Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

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…or S.U.B.S. for short. Fiona coined this phrase to describe the way the killer babies kept popping up in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. We had rented the first film in the series on VHS from the late lamented Alphabet Video in Bruntsfield, years and years ago, and been impressed by (1) leading man John P. Ryan, who brings far more commitment and credibility than the monster baby movie would seem to deserve, and (2) Bernard Herrmann’s score, which seems to come from a different, better era/film.

Cohen has a tendency to cast well and then not give his actors time to get it right, but at least he does pick out good people. Ryan returns in the second film, where Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd take over the leading parts — talented actors, as you’d know if you saw them elsewhere, but struggling with the material and tending to over-hype the emotions — too many scenes feel like promising rehearsals.

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Une Etrange Aventure de…

We also get, improbably, Eddie Constantine as a porridge-faced obstetrician, Cohen fave James Dixon, the only actor in all three films, as a cop with Donald Trump hair, and veteran John Marley, who is completely authoritative and nails every moment he’s given — thereby making everything else seem even more unbelievable.

The mutant rugrat is no better in film two than it was in film one — Rick Baker famously complained that Cohen sprang the project on him with no prep time, promised to not show the creature (an immobile sculpture) except for “flashes,” and then kept inventing new shots to showcase it. He also apparently suggested making a baby costume for his cat, which Baker balked at, so Cohen suggested using a chicken. “But chickens have two legs. Babies crawl on all fours.” “OK, two chickens! And maybe they’d fight!” (This story may have grown in the telling.)

***

Sidenote — on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they apparently experimented with putting an orangutan on rollerskates to simulate an alien visitor. It didn’t come off. Undeterred, George Lucas attempted to cast a monkey as Yoda, but couldn’t quite get the effect he wanted and settled for a shit muppet. Only the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica seem to have gone all the way and put a chimp in a weird Honey Monster/bondage costume to impersonate some cyborg space pet.

At this stage, I would be unsurprised to learn that E.T. was planned as a marmot on stilts, or that Orangey the cat from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s was set to be the original Chewbacca. But I have no definite information as to these theories which I have just made up.

Star Wars Yoda monkey

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In the end, there’s the sculpture, plus a mask and glove for closeups, and the keeping-the-monster-unseen strategy, stretched as far as it can go, comes off as cheap rather than Lewtonesque.

The second film attempts to “surpass” the first by throwing in a couple more killer sprogs, but the original is still dead so the title should really be SOME MORE ITS ARE ALIVE or IT DIES AGAIN or something. Cohen’s other saving grace is his politics, which sadly don’t get that much of an airing here. The third film goes a little further but flounders in a welter of bad effects work and bad story ideas ~

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The casting coups this time are Karen Black (not in it that much) and Michael Moriarty, who seems curiously miscast in the role of an actor. As a no-hope lounge singer in Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, I thought he was great value. I reminded Fiona that his piano-bar noodlings formed a major part of the soundtrack of that flying lizard police procedural, and she was startled at the memory. It was such a bold choice. “I wonder if he’ll sing this time?” And moments later, aboard a yacht bound for the ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, he launches into a rousing rendition of The Skye Boat Song, in Scots brogue, no less, which goes on for an uncomfortably long time and is very, very funny.

Elsewhere, things are dreadful: a bunch of the babies grow into adult-sized monsters within five years, but still have giant baby heads because I guess a redesign was going to be too expensive. Karen Black narrowly escapes gang rape by punk rockers (a very real social problem in Florida in 1987, I’m sure). Moriarty has a run in with the Cuban secret service. A bizarre post-nuclear family happy ending is contrived that makes no sense — we are supposed to feel hopeful as our heroes, who are international celebrities, flee the authorities with a mutant baby in a hot car.

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The biggest problem, for me, is that Cohen is really terrible at filming stuff — his coverage is erratic and often actually incomplete, missing shots he can’t do without to achieve coherent continuity. At other times he uses more shots than he needs, and they’re almost never the RIGHT shots. Even the few stop motion shots in the third film are oddly selected, very brief and usually showing the baby from behind, so we can admire its muscular latex buttocks but get little sense of threat, unless we’re meant to be scared it’ll do a toxic poo. Which is something a serious mutant baby movie would have to tackle, come to think of it.

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13 Responses to “Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome”

  1. Cohen really IS all about concept over execution. So much so in fact that Phone Booth, scripted by Cohen, is the unspeakable Joel Schumacher’s best film.

    Cohen’s best, IMO is Q — a love letter to New York like no other.

  2. I love It’s Alive (I saw it at the NFT once, wonderfully), but even at his best, Cohen’s coverage is astonishingly bad – there’s a scene in IA! I used to use when telling film students about Crossing The Line, because it Crosses The Line so hilariously badly.

    I owned the other two on VHS but all I can recall about either is that yacht scene. Oh god that yacht scene.

  3. Aaron Graham Says:

    Interestingly, James Dixon also wrote the novelization for IT LIVES AGAIN.

  4. Q is certainly like nothing else.

    I hear good things about Bone and The Ambulance and I’m curious about the blaxploitation films.

    Let me know what the crossing the line scene is, Paul, so I can look it up without re-watching the whole film!

    There’s a great, disastrous bit of line-crossing in the celebrated mannequin warehouse fight in Killer’s Kiss.

  5. I want to pitch a comedy about the kids from IT LIVES AGAIN moving to England in the 80s and forming a popular hardcore punk band.

    I’d call it UK S.U.B.S.

    *rimshot*

  6. Can a film-maker be great if his film-making is sloppy? I think so, certainly in Cohen’s case, many of whose films I watched and loved in the 1970s before I started writing about films and noticing how well or how badly they were shot. When you’re at a late-night screening of a killer-baby movie, glugging from a can of Red Stripe, I’m afraid you just don’t CARE about erratic coverage and coherence – you’re just all WOW! A KILLER-BABY! THIS IS GREAT!

    For me, Cohen was part of that generation (Cronenberg, Romero, Hooper, Craven) that made 70s and 80s independent horror so rich, strange and scary; there wasn’t much being written about this sort of cinema at the time (and of course there was no internet) so you never quite knew what you were getting, apart from (maybe) a short review in Time Out, which was pretty much the only publication that took any notice of low-budget horror and exploitation which tended not to get proper releases. You had to travel to see them, or track them down to midnight shows or one-off rep screenings.

    It’s true Cohen’s ideas are often better than his execution. I’d argue that sometimes (and certainly in his case) the ideas are enough, but maybe you just had to have been there. Today’s audiences will no longer tolerate crappy production values, narrative longueurs and the all-round lack of slickness that characterised a lot of low-budget genre films in the 1970s, not just Cohen’s. There was often a sense that the film-makers were making things up as they went along. From an interview I did with him in 1986, to tie in with The Stuff – “Cohen’s working method with Moriarty is to stand just out of camera and yell out improvisatory suggestions, which he then edits out of the final soundtrack. ‘Moriarty is like a guy who’s on stage – he’s juggling apples and oranges, and I throw a meat cleaver in and he manages to get it into the act.'” (It’s not a very good interview, but it’s on my blog if anyone’s interested)

    But there really is NOTHING else quite like Bone (first time I realised there was more to Yaphet Kotto than Mr Big), or God Told Me To (Andy Kaufman cameo + all-time crazy ending), or Q (his masterpiece), or The Stuff, about a killer dairy dessert (observer: “You’re not as dumb as you look” Moriarty: “NO-ONE is as dumb as I look”) or Return to Salem’s Lot, in which the vampires are New England Republicans, and the vampire hunter is played by Samuel Fuller. More recently, Original Gangstas, which is like a postscript to his blaxploitation flicks, was much more effective and moving (and more shoddily made, natch) than The Expendables.

    If you really really can’t tolerate his (lack of) film-making technique, then try Best Seller (screenplay by Cohen; directed by John Flynn; great performance by James Woods) or Guilty as Sin (directed by Sidney Lumet; great performance by Don Johnson).

  7. You get more slickness when someone else directs, but there is a dropping off in the crazy narrative invention I guess. I think the It’s Alive sequels aren’t as fearlessly demented as they ought to be in terms of IDEAS, but they certainly plunge madly into EVENTS.

    My favourite thing about Q is the genre collision. My favourite thing about The Stuff is it’s a political thriller about dessert. Gotta gotta see Bone.

    God Told Me To needs no defense — powerfully bananas on ever level. Aesthetically its sense of nearly disintegrating as you watch works fairly well for it.

  8. Cohen also directed an interesting, if flawed, movie about J Edgar Hoover, with Broderick Crawford, Jose Ferrer and Michael Parks that, despite being made in 1977, feels more modern and alive than the more recent stultified Eastwood biopic.

  9. Oh yes, I meant to include The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover in my pro-Cohen rant, but forgot – it’s excellent. Crawford is terrific in it.

  10. Yes, that one’s an exception in his career in that the politics come to the fore rather than smuggling themselves in under the guise of genre.

  11. I have fond memories of watching God Told Me To at the EIFF. I looked around at the audience during the religion/Space 1999/vaginal-orifice finale and it was like one of the audience reaction shots from The Producers.

    Q is my favourite of the ones I’ve seen, but I love loads of them. There’s something refreshingly un-nerdy about the rehearsal/improv workshop vibe in a sci-fi/horror film!

  12. True, when we;re used to things being stiff and stilted, Cohen’s shambolic approach to genre is refreshing. His lack of sober planning made him extremely frustrating to his effects artists, though… Island of the Alive makes extensive us of the Louma crane and was quite a big picture — it only LOOKS hideously cheap.

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