Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion) – It’s Alive! There’s Only One Thing Wrong With The Davis Baby
by Ben Martin
[Franchise Expansion (or Implosion) is a column that looks at franchises that have new installments or releases forthcoming. In looking at a franchise, each entry in a franchise will be given a review and then be examined as part of the bigger franchise. (i.e., Was this sequel a worthy expansion of this franchise or was it an implosion of sorts?)
The first franchise being reviewed here is Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive Trilogy which has been given a Blu-Ray boxset release. Today, we’re looking at the original IT’S ALIVE!
In my humble opinion, the 1970s was quite simply the strongest decade in film thus far. Every genre was telling unique stories and taking risks. Unlike today, it seemed that film’s focus in the 70s was to make original movies, most of which had artistic integrity. Oddly enough though, that decade also began film franchises in earnest. Sure, the Universal Monsters as well as Hammer horror flicks had spawned more there fair share of sequels, as had James Bond. However, outside of titles mentioned, sequels were largely frowned upon. You see, at that time, dipping back into the proverbial well was considered lazy. That was until The Godfather: Part II (1974). A sequel which not only garnered as much much acclaim as its predecessor; but managed to improve upon it as well. After that, other sequels to prestige films were made such as The Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and Jaws 2 (1978) followed suit in producing second installments. The 70s would also ultimately bore one of the world’s biggest movie franchise and universe’s in Star Wars.
With all that history in mind, it’s fitting that schlock master and writer-director-producer Larry Cohen (Black Caesar) would go on to create the film for which he’s most well known, It’s Alive. As an independent filmmaker, Cohen made his bones with Blaxploitation and over-the-top horror films. With It’s Alive, Cohen decided to tackle one of humanity’s potentially terrifying prospects…childbirth. The film follows Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore (Sharon Farrell) Davis, a middle-aged couple who are expecting their second child any day now. Well, when that birthday finally arrives; horror comes alive! Instead of being a bundle of joy with all his little fingers and toes, the Davis baby is a murderous mutant. Sporting a giant head, bulging eyes, claws, and razor-sharp teeth; this little guy isn’t going to be gracing the labels of any baby food jars. Straight out of his mother’s womb, the infant kills several hospital employees and escapes out into the streets of a small California town. At which point its parents, police, and scientists all race to find the Davis baby before it can do any more damage!
I find It’s Alive to be an exceptional type of exploitation film because it manages to find a satisfying balance in tone. As you no doubt discerned from the plot synopsis, this is a very silly flick, and in turn, it’s a lot of fun. However, having seen the film a few times, I’ve found that this picture has something more on its mind. When it comes to horror films, the best ones are always allegorical. In the case of It’s Alive, there are a couple of allegories at play. The first, of course, is the terror that I don’t doubt comes with childbirth and thereby, parenthood. Prospects that become all the scarier when there are unexpected situations or complications. And while that is the central allegory, Cohen also takes a jab at pharmaceutical companies and scientific-research firms hungry to make a buck, a discovery, or both. In this way, It’s Alive manages to be a rare exploitation horror picture that genuinely utilizes the themes with which it’s working.
Beyond all that though, It’s Alive is a true product of the decade in which it was made. Like many other movies of the era, the cinematography (by Cohen’s frequent cinematographer at the time, Fenton Hamilton) of the one in review is very dark and moody; thus creating an atmosphere for the film. That atmosphere, as mentioned earlier, is then bolstered by the late and legendary composer Bernard Herrmann‘s (Psycho (1960); Taxi Driver) brilliant score. Be warned though; the score does tend to turn into a bit of earworm that will get stuck with you for a week. Sadly, only time will cure such an affliction, as a soundtrack album for the film was never released. And last but not least, there is the creature design of the baby by special and makeup effects master, Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London; Batman Forever.) Sure, the mutant baby does look a little goofy due to the film’s low budget, but in the best way possible as I find the creature’s look only adds to its charm.
In my estimation, It’s Alive only has one real problem. One which also happens to be due to the film being made in the 70s. Frankly, the film is just a little bit of a slow-burn for a premise that’s cheesier than a bag of chips for which the current president should be the mascot. Like many of its contemporaries at the time, It’s Alive is paced in much slower fashion than the movies of today. In the case of this movie, I find the more deliberate pacing to be a bit of a hindrance for some. But, it is by no means a total detriment. Thus, as long as you’re okay with taking in your horror in at a more leisurely pace, this movie is for you. To me, Larry Cohen and crew brought there best to the table with the film in review. Ultimately, It’s Alive is a dark and fun ride with a mutated infant. All you need do as a viewer to enjoy it is suspend your disbelief!
Now, of course, this first film did spawn a franchise; just as it did its antagonist. After a slow theatrical roll-out, the film was given a nationwide release in 1975. In no time, it became a hit, and Warner Bros. offered Cohen the chance to make a sequel. Luckily, for all parties involved, the filmmaker had an idea in mind. Such is evidenced by the fact that a sequel’s set-up at the end of this picture. Having never seen the follow-up, It’s Alive 2: It Lives Again; I’m curious to know how the stakes are raised for the sequel. I’ll be covering It Lives Again next time around to see how it developed this property into a franchise!
Once again, the good folks over at Shout/Scream Factory are whom we have to thank for this release. It’s Alive is part of the trilogy box-set, which contains all three of the pictures in this series. But, for the purposes of this review, let’s just look at It’s Alive itself. As with most Scream Factory releases, this film has been given an absolutely beautiful 1080p HD transfer. Though seeing as the film was given a 2K scan from the original negative; that’s to be expected. As a result, the cinematography I referred to earlier looks the best it ever has. Those darkly-lit hues of cigarette stained browns and greens really pop on this disc! In addition, the audio was given a full audio upgrade and mix. And as with most of this companies releases, each film features reversible cover art. One side featuring the theatrical poster and reverse featuring a lesser-used poster art. Now let’s take a look at the special features:
*Audio Commentary with Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen – If you’ve ever listened to a film commentary you know, that it can be a real hit or miss. Heck, some of them could bore the paint off a wall. Thankfully though, Mr. Cohen’s is anything but that. Not only is entertaining; it’s very informative. I was shocked when listening to the commentary to find out just how much creative control the film’s auteur had. Cohen knows how to entertain visually and audibly.
*Cohen’s Alive: Looking Back At The It’s Alive Films Featuring Interviews With Writer/Producer/Director Larry Cohen, Actors James Dixon, Michael Moriarty And Laurene Landon, And More… – Running about twenty minutes in length, this a talking heads featurette. Like the commentary featured on the disc, Cohen’s Alive proves to be informative; particularly since you hear from other crew and cast members, as well as the writer-director-producer. However, I will say much of the information and anecdotes from Cohen are redundant as they also appeared on the commentary track.
It’s Alive At The Nuart: The 40th Anniversary Screening With Larry Cohen – As you, no doubt deduced from the title; this particular feature is just what it sounds like. That being a brief Q&A between Cohen and a moderator after an anniversary screening of the film. Frankly, this interview is decent; but ultimately a little dull. It provides no new information of note, and the moderator has little-to-no charisma.
Theatrical Trailer – If you’ve read any of my other Blu-Ray reviews, you know that I’m a mark for vintage marketing. This trailer is an example of such; featuring ominous narration and just a montage of scenes.
TV Spots – Here you’re treated to three TV spots. All of which show little to nothing; but do a great job of gaining your interest.
Radio Spots – Ah, trailers for the ears; they sadly aren’t something that movie marketing is concerned with these days. As such, I found them to be an old-school treat.
Still Gallery – Lastly, this disc features a still gallery. Within the said gallery, there are around 40 stills and behind-the-scenes photos; all of which I enjoyed looking through. However, I do wish the gallery had been done in a slideshow format so as to feature the film’s score.
If you’re a fan of this film or just the horror genre in general; I recommend picking this Blu-Ray up! Granted, this isn’t a packed Special Edition or anything. Thus, if you’re looking for a long-form making-of documentary, you won’t find it on this disc. But frankly, this is probably the best home video release the film will ever get. On a related note, the box-set represents the first Warner Bros. title licensed to Scream Factory. As a collector, I hope this sells well so that we can get more collaborative releases from the two companies!
THE IT’S ALIVE TRILOGY BOX-SET IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY-RAY EVERYWHERE!
Join me next time for the second installment in Franchise Expansion (Or Implosion): It’s Alive 2: It Lives Again!