Friday, April 3, 2009

It’s Alive

Larry Cohen is the kind of filmmaker you just want to go ahead and hug.

Why? Because in an industry that finds talent, then chews them up and spits them out minutes later, Larry is the kind of guy who always seems to find work.


He wrote his first screenplay for television in 1958. And he has a writing credit on a film coming out this year, 2009.

Along the way he’s done everything: produced, directed, written for both TV and film.

Most importantly, the man has learned that if you take a monster movie, and put some genuine pathos in it, you can create a classic with a budget of about three dollars.

In this case, the three dollars went into the making of the monster in “It’s Alive,” a creature created by the makeup genius Rick Baker, who also worked on “Star Wars” and “Men in Black,” and a bunch of other movies as well.

The man as won Oscars, is what I’m saying.

Larry is another story, however, and it’s a shame, because “It’s Alive,” which sounds like a gruesome monster movie, is actually a PG-rated film that’s mostly about the difficulties of keeping a family together when your new baby isn’t exactly what you thought it was going to be.

You can tell this movie was made in the 1970s, not only because of the film stock, but because it actually gives you a few minutes to sort out who is who, what is going on, and even gives you a minute or ten to care about these people and events before you are launched into the story.

In this case, the tale begins with Frank and Lenore, a couple of married folks who seem to be closer to 40 than 30. Lenore is very pregnant, and about to give birth, which is making the two of them and their son Chris very happy.

Chris is shuffled off to a friend’s house, and Frank and Lenore head to the hospital. Since it’s the 1970s, Frank is sent to a waiting room, where he sits with a few other fellows. They debate the state of the world together, and all the things wrong with it: too many slugs in the gardens, too much smog in L.A., too many poisons introduced everywhere. A surprisingly Green movie, for the time.

Lenore, meanwhile, is saying things like, “This little guy is going to kill me,” which is indicative that Larry Cohen understands the idea of both humor and foreshadowing.
Out in the hallway, all is well until Frank sees a nurse come stumbling out a door. There’s blood. Lots of blood. (Or rather, plenty of blood for a PG-rated movie made in the 70s. Now it’s less then you’d see on an episode of ER.) He runs into the delivery room and finds his wife screaming “What’s wrong with my baby?”

Which should be obvious, seeing as how there are a bunch of dead doctors and nurses on the floor. Someone also explains that the umbilical cord has been chewed off, but that might just be a matter of unusual medical procedure, rather than an indication that the baby is a hideous monster bent on the destruction of humans.

There are a few muddled, plot-filled minutes where Frank first threatens to sue the hospital over his “stolen” baby, but he eventually concedes that a) the creature that came out of his wife’s womb is deadly, and b) that the baby will need to be shot on sight.

Frank is sent home.

Meanwhile, the baby meets a strangely underdressed woman (lady of the evening? Go-go-girl?) and slaughters her.

Frank then tries to go back to work, in order to get his mind of the fact that his child is a vicious killer baby.

This doesn’t fare too well for Frank, and it’s here that the actual themes of the movie really start to emerge. Frank’s boss tells Frank that Frank should use the three weeks of vacation he accrued. He tells Frank that what happened isn’t Frank’s fault. And he also tells Frank about a fellow co-worker whose child is mentally retarded.

Ultimately, Frank is sent home, and moments later, the boss of the year informs one of his underlings that Frank’s desk needs to be cleared out – because Frank won’t be coming back.

And now, a short pause while I praise the acting skills of John P. Ryan, who plays Frank.

John has a heavy load to carry in this film, because he’s the rock – he’s playing the dad and husband who is slowly crumbling under the stress of what’s happening to him – a powerful sadness that’s coming at him at the time he should be most happy.

The guy nails it. Recut the movie a bit, take out the monster, and give the kid an affliction besides bloodthirstiness, and the man would have been holding a small golden statue at the end of the year.

So here’s to you, John P. Ryan.

On with the show:

Lenore comes home, under the care of various and sundry nurses. This lasts right up until one of them tries to get Lenore’s opinion of the fact that her child just killed another human being. This tips Lenore off that something isn’t right, and she discovers that the nurse is also does some writing “on the side,” and has been tape-recording their conversation.

The pressure mounts. The baby kills a milkman, in what is really the only gory death in the film. There’s an artful shot of blood and milk running down the street, y’see.

Frank is offered a contract that will allow doctors to “examine” the baby, once it is captured or killed, and Frank, who has little by little been trying to distance himself from what is going on, signs over the body rights while noting, “He’s not my child.”

Shortly thereafter, the baby is cornered in a school – Chris’s school.

Chris, meanwhile, has been continuing to stay with the friend of the family – and he’s been keeping Chris in the house, and away from the TV so that the boy won’t find out what’s up with his brother.

The baby escapes from the school by killing a cop.

The baby scenes, by the way, hold a certain fascination, as they are all in “babyvision,” a low-to-the-ground, out of focus view that suggests that it’s not dissimilar in all ways from a regular baby. Both kinds of babies, after all, are small, scared, have trouble focusing, and enjoy the taste of human blood.

But I kid. I have no idea if the baby in this picture drinks human blood. As far as I know, it just kills people. And seeing as how one of them was probably a lady of easy virtue, perhaps it’s just an overly moral baby, rather than an evil one.

I mean, that cop it killed was probably on the take. And I’m sure the milkman probably made sure a few bottles “fell off” the truck every week as well.

The medical staff was, naturally, pro-choice. You see what I mean.

Back to the plot.

Frank goes home, and through a confluence of babyvision and Lenore acting a little odd… oh, and also all the meat is gone from the freezer and six bottles of milk have been consumed… we learn that Lenore is pregnant again.

But I kid. The killer baby is in the house!

Frank locates his gun, eventually tracking down the baby and shooting at it. It runs off, and the police track a trail of blood to the sewers – that’s how it’s been getting around.

The various officers of the law, and Frank, head to the sewers to track the creature.

Frank and crew end up separated from one another – and then it happens: Frank finds his newborn son, who is mewling in pain and obviously scared, and he says, “Shhh… everything is going to be all right.”

Frank picks up the baby in his coat, and heads out of the sewers, where he’s surrounded by policemen with guns. He pleads for them to lock the kid up, not to kill it, and when it looks like triggers are about to be pulled, he flings the baby onto the man who most wants the baby dead.

Both are shot and killed.

A minute later, the movie closes with the rather grim line: “Another one’s been born in Seattle.”

And yet, the second movie is not titled: “It’s Alive II: Battle in Seattle.” But that’s probably because it was written by Larry Cohen, and not a WWE man-soap-opera-scribbler.

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