Archive for It’s Alive!

No Acting Required

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on July 17, 2017 by dcairns

This is a PARTICULARLY lovely set photograph, I think you’ll agree. It’s from PHANTOM LADY, a Cornell Woolrich adaptation I adore unreasonably. But there’s something cool and mysterious about the way the slate just gives the director’s name, SIODMAK, and an inexplicable number.

Since my source for these, the auction site iOffer.com, was offering exclusively still from Universal, there’s quite a bit of Siodmak on offer. I previously posted images from his SON OF DRACULA, which had curiously been slated under the title DESTINY. Via Facebook, Perry Shields gave the explanation: “This was explained years ago by Greg Mank in his excellent book It’s Alive. The writers would assign a lame title to the horror films (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW) so that the producers would feel like they made a real contribution by suggesting a more appropriate title.”

Brilliant stuff. Of course, over at RKO the title came first, direct from the front office, so we have CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

My question is, what was going on when Douglas Sirk’s ALL I DESIRE, also at Universal, was retitled THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW?

This train station set is so atmospheric and quasi-believable in the film, it’s fascinating to see off the top of the set.

The phrase No Acting Required, or NRA, is a thespian code-phrase used when the performer is required to simply behave naturally, ie “Just edge along this narrow precipice and try not to fall in the lava.” Whatever the actor’s face does naturally during this activity is likely to work for the scene. I have used the phrase in a different, wrong sense here, to evoke the peculiar quality of movie images without cast.

For some reason, once Siodmak got better known, his slates start listing the name of the film, not just his moniker (pronounced See-Odd-Mack).

SHOCK! A set photo (from Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT, also excellent) with an actor (Ella Raines). You never see any really big stars in set photos, it seems to me. I’ve seen Dorothy Malone in the diner in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, that’s about it. Maybe they were afraid to ask her to move.

Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by dcairns

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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.)

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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.