IT’S ALIVE **** USA 1974 Dir: Larry Cohen. 87 mins
Writer-director Larry Cohen’s first horror movie is a semi-satirical modern monster movie with a title cannily aping the most famous line from classic Universal horror: hero John Ryan anecdotally acknowledges this by recalling his high school realisation that the real monster in FRANKENSTEIN was the doctor of the title, not Karloff’s creature. The marketing campaign echoed ROSEMARY’S BABY in its portrait of a foreboding pram, from which a monstrous baby hand protrudes. And Cohen was already luring beloved veterans to his low-budget realm: this has one of Bernard Herrmann’s final movie scores (reused for both sequels) and was an early make-up effects gig for a young Rick Baker.
PR man Ryan and wife Sharon Farrell are middle-class enough to have a wine cellar and love their sensitive 11 year old son, but she worries about hubby feeling trapped as they prepare to complete the Nuclear family unit. Typical parental paranoia of the 1970’s is captured in Ryan’s conversations with fellow expectant fathers in a hospital waiting room, where they discuss lead in coffee products, tougher rodents spawned by the sprays designed to kill them, smog in the city: “We’re slowly but surely poisoning ourselves…” is the conclusion. Ryan’s new baby weighs 11lbs, chews through its own umbilical cord and escapes the building after massacring the medical team. Farrell and Ryan are made to feel responsible for its abnormalities by both the authorities and the media, while the doctors quickly start referring to the “It” as an animal that needs to be destroyed. The parents are named on news broadcasts and undercover reporters masquerading as caring nurses show up at the house.
Despite memorable moments of milkmen being savaged and cops inadvertently pointing their weapons at an innocent baby, Cohen is less interested in the toothy monster stuff and more focused on the minutiae of what it’s like to give birth to a murderous, super-strong baby in modern America. The final third is particularly effective at balancing black humour and human tragedy as the baby returns home like a wayward teen (raiding the fridge and killing the cat) while his big brother sincerely attempts to comfort it. Like atomic age monster movies in the decade of THEM!, the cops pursue the baby into the sewers as Ryan – in a truly impressive, committed performance – is able to nurture it for the first time while he unsuccessfully pleads for a ceasefire. The conclusion establishes the cynicism running through many later Cohen genre films, with a punchline setting up the sequel and prefiguring a wave of its-not-over 70’s / 80’s horror codas.
IT LIVES AGAIN **** USA 1978 Dir: Larry Cohen. 87 mins
This thoughtful sequel sees IT’S ALIVE’s grieving father (John P. Ryan) travelling from L.A. to the Tucson, Arizona home of Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd, on a countrywide mission to help those with similar monster pregnancies. In between movies, Ryan’s story has been covered by Time magazine and CBS documentaries, while the Federal government monitor abnormal foetuses and there are rumblings of potentially millions of such babies being born by the new millennium. Lloyd screams “It’s normal, don’t hurt my baby!” as her offspring – under Ryan’s instructions – is caged rather than killed, in a facility with other similarly fast-growing infants, where they are tested to realise their “maximum potential”. Cohen expands intelligently on his original high-concept, with fascinating detail about the babies – who, with the ability to reach sexual maturity within five years and super-human strength, are considered to be the next step in evolution, and potentially the only way the human race will survive the pollutions of the planet.
At the heart of IT LIVES AGAIN, like its predecessor, is a convincing portrait of a relationship falling apart alongside wrenching, intimate moments of fathers facing up to the responsibility of having such a monstrous child. Infanticide in India is referenced while characters inconclusively debate the best course of action, fearing the kids will take over if they stay on Earth, or assuming God won’t have put them here in the first place if they didn’t have a place and a purpose. Cohen deftly balances fun scenes of horror (a monster baby sabotaging a kid’s outdoor birthday party) with throwaway humorous asides like the reveal that Forrest and Lloyd have been charged for the ill-fated delivery. Ryan is as compelling as before, and the narrative follows a similar trajectory to its predecessor as the homing instinct of the monster babies sees Forrest and Lloyd reunited with theirs (“He just wants to be held!”) before the open ending comes full circle and Forrest takes on Ryan’s earlier role, locating and warning the many prospective monster-baby parents to come.
IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE **** USA 1987 Dir: Larry Cohen. 90 mins
After declining his HOUSE OF WAX remake pitch, Warner Bros. offered Larry Cohen a two-picture deal for two popular brands, and the result was a pair of characteristically wacky sequels – this and A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT shot back to back with many of the same cast and crew members. The third IT’S ALIVE is the oddest and goriest of the trio, opening in style with a sequence used in THE DEAD POOL (1988) as a film-within-the-film: a typical New York cabbie unwittingly participates in the latest mutant baby birth while a horrified cop shoots it and its mother. The story follows the legal battle of a mutant baby Dad (Michael Moriarty), whose son is brought into the courts in a cage for lawyer Gerrit Graham to use as evidence of his animalistic nature – and as part of his overall defence of execution squads, arguing the kids are not to be considered human. The impassioned Moriarty desperately pleas for them to be quarantined on a secret, uninhabited island – a plan that comes to fruition while also attracting the attention of a pharmaceutical company. James Dixon, the only actor to appear in all three movies, returns as an “expert” on the kids, acting as security when Moriarty heads out to the island to help bring back the one kid the government wants retrieved for experimentation.
Cohen expands upon the theories of IT LIVES AGAIN as characters consider the kids’ potential for communicating via ESP and surviving a Nuclear holocaust. A well judged first half captures the impact on Moriarty’s life from being the dad of “one of them”: his ex-wife (Karen Black) mourns the failure of their marriage, accusing him of cashing in on their misfortune. Hooker Laurene Landon recognises him from the court case and becomes a walking, talking representation of AIDs paranoia when she freaks out at having been intimate with one of the mutant kid dads (“It’s not catching!” he insists). Facing judgement and prejudice wherever he goes , Moriarty is stitched up by the media and forced to take a menial assistant manager job at a shoe shop serving unreasonable customers and their snotty kids with an appropriate layer of sarcasm: “We’re ruining children’s feet, it’s a conspiracy”. Moriarty’s emotional, bizarre, wisecracking performance (“Maybe it’s the environment but you turn me on!”) anchors this undisciplined but typically smart combination of face-ripping monster movie and social satire, veering from broad humour to serious drama within a bigger story of parental anxiety, capitalism and moral panics. As in the classic horror movies clearly beloved by Cohen, the “monster” babies prove their ability to display more humanity than most conventional humans and the movie affords an eccentric, oddly touching “happy” ending for Black, Moriarty and their oversized grandchild.
IT’S ALIVE ** USA 2009 Dir: Josef Rusnak. 85 mins
A redundant remake from the Boaz Davidson / Avi Lerner factory – with a production credit for Amicus Films and a co-screenwriter credit for Larry Cohen, who wrote an unused remake script, disowned this project and never did get his own remake off the ground. While keeping the basic premise and certain character names, this – like many 21st century renderings of old, grown up horror movies – skews much younger in its casting. Bijou Phillips is a New Mexico college student with the voice of a 10-year-old girl. She took six tablets from an online pharmacy to induce a natural miscarriage but ends up with a horrifying three months premature birth complete with off-camera delivery room massacre. This time, instead of escaping from the hospital, the monster baby goes home with Mom and Dad (James Murray), while stupid cops (including a Sergeant apparently auditioning for a Sound Like A Shit John Wayne contest) figure they’re chasing some conventional adult lunatic. Like Brooke Adams in the superior THE UNBORN, devoted mom Phillips dutifully puts up with her child’s nipple biting and disposes of the rats and family pets it casually butchers.
As with the 1974 movie, the killer infant is kept off screen save for a brief climactic reveal – though, this being 2009, we get some distractingly fake looking digitally enhanced gore shots as dumb secondary characters get their fingers bitten off. The remake plays the wild premise straight and loses both Cohen’s satirical social commentary and the sincere, considered performances of interesting actors like John P. Ryan. Phillips doesn’t have nearly the range to pull off one of horror cinema’s toughest female roles, and Murray is saddled with a passive paternal role, amusingly ignorant of what’s going on throughout. Worse still, this “it” has a sullen, paraplegic ginger nephew – who’s the real monster here?! Capped by a bleak ending inevitably sabotaged by awful CGI fire, the final reveal of the big-mouthed, pointy-toothed baby also proves that low budget 2009 horror FX can no more convincingly create a scary mutant baby than those of the early 1970’s – and for the record, the original’s early Rick Baker FX are better.
Reviews by Steven West