Wednesday, May 29, 2019

There's Only ONE Thing Wrong With This Review, We Finally Have to Say Goodbye to a Legend :: Larry Cohen's It's Alive (1974)

When the time finally comes for the Davises as wife Lenore’s first contraction hits, and she gently wakes up her husband, Frank, slumbering beside her, what follows is not the usual sitcom hijinx or panic, where the expectant father makes a frazzled, mad scramble to gather what they need, just like he’d rehearsed a dozen times, heads for the door, starts the car, and then gets halfway to the hospital for the delivery of their child before realizing he forgot his wife back at their avocado-toned house, whose water just broke.

No, here the Davises remain on an even keel, serene, sedated even, as Lenore (Farrell) heads to the bathroom to “fix her face” between contractions while Frank (Ryan) casually goes closet diving and fusses over which suit to wear before rousing their son, Chris (Holzman), so they can drop him off at a friend’s house for the duration of the delivery. Now, having heard that some mothers die while having a baby, 11-year old Chris is assured by his mom his birth went ridiculously smooth -- over and done in less than a half hour, brags Frank, and there’s no reason why his baby brother or sister will be any different.

At the hospital, this Prozac-laced facade starts to crack a little as Lenore’s painful contractions get both worse and closer together, and she confesses to the attending nurse that something, suddenly, doesn’t feel right and, despite all assurances to the contrary, something is terribly, terribly wrong with the baby. Meantime, Frank is allowed one last quick visit with his distraught wife before being herded into the waiting room with the other expectant fathers. Here, Frank turns on the smarm a bit, since this isn’t his first rodeo, and helps defuse a nervous, first time father-to-be before he destroys a cigarette machine for eating his change and not producing anything.

Back in the delivery room, Lenore, wracked with pain and worry, and so upset that no one will listen to her fearful intuition, has been tethered to the bed with medical restraints, bringing to mind some form of medieval torture device, so she can’t harm herself or the baby. And as the attending physician blithely waves off all of her concerns, saying her new offspring just appears to be a lot bigger than her first one, and with the head finally crowning, the O.B. assures the mother her new baby is almost here. Easy-peasy.

Cut to the hallway outside the nursery, where Frank is happily gawking at all the other peacefully sleeping newborns through the large window. But his attention is soon drawn down the hall to the entrance of his wife’s delivery room, where an intern has just emerged, covered in blood, and then collapses, face first, onto the floor. Frank is the first to reach him, and when rolled over we see the man’s throat has been slashed open from hyoid to sternum, rather messily. 

As more nurses and doctors converge on the scene, Frank bursts through the entrance and runs right into a living nightmare: the whole operating theater is drenched in blood and viscera, and the entire delivery team has been slaughtered -- literally torn apart by something rather vicious judging by the arterial spray and the ragged and gaping wounds. The only one apparently left alive is Lenore, also covered in blood but unharmed, and still strapped in, so she couldn't have done this, who cries for her baby. Frank is quickly pushed aside by another doctor, who tends to his wife, who is currently bleeding out, and notes the umbilical cord has been severed; not cut, almost as if something had chewed through it. And as Lenore continues to plead for her baby, Frank desperately scans the one-entrance room; but amongst the terrible carnage, including a small hole punched through a skylight that only an infant could get through -- he typed ominously, the Davis baby is nowhere to be found...

Back in the mid-1950s the German drug company Chemie Gr├╝nenthal began developing the drug Thalidomide, a sedative, claiming it could cure anxiety, insomnia, gastritis, and tension when they rolled it out in 1957 as the over-the-counter drug, Contergan. When further testing showed Thalidomide also helped alleviate the nausea and other symptoms of morning sickness in pregnant women, the company added this to the ad campaigns and started marketing this new miracle drug around the world. However, due to a lack of testing or restrictions on such things, no one really bothered to check on what kind of effect the drug would have on the developing fetus. Seems the going thought back then was no medicine a mother ingested would penetrate the placental wall.

This was a fallacy, and turns out the effect of Thalidomide was highly detrimental on a cellular level as West Germany saw a sudden spike in infants born with terrible birth defects: “limb deficiencies in a way where the long limbs either were not developed or presented themselves as stumps.” Over half of the affected babies died not long after birth (-- reports range from 15,000-20,000 cases worldwide), and those that survived were also prone to deformed eyes, malformed internal organs, and hearing deficiencies. And if there was any bright side to this debacle, it led to more structured, thorough, and highly regulated rules and oversight on the development of new drugs so something like this shouldn’t happen again -- stress on the shouldn’t, not the couldn’t, as history has shown with detrimental things like Aspartame and Fenfluramine (Fen-Phen) things can still slip through if the right wheels are greased.

For even with all the mounting evidence on how dangerous Thalidomide was, Richardson-Merrell, an American pharmaceutical company, who had secured the rights for the drug domestically, applied for approval from the FDA to mass produce and distribute the drug in the U.S.. Luckily for all, they ran right into a human brick wall named Frances Oldham Kelsey, who didn’t believe their pitch or sanitized reports. Feeling the drug was unsafe, she refused their application. Undaunted, and with a lot of money on the line, Richardson-Merrell regrouped and tried to push the drug through the FDA six more times -- Six. Times. -- but Kelsey blocked them at every turn and eventually won herself a Presidential award for her due diligence and distinguished service for keeping the dangerous drug off the market.

Thus, between the Thalidomide scare and the recent diagnosis in Japan of the damaging neurological side-effects caused by the consumption of fish poisoned by industrial waste run-off of mercury and other pollutants (Minamata disease), the 1960s were a scary and uncertain time to be having children. And things hadn’t improved much by the 1970s, and all of this uncertainty with pharmaceutical companies introducing new drugs every week and the poisoned environment due to an unchecked industrial revolution, I feel, had a huge influence on the subject matter of Larry Cohen’s first bona fide creature feature, the killer mutant-baby movie, It’s Alive (1974).

Because like with all of Cohen’s films, no matter what the genre, it was always social commentary first and foremost, which usually drove the plot along. Here, after strategically lulling the audience into a false sense of security as the Davis's take their own sweet time getting to the hospital, Cohen, who wrote, produced, and directed the feature, starts to lay out subtle, foreshadowing hints of what’s to come as the expectant fathers fret in the waiting room, who all bemoan the sorry state of Los Angeles: lead in the water, smog in the air. Fine world to bring a kid into, says Frank, while another man, an exterminator by trade, explains how a newly developed batch of potent chemical pesticides were meant to eliminate cockroaches altogether only resulted in a new resistant strain that was now bigger, stronger, and even more harder to kill.

Now, mix in these harsh environmental factors with the fact Lenore was on a regimen of contraceptive pills for over ten years before switching over to an inadequately tested fertility drug so she and Frank could have a second child before her biological clock struck midnight. (Author’s note: Richard Woodley’s novelization of It’s Alive goes into more detail on this angle than the movie did.) And with that, one has to ask is the Davis baby just a genetic misfire or, like the cockroach, this is a new strain of human, bred for the next evolutionary step, which will help the species survive in these rapidly deteriorating environs of an over-medicated populace and greenhouse gases? Was it a product of its environment, or a reaction to it?

And while the audience struggles to answer these questions, Cohen shifts gears a bit for an interesting second act riff on the Frankenstein mythos of personal responsibility and parental rejection, once more asking who the real monster is, here, as it becomes readily clear Frank never wanted any children let alone a second one, admitting he felt trapped by Lenore’s first pregnancy and tied down by his fatherly duties. And these doubts and insecurities were strong enough during the second pregnancy there were even inquiries about an abortion. This makes it easier for Frank as he deals in denial with the police and the hospital brass by putting as much distance as possible between himself and his mutant offspring. And once the notion that someone else did the crime and kidnapped the baby dries up as more witnesses and victims turn up in a burgeoning citywide rampage, Frank one, adamantly refuses to acknowledge the baby is even his, and two, couldn’t care less what happens to it, and three, takes great offense when he feels people are blaming him for what that thing is doing -- essentially, in a biblical sense, denying his son three times before the sun rises.

Meantime, in an effort to cover his own ass, Dr. Norton (Locke), who prescribed those faulty fertility drugs, wants Frank and Lenore to undergo a series of tests, suggesting some kind of radiation exposure is the most likely culprit for this mutation to muddy the waters of his own culpability. And when he shares this development with an executive from the pharmaceutical company who developed the drug (Duggan), who paid Norton an obscene amount of money to push the drug for them, they go into full damage control mode to prevent any bad publicity. One should note they don’t plan to change the drug, just destroy all the evidence of what it wrought before it can be traced back to them. Thus, both agree the baby must be put down but they’d like to preserve the body for further study and approach Frank about signing a release to do just that.

And Frank can’t sign these papers fast enough, who desperately wants things to just return to normal. Alas, their identity has been leaked to the press as the parents of the elusive homicidal monster and he is hounded constantly. Thus, unable to wash his hands of it, he tries to return to work at his PR firm but his boss, Bob Clayton (Stockwell), insists he take some accrued vacation time until this mess blows over. However, once Frank leaves the offices, Clayton informs his secretary to clean out Frank’s desk and forward the contents to his ex-employee’s residence. Then, when Lenore is finally released from the hospital and Frank takes her home, another victim of the mutant is found. And when Lenore’s in-home nurse keeps pestering her with questions, she finds the other woman was concealing a tape recorder in an effort to cash in with the newspapers.

Meanwhile, between slaughtering several more people, including a milkman in one helluva scene, the marauding mutant has so far managed to elude a Lt. Perkins’ dragnet, which has just stood down from a false alarm, where twenty-some armed cops drew down on an innocent infant playing in someone’s backyard (-- it’s more hilarious than harrowing, trust me). Perkins (Dixon) also fails to notice the pattern of the victims isn’t as random as one would think. The quarter finally drops for him when the mutant is cornered in Chris’s school only to escape after killing a cop: the infant is somehow instinctively seeking out its family and the trail of bodies forms a straight line between the hospital and the Davis home. But as this manhunt intensifies, the killings stop and no trace of the baby can be found. And the reason they can’t find it, is because the mutant has found refuge in the last place anyone would’ve thought to look.

For you see, the Davis baby has indeed found its way through the sewers and is now home at last. And unlike his father, his mother, who never wrote him off, immediately takes to her offspring, which doesn’t harm her, and hides it in plain sight in the nursery from Frank and everyone else, where she cares for it on the sly. Meantime, in order to protect him from the media circus -- and not ready to tell him the truth about his baby brother just yet (-- in their defense, Where would you start?), Chris has been staying with family friend, Charlie (Wellman Jr.), this whole time. Homesick, and tired of the phone-tag runaround, the boy runs away from Charlie’s house and heads home for what he thinks will be a happy reunion.

Meantime, Frank has become suspicious of Lenore’s secretive behavior and odd grocery buying habits (-- I mean, Where is all that milk going?). He confronts her. She admits it, and Frank goes for his gun despite her assurances the baby is harmless and only lashed out at the hospital staff when they tried to smother it, swearing it only acts in the interest of self-preservation and would never hurt his family (-- well, except for the family cat). Ignoring her pleas and pushing her aside, Frank searches the house and finally finds the mutant in the basement; only Chris is there, too, talking to his little brother, promising to help protect him. A panicked Frank shoots and wounds the baby, which vacates the house and kills poor Charlie, who was tracking down runaway Chris, before returning to the sewers.

And as the police prepare to swarm in after it, Frank volunteers to go in first, rifle in hand, ready to hunt the baby down for good, feeling it is his responsibility. But when he gets separated and finds the mutant first, it’s pitiable and desperate mewling finally reaches something deep inside his father, who finally cracks wide open.

Realizing this is just a frightened and wounded infant, Frank puts the gun down and calmly approaches the baby, apologizes for being so scared of it, and then quietly assures everything will be fine. Then, he gently picks the baby up, wraps it in his coat, and finally embraces his son.

But did this acknowledgement come too late? For while Frank tries to elude the search parties, he and his baby are eventually flushed out. And when he emerges from the sewer, Frank pleads with Perkins not to kill his son, refusing to put the baby down, promising he will die first if they open fire. But Dr. Norton is there, who screams for the need to kill the hideous, murderous thing. Seemingly hearing this, the baby leaps from a startled Frank’s arms and starts mauling Norton as the gathered cops open fire, killing both of them. Lenore, who heard over the police radio that Frank had finally come around, and saw what he did during the standoff, goes to him and they collapse into each other. It’s over. But! After Perkins gets them loaded up into a patrol car, he receives word over the radio another mutant baby has just been born in Seattle.

Now normally I would call bullshit on this kind of love conquers all ending but I’m gonna let this one slide because Cohen set the wheels of Frank’s redemption in motion a couple reels back. Cohen cast John P. Ryan, a veteran character actor, as the lead in It’s Alive after seeing him perform in a stage production of Medea. And Ryan brings a great and very necessary every-man quality to Frank Davis, who gets stuck on denial during the grief process. But his indifference toward the baby, whom he says means nothing to him to whoever will listen, starts to crack when Norton and the Big Pharma rep approach him about signing over the cadaver once the police put it down, and is taken aback by the callousness over the hope they can gas the mutant to more or less keep their specimen in one piece.

And from then on, his guilt starts to get the better of him. He even directly references his childhood confusion over Frankenstein not being the monster but the scientist who created him and can’t finish his sentence when he admits it was hard to tell the difference between them. Ryan also has great chemistry with Sharon Farrell (-- love it when she goes all mama bear,) and Daniel Holzman, allowing you to buy them as a solid family unit, and you easily get the sense despite his initial reservations Frank had become a loving and caring husband and father to Chris, which also helps get the film’s seemingly abrupt, 180-degree shift ending over the hump.

It’s Alive was Cohen’s follow up feature to Black Caesar (1973). And as that Blaxploitation classic wrapped-up post production, executive producer Sam Arkoff warned Cohen he shouldn’t have killed off Fred Williamson's Tommy Gibbs during the climax. And sure enough, the film was a huge enough hit for American International a sequel was warranted, sending Cohen scrambling to ret-con the ending and bring Gibbs back for Hell Up in Harlem (1973), which Cohen shot on weekends while filming It’s Alive during the weekdays, utilizing the same crew and sets, which was pretty much just Larry Cohen’s own home.

To realize the monster baby, Cohen turned to Rick Baker once the script had been completed, who had worked with the director before on his inaugural feature, Bone (-- aka Dial Rat for Terror, 1972). Here, Cohen sketched out for Baker what he wanted: a combination of the bulbous-headed Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), with pulsating veins on its encephalitic noggin’, and the fangs and claws of a wolf. Baker agreed to deliver this, saying to just let him know when he got the financing in order and a starting date. But that was the last Baker heard from Cohen until nearly a year later, when Baker was assisting Dick Smith on The Exorcist (1973), and he got a call from the director, who was already two weeks into production on It’s Alive and wanted to know how quickly Baker could have the monster suit done because he was gonna need it in a couple days.

Now, originally, Cohen had wanted a monster suit that he could stuff one of his cats into until Baker shot this terrible notion down. And now committed elsewhere, the FX artist didn’t have time to do much more than deliver a mock-up so the actors would have something to react to. But Cohen fell in love with the prop and tried to film a couple scenes with it, pulling it along with a string, which by all accounts looked pretty terrible. Luckily, Baker was able to carve out a 24-hour window where he was able to make a mask of the mutant’s head and a pair of clawed gloves that were built to fit his future wife, Elaine Alexander. This compromise worked out well enough, with a combination of forced and low perspectives, quick edits, allowing brief glimpses of the monster, and a ton of subjective camera angles used as a surrogate for the crawling mutant out on the prowl.

Once the trials and tribulations of shooting It’s Alive were complete, Cohen ran into more trouble when it came time for the film’s release. The feature had been financed by Warner Bros., which was about to go through another in a long line of regime changes. And once the smoke cleared, the executive who had given Cohen the green-light was no longer employed by the studio and his replacement had no interest in a killer baby picture; and worse yet, the PR department had no idea how to market it properly, thinking no one wanted to see a movie about a homicidal infant. Thus, only 55 prints of It’s Alive were distributed in a very quiet roll-out in October, 1974, whose press and promotional materials gave no real clue to its content, and then quietly disappeared a few months later despite doing respectable business nationwide.

Convinced the film could be a huge hit if marketed properly, Cohen, however, refused to go quietly and, forgive me, really fought for his baby, and kept pestering the studio to give it another chance until, finally, in late 1976, after yet another regime change at Warners, and with big studio horror all the rage with the release of JAWS (1975) and The Omen (1976) during the interim, It’s Alive was dusted off and repackaged with a new stellar promotional campaign -- “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby ... It’s Alive,” accompanied by a killer TV spot, and then sent back out into theaters in early 1977, en force, and earned the studio nearly $8 million in ticket sales, earning Cohen a sequel, which he delivered the following year, It Lives Again (1978), where he expanded further on the notion these mutants were the next step in human evolution, before ending the saga ten years later with the completely bonkers, It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive (1987). And no, we’re not gonna talk about the 2009 remake. Nope.Nosireebob.

Larry Cohen

Like with a lot of Cohen’s pictures, It’s Alive is kinda over-stuffed with ideas. Overstuffed, but never, ever over-baked. On top of the environmental factors, the script’s other angle was a notion to see how parents of that era, now terrified of their children in the wake of the 1960s counterculture movement, would deal with a superhuman baby tantrum. Thus, the film throws a lot at you and is a little clumsy in spots, sure -- I love how quickly everyone adjust to and accepts the notion that a mutant killer baby is on the loose, but it’s deftly glued together by Cohen’s signature directing style and a wry sense of humor, Ryan’s standout performance, and the legendary Bernard Hermann’s next to last score. And it was these kind of efforts that always made both Larry Cohen and his movies a unique cinematic experience, and sadly, we will probably never see anything quite like him or his movies ever again.

It's Alive (1974) Larco Productions :: Warner Bros. / EP: Peter Sabiston / P: Larry Cohen / CP: Janelle Webb / D: Larry Cohen / W: Larry Cohen / C: Fenton Hamilton / E: Peter Honess / M: Bernard Herrmann / S: John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, Daniel Holzman, Shamus Locke, Andrew Duggan, Guy Stockwell, James Dixon, Robert Emhardt, William Wellman Jr.
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