BY ROCCO THOMPSON
Larry Cohen is well-regarded as one of the major genre mavericks of the 1970s and 80s. His career began in the 1950s as a television writer for many well-known series, but graduated to film with 1972’s BONE, which he wrote, directed, and produced. This humble effort launched a fruitful career in the low-budget, guerrilla style of filmmaking that became the Cohen brand as movie-lovers know it today. Scrappy, savvy, and smart, Larry Cohen’s cinema is one of consistent invention. Lacking the bells and whistles of films traditionally made within a studio system, his movies are, by design, sharply written and socially conscious, favoring story, dialogue, and social commentary over effects-driven thrills. That’s not to say that his films lack excitement, however: Cohen is highly conceptual, using destructive, B-movie creatures (killer yogurt, killer hermaphroditic extraterrestrials, killer winged serpents) to explore uncomfortable truths about American life in cinematic terms that still resonate today.
Cohen’s most famous effort (and his earliest success in the Horror genre) came just after BONE in 1974 with the monstrous pregnancy flick, ITS ALIVE. After a botched initial run, Warner Brothers re-vamped the film’s advertising and re-released it in 1977. Though it divided critics, audiences were hooked by the new ad-campaign (“There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby. It’s alive!) and it proved successful enough to warrant two sequels, IT LIVES AGAIN (1978), and IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987). Now, for the first time, Scream! Factory’s ITS ALIVE TRILOGY offers fans of gynecological terror the best-ever versions of these Cohen classics in one solid box-set. Mild spoilers to follow.
In ITS ALIVE, Frank Davis (John Ryan) and his wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell) are preparing to welcome their second child. After rushing to the hospital, the baby emerges and kills the delivery staff before escaping through a skylight. As their sharp-toothed, pointy-clawed offspring cuts a bloody swath across Los Angeles, the couple tries to cope with the guilt and confusion resulting from the birth. Though Lenore feels an inexorable bond with her child, Frank decides to hunt and kill his bloodthirsty progeny at all costs. Featuring a far-out original score by the immortal Bernard Herrmann, ITS ALIVE is a somber meditation on the perils of procreation and what it means to fear the fruit of one’s own womb.
IT LIVES AGAIN picks up sometime after the conclusion of part one. Frank Davis, having survived his ordeal with his own child and undergone a change of heart, has taken to lurking at baby showers. His mission: to warn those afflicted with his same condition and intervene before the government can seize and destroy their children. After extracting Eugene (Frederic Forrest) and Jody Scott (Kathleen Lloyd), Frank brings them to a secret compound operated by a team of doctors who believe that the monster-babies may be the next leap forward in man’s evolutionary development. Widening its scope from the personal to the larger societal implications of a birth-fearing world, IT LIVES AGAIN is a strong companion piece to the first film that suffers from a garbled denouement.
The trilogy concludes with ITS ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, which sees Cohen mainstay Michael Moriarty as Stephen Jarvis, an actor defending his freakish son’s right to life in court. Per the judge’s ruling, the Jarvis baby—along with five others in captivity—are to be relocated to an uncharted island where they can live out their lives without endangering humankind. The trilogy’s conclusion is the least satisfying of the three, but it still gets points for ambition and two plum performances by the casually nutty Moriarty and a rough-edged Karen Black.
Though, these films are 1950s-style irradiated monster movies at heart—and are only intermittently satisfying in storytelling terms—their thematic tissue leaves the viewer with plenty to chew on. In IT’S ALIVE, Frank and Lenore are made to endure probing questions about their attitude toward their pregnancy (Cohen makes a point of mentioning that the couple initially considered abortion in the early stages) and answer for their child as a reflection of themselves and their relationship. In a particularly stirring scene, Frank meditates on Victor Frankenstein’s revulsion at seeing the fruit of his labor, a piquant parallel to his own calamitous role as a life giver. IT LIVES AGAIN begins with apocalyptic murmurings as the tainted births reach potential epidemic levels. Here, Cohen offers up his grotesque, shrieking brood as the result of a world poisoned by pollution and pills: Mother Nature’s grim answer to those who try to choke her progress. ITS ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, for all its broad humor and narrative nonsense, is a film about the sanctity of life, be it benign and bloodthirsty. It also touches on the specter of AIDS with particular clarity. In short: these flicks are far more compelling than any about wrestling toothy rubber mutants should be, and it’s all thanks to Cohen’s razor-sharp, timely writing.
Scream! Factory’s packaging of these films is nothing special, with all three appearing on a single disc in a basic Blu-ray case, housed in an attractive sleeve. All three have reversible box art, are the result of a new 1080p HD transfer, and are presented in their original aspect ratios. They’re low budget affairs through and through, but this is the best they have ever looked. Though the mutant babies are largely hidden, their brief flashes onscreen are now clearer than ever for maximum shock value and practical effects appreciation! All three are scrubbed of debris, warps, etc., though IT LIVES AGAIN suffers from occasional noise. Skin-tones are true-to-life and black levels are just right on all three discs, while the flashes of gore glisten with that candy red apple color every cinephile loves. Overall, Scream! Factory has done a bang-up job with these transfers.
All three films come with the expected still galleries, trailers, and audio commentaries by Larry Cohen. Though commentaries are always welcome, each was recorded in 2004, so they lack a certain freshness. What is new, however is confined to the first disc, with COHEN’S ALIVE: LOOKING BACK AT THE ITS ALIVE FILMS, an all-too-brief (19 min) series of interviews from the director, his actors, and crew on the making of these films. Also new, ITS ALIVE AT THE NUART, where Larry Cohen speaks at the theatre’s anniversary screening of the film, his legendary charisma fully on display.
Scream! Factory’s newly-released ITS ALIVE TRILOGY will please die-hard fans of the maverick filmmaker with its glorious transfers and box art, though newbies to his cinema may be left wanting. The lack of special features may make appreciation of Larry Cohen’s particular brand of pared-down, subtext-heavy genre efforts challenging for the uninitiated, though many first-time viewers may find themselves pleasantly surprised. If you’re curious what all the fuss is about, check out the excellent documentary, KING COHEN: THE WILD WORLD OF FILMMAKER LARRY COHEN (2017), snag a copy of the ITS ALIVE TRILOGY, make like the Davis baby and sink your teeth in!