Welcome to a special feature here at the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog! Recently, I had a chat with one of the best known cult movie writer/directors: Larry Cohen.
Cohen has had a career that has included hit television shows, blaxsploitation classics, and blockbuster screenplays, but he carved his unique place in film history by writing and directing memorable b-movies like The Stuff, It’s Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent.
For more on his career, check out the Larry Cohen Collection here at Misantropey, where I have been working through his entire filmography.
Now, enjoy this interview with the one and only Larry Cohen.
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.
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.
The next installment in the Larry Cohen collection is the little-seen 2008 remake of the cult classic “It’s Alive.”
The screenplay credit for “It’s Alive” is not given just to Larry Cohen, but also to two other people: Paul Sopocy, who has no other major writing credits (outside of a few episodes of “Elvira’s Movie Macabre”), and producer James Portolese (“The Ledge,” “Simon Sez”). It is unclear exactly how much input Cohen’s screenplay draft had into the ultimate film product, but at one point he had planned on writing, directing, and producing the remake according to an oft-quoted interview. He has also openly and bitterly denounced the film in interviews since the release, claiming:
I did give them a script and they, more or less, ignored what I gave them completely. I did make a lot of money on the deal, so I really can’t complain. I certainly didn’t want to give them their money back, so I’ll just have to live with it. I would advise anybody who likes my film to cross the street and avoid seeing the new enchilada.
“It’s Alive” was directed by Josef Rusnak, who also worked on such features as “The Thirteenth Floor” and “Godzilla” (1998), the latter as an assistant director.
The effects team for “It’s Alive” included makeup artist Timothy Huizing (“Smokin’ Aces,” “Scary Movie 2,” “Jack & Jill”), as well as such visual effects workers as Simeon Asenov (“Shark Attack 3: Megalodon,” “Drive Angry,” “The Legend of Hercules”), Velichko Ivanov (“Kingsman: The Secret Service,”“Guardians of the Galaxy”), and Silviya Mariyanova (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “The Expendables 3”).
The cinematography for “It’s Alive” was provided by Wedigo Von Schultzendorff, a German director of photography who has worked on films such as “Igby Goes Down” and “Pandorum.”
The producers for “It’s Alive” included Mark Damon (“Mac and Me,” “Monster,” “Orgazmo”), Moshe Diamant (“Timecop,”“Simon Sez,” “Double Team,” “Dark Angel”), Boaz Davidson (“The Wicker Man,” “Mansquito,” “The Iceman”), Danny Dimbort (“The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Rambo,” “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”), and Robert Katz (“Stuck,” “The Ambulance”), among others.
The “It’s Alive” score was contributed by Nicholas Pike, who also composed music for other features, including “Captain Ron” and “C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud.”
The editing of “It’s Alive” was done by James Herbert, who has cut a number of Guy Ritchie films such as “RocknRolla” and “Revolver,” and Patrick McMahon of “The Shining” mini-series and “A Nightmare On Elm Street.”
The cast for “It’s Alive” includes Bijou Phillips (“Almost Famous,” “Choke”), James Murray (“Primeval”), Owen Teale (“Game of Thrones”), and Todd Jensen (“The Mangler”). The collection could generously be called “low-rent,” and honestly be called “weak,” something that is immensely clear from the peripheral performances.
The story of “It’s Alive” centers around two young parents and their newborn child. At the child’s birth, the doctors and nurses are mysteriously murdered during the delivery, with no suspects or apparent motive. As the child becomes rapidly stranger and more violent, the parents are forced to confront the possibility that their baby is a serial killer.
“It’s Alive” was released straight to video by First Look Pictures, but was apparently given a very limited theatrical run specifically in the Philippines. In any case, I would be shocked if it made any money on its estimated $10 million budget.
“It’s Alive” was received very harshly, particularly by fans of the cult classic original. It currently holds a score of 3.5 on IMDb, and a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 6%. Larry Cohen himself went on record saying that the film was “a terrible picture…just beyond awful.”
There frankly isn’t a whole lot positive to say about “It’s Alive.” It features some inexplicably dreadful character and plot writing, which I assume is due to the inexperience of the two primary writers. There are also some awful performances as you get deeper into the accessory cast, such as the E.R. doctor who is slaughtered at the beginning of the film. I will say that Bijou Philips is not terrible, but her character’s writing just doesn’t make any sense. She never seems as disturbed as she should be by the events that happen throughout the film, and takes way too long to descend into panic over the baby’s violent outbursts. The effects overall are pretty cheesy (the baby is both ridiculous and wildly inconsistent), but the film doesn’t particularly look awful from a production standpoint, which is about all I can say for it.
Overall, “It’s Alive” is just way off the mark from what it should have been. It lacks charm and thought, two qualities that distinguish Cohen’s films from most of the rest of the b-horror pack. I’m not sure what happened over the course of the production, but Cohen’s creative lock out seems like it doomed the effort out of the gate. There are a few decent deaths in the film, but the overall experience just isn’t fun or memorable enough to recommend.
Welcome to the newest installment of the Bargain Bin(ge), where I cover used DVD stores from around the country and the various movies I have plundered from them.
Earlier this week, work took me out to fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada. With the limited free time I had, I decided to check out some used media stores in search of DVDs.
I wound up visiting two locations of Zia Record Exchange, a chain of used media stores in the Southwestern states of Arizona and Nevada. This particular segment covers the Eastern Avenue location in Las Vegas, a little ways off the beaten path.
As with the Sahara Ave. location, the Zia on Eastern is very much defined by its ambiance. I will say that it isn’t quite as distinctive as the Sahara location, and that it is a little better spaced out (I think the floorplan may be a bit bigger). This location proved to have an equally impressive movie selection, and plenty of good deals to go around.
As you might expect, I came away with a pretty good haul after spending some time scouring through the bargain bins and shelves. Here’s are the flicks I came home with:
I am a total sucker for old kaiju movies, and these are two of the most ridiculous entries into the infamous “Gamera” franchise. I marathoned all of the classic ones a while back, and I thoroughly recommend checking out the MST3k treatment for “Attack of the Monsters” (“Gamera vs Guiron”).
Here’s a flick I covered as part of the IMDb Bottom 100: “The Beast of Yucca Flats.” It is usually in high consideration for being one of the worst films ever made, and the director, Coleman Francis, is easily one of the most notoriously awful filmmakers in history. Tor Johnson of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” stars in it, making it a sort of perfect storm of awfulness. I recommend checking out the MST3k treatment if you want to watch it, or else it is not a pleasant experience.
“Gamera: Return of the Giant Monsters” is better known as “Gamera vs Gyaos,” and is one of the classics in the “Gamera” franchise. “The Magic Serpent,” on the other hand, seems to be a more obscure kaiju creature feature that leans more towards being a fantasy ninja epic. I’m curious to see how it is, because the few reviews out there about it seem positive.
“It’s Alive” is a cult classic from Larry Cohen, and a movie that I have had a lot of trouble finding on DVD. I’m a pretty big fan of the Cohen stuff I have seen, so this one has been on the top of my “to watch” list for a while now. Also, it is about a ridiculous killer baby. I am totally down with that. It got a remake a few years ago that I have also been meaning to check out. Keep your eyes peeled, because this one is for sure going to be popping up on the blog soon.
“Active Stealth” is a movie that stars Daniel Baldwin of “Car 54, Where Are You?,”“King of the Ants,” and “Vampires.” I think of him as a modern version of Joe Estevez, in that he is related to a famous person that he kind of looks like, and uses the similarities to rack up endless b-movie acting gigs. As for “Active Stealth,” director Fred Olen Ray has over 130 directing credits on b-movies like “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” and “Super Ninja Bikini Babes,” so I have to assume that this is a quality action flick.
Reviews/Trivia of B-Movies, Bad Movies, and Cult Movies.