Welcome to Misan[trope]y Movie Blog’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Today, I’ll be taking a look at the Larry Cohen cult classic monster baby movie, “It’s Alive.”
The story of “It’s Alive” follows the bizarre birth of a monstrous, murderous baby, which proceeds to go on a killing rampage. A manhunt for the child is launched, while the parents are left to deal with the realization that their child is potentially inhuman.
The title of the movie was concocted as part of the advertising campaign, and produced two different memorable taglines: “Whatever it is, it’s alive” and “There is only one thing wrong with the Davis baby: It’s Alive.” Arthur Manson, who was the head of advertising at Warner Brothers during the production of “It’s Alive” was the brains behind the campaign, and has used it in lectures on film promotion, and it has even been featured in professional advertising classes on the subject.
The infamous delivery scene was filmed in a functional operating room, and filming had to be abruptly paused during a shoot for an emergency delivery. The child that was born in that delivery even appears briefly in the film.
As outlandish as the premise for “It’s Alive” may seem, monster babies are featured in plenty of mythology and lore, particularly when pregnancies are not taken care of or a child is not baptized. The stories have inspired all manner of superstitious traditions, some of which still exist today. Some of these legends include the changelings throughout Europe, the Spanish xaninos, and the terrifying Japanese sankai, who are demon babies who run away immediately after birth and return to kill their mother. Even in the bible, there is a description of a monstrous birth in 2 Esdras 5:8: as part of a series of cataclysmic events.
The idea of for “It’s Alive” supposedly came from Larry Cohen watching a baby have a temper tantrum, and noting specifically how violent it was, and how destructive it could be if it had more power.
The release of “It’s Alive” drew obvious comparisons to Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror hit, “Rosemary’s Baby.” In a lot of ways, “It’s Alive” is kind of a theoretical look at what Rosemary’s baby might actually be like, given it wasn’t shown in any detail in the Polanski film.
Larry Cohen’s career started with him writing for television programs throughout the 1960s, including “The Invaders” and “Blue Light.” In the early 1970s, he started directing a handful of blacksploitation films, the most notable of which was “Black Caesar” starring Fred Williamson. After “It’s Alive,” Cohen went on to create a number of cult classic horror movies with comedic twists in the 1980s, such as “The Stuff” and “Q: The Winged Serpent.” Cohen had a bit of a renaissance in the early 2000s after writing a couple of successful thrillers in “Phone Booth” (starring Colin Farrell) and “Cellular” (starring Chris Evans), but hasn’t had any new credits since 2010.
“It’s Alive” features a musical score composed by the legendary Bernard Herrmann, who is best known for “Psycho,” “Citizen Kane,” “North By Northwest,” and “Vertigo.” “It’s Alive” was one of his last scores before his unexpected death, next to “Taxi Driver,” which won him a posthumous Academy Award.
Peter Honess, the editor for “It’s Alive,” has gone on to a fantastic career of cutting larger budget Hollywood flicks like “L.A. Confidential,” “Harry Potter And The Chamber of Secrets,” and the cult classic “Highlander.”
The Director of Photography on “It’s Alive,” Fenton Hamilton, was a lighting technician during the golden age of Hollywood, and finished his career doing cinematography work for Cohen. He was in poor health during most of his time working with Cohen, and the Cohen film “Full Moon High” was dedicated to his memory after his death.
Lauded special effects guru Rick Baker provided the creature design for the mutant babies in “It’s Alive,” and was one of his first major effects roles. He has gone on to win 7 Academy Awards on 12 nominations, for films like “An American Werewolf In London,” “Men In Black,” and “Ed Wood.”
By design, these is very little exposure of the monster on screen in “It’s Alive.” Cohen has said that this was to allow the audience to use their imagination, and to help build suspense, which was partially influenced by the famous pool sequence from “Cat People.” Later, this principle was made famous with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”
The baby’s point of view double vision effect was done based on input from doctors, who reportedly told Cohen that a child’s vision would not be as focused as an adult’s. Speaking of which, using the monster’s point of view was another principle later used in “Jaws” to great acclaim.
The haunting baby monster scream used in “It’s Alive” is an actual baby cry that is played backwards and amplified, to chilling effect.
“It’s Alive” ultimately spawned two sequels, “It Lives Again” in 1978 and “It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive” in 1987, as well as a remake in 2008 by Josef Rusnak. Cohen wrote and directed both sequels, but had little involvement with the remake, which he has described as:
A terrible picture, just beyond awful. I would advise anybody who likes my film to cross the street and avoid seeing the new enchilada.
After a surprisingly successful first run in theaters as a sleeper hit, “It’s Alive” got a second theatrical release, playing on a double bill with the infamously awful “The Exorcist II.” Surprisingly, “It’s Alive” became the second highest grossing movie in Warner Bros history…in Singapore.
Naturally, there is a certain degree of social commentary in “It’s Alive,” something that is a bit of a Larry Cohen trademark. Specifically, the film subtly ponders on the issue of abortion. The babies in the story are created due to a flawed abortion drug, which made them vicious, using the same logic of pests and bacteria that become drug-resistant if they happen to survive extermination.
One of the keys to effective horror is being able to capitalize on existing anxieties of the time. “It’s Alive” not only taps into the fears associated with new parenthood, but also touches on the widening generation gap between adults and youth in the late 1960s and 1970s, and the estrangement and fear that resulted.
Most of the actors in “It’s Alive” were Irish, something that was allegedly completely coincidental on Cohen’s part. Many of them became Cohen regulars, earning the collective nickname of “Cohen’s Traveling Irish Players.”
“It’s Alive” was filmed partially in Larry Cohen’s actual home. By his logic, this meant that he didn’t have to pay for an expensive rental location, and he also didn’t have to, quote, “Get up and go to work.”
“Hell Up in Harlem”, the sequel to Cohen’s earlier film “Black Caesar,” was filmed and edited on the weekends during the production of “It’s Alive,” with much of the same crew. This means that the team put in consecutive seven-day work weeks to create both pictures at once.
On to the Plotopsy of the film: what makes “It’s Alive” so memorable? Obviously, the outlandish premise and the Rick Baker effects have gone a long way towards cementing the flick in the collective cultural memory, but the score, the cinematography, and the acting is all memorable and unique, making the film a genuinely impressive horror movie that is highly lauded by fans of the genre.
That’s all for today’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Be sure to check out Misan[trope]y Movie Blog on Facebook and @Misantropey on Twitter for new posts. updates, and reviews.
Welcome back to the (Plot)opsy Podcast! It has been a while since the last episode due to some technical issues, but now the show has been appropriately brought back to life! On this episode, I go into some fun facts and trivia about Stuart Gordon’s cult classic debut feature, “Re-Animator.” It is pretty fascinating how the combination of an experienced stage director, an out of print story, and some creative frugality can make for such a memorable classic of horror! I recommend checking out my text review of the movie from last month if you find yourself wanting more.
Recently, I read a book recounting the story of the early days of DreamWorks, called “The Men Who Would Be King” by Nicole LaPorte. The book features extensive insight into the many DreamWorks features produced during the Spielberg/Katzenberg/Geffen years of the company. One of the most interesting of these that I specifically recounted from my childhood was “Small Soldiers,” a movie that I really enjoyed at the time it was released. However, it was a critical and financial disappointment for the company, despite being technically successful. To understand why the film was so poorly received and regarded at the time, there is a fair amount of background information worth reading into.
“Small Soldiers” was conceived from an interesting mix of envy and greed. Pixar and Disney released the smash hit “Toy Story” in 1995 to massive acclaim and fortune not only on screen, but also from lucrative toy and merchandise tie-ins. In response, the team at DreamWorks struck up a deal with Hasbro to do tie-in toy merchandise for a series of films. DreamWorks notably had a historical axe to grind with Disney, due to Jeffrey Katzenberg’s rocky relationship with Michael Eisner, and the fact that many animators at DreamWorks were poached from the great mouse. Topping “Toy Story” would have been nothing short of a major triumph and vindication for the company. And so, “Small Soldiers” was the first of these Hasbro tie-in features released, and the expectation of it was to match or surpass the “Toy Story” acclaim and fortune earned for Disney and Pixar.
In a recent review of “Small Soldiers” by Doug Walker (The Nostalgia Critic), numerous similarities to “Toy Story” are specifically pointed out from the movie, and they are pretty undeniable. However, “Small Soldiers” is definitely a very different beast than the lofty and light-hearted “Toy Story”, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those sequences were the result of not-so-subtle arm-twisting by the DreamWorks brass.
Joe Dante, a B-movie and cult director who had seen success with movies like “Gremlins,” “Piranha,” and “The Burbs,” was attached to direct “Small Soldiers.” In retrospect, this was probably a misstep for a film that was intended to primarily to serve a youth audience. Even “Gremlins,” arguably his most family friendly movie at the time, is a good deal darker than your typical blockbuster family fare. It can certainly be said that the darkly comedic ultimate product of “Small Soldiers” is a creation born from Joe Dante’s influence.
A number of writers ultimately worked on the script for “Small Soldiers.” First, the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who had struck big for Katzenberg on “Aladdin,” worked on the film. Those two continued to work for DreamWorks on a number of other films, including “The Road to El Dorado” and “Shrek,” before working extensively on the “Pirates of the Carribbean” franchise for Disney. The other writers who later worked on the screenplay included Adam Rifkin, who penned the hit “Mouse Hunt” for DreamWorks in the previous year, and Gavin Scott, who co-wrote “The Borrowers” in 1997 for Working Title.
On May 21, 1998, less than two months before the release of “Small Soldiers” in theaters, an expelled High School student named Kip Kinkel murdered his parents and committed a school shooting in Springfield, Oregon. This sparked a lot of public conversation about the marketing of violence to children, and some believe that this event caused the film to be more harshly criticized than it might have been otherwise.
Not helping the matter, the final product of “Small Soldiers” was far more violent than expected: promotional materials even had to be altered (most notably the poster, in which a gun was reportedly digitally removed from Chip Hazard’s hand). The movie was ultimately slapped with a PG-13 (the only DreamWorks movie to get the rating), which caused a stir given it was being marketed with the Burger King equivalent of a Happy Meal. This also theoretically limited its financial potential by keeping young children out of the theaters, which certainly didn’t go over well with DreamWorks. This also understandably further opened up a lot of questions about violent products being catered to children, which almost certainly negatively affected many reviews of the movie.
“Small Soldiers” has a deep cast of comedic character actors that provide a lot of the comic power of the film, including David Cross, Jay Mohr, and Dennis Leary. However, it is undoubtedly not a product suitable for young children, not only because of the violence, but because the humor is rather dark and laced with social satire that they couldn’t possibly get. The PG-13 rating is certainly justified, in any case. The movie’s cast also notably features a pre-fame Kirsten Dunst, and, sadly, the last screen performance of Phil Hartman.
Phil Hartman, beloved comedic actor of “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio,” “The Simpsons,” and “The Groundlings” comedy troupe fame, has a bit role in “Small Soldiers” as the moronic father of Kirsten Dunst’s character. Tragically, Hartman was murdered by his wife just before the release of “Small Soldiers,” making it his last live action theatrical role.
A number of references to Joe Dante’s movie “Gremlins” are hidden throughout the movie (including a direct reference to the Gremlin ‘Gizmo’), as well as numerous nods to classic B-movies. Dante got his start in film cutting B-movie trailers for Roger Corman, and has maintained his connection to B cinema to this day. His website, Trailers From Hell, is essentially a love letter to the old school B classics, featuring trailer commentaries from lauded B-movie writers, directors, and special effects masters such as Stuart Gordon, Eli Roth, Rick Baker, Lloyd Kaufman, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and himself.
The special effects and designs for the action figures in “Small Soldiers” were done by legendary creature creator Stan Winston, and includes a mixture of practical and computer generated effects. This same technique earned Winston massive acclaim on “Jurassic Park” only a handful of years before. The figures themselves are particularly impressive, as you can see on display below:
The voice acting cast of “Small Soldiers” is incredibly deep, and features a rogues gallery of notables. Outside of Tommy Lee Jones, there are a number of alums from “The Dirty Dozen” that make up the Gi Joe esque Commando Elite, including George Kennedy, Clint Walker, Ernest Borgnine, and Jim Brown. The Gorgonites feature voices from Frank Langella, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. Even the Barbie analogues impressed into service by the Commando Elite late in the film feature the voices of Christina Ricci and Sarah Michelle Gellar.
“Small Soldiers” was created during a time in which DreamWorks functioned as a massive multimedia company, with interest in film, video games, animation, and music. Appropriately, DreamWorks attempted to milk every last drop from films released during this time period, and “Small Soldiers” was no exception. The film got a soundtrack that featured rap remixes of classic rock songs, a DreamWorks video game, and a slew of tie-in toys from the DreamWorks arrangement with Hasbro. In theory, “Small Soldiers” was intended to be a family movie with massive crossover potential that would provide proof of the DreamWorks multi-media model. Of course, that isn’t what it wound up being, to the disappointment of many.
So, why was “Small Soldiers” such a disappointment? Honestly, I think that the hands-off style of DreamWorks, which operated its live action with a “power to the artists” mentality reminiscent of United Artists, really burned them with “Small Soldiers.” I don’t think that the marketing team and the brass in general quite grasped the dark creature that was being created with “Small Soldiers”, or maybe they were just incapable of reigning it in for whatever reason. If DreamWorks had it set in their mind that they wanted a “Toy Story”, they probably should have hit the panic button the minute that military-grade microchips and hostage situations popped into a draft of the script. Also, there probably should have been more thought put into giving the film to a guy known for creating dark genre movies in Joe Dante. Secondarily, part of the issue with the film was just timing: releasing on the heels of a school shooting was something outside of their control, and didn’t do them any favors in the press or with critics.
Now, this is a case where I actually like “Small Soldiers.” I think it is a pretty enjoyable dark comedy in the vein of “The Burbs” if you can divorce it from its context. The “Toy Story” connection, the extensive and inappropriate marketing campaign, and the general social atmosphere around the film all really contributed to the generally negative reception movie if you ask me. I would recommend giving it another shot if someone hasn’t seen it in a number of years: I think it holds up pretty damn well, and is far more clever than it has any business being.
That is all for today’s (Plot)opsy Podcast! Check in next week when I’ll be covering another DreamWorks flick, Sam Mendes’s “Road to Perdition.” Make sure to like Misan[trope]y Movie Blog on Facebook and subscribe to the (Plot)opsy Podcast on iTunes to keep up with all of the latest updates.