Nobody boasts a filmography quite like Larry Cohen, an exploitation forefather who carved an eccentric niche in Hollywood for decades, toiling about on low-budget genre films, often smuggling sharp social commentary every step of the way. Even though he never set out to associate with a particular genre, he’s become a cult icon nonetheless, responsible for some of horror’s most indelible offerings, including God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, and even Maniac Cop (among many others). And then there’s It’s Alive, Cohen’s low-budget shocker that have birth to one of horror’s most delightfully strange franchises. It’s also one that’s flown a bit under the radar for decades, as it feels like maybe we’ve all underestimated just how oddly terrific these three films are. The rare horror trilogy where each film offers something genuinely new, the It’s Alive brood is ripe for rediscovery, especially now that Scream Factory has released a deluxe box set collecting all three films on Blu-ray for the first time.
It’s Alive (1974)
Cohen’s first proper horror movie doesn’t feel like an arrival as much as it’s a straight-up detonation. Planted right in the middle of an increasingly nihilistic streak in American cinema, It’s Alive was yet another battering on a disillusioned nation’s sensibilities. Would nothing—including the comforting confines of the nuclear family—be sacred anymore? With It’s Alive, Cohen definitively answers in the negative: no, nothing is safe, not even the miracle of birth itself, here warped into a nightmarish ordeal involving a mutant baby.
Such a logline implies schlock run amok, but what’s striking about It’s Alive is just how genuinely unnerving and disturbing the film is: this is a story about real people—or at least authentic ones—who have their lives upended by an inexplicable turn of events. The Davis family is the picture of domestic tranquility: Lenore (Sharon Farrell) has another bun in the oven, and devoted husband Frank (John P. Ryan) is a standout at the PR firm where he lives. Their son Christopher is a good kid, who barely musters a fuss when his dad rouses him from his sleep with the news that his mom has gone into labor. Because he’s a loving son, he wants to go to the hospital, only to be rebuked—he’ll have to stay with a family friend, his dad reminds him with that signature, idiosyncratic banter that marks so much of Cohen’s work. An immediate lived-in quality that comes across here, effectively grounding It’s Alive in a believable, familiar milieu that Cohen turns inside-out when Lenore gives birth to an utter monstrosity that leaves room full of doctors, nurses, and attendants splattered all over the delivery room floor.
But again, It’s Alive is more genuinely concerned with the human fallout here. Even if he can’t completely resist his provocateur impulses, Cohen explores the haunted, broken psyche of the Davis clan, here reduced to walking husks of themselves in a perpetual state of shock and denial. Frank returns to work, oblivious of his infamy once his story becomes national news, leading to his ironic termination: it’s bad PR, after all, to have a rep embroiled in a controversy. Meanwhile, poor Lenore does the only thing that comes natural to her by reverting to her roles as a doting wife and, yes, mother when her son inexplicably finds his way home. Farrell is outstanding in a role that finds her making questionable but completely understandable decisions when Lenore struggles to simply disregard her child as being, well, her child, so she puts up the front of a fragile sitcom wife whose façade is in danger of crumbling at any moment.
Not that anyone asks her about it, of course. For a film centered on childbirth, It’s Alive is surprisingly fraught with masculine anxieties, as Frank is shouldered with reckoning with the creature’s existence. It’s he who’s surrounded by legions of other, equally fidgety men anxious to do something about this situation, and he’s all too eager to sign over his child’s life to a group of scientists (pointedly, Lenore tiptoes down the stairs just as he’s doing this, highlighting the contrast between them). Where Lenore is genuinely concerned for their child, the men are only concerned about how their possible role in its creation might somehow destroy them: representatives from both the pharmaceutical industry and the government fret over how they might be complicit in the creation of this mutant.
Meanwhile, Frank is certainly mostly worried about his own status and how his life will be adversely affected now that he’s lost his job and has somehow inherently failed to be a father. A scene earlier in the film where he and a group of other would-be fathers chat in the hospital waiting room paints a revealing portrait of the American male on edge, fussing over everything from their jobs to fears of pollution, a scattershot conversation that allows Cohen to take aim at various contemporary anxieties. While none of these particular fears emerges as the definitive explanation for the Davis’s mutant child, it doesn’t matter: what’s most striking here is the palpable fear of men having their masculinity unravelling before them. Frank’s fears come to a head just after he’s signed over his baby’s life, prompting him to muse aloud about the story of Frankenstein, particularly how he now identifies with Victor: he, too, considers himself a monstrous man who has given birth to a hideous creation that didn’t ask for its twisted existence.
It’s a reckoning with the notion that perhaps there’s something in the DNA of men—not mankind, but men—that has produced this bizarre mutation. As such, It’s Alive becomes a parable for the modern American male anxiously navigating this uneasy new world where he must take responsibility in his complicity. The final act is a heartbreaking turn of events wherein Frank realizes he must care for this child, no matter how monstrous it might appear to others. No longer will a gruff, false pretense of hardened masculinity suffice, as the final, haunting moments of It’s Alive suggest that a tendering, nurturing spirit is more vital. It’s essentially the same lesson Victor Frankenstein himself had to learn, and, like that character’s cinematic counterpart, Frank watches as a bloodthirsty mob—this time in the form of a police squadron—dispenses cruel justice on his child, bringing the film to a haunting, tragic end.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Cohen picture if it weren’t also quite peculiar. As haunting and unsettling as it is, It’s Alive is also laced with its director’s signature, inelegant blend of dark humor (a match cut to an ice cream truck bearing the words “stop children” in the middle of a manhunt for the creature is brilliant), schlock, and on-the-nose commentary. Anything aiming to be disreputable should feel a bit inelegant, though, and it results in the personal, grungy texture that defines so much of Cohen’s work—there’s always something a bit rickety about his productions that keeps them pure, even when they boast the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Daniel Pearl, and Rick Baker, all of whom elevate the film with their respective talents. An appreciable layer of scum and sleaze remains, though, leaving you with an apt sensation: like the Davis baby, something’s just not right about It’s Alive, a truly astonishing film that shouldn’t even exist, let alone be released by a major studio that would go on to finance two sequels.
In addition to boasting a new 2K restoration, the first film’s disc also features a pair of newly-produced supplements. The first is “Cohen’s Alive,” a 19-minute retrospective on the entire franchise featuring various key players, including Cohen himself, film historians, and even Michael Moriarty. It’s a scattershot mini-doc filled with random anecdotes, such as Cohen’s recollection of creating the opening titles and his contacting Bernard Herrmann to do the score. He also recounts the original film’s unlikely success story, which started with It’s Alive floundering about as a low-profile picture on double and triple bills across America's drive-in circuit for years. Following some success overseas and a regime change at Warner Brothers, the film was impossibly put in wider distribution three years after its initial release, something Cohen notes had never quite happened before (nor will it ever happen again given the home video market). The sequels are represented well enough here, though it’s fair to say Cohen and company do gloss over them a bit, particularly the first sequel.
A 13-minute Q&A at L.A.’s Nuart theater accompanies the documentary, as Cohen fields questions from both a moderator and an audience in discussing It’s Alive. There’s a little bit of crossover here in terms of material, but Cohen does dig a little deeper into his anecdotes, at one point revealing that he was shooting It’s Alive concurrently with Hell Up in Harlem, much to the dismay of his editor. If nothing else, these two supplements will have you appreciating Cohen’s insane hustle as a director, writer, and producer, as his tireless efforts are obvious throughout these extra features.
Cohen’s commentary from the previous DVD release is also carried over along with radio and TV spots, a trailer, and a stills gallery. Of the three discs, this one is the most packed, which is hardly surprising given the first film’s stature as, well, the first, landmark film in the franchise.
It’s Alive II: It Lives Again (1978)
To that end, It’s Alive II is an almost equally remarkable sequel, at least in the sense that Cohen plotted a genuinely organic follow-up to the original film. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where It Lives Again would simply retrace the original film’s steps by featuring the exploits of another family’s ordeal with its mutant offspring—especially since the first film ended with the revelation that another such child had been born in Seattle. But instead of asking “how can we redo the first film and make a cheap buck?”. Cohen asks “what happens next?”
In doing so, he crafts the next logical chapter in the tale, one that allows John Ryan to return as Frank Davis, who has dedicated his life to helping other couples doomed to share his fate. He’s actually part of an entire resistance group that forms when the government creates a shady cabal tasked with tracking down mutant children and terminating them on-site, so Cohen imagines a realistic escalation in scope here: not only are here multiple babies, but there also multiple responses to this development. Frank and his group see these children as the next evolutionary step, while more radical government elements consider them a harbinger for the apocalypse. Caught in the middle of these warring factions are Eugene and Jody Scott (Frederic Forest & Kathleen Lloyd), who encounter the same moral dilemma as their predecessors: just what should be done with a child that’s something of a precious abomination?
Sequels rarely feel as natural as It Lives Again, which retains its familiarity without feeling like a complete repeat of the previous film. Now that that this bizarre scenario has become part of a lived-in world, it allows Cohen to explore the concept's conspiratorial potential. More of a paranoiac thriller than a straight-up monster movie, It Lives Again thrives on twists, turns, and outright betrayals as the government tracks down the trio of babies in Frank’s care. It’s actually a little looser than its predecessor since it fidgets around with various characters, allowing viewers to soak in a twisted world where these aberrations have become the norm. This means spending time with Frank and the group of scientists dedicated to researching them, here realized with a nigh-absurd situation where the babies are housed in a remote house, where they’re cared for and theoretically raised into functioning members of society—if they live long enough, of course.
The Scotts aren’t lost in the picture, though, and It Lives Again eventually re-centers itself by exploring the marital turmoil in the wake of this bizarre birth. These two are appreciably different from the Davises in the previous film, resulting in a different vibe this time around. Latent resentments between the two begin to boil to the surface, especially once Jody’s mother—who has never cared for Gene—enters the picture to stir up bitterness. Once the film does begin to feel like a repeat during the third act—wherein government officials attempt to hunt down and murder the escaped Scott child—it at least takes on a different tenor. This time, it feels like more of a home invasion, with the Scotts holed up in a home, waiting for their child to return so they can ambush it.
There’s an argument to be made that the last third of the film doesn’t quite gel with the rest—it suddenly feels exactly like the obligatory sequel the rest of the film resists being. Plus, anyone who does crave gratuitous monster movie nonsense will still be left a little underwhelmed: the trio of babies is quickly reduced to a solo act that roams the hills and briefly threatens a nearby birthday party before Cohen diverts to the climax. I’m split on it: on the one hand, muting the schlock value is in keeping with the film’s more philosophical bent, but, on the other hand, you do want a little bit more from a film whose tagline proudly boasts about there being three mutant babies this time around.
At any rate, it is inarguable that It Lives Again is just an empty retread churned out by the Hollywood sequel factory that was gearing up once again during the late-70s. Rather, it’s a vital, personal follow-up that sees Cohen entering the arena of abortion politics with an appropriately clumsy, inelegant allegory that can’t make a definitive statement one way or the other in such a messy debate. At the end of the day, you sense that maybe everyone involved is completely fucked and won’t be left unscarred by it: fittingly, Gene Scott closes the loop by the end here by assuming Frank Davis’s role as a man haunted by his decision to terminate his child. While it was possibly the morally right thing to do, it’s not an easy thing to live with, a sort of stunning, nuanced approach for a movie about monstrous, mutant children.
Like the first film, both sequels also feature new 2K scans; however, only Cohen’s audio commentary and some promotional materials (a trailer, a TV spot, and a stills gallery) appear as supplements on this disc.
It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1978)
I’m not sure anyone would make the same case for the third It’s Alive film, though, at least when it comes to referring to it as “haunting.” No, when Cohen resurrected this property after a near-decade long hiatus, he did so with the intention of exploring its silliness with a bizarre sequel—which is to say he still wasn’t just interested in retracing his previous steps.
You might even find some of the previous films’ nuance lurking here, too, as it picks up their thread in a natural fashion. All these years later, the mutant babies’ right to life still hasn’t been quite settled. However, one father, Stephen Jarvis (Michael Moriarty), attempts to do so in a court of law, where he makes the argument that his malformed son is only aggressive because society treats it with hostility. Upon winning the case, he secures a fate for his child and those like it: rather than being exterminated, they’ll be quarantined to a remote island, where they’ll be free to live without human interference. Naturally, the humans can’t leave well enough alone, as various groups seek out to destroy or perform research on the island, both to equally disastrous results.
Both a natural extension and a radical departure from the previous two films, Island of the Alive is my favorite of the two sequels, if only because it finds Cohen just letting it rip. After Warner Brothers approached him with an offer to produce a film for their home video division, Cohen lined up his shot and took it, unleashing A Return to Salem’s Lot and this, a (somehow) even more unhinged take on his own It’s Alive mythos. There’s a sense that he’s emptying the tank, as he concocts a wild, largely action-packed story that finds different excuses to stage carnage. After that thoughtful courtroom scene, Cohen looks to settle more deeply into this screwy universe, eventually arriving at a natural question: “what would it look like if this mutant species were allowed to thrive and grow up?” Perhaps predictably, the answer involves ripping shit up whenever someone dares to cross their path.
Granted, the aim is perhaps a smidge lower this time around: it’s fair to say It’s Alive III is the schlockiest of the trio, and the one where Cohen completely indulges his absurdist whims. This is most obviously reflected in the presence of Moriarty, Cohen’s favorite trickster god, a positively impish figure whose eccentricities threaten to upend the entire film. As was often the case under Cohen’s guidance, Moriarty breezes through these proceedings with an unconventional mixture of brashness and sincerity. No one is capable of convincing you that he’s fucking around and fully invested all at once quite like Moriarty, and that holds true here: at any given moment, he’s either breaking balls or pleading his case to a woman who wants nothing to do with him after learning his identity, and he’s a natural fit for both.
And if Island of the Alive has anything to say along the lines of its predecessors, it’s certainly found in those brief moments of Jarvis’s emasculation. A scene with a prostitute upends the usual gender dynamics, as the woman shames Jarvis for his sexual history, insisting that every woman he comes into contact with should be warned about him in an exchange that also preys upon the era’s AIDS panic. Like the men in the franchise before him, Jarvis finds himself in strange, turbulent waters, where he’s been burdened with a mark of shame. Eventually, he attempts to profit off of it with a memoir, only to see it backfire when the book outs his child’s mother (Karen Black), opening the door for her extortion later in the movie. Had Cohen been slightly more committed to exploring their relationship, Island of the Alive might even ascend to the ranks of the original film; however, that’s not exactly the case, as their strange bond is played mostly for uncomfortable laughs towards the end, when they resign themselves to their bizarre fate.
On the whole, Island of the Alive is more humorous and outrageous than its predecessors, with Cohen opting to string together more schlock sequences in lieu of lingering over haunted, anguished characters. Now fully grown, the mutant children wreak more havoc than ever before, whether they’re eviscerating the island interlopers, hacking up rapists (a scene that notably upholds the franchise’s moral compass), or even reducing an entire boat’s crew to a pile of viscera and severed limbs. A wild, outwardly bonkers affair that takes the franchise’s latent absurdity and gleefully runs with it, the film is perhaps best summarized with a diversion that has Jarvis captured by the Cuban government. I mean, there are odd sequel directions, and then there’s “Michael Moriarty is detained by Fidel Castro in It’s Alive III.” Bless you, Larry Cohen.
The final film in the trilogy is graced with a stills gallery, a commentary with Cohen, and a newly produced 10-minute interview with effects artist Steve Neill. In the interview, Neill describes how his time working with Rick Baker led to him taking the reins on this third film. His discussion is brief but packed with information, including minutiae about the effect’s designs and what it’s like to work with a breathlessly energetic prodigy like Cohen. By the time you’ve witnessed all three of these films, you’ll be hard pressed to argue against such an evaluation—he might be a mad genius, but he’s a genius all the same.
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