I had no idea. In the research I’ve done for this series, already starting to hit bottom as I scrape to find a new based on a true story horror movie idea, I’ve discovered one that was a complete surprise. I thought I was up on serial killers but I found one that I’ve never even heard of that was the source material for a movie I would have never considered. Serials are obviously ripe for horror movie exploitation. I’ve passed on a lot of chances to do an article about Charles Manson or Ted Bundy or something but until Zodiac, I felt that was just plain lazy. I keep my eyes open, though. Tonight’s entry is another serial killer entry but I’m fairly certain that if you’ve seen the movie, you probably didn’t know that it was based on a true story. Tobe Hooper broke out with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a story based on a pastiche of American true crime horror. His follow up, Texas Chainsaw being a tough act to follow, was a tremendous dud even by sophomore standards (even though Texas Chainsaw wasn’t his first movie). Eaten Alive follows the same idea. A nasty, grotesque horror movie based on a series of grisly, nasty murders. True to form, Hooper picked a piece of Texas horror lore to base his story on. It’s a pretty nasty one.
Telling the story of Joe Ball is hard to pull off. The legend says that in the 30’s, Ball had built a pen for five alligators and the murdered up to 20 local women, dumping their remains in the pen for the alligators to dispose of. The problem is that this was the 30’s in Texas and crime reportage wasn’t what it was that is today. People went missing but the law wasn’t hip to the idea of the serial killer. It didn’t make sense. A killer with no motive, who simply gets off on murder, no bodies to speak of, only a few reports of missing persons. Stories of Ball’s killings became boogeyman stories of old Texas that persisted throughout the years.
Joe Ball was a bootlegger during prohibition but with the close of that chapter of American history, Ball found himself in need of something to do. With that in mind, he built a saloon and in order to beat his competition, he built a pen for gators. When his relationship with his girlfriend went south and he found another woman to occupy him, the girlfriend mysteriously disappeared. After an accident with Joe’s backup girl left her with an amputated arm, she also mysteriously disappeared.
Ball wasn’t a terribly smart guy, either. He lived under the assumption that without a body, a murder conviction couldn’t stick, so as women came into his life and then exited his life through assholes of his alligators, he though he had it made since their bodies would never turn up. Ball was an extraordinarily violent guy, too, according to people who knew him. As people in his life pissed him off, they would suddenly disappear.
It would later turn out that for numerous reasons, Ball would shoot the people that pissed him off and then dump their bodies in the gator pen. His victims were mostly women. He’d date them, they’d do something to land on his bad side and the next thing you know they’d wind up with a .22 in the head and their dead bodies landing in the shallow water of the alligator pen. By popular accounts, Ball had fed 20 people, mostly women, to his gators.
Lackluster police performance and a killing spree eventually caught up with Ball, though. Joe had a handyman that he wasn’t particularly nice to. His final victims trail eventually led police to Ball’s place where the trail ended but with no bodies to nail to Ball, the police couldn’t do much. Instead, the cops leaned on Clifton Wheeler, the handyman, who eventually cracked and told the cops about the gators and how Ball disposed of his corpses. The police immediately took to bringing in Ball but when confronted in his bar, he took out his gun and turned it on himself, actually shooting himself in the chest rather than die in the electric chair.