It’s Alive Trilogy (It’s Alive, It Lives Again, Island of the Alive)
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Run time: 91 minutes/ 91 minutes/ 95 minutes
The Lowdown: Way back in 1974, a young subversive filmmaker set out to create a terrifying parable about childbirth and the impact that pregnancy can have on the psyche of a mother and father.
What Larry Cohen birthed, however, was It’s Alive, a wonderfully thought-provoking, thoroughly pulpy movie about a killer mutant baby, which was conceived of by Oscar-winning special effects and horror makeup maestro Rick Baker.
The first 14 minutes of It’s Alive is a textbook example of how genre films can create mood and atmosphere solely through small hints (a mom-to-be saying something is wrong) of the horror to come.
Slowly, it dawns on you. This is a monster baby movie disguising a seriously effed up depiction of mental breakdown in modern society.
There’s a great scene inside a milk truck where Cohen uses spilled, flowing milk to represent blood as it streams down the sidewalk.
That’s followed by an even better sequence where a S.W.A.T. team surrounds a normal toddler crying in the backyard that is eerily reminiscent of stories today about excessive police force in situations where all the facts aren’t known.
It’s Alive shows just how deep the madness runs with mom Lenore Davies (Sharon Farrell) simply wanting her baby back and dad Frank (a completely unhinged John P. Ryan) longing for normalcy. Cohen’s script is populated with some wonderful dialogue and his characterizations of the two parents are vividly drawn.
A recurring theme throughout the trilogy is how Cohen always has the cops swarm a scene, literally rushing in from all corners of the frame.
By the time the monster baby reaches the sewer, trying to escape a growing collection of cops and scientists, Cohen dives deep into surrealist territory, creating a brilliant third act that sees Frank running with his monster child in his arms through the sewers, trying to avoid capture. It’s a striking scene expertly framed by Cohen that perfectly captures the rampant public distrust of venerable institutions that marked the early 1970s.
It’s Alive ends with a classic closing moment. A cop is on the phone. “Yeah, I understand,” he says, before hanging up the receiver and looking at the small group surrounding him. “All right,” he says, as the screen fades to black. “Another one’s been born in Seattle.”
For the sequel, It Lives Again, released four years later in 1978, Cohen explored new themes while still mining the same parental nightmare as his first film.
This time around, the country is on high-alert for the birth of any killer mutants, but there is a small faction working in secret that wants to explore what these creatures mean for human evolution. There’s also a nice subplot that teases the idea that a pharmaceutical company helped create the mutant babies as a pre-natal experiment gone awry. To that end, a top-secret facility has been created where several of the babies are being kept and studied.
A new set of parents, Eugene and Jody Scott (Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd), have just learned that Jody is carrying a mutant fetus. Frank Davis (Ryan) returns, convinced that only he can communicate with the babies. Everything goes to hell, as expected, and the third act closely mirrors that of the first film.
At this point, you would think that Cohen might have run out of ways to continue exploiting his killer creations, but no. Nine years later, he returned with arguably the most batshit-crazy installment yet, Island of the Alive.
By now, the killer mutant babies are a national epidemic, and execution squads are traveling city to city to kill the babies in the delivery room as soon as they exit the womb.
Island opens with a wonderfully garish sequence in New York where a pregnant woman flags down a cab. Once inside, she immediately goes into labor and is ripped apart by her newborn, who also devours a passerby, setting the tone for the concluding chapter in the trilogy as bigger and bloodier than its predecessors.
Whereas the first two films kept the babies mostly hidden from view, except for brief reveals, Island ups the ante by having fully animatronic mutant infants on display.
Cohen introduces a wonderful moral conundrum in a nicely staged courtroom showdown where the father of a mutant newborn (Michael Moriarty, a Cohen regular) makes an impassioned case that every living thing birthed by a human host has the right to life. It’s the classic man versus monster argument that has provided a social undercurrent in horror films dating all the way back to Frankenstein.
My point here is that many film franchises basically remake the same movie over and over (cough, The Matrix Reloaded cough The Matrix Revolutions cough). Cohen keeps finding new themes to explore with what’s essentially a low-budget creature feature that somehow established itself in the pop culture canon without showing much at all of its mutant killer babies.
Island is packed with story. There’s a fantastic sequence between the first and second acts where Moriarty’s Stephen Jarvis hooks up with a prostitute named Sally (Laurene Landon) who flips out and becomes a huge bigot upon learning that Jarvis is that father, the daddy of a monster baby.
Before long, Cohen gets to the meat of his threequel: The killer mutant babies are transported to a deserted island where they can live in exile. Of course, a team of hired guns from the pharmaceutical company that came up with the drug that sparked the mutant births way back in the first film arrives on the island to hunt the babies down. Guess what? The babies have developed rapidly and are now walking on two legs with incredibly buff bods. Things do not go well for the hired guns.
Next, a second expedition heads to the island, this time with Jarvis in tow. Jarvis discovers that the babies are now having mutant killer babies of their own!
Before you can say what the ever-loving fook is happening, Jarvis is on a boat with several of the now-HUGE babies, including his own infant son, and heading to Florida. The babies are telepathic. There’s some serious pregnant monster baby boob. And there’s a big fight at the end with some killer mutant baby kung-fu.
Somehow, Cohen finds a way to end his trilogy with the perfect set-up for a fourth feature that, alas, never got made.
Suffice to say, BVB gets a bunch of movies to watch and review. And with those, there are often boxed sets. It’s rare – OK, this is the first time – that we’ve ever watched every film in a boxed set and loved the hell out of every one.
If you’ve never seen any of the It’s Alive films, this boxed set from Shout! Factory is the perfect place to start. You won’t be disappointed. However, we would caution pregnant mothers or expectant fathers to avoid at all costs.
The Stuff You Care About:
Hot chicks – It’s not really that kind of series.
Nudity – No.
Gore – Yes.
Drug use – No.
Bad Guys/Killers – Most people would say the mutant killer babies. I say it's the government and the cops.
Buy/Rent – Buy it.
The Return of Swamp Thing (Lightyear Entertainment, 88 minutes, PG-13, Blu-Ray): As part of the growing MVD Rewind Collection, I can’t help but champion the Blu-Ray release of The Return of Swamp Thing, even though the film pales in comparison to Wes Craven’s original Swamp Thing, released in 1982. While both films took liberties with the original DC Comics source materials, The Return of Swamp Thing, directed by schlock veteran Jim Wynorski (The Lost Empire, Chopping Mall), is more camp than comic book.
Given the huge advancements in special effects technology, I would love to see someone attempt a serious, horror-tinged, faithful adaptation of this great character, although it would be hard not to want to see Dick Durock back in the title role.
Gladiator 4K Ultra High-Definition
Braveheart 4K Ultra High-Definition
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – 30th Anniversary Edition Steelbook
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – Limited Edition Steelbook
Now on Video-on-Demand:
Gray Matter (Indican Pictures, 83 minutes, Unrated, VOD): Gray Matter is a brisk and entertaining alien invasion thriller that owes a big debt to at least one cult classic, 1987’s The Hidden, in that an evil alien entity keeps switching bodies and inhabiting ordinary folks in its quest to reconcile with a meteorite that crashed decades earlier but still holds a viable seed to unleash an infestation across the planet.
Where Gray Matter distinguishes itself is that there are not one but two alien entities at play, both an evil one and a good one. The good alien entity, controlled from space by a nicely realized homage to the classic gray extraterrestrial, complete with a slender body and oversized head, takes control of a young woman on Earth and imbues her with strength and weaponry to thwart the evil alien spawn. Gray Matter is further proof that, while extremely cool, wrist-gauntlet ray guns are only as good as their design. In the film, the young woman, Annabelle (Alys Crocker), has to fully extend her arm in order for the weaponry she receives to properly work. That’s not a good design, at all.
Gray Matter also offers an alternative to a scenario in one of my favorite alien invasion movies, Men in Black.
What if the Edgar-Suit-wearing giant cockroach went on a rampage instead of just targeting isolated individuals? Here, the infected hosts become alien zombies who don’t speak, even as they shamble-stalk innocent people on the street.
Annabelle transforms into a pretty kickass warrior who handles herself nicely when confronted with the host bodies inhabited by the evil alien, including a stripper (Tara Elizabeth), which also harkens back to The Hidden and Claudia Christian (in her breakthrough role).
Gray Matter really pops in its third act with some above-average computer-generated creature effects, including a great sequence where a slew of space critters wreak holy havoc on a crowded bus full of passengers. It also ends on a cliff hanger of sorts, setting up a second helping that promises widespread alien Armageddon.