Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cult Classic: Garrett Cook on Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive

So last night I watched the reprehensible Vacancy, a film that I think is aptly named because of its aweinspiring emptiness. All I could think while watching Vacancy, as I thought while watching Slashed Dreams, as I thought while watching Leza watch House of Wax was how much better Hooper's Eaten Alive is. In certain ways, I think it might even be better than Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Funhouse. It's not that it's particularly coherent in its plot or structure or it's full of amazing performances or it wears its ideas on its sleeve, in fact it's kind of the opposite. Eaten Alive is primordial cinematic ooze, a cauldron of unrefined genius that is ugly and naturalistic in a way that few things are.

Eaten Alive begins with Robert Englund, in a superbly creepy and funny turn as Buck, a redneck lothario who is "raring to fuck" about to anally punish a poor runaway prostitute. She refuses, gets kicked out and has to stay the night at the Starlight Hotel, a rundown pit of a place run by the clearly insane Judd, a deranged veteran who keeps a crocodile as a pet. Judd recognizes her as a prostitute for the nearby brothel and kills her, feeding her to the crocodile. Funny that it's not the life of sin that leads to her getting killed, but her decision NOT to lead a life of sin. It's all at once an homage to Psycho's famous reversal of protagonists and a harsh lesson about life in Tobe Hooper's America.

This sets the tone for the movie. It reminds us that we do not live in a world of heroes and villains but in one that simultaneously more complex and simpler, more nuanced and more elemental. In the world of Eaten Alive, you see things that you're not supposed to see when you sit down to watch a movie. You aren't supposed to see a woman punished for leaving a life of prostitution (hell, it seems like she's punished for not wanting anal, ladies take note) you're not supposed to see an adorable dog eaten by a crocodile, a sheriff being generally civil to a madam played by a beloved television icon (Carolyn Jones) or the same sheriff letting Robert Englund buy drinks for an underage girl and take her out of the bar obviously for sex, you're not supposed to see the terminally ill father of this poor runaway killed with a scythe. From watching Eaten Alive, you almost think you're simply not supposed to see Eaten Alive.

Eaten Alive says things about America that even the most jaded of us don't want to hear. Basically, Eaten Alive says that America is a place where whorehouses struggle with death cults and ethics vanish if we travel just a few miles out of our way. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a shocking movie but at its heart, it's still a traditional Red Ridinghood narrative. Eaten Alive is crueler than that. The character we spend most of our time with in Eaten Alive exists in a cocoon of traditionalism and backwardness, further even than the Sawyer family of the TCM films. The Sawyers are mourning a lost way of life and trying to eat. Judd has taken the primitivism further. The crocodile is not a pet but a god, the excuse for every bad thing he does, a thing to worship to fear and to feed, to harvest souls for. The leap between simple cannibalism and creation of a redneck death god is a pretty big one and a pretty shocking one.

Quite a statement to make about the American landscape. Our jingoism, our fears, our inability to communicate our feelings and our attachment to our violent past render us stunted and backward, as the Tao Te Ching would say "companions of death". Our desire to make life simple can make life disgusting and brutal, something we see in all the best redneck horror, but best pointed out in the character of Judd, a pathetic loser with a religious dedication to the scaly abomination that took his leg, because it's powerful because it's old, enduring, dependable and able to show the interlopers what's what.

Typically in the arts, when we're presented with a bad example, we're presented with a good one, every Goofus does after all have a Gallant. Is it the sheriff with his politeness and "go with the flow" attitude? Is it the runaway's father who gets killed? Is it Marilyn Burns who is tied to the bed for most of the movie? The crying little girl who crawls under the place to escape the crocodile? Who do we turn to? In Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper seems to suggest that fortitude is the only virtue we can count on and need to live by. In Eaten Alive, he might be saying the same thing, that the most we can hope for is to overcome life's shit and understand we live in a predatory nation that would have no problem chomping us up like so many adorable dogs. There are no heroes in the face of the surrogate reaper, only brave victims.

To me, great horror is about revealing to people something that hurts them to the very core. Eaten Alive does that, with its views on America, human nature and life. It makes me stop and wonder what I can do to prove the person who made these statements wrong and how we can make a world where these things aren't true and IF we can make a world where these things aren't true. For this reason, Eaten Alive is ugly, scary and brilliant, genuinely unsettling. I love it and would recommend it to anybody seeking to explore the redneck horror genre or to expose the American South as the perverted brothel and swamprat death cauldron that it is. Also, maybe it will make your significant other think twice about anal sex. I hope someday Eaten Alive is considered the equal to TCM because it's a whole lot scarier and a lot less simple, which is an important thing for it to be, since we sure as hell don't want to be like Judd.

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