-keeper Miss Hattie, who dresses and acts like an old-fashioned accountant/telegraph transcriber (complete with vest and green visor), to Englund's cartoonish redneck, to the super-stereotypical "wise old black woman" brothel maid, culminating in Judd's bug-eyed, mealy-mouthed, paranoiac villain.
The OTT train doesn't stop there, either. Despite its evident remote location, after the first murder business really picks up at The Twilight, with each new arrival adding to the cast of comic book characters. Bickering vacationers Roy and Faye (William Finley and TCM final girl Marilyn Burns) arrive along with adorable moppet Angie (Kyle Richards, who also appears as a cute kid in Carpenter's Halloween and joined Victor French in the recently-mentioned sitcom Carter Country) and her terrier Snoopy. Literally within moments of their disembarkment, Snoopy becomes a bite-sized croc-treat and Angie falls into a trauma-induced coma, leading to many vicious hubby-recriminations from Faye and climaxing when daddy Roy, out of nowhere, starts barking like a dog, deepening his daughter's emotional scars.
Harvey and Libby Wood (Mel Ferrer and Crystin Sinclaire), who are looking for Libby's wayward sis Clara. What are the chances? While Libby is kind and polite to the crazier-by-the-minute Judd, Harvey wastes no time insulting everyone within shouting distance, including Sheriff Martin (character actor Stuart Whitman), for being useless in the search for his missing child.
When the Woods drop their bags and head off to the local "prostitution house" to make inquiries, the vactioners take up their marital strife with renewed venom, suggesting that Roy may have got into Hooper's coke stash in the interim--after pretending to crush his wife's head in his hands, Roy shouts such non sequiturs as "Why don't you just take your cigarette and grind it out IN MY EYE?" and "What do you want me to do, throw myself to the alligators? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT?" When Roy melodramatically goes out to hunt the terrier-gulping croc with the shotgun he happened to have packed along with his golf clubs, it's no surprise to anyone that Judd helps him out with that last bit of prophecy.
Judd reveals his heretofore unmentioned wooden leg, implying that the croc et it at some point in the distant past. He engages in a couple of odd soliloquies before attacking mom Faye, again beating her rather brutally before gagging her and tying her to a bed, then running off to hunt the revived and fleet-of-foot Angie, who hides under the house and shows herself more resourceful than any other character in keeping (the fuck) away from the innkeeper. The Captain Hook/Peter Pan subtext in the Judd/Angie relationship here should be obvious even to the casual viewer.
After a strange interlude at the whorehouse, Daddy Wood heads back to the Twilight and Libby stays with Sheriff Martin, developing a could-be-romantic, could-be-Father Figure relationship with the kindly older man. Libby and Martin have dinner at the local pool hall, where Buck--who is still quite prepared to engage in sexual intercourse--and some of his rowdy friends harass a scrappy Nice Kid before getting kicked out. (One of the redneck crew, Marlowe, played by David 'Goat' Carson, is a Manson-esque nut who I wish had been in it more, but quickly disappears.) Back at the Twilight, Harvey gets a scythe through the neck courtesy of Judd, who then plays tug-of-corpse with the crocodile in a weird splatstick scene.
While Faye screams and writhes against her bonds upstairs, Judd tries and fails to capture Angie under the house, finally getting the bright idea to loose the crocodile under there to either flush her out or take care of the problem the Darwinian way. He's interrupted when Buck and the slutty pool hall waitress return to stress-test some bed springs, giving some nice Robert Englund tighty-whitey shots for the ladies. The dudes fare better, as Lynette heads up to her room, gets completely nekkid, and wanders around aimlessly for several scenes that define both the words "gratuitous" and "zang."
There's a lot of weirdness in this movie, and it's accentuated by several gleefully odd directorial flourishes. I've already mentioned the constant red and blue gels, which continue to give the visuals a comic book gothic style. The soundtrack, composed mostly it seems of country-western murder ballads, is surprisingly effective and adds to the disturbing ambience. And a late scene in which Judd is tormented by a chorus of female groans--sexual from Buck's partner, horrified from the bound-and-gagged Faye, helpless from Angie under the house--made me more than a little uncomfortable. There's also a through-the-woods chase that climaxes in a pickup truck pick-up that seems to be something out of another--which is to say, a very specific other--movie.
The slam-bang finale features half-clad Libby finding and freeing Faye, Judd engaging in more senseless violence against women, Buck taking his predestined dive into the jaws of death, and the expected Cap'n Hook comeuppance for our weird little innkeeper. The only way it could have ended really, but it's nonetheless effective.
As I say, this movie is OTT from frame one. Brand delivers a powerhouse performance as Judd, mixing The Hitchhiker and Choptop from the TCM movies with a backwoods recluse flavor that within the weird world of the the movie is strangely compelling. William Finley makes a huge impression in his brief screen time as Roy, and Marilyn Burns screams as only she can in a role that requires her to do little else. Crystin Sinclaire and Stuart Whitman put in good performances and share a believable, likable chemistry. Robert Englund does a terrible hick accent (which he would go on to reprise in 2001 Maniacs), but plays the asshole with such elan and energy it's hard not to enjoy. And Kyle Richards as poor endangered Angie is cute without being cloyingly pretentious, which makes her easier to root for, and her predicament that much more nerve-wracking.
Eaten Alive a lot--a lot more than I thought I would, actually. I would have expected the immediate follow-up to TCM to share more of that movie's aesthetic, but it seems that for better or worse that was a real one-off in Hooper's career. Still, that shouldn't dampen one's enjoyemnt of out-there grindhouse fare like this one. It's crazy, it's off the rails, it's MAD, and thus right up my alley. 2.5 thumbs.
Monday, January 4, 2010
Mama Harper never told the Family what she did before she met their daddy.