Thursday, April 7, 2011

It’s Alive (1974) & It Lives Again (1978)


          Arguably the most enduring creation of B-movie auteur Larry Cohen’s colorful career, the It’s Alive franchise depicts the bloody rampages of killer mutant babies born with claws, teeth, and bad attitudes. Surprisingly, the first picture is as much of a melancholy tragedy as it is an out-and-out horror show. Frank Davis (John P. Ryan) is a successful Los Angeles PR man expecting a second child with his easygoing wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell). Yet as he stands outside the delivery room waiting for news, Frank hears screams and then sees a doctor stagger out, bloodied and dying. Frank runs into the operating room and discovers an abattoir, because his “child” came out of the womb and killed the whole surgical staff before escaping. This outrageous scene sets the tone for the whole picture, and indeed the whole franchise, by turning a universal experience into a nightmare. The scene also initiates a disquieting odyssey during which Frank becomes a social pariah, Lenore loses her mind, and the escaped “infant” racks up a horrific body count.
          Cohen’s filmmaking style is unpretentious to a fault, with many sequences marred by dodgy cinematography, but he’s aided immeasurably by the participation of legendary composer Bernard Hermann (Psycho). Hermann layers the film with one darkly insinuating theme after another, creating uncomfortable levels of menace and suspense that accentuate Cohen’s scheme of juxtaposing normalcy and the supernatural. This effect is aided by Ryan’s tightly wound performance; the actor does a great job of conveying angst beneath a veneer of stoicism. So while Rick Baker’s creature FX are a bit on the goofy side, and while some viewers may quibble about the lack of any scientific explanation for the killer-baby phenomena, It’s Alive has an undeniable mood all its own.
          Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the first sequel, It Lives Again. Once again written and directed by Cohen, the picture meanders through a contrived storyline that lacks the insistent momentum of the first picture. Ryan returns as Frank Davis, only this time he’s part of an underground group helping couples pregnant with killer mutant babies like the one Davis’ wife delivered. In trying to aid one particular young couple (Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd), Davis runs afoul of a government operative (John Marley) assigned to annihilate the killer mutant babies as they’re born. Intrigue and mayhem ensue, but the excitement level is never particularly high, and by the time two killer mutant babies escape for a rampage, the picture has settled into a dreary rut of people waiting around for haphazardly staged attacks.
          Cohen resurrected his infantile monsters one more time for the 1987 threequel It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, and the original picture was remade in 2008.

It’s Alive: FUNKY
It Lives Again: LAME

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