Thursday, August 30, 2012

Meltdown 04: Sequelthon (Part II)

It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978) dir. Larry Cohen

Of all the films to be covered in this moviethon, I would have figured that Larry Cohen's 1974 killer mutant baby classic, It's Alive, was the one least desirous of a sequel. While the film certainly contains overt hints about how its diegetic world may develop, the implication seemed to be all we would need-- what could the further realization of those developments add to our understanding of that world? It's an expertly constructed narrative driven primarily by its thematic elements concerning abortion and parent-child relationships. The plot and its discrete actions are of secondary importance to that, so any sequel might run the risk of merely changing up the pieces and the order that they fall in while reiterating the major points and failing to add anything new. I'd say that's maybe partly what befalls both It's Alive 2: It Lives Again and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive, though in reverse of what I imagined-- while the plots all hit the same emotional points, there is a slight reorientation (and intensification) of thematic concerns in each film. Although the controlling reigns of the maverick Larry Cohen on all three gives the world they're set in a basic coherence, one would be hard pressed to call them a natural trilogy.  

It Lives Again tries a bit harder to continue the direct story of its predecessor, reintroducing the first It's Alive dad, Frank Davis, as a sort of baby shower-crashing emissary between parents-to-be and the underground Killer Mutant Baby Protection Agency. See, ever since the Davis baby broke loose and chewed out some people's throats, the U.S. government has been secretly monitoring and then murdering all of the mutant babies born, generally while still in the delivery room. While It's Alive fretted about the various anxieties caused in new parents by the legalization of abortion in the year after Roe v. Wade and the general pharmaceutical/scientific/medical tinkering with natural reproduction, what we find in It Lives Again are state-sanctioned and enforced involuntary abortions. A woman's choice has been eliminated by society's desire to maintain a sense of normalcy against the rising tide of deviancy. What exact threat do the mutant babies represent for humanity? No one (except for the underground network of benign scientists) wishes to find out, because to find out would be to risk polluting society with whatever "it" is (and pollute it fast, too: the scientists figure the babies will be able to reproduce by the age of five). The monstrous babies are those abhorrent, unnatural "others" of late 1970s society, poised to disrupt the status quo: homosexuals, the mentally disabled, the physically deformed, those of mixed race. Society's almost eugenics-fueled crusade against the contaminating influence of the babies is contrasted with the gradual acceptance expressed by the parents in recognition of their horrifyingly "different" offspring's essential humanity. In this way, Cohen's societal critique has been expanded even while the basic story and resolution remain overly recognizable.

On the level of filmmaking, there are some things to appreciate here: the practical effects for the babies are much improved (no more stationary dolls or over-reliance on fish-eye lenses), Bernard Herrmann's score does its fine work, and a laborious, hysterically protracted hospital stick-up is a marvel of implausibility. In sum it may be no more than It's Alive from a different angle and with a different perspective, but I find little to condemn in that.

It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) dir. Larry Cohen

This second sequel in the It's Alive triptych is a good deal less cohesive than either of its ancestors, but (inversely) a great deal more adventurous. While again presenting the same fundamental story of two parents coming to accept and love their monstrous progeny, Island of the Alive props up this by-now familiar trajectory with a slab of dark comedy. Extrapolating the prior film's crusade against abnormality into a legal context, the film's intolerant society decides that if it can't kill the "freaks" outright, it can at least ship them off to an island to live among their own kind-- a comically perverse enactment of the perennial idiotic proposal of the bigoted. So off the mutant babies go to their own private Isla Sorna, where they quickly grow into even bigger mutant babies with telepathic abilities and begin to breed.

The babies look worse than ever here-- there's a preference for clunky stop-motion work when trailing the younger babies, while the adolescents are portrayed by men in rubber suits about as convincing as ZAAT's. These aspects are humorous enough, but the rest of the film's comic tone erupts from Cohen-stalwart Michael Moriarty's performance as Jarvis, the latest father of an "it," whose wry, sleepy humor adds a barbed edge to his every scene (whether he is trying to convince his mutant child to cooperate with him in front of the court or working at a shoe store and admitting to an accusatory mother that yes, he is trying to ruin her child's feet).

Another piece of new thematic content that Island of the Alive brings to the fold is the factor of the media, though it's not explored to the extent that you'd expect under the heading of a Larry Cohen film. The Jarvis baby trial is a big deal in the media, even earning Jarvis a book deal. (Though we also see how fickle the media and its public are, as his book is quickly remaindered, relegated to the discount tables in the backs of bookshops). Jarvis needs to wash up on the shores of Cuba before he meets anyone who doesn't know who he is, and even then he finds a few sympathetic ears. I admit, I'm sort of at a loss for what Cohen is trying to do with his social commentary here, even if it's all still quite entertaining. The clear themes of the previous films get lost in the bustle of a cannibal boat voyage, a rooftop shootout, mutant suckling, and Karen Black's shrieking. Perhaps the best way to encapsulate Island of the Alive is to let the first end credits card speak for itself: "A Larry Cohen Film Based on Characters Created by Larry Cohen."

Night of the Demons 2 (1994) dir. Brian Trenchard-Smith

At the end of a long first day of killing brain cells (Philippe Mora, that's on you), Night of the Demons 2 is the restorative I needed. This is a totally serviceable, enthusiastic, and consistent sequel-- in fact, I have no problem calling it superior to the first film. I like Night of the Demons well enough, but if you put me to the task I can only recall the same scenes everyone can recall: Angela dancing to Bauhaus and Linnea Quigley making a tube of lipstick vanish. Which is not to call the film a bore, but only intermittently entertaining. In contrast, that rascally UK-bred Aussie filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith (BMX Bandits, Stunk Rock, Dead End Drive-In) tries his damnedest to ensure that Night of the Demons 2 is endlessly entertaining, and I'd say he succeeds. Following the path laid out by The Evil Dead series (from which it derives much), this sequel is a great deal sillier than it's already quite silly forebearer. It has goofy characters, a plot that hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of the Abraham-Isaac story, a delicious Halloween atmosphere, and incredible practical special effects. I can't quite stress that last one enough: perhaps one hasn't truly lived until she's seen a pair of breasts morph into a pair of acid-coated hands that reach out and grab others, or witnessed a tube of lipstick expand into a lusty Satan snake. Moreover, the film features (how could I neglect to mention) a genuine Killer Nun who puts Anita Ekberg to shame. This is the sort of reckless abandon horror-comedy that you either walk into prepared to relish the company of or... why bother walking in at all? Plan accordingly.

Coming up: The Boogeyman II (1983), Basket Case II (1990), & Basket Case III: The Progeny (1991).

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