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Thursday, October 10, 2013

It's Alive (1969)

In the autumn of 1974 a sci-fi/horror movie was released with the title It's Alive. This 1974 film was about a monster baby. There was another film, shot in 1969 with the exact same title, but an entirely different story. Before reviewing the '74 film, this is a quick digression to review of the '69 film. 1969's It's Alive (IA) would normally fall outside of the range of this study, as it appears to have been made for television, with no theatrical release. Aside from clarifying the differences between the two films of the same name, the '69 film is of some interest because it was produced and directed by Larry Buchanan -- responsible for many remakes of low-budget 50s sci-fi. The story itself may be based on a short story by Richard Matheson (of "I Am Legend" fame), with the screen adaptation (most likely) by Buchanan himself. No writers are listed in the credits. A telling omission, perhaps.

Super-Quick Plot Synopsis
Norman and Leilla are a middle aged married couple from the big city, taking a cross country driving vacation. As they drive through the back roads of the Ozarks, they run low on gas. They ask a semi-random stranger, Wayne, for directions. He sends them to a farm house he saw a few miles up the road. That house belongs to Greely, a big creepy man who keeps a roadside attraction of snakes, etc. He invites them to wait in the house for a fuel truck due to arrive any time now. While they wait (and ignore warning hints), Greely invites them to see his prize critter. They go down in a cave. Greely locks them in a caged room. Greely knocked out Wayne earlier and threw him in the room too. They learn that they are to be food for "it". During one attempt to get out, the rubber-suit-monster "gets" Norman. Bella, the oppressed captive housekeeper tells her backstory of capture and cruelty. She tries to help them escape. She brings some of Wayne's dynamite. Despite drugged coffee, they get out. Greely catches them again. He shoots Bella, but she lit the dynamite fuse. The disloyal creature goes for Greely. The explosion causes a cave-in. Wayne and Leilla escape but decide that no one will believe them. End shot on the bubbling pool. The End?

Why is this movie fun?
IA falls into that category of movies "so bad, they're good." Bill Thurman, as they creepy Greely, plays his part so over-the-top that it's amusing to watch. The actual monster is almost a parody (if Buchanan had not been serious) of the 50s style of rubber suit monsters.

Cultural Connection
Roadside Attractions -- The setting -- a former roadside attraction in "the middle of nowhere" -- harkens to a bygone day before interstate highways. When the countryside came right up to the edge of the narrow highway, it was easy for any mom-and-pop outfit to offer weary travelers some diversion, or souvenirs, or a quick snack. The venue did not have to be high-class, and usually wasn't. It just needed to be novel enough to pique interest. Concrete dinosaurs, cave tours, exotic animals -- the road-weary got a rest, stretched their legs and a distraction. The venue owner got a few bucks. Everyone was happy. As eulogized in Pixar's Cars, the interstate highway system doomed the roadside attraction. No one could get close to the highway. Rest stops became state-managed banalities. Legs still get stretched, and snacks consumed, but the novelty -- the sense of discovery or wonder -- is missing.

Some Filler Added -- TV movies needed to be specific lengths. Theatrical release films were often too long, so non-essential footage was cut. Other times the story wasn't quite long enough. In those cases, filler was added to pad out the run time. IA has several of these paddings. There are long, but pointless, bits of dashboard-cam as someone drives along winding back roads. Viewers get to see people walk down long flights of stairs -- all the way down. Poor Bella rocks in her chair and we get to see rocker-cam shots of her room going up and down, up and down. Buchanan must be given some credit for trying to sneak his padding in through a variety of means.

Cheap Thrills -- The television market continued to grow (whereas the theater market continued to decline), such that more and more movies were being produced directly for television with no theatrical release planned. Television was assuming the role that second-feature drive-ins had been serving. So, it is fairly natural that off-hours TV programming would assume the ethos of late-50s, early-60s B films. The twist was that "cheap TV" had even lower budgets than "cheap film."

Paleo-Blaster -- Wayne (Tommy Kirk) starts out as just the random stranger with a jeep, but we later learn that he's a paleontologist -- who pokes around backwoods Arkansas alone in a jeep. Handily, Wayne's career allows for some science-y talk about prehistoric creatures and suspended animation, etc. etc. Especially handy for the plot, is the little known fact that roving paleontologists regularly pack sticks of dynamite. Wayne may have been new to paleo-blasting, however. The wad of sticks he planned to blow the jail door with was also enough to cause the caverns to collapse. Paleontology is a risky career.

Short Mourning -- Granted, Norman is written as a total jerk, so no one feels bad that the monster gets him first. What is somewhat amusing is how fast his widow copes with her loss. Just hours later (if that), she's making smiley eyes at Wayne. "How awful about Norman...but I never really thought about being the wife of a paleontologist...." Leilla was taking her tragic loss pretty well.

Monster Redux -- To keep production costs very low, the monster costume was recycled from an earlier cheapy movie: Creature of Destruction ('67). This prior film was another of Buchanan's cheapies for Azalea Pictures. It was another of his remakes of 50s B films. In this case, The She-Creature from 1956. The '67 film did not attempt to make the monster feminine, but a sort of budget gill man. In IA, Buchanan does a workman-like job of trying to build suspense for his recycled monster. That is, he does not (as in Octoman show his monster even before the opening credits. However, he doesn't attempt disguise his monster with any mysterious shadow shots, or tight shots of a wet claw, etc. Buchanan just has his rubber suit monster pop his head up from behind the rocks. "Hi there." It could be that Buchanan thought the costume's snaggle-toothed, oogle-eyed face was impressive enough for a full reveal.

Bottom line? IA is almost painfully low-budget, suffering most of the usual pitfalls of cheap B films. Unless one likes so-bad-they're-good films, it is probably not worth much effort to find it. This review is mostly to document that Buchanan's 1969 film is not (at all) the same story as the 1974 film of the same name, by Larry Cohen.


Rick Lucey said...

This was one of those films I saw as a kid and for years after kept trying to find again or even find out if I imagined watching it. I knew the basics of a couple in rural area and the crazy dude having the woman get some dinner and when it is uncovered a rat or mouse is on the plate. Heck I though he was creepier than the creature in the cave. About 4-5 years ago I did finally find this film on a public domain type library. I was amazed that the film was called IT'S ALIVE. It was so surreal to watch it as an adult and it really stuck or parts of it did in my little kid mind. The Internet does really contain much of our childhood memories.

Nightowl said...

Hi Rick,

Thanks for the comment. Yes, it's kinda funny what sticks in young viewers' minds. For instance, the only part of the original Godzilla that stuck in my young mind was when he looked through the woman's apartment window. That fostered a dread of looking at windows at night, for fear of seeing Godzilla's big eye. When watching the film as an adult, it was surprising how trivial that scene was to the whole movie. But, that's what stuck.

Glad the internet found your movie.

Unknown said...

Like Rick, I saw this on TV one when I was a kid (back in the early '80s) but couldn't remember what it was called. Besides Billy Thurman's over-the-top performance and the utterly silly-looking rubber monster, what always stuck with me was the opening narration about how the Devil kissing his wife makes it rain when the sun is out. I also had no idea that Bill Thurman also played one of the air traffic controllers in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my all time favorite films.

Unknown said...

I'm watching it right now on the Comet channel! I've never seen this trashy gem and am a fan of Larry Buchanan with The Exotic Ones being my favorite.
Perfect saturday afternoon hangover movie. The narration is priceless!

Also, I was lucky to see the 1974 IA in the theater as a kid!