Archive for October 20, 2011

Sooner or later it always seems to come back to Larry Cohen around here, doesn’t it?

And hell, why not? For well over tow decades (closer to three, really), he’s been at the forefront of two of the more venerable B-movie categories that fall frequently under our purview, namely horror and blaxploitation. And while his undisputed best piece of work in any field is the Fred “The Hammer” Williamson starring vehicle Black Caesar, his finest foray into the horror field (in my own humble opinion, at any rate) is 1974’s retelling of the Frankenstein myth (only this time with a baby), It’s Alive.

The set-up is as simple as you’d probably expect — ready-to-pop Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) heads to the hospital with her husband, well-to-do advertising executive Frank (John P. Ryan, listed here simply as John Ryan) to give birth, but when the baby comes out it turns out to be a hideous, hugely-fanged mutant with an insatiable appetite for blood that first kills everyone in the delivery room (except mommy) and then escapes into the night. When an unscrupulous TV news reporter actually has the gall to broadcast the names of the parents of this freak of nature, things get even worse for Frank as he finds himself out of work due to the bad publicity the manhunt (or should that be kidhunt) for his offspring brings to his Madison Avenue firm.

Things, obviously, aren’t all that they seem (and they seem pretty strange to say the least), for while It’s Alive preys deliciously on then-contemporary fears of genetic mutation as a result of pollution and what have you, there’s obviously more to the whole thing than just accidental enviro-poisoning going on here, since the Davis family’s eldest child, 11-year-old Christopher, is perfectly normal.

Truth be told, though, while there’s a dark (of sorts) secret at the heart of this film, and the gore effects are pretty darn good for their time (and still hold up pretty well against some of today’s lower-budget efforts), it’s really the tow lead performances that carry this film, with Farrell’s Lenore going through the stages of slow-burn total breakdown, while Ryan’s Frank becomes a mask of steely resolve as he comes, and then sticks, to the conclusion that his own flesh and blood must be destroyed for the good of both society at large as well as, frankly, himself and his family.

It’s Alive is available on DVD from Warner Brothers in a 3-pack set that also includes its two somewhat-less-than-stellar sequels (it was also remade for the straight-to-video market in 2008, but the less about that particular fiasco the better). The remastered widescreen picture and stereo soundtrack are both great, and it includes the trailer and a pretty solid commentary track from writer-director Cohen. Given that the whole set is usually available at bargain-basement prices, it’s definitely a worthwhile purchase.

I’m not going to tell you that It’s Alive is a classic, or even anything of the sort, but like all Cohen films, it has modest aspirations and exceeds them at every turn. From a solid plot to genuinely terrific lead performances to effectively atmospheric cinematography and lighting to a fair dose of intrigue to a non-heavy-handed exploration of contemporary sociopolitical issues to a nicely- inflated body count to extremely-competently-executed effects, it delivers a lot more than it promises and ends up being a hell of a lot more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be.

I don’t know about you, but for me, that all adds up to a very enjoyable evening in front of the TV, particularly at this time of year.

And speaking of more-or-less bloodless old-school monster movies, in 2010 the fine folks at Code Red DVD finally got around to releasing the long-sought-after 1978 cheapie (as in total budget of around $100,000) Slithis (alternately titled Spawn Of The Slithis, which is more technically accurate I suppose since “slithis” is the name of the nuclear/toxic good that creates the much-moster in this movie and not the actual name of the creature itself  (which, incidentally, has no name) but has the unwarranted effect of making folks think this might be a sequel to a previous movie called Slithis when, of course, it isn’t). While the DVD is pretty much a no-frills affair that features a decently remastered widescreen print (although it’s still pretty grainy to the extent that it’s even hard to make out just exactly what the hell is happening in a lot of the scenes filmed at night) and perfectly acceptable mono sound, some extras beyond the inclusion of the trailer for the film and a selection of other Code red previews would have been nice, especially since writer-director Stephen Traxler insists that this thing made millions worldwide and he never saw a dime thanks to a rip-off distribution deal he signed in desperation.

But I guess it’s the thought that counts, and I’m not one to complain about any world in which this now-obscure title is even available at all, so I won’t.

Traxler’s little opus takes place in the quaint confines of 70s-era Venice, California, and to be honest it’s this atmospheric locale, complete with its hippies (and aging ex-hippies), winos, vagrants, and general weirdos, as well as the director’s innate familiarity with it, that makes Slithis the joy to watch that it is. Certainly there’s even less gore on display here (notice the “PG” rating on the poster, for gosh sakes!), and the monster itself is more crudely realized, than in the recent release Creature, which I maligned to no end less than 24 hours ago. But whereas Creature never really makes effective use of its (at this point done to death in horror) Louisiana bayou setting, the town of Venice, with its canals, public parks, and beaches is itself the most compelling character in this tale of Three-Mile-Island-inspired anti-nuke scaremongering (not that your host is a fan of nuclear energy — anything but, the stuff is seriously bad news — I’m just trying to put the plot in some historical context).

So anyway, in case you hadn’t guessed it, the plot here revolves around a leak at the local nuke plant that infect some swamp mud teeming with unsavory bacterial life and the end result is a mud-encrusted beast that does what all these guys do and goes on a (completely gore-free in this case) killing spree. That’s all you need to know because honestly that’s all there is to it.

I’m sure at the time, if I’d been doing these armchair movie reviews like I am now (I was a little young for it back then, thank you very much), I would have written Slithis off as being a dull, hackneyed cash-in on contemporary news stories. But time changes everything, as they say, and Slithis, despite being obvious,  overwrought, hopelessly unsubtle, and all the rest stands out as a fun-filled nostalgic romp to a bygone era when our societal worries seemed to make a lot more sense. In short, Slithis hasn’t gotten any better over time per se, but the passing of time has made Slithis seem better. If you can get your head around that (and it’s not that tough, is it?).Plus there’s the fact that Slithis pretty much represents the tail end of the era when guys in rubber suits could still be played off as being (in this particular instance even vaguely) scary. So for all its attempts to be contemporary as hell, it was actually verging on relic status right from the get-go, and that sort of adds another layer of, dare I say it, charm to the whole proceedings.

So what the hell, give Slithis a go,  I think you’ll find it a fun slice of celluloid nostalgia.