Eaten Alive (1977)

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Eaten Alive aka Death Trap (1977)
directed by Tobe Hooper
starring Neville Brand, Robert Englund, Marilyn Burns

Unapologetically gritty and sleazy, Eaten Alive (aka Death Trap) was Tobe Hooper’s follow up to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Although he left the film early and did not have any input on the editing process, the tones of a Hooper film are extremely evident: an extremely unhinged villain, an often frantic pace, characters that are driven by instinct rather than logic, and a setting of a seemingly off-the-map, forgotten town. Everything is also accompanied by a very harrowing, chaotic score that is almost simply noise at times. Eaten Alive has a plot that serves as a buffet line for an alligator. Judd (Neville Brand) is the owner of the run-down Starlight Hotel perched just above a pond housing a alligator, who will eat anything that gets near it. It becomes the easy disposal method of the dead bodies that Judd creates, seemingly unable to ever control his anger.

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One of the town locals is Buck, played by a young Robert Englund. Well, he’s not too much younger than he was for his debut in the A Nightmare on Elm Street series, but the lack of burn makeup gives him substantial years of youth. He’s an interesting character, the first we see in the movie. He is soliciting a prostitute and his complete sleaziness and desire to sodomize her scares her off. She flees to the Starlight Hotel, where Judd is disgusted by her recognizing her former role at the brothel. Judd also has a hatred for Buck, who is overly sexualized and successful with local loose women. Judd’s sexual frustration is obvious, a common theme in horror movies, but what Eaten Alive does well is contrast it with Judd’s gator whom he claims and almost apologizes for its behavior by saying its only instinct. Pure psychotic behavior seems to be Judd’s instinct, which he is seen fighting at times, but can never stave off. Judd is a villain that an outside eye would call creepy, he is cordial but never able to charm, and someone about him seems off. An outsider, but accepted by the locals of not being too dangerous.

A fantastic scene showing this comes later in the film when Buck is with a young girl in one of the hotel rooms, an older woman he has captured and tied up is moaning and trying to free herself in another, and a young girl hiding from him is occasionally screaming and calling for help below the building. His loud, inner chaos is displayed to audiences by his constant raising of the radio as he paces back and forth, cornered in a bad spot but unable to decide his next move. Hooper always showed strong capabilities of creating a demented villain, and this was definitely one we the madness of saw a little more intimately.

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Despite the schlocky nature of the film, Eaten Alive oddly has a little bit of a classical Hollywood flavor to it as a result of it being shot on a soundstage. To soften how obvious this is to the viewer, the lighting is often very colorful and almost over the top draining focus from the painted background walls. Blood red lights often illuminate everything, and a softer green immediately contrasting those shots. The sets are excellently done, with all the locations perfectly displaying a rundown swamp town. All of the locations, a bar, the hotel, brothel, and a one-man sheriff station, are jaded and really give the sense that this small community is from another time. The only effects in the movie that are really poor done are for the gator. The killer, monstrous creature ultimately makes the shark from Jaws look magnificently convincing. However, it’s hidden well for the most part (at least until the later stages of the film) and everything else is effective and gruesome enough it’s not too bothersome.

While Eaten Alive is an extremely interesting film, it definitely could have used a little more polish. Perhaps it did have something to do with Hooper departing the project and the remaining crew not really knowing how to portray the original vision, or just a lack of budget. Some of the cuts in the film are noticeably poor, and while the lighting is rather interesting, at times it’s simply too dark in the wrong places or changes tones at curious, illogical points. While Judd and Buck are two very solid characters, the rest of the cast seems to exist simply to line up as victims (even with Marilyn Burns, who was Sally in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). The film is also rather well paced for about two-thirds of the runtime, but stutters near the end seeming almost lost as how to wrap things up. Still, an absolutely entertaining film that is absolutely a rough, no holds barred, blood-soaked blast.

7.5

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Toolbox Murders (2004)

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Toolbox Murders, 2004
directed by Tobe Hooper
starring Angela Bettis, Juliet Landau, Rance Howard

Over two decades after the original film was released and subsequently banned apart of the “video nasties” censorship movement in the U.K., Tobe Hooper appropriately re-envisioned Toolbox Murders in 2004 with one of his more graphically violent, gruesome films. The story here is of a young couple that movie into a low-rent, rundown Hollywood building that turns out to be nothing short of a nightmare. Neighbors start to go missing and no one seems to really care, police included, leading new tenant Nell (Angela Bettis, May, 2002’s Carrie) to take matters into her own hands and seek out what is seemingly hiding within the walls of the old building. While the film is primarily a slasher, there is an attempt to introduce a supernatural, mysterious element to the plot, which is a mixed result at best. The mystery plot line really only seems to exist to advance the kills, not really providing too much drama or actual intrigue. It’s standard, predictable stuff, but at the very least it does make the film feel like a little bit more than a by-the-numbers slasher.

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More effective than the mystery plot line in the film is the sense of claustrophobia and helplessness created. The tight, narrow corridors of an old, dingy, run-down building create a feeling of unpredictable peril. Especially along with a seemingly careless landlord, a predictably creepy maintenance guy, and several tenants all with their own connections to the building. Where the mystery fails, particularly in building up obvious characters to be the perpetrators of the crimes happening, the atmosphere prevails. The sense of vulnerability felt by Nell is displayed well, as she is also portrayed convincingly by Bettis, even if her character is often illogical and running through a predictable and easy to foretell script. Her surroundings, though, as well as her feeling of isolation create a character that is definitely one to root for, a rare deviation from main characters in slasher films where there really is little sympathy evoked.

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Being a remake of a film that was notorious for violence and banned in many countries, the film perhaps pays tribute to that style by almost approaching splatter-levels of violence. Taking context clues from the title, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess how some of the kills in the film are portrayed, but there are several creative ones and the effects are quite well done. There are also some great scenes later on in the film where residents of the building discover some of the horrors hidden within the walls that are very graphic and are shot in a similar style to Sally finding herself in a pile of bones in Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And I am self-conscious of seeming unoriginal or repetitive by always looking back (or forward) to Hooper’s work to that particularly iconic film, but so often there are certain scenes that have similar themes and styles.

Overall, while Toolbox Murders is an enjoyable and gruesome slasher, it really doesn’t do anything too special or original. Although, for this kind of movie that’s never too detrimental of a complaint. What hinders this one so much is the mystery subplot that is predictable and not that captivating, really taking away from what could have been a little bit more a high-paced movie. Still, the acting is a notch above the average horror movie and the setting creates a good atmosphere. It’s bloody and enjoyable enough, even if it’s not going to go down as a classic.

6.0

The Funhouse (1981)

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The Funhouse, 1981
directed by Tobe Hooper
starring Elizabeth Berridge, Cooper Huckabee, Herb Robins

Similar to its eponymous carnival attraction, The Funhouse is not particularly scary or inventive, but it’s certainly campy entertainment worth the ride. The Funhouse takes advantage of its setting, both in the interior of a generic spookhouse and the sleazy and grungy carnival hosting it. Although the film does slowly crawl to the heart of the story, once the film starts really moving the pacing is just right. The first thirty minutes introduce four teenagers, who head out to a local carnival thinly veiled (by a few small lines of dialogue) with a troubling background. Feeling both adventurous and likely the effects of several joints, they decide to hop off the cart in the haunted house and try to spend the night. Of course, teenage misbehavior (sex gets you little heathens killed), creepy carnies, and a psuedo-scary attraction are the base ingredients for a horror movie.

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Another little plot piece in The Funhouse is the younger brother of one of the characters, who is featured in the first scene of the film in what is almost a remake of the first scene from Halloween, with just a tiny twist. The constant inclusion of the younger brother is also a weird one, because despite a fair amount of screen time, the story really never amounts to anything and is abruptly cut off. He follows the group to the carnival, seemingly to offer viewers the possibility of him helping out or playing some sort of role in the events unfolding, but it ends with an odd whimper. It’s not too big of a deal, though, the main plot of The Funhouse is really where the action is. And for the most part, it’s entertaining enough. The opening scene featuring a Halloween ripoff gives way to fairly decent frights, nothing too particularly original but also nothing annoyingly derivative of other movies.

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The two main villains of the film, who go unnamed, are notably similar to the villains of Tobe Hooper’s earlier work in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The villain in The Funhouse is a disfigured, mumbling, unintelligent character that seems capable of extreme violence but never really thoughtful or aware of his actions. He is loosely monitored by his father, who berates his behavior but seems helpless at stopping him recognizing he is beyond reason. Leatherface, however, in comparison to the monster featured in The Funhouse, is a much more timeless one. In both terms of the quality of film he is featured in, but appearance-wise. Although the monster is effective enough, the makeup effects certainly have aged quite a bit and could now easily and understandably be similar to seeing monsters from a 50’s horror or sci-fi flick. Some of this can absolutely be attributed to the film being a low-budget production and often the monster is smartly shot in shadows, or even wearing a mask early on the film before his face is revealed.

But, aging and campiness aside, The Funhouse is an enjoyable enough movie for the right mindset. Get through the third of the film and it’s an entertaining ride. The setting is an ideal one, and while the film may have a simple foundation, everything works well enough to make a good mix of a monster movie and a slasher. The four main teenage characters are aren’t anything special, but thankfully not extremely irritating or illogical. It has some nice camera work as well, and a very good score featuring in the background. Definitely not Tobe Hooper’s best nor his worst, but shows his ability to make a solid, satisfying horror movie.

7.0

Carnival of Souls (1962)

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Carnival of Souls, 1962
directed by Herk Harvey
starring Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger, Stan Levitt

Herk Harvey’s 1962 Carnival of Souls is both a fantastic, atmospheric movie and an example of excellent low-budget filmmaking that deserves its status as a horror classic. Shot in just three weeks with a cast that overwhelmingly went on to do nothing in the film industry again, Carnival of Souls relies on a story that has many layers to it, but also benefits from the beauty of simplicity and the fact that what isn’t shown or explained can be quite scary. The movie focuses on Mary, played fantastically by Candace Hilligoss, who somehow crawls out of a river after the car she was with two friends plummeted off a bridge and into a river. Claiming complete memory loss with an aloof, shellshocked attitude, she decides to almost ignore the event and move on with her life, continuing with her move to play organ at a church just off the Great Salt Lake in Utah. On the way, and continuously from her arrival, she begins to see abrupt visions of a man around her. Mary is for the most part completely lost as to what is happening but feels an abandoned pavilion, once host to a carnival, may hold some answers.

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The character of Mary is probably one of my personal favorites ever in film. Hilligoss portrays her perfectly. She is very quiet and mysterious, but often has mood swings and seems to feel guilt in relying on anyone else for help. This is perfectly portrayed in two fantastic scenes in the movie in which Mary loses her ability to hear and communicate with anyone. The first of which features her in a department store selecting a dress. As she decides on her purchase and returns to her dressing room, the pinging signifying customers entering and exiting the story is constantly audible. But the video distorts, waves warping the image on screen, and then a deafening silence takes over. Mary wanders the department store but no one can hear her or will acknowledge her. She flees outside to the busy street where she still remains deaf and invisible to everyone around her. Completely lost, she continues to wander to a park where it is the sound of a bird chirping that breaks the silence.

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It’s a rather significant scene in the movie because it really shows the disconnect that Mary is feeling with society, not only on a simple personal level, but on a compassionate level. Unable to even approach her feelings about the car crash she was involved in just days ago, Mary feels unfit for the world and unable to really connect with anyone. It’s a wonderfully done scene, as is the second instance of this where she is unable to purchase a bus ticket to get out of town due to the same phenomenon. Both times the film is shot with a many long shots deploying a lot of empty space around Mary, combined with the silence it intensifies the vast separation she is feeling from everyone else. Again, Hilligoss is perfect in this role that could have been so susceptible to over-acting and hackneyed, emotional pleas to the camera. Instead, she perfectly translates a character that is silent and mysterious to the viewer as well as one to be sympathetic for and curious about.

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Despite the low-budget, Carnival of Souls is technically impressive and memorable. It has a ton of fancy editing cuts, making the film feel fast, stylish, and as modern as a 1962 movie can feel. While this is clearly a favorite movie of mine, I can still see the small hiccups throughout. The opening drag race scene features cars bumbling along at twenty miles an hour, some lines of dialogue are cut off by the editing, or just delivered horribly (“I just stopped to get a drink.”). But, these stutters are surrounded by a pretty amazing movie that builds an incredible atmosphere, supported by a great lead role, eerie organ music, great locations, and a few scares along the way. Everything leads up to a phenomenal finish that is ghoulishly psychedelic and features a great conclusion to the story. This is a movie, too, that clearly lent much influence to other great horror films. Night of the Living Dead clearly has a bit of Mary appearing in Barbara, Robert Blake’s character in Lost Highway seems a lot like the mysterious man here, and even more modern films such as The Sixth Sense and It Follows have reminiscent themes and styles in their storylines.

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Well, I knew this would get long, but this really is a great movie. Often dismissed because of its age, or because it has been riffed on by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew (via RiffTrax), but if you can set aside a few clumsy moments that stemmed from a low-budget you’re left with an excellent eerie, atmospheric horror movie. It’s has a brilliant main character that takes the viewer through an intriguing story and is shot very well with a ton of great effects. I’d even say it’s still got a few good scares preserved in it. It’s one of my favorites and every time I see it there are layers I always feel I completely missed. It’s public domain, but do yourself a favor and get a good, crisp cut to really appreciate the movie and enjoy yourself.

9.5

Slaughter High (1986)

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Slaughter High aka Aprils Fools Day, 1986
directed by George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, Peter Mackenzi Litten
starring Simon Scuddamore, Caroline Munro, Carmine Iannaccone

By full admittance of the producers, Slaughter High wasn’t meant to be much more than a quick money-maker. It even made its small budget back before the movie was sold to Vestron Video, relinquishing the title of April Fools Day to Paramount for their own upcoming project. Written and casted in three weeks, and shot in just a few days, Slaughter High is pretty much a by-the-numbers slasher that doesn’t really have any more than a few memorable moments. It does have a touch of morbid history attached to it, with main star Simon Scuddamore (Marty) committing suicide after the film was made and never seeing the film himself (it wasn’t released until two years after production).

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The corner that Slaughter High backs itself into is who to root for. Marty is a nerd that is constantly picked on, yet still gullible to fall for the tricks of his peers. On April 1st one year, a prank goes morbid and leaves him horribly disfigured. When a fake reunion gathers up all of those that picked on him years later, the bodies begin to pile up. While you’re never really going to root for the killer, there couldn’t be a more unlikable and dumb bunch fighting against him. After three deaths and obvious clues as to what is happening, the victims finally realize they are in a game of Marty’s revenge. After five deaths, one woman (successfully) tries to seduce one of the men in the group. Adding to the hilarity is a classic movie tradition of letting actors in their 20s and 30s play high schoolers, but in this movie, they even have them come back for a reunion supposedly years later looking exactly the same.

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Another indication of the serious filmmaking that went on here is the fact that while the film is set in America with American students, most of the actors hired were British. As a result, the imitation of the American accent fluctuates frequently throughout the movie, with English pronunciations sneaking through often. They are so inconsistent and obviously fake it makes one of the actresses who is actually from Texas, Donna Yeager, sound like she is hamming it up. The makeup and special effects are mediocre at best, with only a few of the kills displaying any creativity behind them. Most of the kills are like traditional slasher stock footage, lifted from a hundred other movies that fans of the genre will have already seen. It takes forever to get to as an audience member, but the end scene is actually kind of interesting. A lame and predictable twist, but shot well and executed better than anything before it. However, I’d honestly advise you don’t bother trying to sit through this one.

3.5