In our last entry we studied the real life roots of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but now we’re going to fast-forward to 1976. Hooper’s debut film has become a monster hit that’s making a fortune in cinemas all across the US. Unfortunately, Hooper’s dead broke because Bryanston Film Distribution is stealing 99 cents on every dollar Chainsaw earns. How did they get away with doing that? It’s simple-Bryanston was run by the notorious Peraino crime family who had made a fortune distributing 1972’s Deep Throat. Complaining about their accounting practices wasn’t a good idea since the Peraino’s chopped up more people than Leatherface.
Now Tobe Hooper needed a quick follow-up shocker to pay his bills and stay in the Hollywood game. The result was 1976’s Eaten Alive, the tale of a murderous, scythe-wielding motel owner who feeds unlucky guests to his pet alligator. It’s a strange film shot entirely on a soundstage, giving it an almost surreal atmosphere. Neville Brand (Riot in Cell Block 11, 1954) is great as Judd, the muttering madman. A young Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street) even pops up as a local bordello’s most enthusiastic patron, delivering the immortal rhyming line, “My name’s Buck and I’m ready to…” well, you get the rest. Eaten Alive’s no Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there’s still a lot to enjoy.
When it came to the script for Eaten Alive, Hooper and writer Kim Henkel found their inspiration in fellow Texan Big Joe Ball, better known as The Butcher of Elmendorf, or The Alligator Man.
Big Joe was born on January 7th, 1896, into a wealthy Texas family. While his seven siblings went into politics and real estate, Joe was more of a free spirit who had a flair for shooting guns. In 1917 he joined the army, saw combat in Europe, and was decorated for his actions. But the carnage of World War One did a number on his head, and family members claimed he was never quite the same after.
Once he was back in Texas, Joe became a bootlegger selling liquor all across Bexar County. When prohibition ended he opened up The Sociable Inn, a saloon offering liquor, card games, and cockfights. Joe hired lots of pretty dance girls as waitresses, which was a nice draw for a backwater burg like Elmendorf- think of it as a depression era Hooters. But every successful place needs a gimmick. So being a born impresario, Joe filled the saloon’s cement-lined pool with live alligators. On weekends he’d delight drunken crowds by throwing live puppies and kittens into the pool to be… Eaten Alive! That’s right kids, depression era Texas was indeed a very dark and brutal place.
So we’ve established that Big Joe was a sadistic puppy-killing jerk. Now let’s move on to the murders- or at least the verified ones. Joe always surrounded himself with pretty waitresses and had flings with many of them. These dalliances rarely lasted long, until he became seriously involved with “Big Minnie” Gotthardt. Things were going hot and heavy until Joe met the younger Delores “Buddy” Goodwin. Big Minnie was upset but Joe tried to bury the hatchet by taking her on a trip to the beach. Once they hit the sand he shot her in the head and lived up to his promise about burying the hatchet. By that I mean he dismembered her body with an axe.
With Minnie out of the way, Joe married Buddy Goodwin. But he put a damper on the honeymoon by drunkenly bragging to her about killing Big Minnie. Buddy shared this story with her friend Hazel “Schatzie” Brown. Shortly thereafter, Buddy disappeared and Joe started sleeping with Schatzie until she, too, had vanished.
Big Joe’s undoing came when a neighbor reported a foul smelling, fly-encrusted barrel stashed behind a barn. By the time the sheriff arrived, the barrel had mysteriously disappeared. Smelling trouble, the sheriff went to The Sociable Inn to question Joe, who quickly produced a pistol and shot himself right then and there. Fortunately, Joe had an accomplice named Clifton Wheeler, a long-suffering handyman who spilled the beans and led them to Schatzie’s shallow grave. Three bodies were initially recovered, all buried around the area’s sandy beaches. But questions remained regarding the other twenty or so waitresses who had mysteriously “moved on” in the middle of the night.
Investigators concluded that Joe had killed many of these women, dismembered their bodies and stored the remains in steel barrels. When the dismembered bodies reached the ideal level of purification, he’d feed them to his gators because they love rotting meat.
In the era before forensics, DNA, and databases, these sorts of crimes were almost impossible to solve conclusively. But the sheriff already had three bodies and a killer who’d conveniently executed himself. Rather than try to account for the missing women, law enforcement just closed the books on The Alligator Man and called it a job well done. Joe’s alligators were moved to a local zoo where they lived to ripe old ages.
Big Joe was buried in his family’s VIP section of the local cemetery, but he lived on as a Texas legend. He became a fixture in 1950’s and 60’s True Detective magazines, his exploits becoming more sensationalized and grisly with each retelling. By the time Hooper found the story, it must have been as putrid as the bodies in Big Joe’s barrels.
Here’s one final factoid. Eaten Alive star Neville Brand had something in common with the real Big Joe – they were both highly decorated soldiers. During World War 2 Brand was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in combat as well as the Purple Heart for an almost fatal wound he sustained near Germany’s Weser River. Brand was the very definition of a hero, but for the rest of his life he struggled with PTSD. Unlike the sadistic Joe Ball, Neville Brand found peace in reading and he amassed a library of over thirty thousand books.
Next time we’ll take a look at the true stories behind Peter Bogdanovich’s sniper film Targets and Fritz Lang’s proto serial killer classic M.