Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's Alive (1974)

... aka: Baby Killer

Directed by:
Larry Cohen

One of the biggest fears of a soon-to-be-parent is that something's gonna be wrong with their baby and that's the realm director / writer Larry Cohen works within here. With today's technologies, future parents can find out all kinds of useful information long before the actual birth, but back in the 70s things as simple as weight and gender weren't even known pre-birth, let alone major problems such as deformities. As It's Alive opens, it's in the wee hours of the morning when middle-class suburban housewife Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) goes into labor. She and her husband Frank (John P. Ryan) drop their 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman) off with family friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.) and head to the hospital. Lenore's first birth went smoothly enough. The baby was out in less than an hour. But this one just feels different. The pain is more excrutiating and it looks like it's going to be complicated birth. Instead of being able to stay with his wife, Frank is ushered off to the waiting room with a few other expectant fathers. The next time he'll see his wife, she'll be strapped down to the table deliriously screaming "What's wrong with my baby?" The operating room is covered in blood, every doctor and nurse in the room is dead and the Davis baby is missing in action.

At first Frank thinks someone has abducted his baby, but it's made quite clear that the carnage was caused BY his baby... and it has escaped the hospital. Questions quickly arise about just what the baby is - Animal? Mutant? - and what caused it turn out the way it did - Genetics? Pollution? Radiation? Side effects from medication? - but there are no easy or clear answers. As if that shock isn't bad enough already, because the incident quickly makes the news, the family not only has to deal with the media following them everywhere they go but also being stigmatized by their own community. Frank is promptly canned from his job at a public relations firm by his boss (Guy Stockwell) and a nurse hired to care for Lenore starts drilling her with personal questions because she's trying to secretly record the information. The family can't trust anyone and their son can't even go to school. Meanwhile, the mutant baby - who possesses fangs and claws, super strength, telepathy and sees in blurred vision - is prowling around the neighborhood killing people (including the neighborhood milkman).

Frank tries to maintain his composure through all of this and attempts to disassociate himself from the child emotionally. He only refers to the baby as an "it" or a "monstrosity," cooperates with the police in trying to kill it and even signs over the body of the baby - once it is apprehened or killed - to a medical research facility. The manufacturer of a birth control pill Mrs. Davis took wants the baby more than just dead, but completely destroyed so no autopsy or research can take place and possibly implicate them. Police Lt. Perkins (James Dixon - a regular presence in the director's films) - leads the police investigation as various victims turn up. Strangely, the baby pays a visit to Frank and Lenore's son Chris's school, which leads authorities to suspect the baby may be hunting down its birth family. And there's definitely no doubt about that once the baby turns up at the Davis home. Lenore, who's gone a little crazy over all this, is even able to temporarily pacify the usually violent infant with kindness, milk... and raw meat. Once Frank finds out what's going on, he manages to shoot and injur the baby. Things end up underground in the L.A. sewers as the police and Frank try to hunt the baby down.

The idea of a killer infant may sound funny in theory, but the filmmakers take this material rather seriously and present the idea in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Much of what makes this film so interesting and oddly compelling is that it is told, rather unexpectedly, from the perspective of the father instead of the mother; detailing Frank's conflicted emotional journey to come to terms with what's going on. Ryan is excellent in the role and adds much credibility to this film. There's some pitch black comedy in here as well, such as a funny bit where a police squadron hear a baby's cry and end up surrounding and pulling their guns on a normal human baby. Rick Baker was in charge of creating the mutant and did an effective job of it, though it is actually seldom shown. Andrew Duggan (a professor), and Michael Ansara (police captain) both have small roles and Bernard Herrmann did the score.

A surprise commercial and critical hit, It's Alive helped to put Cohen on the map. He followed it up with the bizarre GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) and then IT LIVES AGAIN (1978), the first of two It's Alive sequels. The other was IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1986). It was remade in 2008 by director Josef Rusnak. VHS / DVD from Warner Brothers.


It Lives Again (1978)

... aka: Baby Killer II
... aka: It Lives Again: It's Alive 2
... aka: It's Alive II

Directed by:
Larry Cohen

Much of the cast and crew are back from the director's breakthrough hit IT'S ALIVE (1974), including writer / director / producer Larry Cohen, composer Bernard Herrmann, make-up effects artist Rick Baker and actors John P. Ryan and James Dixon, for this watchable though somewhat disappointing follow-up. In Tucson, Arizona lawyer Eugene Scott (Frederic Forrest) and his law school dropout homemaker wife Jody (Kathleen Lloyd), who's about a week away from giving birth to the couple's first child, are throwing a baby shower. As the crowd clears out, a stranger remains in their home. He introduces himself as Frank Davis (Ryan). It takes the couple a minute to realize it, but he's the same guy who's been in Time Magazine and on the news: the father of the very first mutant, killer baby. Since his case, several other similar incidents have occurred across the U.S., including one in Seattle, where the infant was killed immediately after birth. A blood sample taken from Jody has revealed that she's also likely to be give birth to one of these babies. The Scott home is already being staked out by government agents hired to snuff out the baby once it is born. Frank is there simply to give them another alternative.

Sympathetic to the predicament the Scott family and others are in, Frank and doctors Forrest (Eddie Constantine) and De Silva (Bobby Ramsen) have created a mobile operating room unit located inside a truck. The option is to tranquilize the baby before it is born and then place it in an incubator / cage. When Jody suddenly goes into labor (a week early), they can't reach Frank by phone and are forced to go to the hospital instead. Dozens of policemen are there and a hired baby-killer named Mr. Mallory (John Marley), whose wife had been killed by one of the babies, waits by her bed with a loaded gun. Frank manages to sneak in, holds Mallory at gunpoint and then gets Jody and her husband moved into the mobile unit. Jody gives birth on the truck, the baby is placed in its cage and then transported to a safe house in Los Angeles run by Dr. Perry (Andrew Duggan). There, compassionate doctors experiment on the infants. They already have two in captivity (which they've nicknamed Adam and Eve) and the Scott baby makes the third. Perry wants them to realize their maximum potential, believe they're "the next step forward in evolution" and the babies prove to be highly intelligent, may be able to reproduce at around age 6 and can be non-violent when the surroundings are non-threatening. Like in the first film, they also are able to somehow psychically find their own parents.

With help, Jody - who's still in Tucson being watched by the police - is able to sneak away to Los Angeles to be with Frank, her husband and baby at the safe house. Unfortunately, her backstabbing mother (Lynn Wood), who's in cooperation with Mr. Mallory, had snuck a honing device into her purse beforehand. Lt. Perkins (Dixon) is called in again to organize a police raid on the house. The infants - with their powerful perception - know something is afoot and start freaking out as the police gather around the home. They manage to escape from their cages and kill several of the doctors. Two of the babies are killed by the police, but the Scott baby - with help from Frank - manages to escape into the woods. Eugene and Jody decide to cooperate with the police, who set them up in a country home knowing the baby will eventually find them, but the couple have second thoughts when the baby finally does show up.

Part 2 is a watchable, though pretty mediocre, follow-up. It's at its best in the beginning dealing with the warring factions of the baby sympathizers vs. the baby destroyers; a sort-of parallel to the opposing Pro Life and Pro Choice movements. The babies generally only get violent when their own lives are at stake or someone means them harm. However, they are also shown to get violent when people simply react to them with fear. They're instinctually-driven beings; very animalistic in some regards but not without some very human feelings and seem to want to return to their parents simply to be loved and nurtured (having some raw meat on hand doesn't hurt, either). However, none of that really changes the fact that they're unpredictable, very dangerous and kill indiscriminately whenever they feel threatened.

Ideas are thrown around about taming or teaching them better, but other ideas are also present, such as the babies being a new, evolved form of human who may threaten mankind if their number gets out of hand. The fact is, no one really knows much about them. Since the epidemic is still in its infancy, doctors don't have enough information to make a call one way or another. The government, on the other hand, could care less about answers and just want the things dead on arrival. The film raises some interesting moral and ethical questions along the way, but doesn't really provide any concrete answers. It also doesn't provide enough new material to really warrant this sequel, which rehashes much from the first. Things become less interesting and more formulaic toward the end, a last minute attempt to inject some heart into the proceedings rings false and some of the dialogue delivery (particularly by Mr. Forrest) is astoundingly bad. It's not an awful movie; just a lesser shadow of the first one.

One of the last shots in the film is a city shot of a trolley going down a hill. Off in the background is an island. The third and final film in this series was IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1986).


It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986)

... aka: Baby Killer III
... aka: Island of the Alive
... aka: It's Alive 3
... aka: It's Alive 3: Island of the Alive

Directed by:
Larry Cohen

Mutant baby births have now become a rather common occurrence and it was only a matter of time until these matters have to be settled in a court of law. Unsuccessful actor Stephen Jarvis (Michael Moriarty), father of one such baby, has done just that. Despite being "scared shitless" by his mutant offspring, Stephen is able to demonstrate in front of a compassionate judge (Macdonald Carey) that the baby isn't just a monstrous killing machine, but also receptive to kindness and love. He pleads that his child, as well as other such babies, be quarantined somewhere and given a chance at a life with their own kind. And his wishes are granted as the five babies they currently have in captivity are sent to an uncharted, unpopulated island to be kept top secret from the public. Stephen goes to see Ellen (Karen Black), his estranged ex-wife and mother of the baby. Ellen has been so traumatized by the event that she's fled to a new city, had surgery to prevent further pregnancies, doesn't want anyone in her "new life" to know about her past and has moved on in her love life and is in a new relationship. Still, Ellen's proud of Stephen for championing for the life of the child they created together and can't help but wonder what may have been if the baby hadn't destroyed their relationship.

Lonely and having not been with a woman since Ellen, Stephen decides to bite when he's propositioned by a prostitute (Laurene Landon) at a carnival. In a scene directly referencing the growing AIDS epidemic of the 80s, the hooker flips out and tells Stephen what a "sick freak" he is for not revealing he was the father of one of the babies before she slept with him. Stephen, who's spokesperson for a Parent's Rights group, has no interest in making money off of this tragedy, but as part of the contract with his attorney (Patch Mackenzie) he's already inadvertently signed over print, TV and movie rights to his story. Pretty soon, there's a lie-filled best-selling book out (which Stephen has no hand in writing) and Stephen's face is plastered everywhere. He tries to move on with his life as assistant manager of a children's shoe store (where he hilariously tells one bitchy customer they have a conspiracy to ruin children's feet), but is brought back into action when the judge who ruled in his favor (and that no one is to set foot on the until-then confidential island) dies.

Four years have passed since the babies were dropped off and Dr. Swenson (Art Lund) wants to briefly return to the island to check in on them. How much have they grown? Has their demeanor changed any? His plan is to stop in, shoot the babies with tranquilizer darts, take blood samples, kill one of the infants for vivesectory research and then leave. He also wants Lt. Perkins (James Dixon), who has plenty of experience dealing with killer babies having already been in IT'S ALIVE (1974) and IT LIVES AGAIN (1978), as well as Stephen, to accompany the expedition. No one is aware that years earlier some men from a pharmaceutical company had already snuck on the island via helicopter and been quickly slaughtered by the babies. Stephen, now a jab-slinging, cynical wise ass (like can do that to ya, you know?), manages to get under the skin of some of the uptight doctors on their sailboat journey to the island. Upon arrival, the "babies" - now even larger than humans - get under everyone's skin in a different kind of way. After slaughtering the entire crew, save for Stephen and Lt. Perkins (who's left behind on the island), the mutants take control of the sailboat and have Stephen sail a course toward America. Stephen's son wants to hunt down his mother in Florida and throws Stephen overboard so his fellow mutants want to eat him.

After escaping from the clutches of Fidel Castro in Cuba (!) with help from some defectors, Stephen arrives in Florida shortly after the mutants and sets about finding Ellen. The mutants - who've come down with a skin rash and appear to be dying - get involved in a few run-ins with locals, including killing a bunch of punks who try to gang rape a girl as well as a sleazeball who tries to blackmail Ellen into sleeping with him. The film ends with a police raid on Ellen's apartment building and the mutants revealing their true reason for hunting her down.

Though the first film had some black comedy and the second was virtually humor free, this third and final chapter has loads of comedy, much of which actually IS funny. The film maintains the social awareness of the previous entries (commenting on a multitude of then-topical issues) while adding more gore, more action, more babies, more special effects and more laughs to the proceedings. It's a crazy mix and gets to be a bit much by the end, but the film has an anything-goes quirky energy to it that helps it along. Moriarty gives his usual offbeat Larry Cohen film performance and his character will either have you in stitches or annoy the piss out of you. Personally, I liked him a lot in this. During one very funny scene at a party when Moriarty's Stephen gets sick of being exploited by everyone around him, he decides to play along by telling Baby Jarvis jokes and and signing autographs as "Father of the Monster." The rest of the cast is good, too. Aside from those already mentioned, Gerrit Graham appears in the lengthy courtroom scene, Neal Israel plays a seasick doctor Moriarty tests a tranquilizer gun out on and Dawn Wildsmith can be seen dancing in a punk club.

Bernard Herrmann's title theme is reused and the film was nicely shot by Daniel Pearl. The island scenes were filmed on location in Hawaii. The uneven special effects (the make-ups are from Steve Neill) sometimes utilize stop-motion animation and the grown mutants look like infants on steroids. The entire series was released on video and DVD by Warner Brothers.

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