Based on the 1974 film written and directed by Larry Cohen, Screenplay co-written by Larry Cohen
When I started this blog, I made a promise in the first post:
I know for certain that two recurring items will make appearances: First, I plan to watch and write about all the films of the immensely talented and underrated Larry Cohen.
After watching the DTV remake of Cohen’s brilliant It’s Alive, I seriously regret that promise. I regret wasting eighty minutes of my life on such useless trash. I regret that I am about to waste another hour or so writing and posting a piece about said useless trash. I suppose I could just write something along the lines of, “What a horrendous piece of shit. Avoid this tasteless cash in like the plague.” But despite the fact I am no longer a professional film critic (yes, I realize that most people consider The Parallax Review to have been an amateur operation, but we ran that sucker professionally, holding ourselves to the highest possible standards, so pipe down with your comments), I still feel the need to fully explain why I hate this film so much.
Despite sharing a title and basic premise with Larry Cohen’s masterpiece, the 2008 version of the film deviates greatly with its story and characters.
Lenore (Bijou Phillips) is a grad student who is six months pregnant. As the film opens, she is leaving school to live with her architect boyfriend, Frank (James Murray), who is eagerly anticipating the birth of their child. Frank looks after his paralyzed younger brother, Chris (Raphaël Coleman), since their parents were killed in a car accident (don’t worry about the fact that Murray looks twenty years older than Coleman–the filmmakers obviously didn’t). When Lenore goes into labor the same night she moves in with Frank, he calmly drives her to the hospital, walks–doesn’t run–into the emergency room and with a big smile on his face, tries to make a video recording of the birth. This, it goes without saying, is not the rational response of a man whose girlfriend just went into labor three months prematurely. It’s not the final lapse in logic the film has in store, so strap in for a quick descent into the ugly world of DTV hack filmmaking.
Lenore’s doctor discovers that the fetus has doubled in size since her last ultrasound, something that should be everyone’s first clue that all is not right with the pregnancy. But these characters never understand they’re in a horror film, so they move right ahead with performing a caesarian section on Lenore while Frank grins goofily in the waiting room. The baby is delivered as Lenore drifts in and out of an anesthetic haze. At first, despite the baby’s size, all seems fine. When the doctor cuts the umbilical cord, we are only one smash cut away from an orderly discovering the bloody, dismembered bodies of the doctors and nurses in the delivery room. In the midst of this mess, unharmed, lay Lenore and her baby.
Naturally, the police would like to know who casually walked into a delivery room, brutally murdered four people, and then disappeared like a ghost. They mention checking security footage of the operating room, but apparently never do, because the rest of the film wouldn’t be able to happen. Instead, Perkins (Owen Teale), the cop on the case, decides the obvious course of action is to press Lenore–who was practically unconscious–about what happened in the delivery room. She is unable to tell him anything useful and he forces her to speak with a police psychologist (Jack Ellis) who is unable to get anything out of her.
That the film goes to such extreme lengths to draw out a false mystery about the identity of the killer is odd. The original film was a massive hit, spawning two sequels. The DVD cover for this film features a creepy looking baby crying a single bloody teardrop. It’s not as though the marketing department went out of their way to cover up the central premise of the film, so why did director Josef Rusnak go to such lengths to maintain a mystery no one is interested in?
It’s Alive is one of the worst remakes I have ever seen. It takes everything that made the original fresh and emotionally involving and twists it until it’s generic and forgettable (save for a third act revelation that pushes the whole affair into truly icky territory–more on that later).
The original film worked because it focused less on a killer, mutant baby and more on the damage such a situation would do to the parents. It was an incisive look at the changing role of male masculinity in the mid-seventies and an impressive horror tale. It made points about the dangers of living in a world where the air is choked with smog and chemicals are sprayed on everything we eat and touch. Hell, it even functioned as a moving redemption story that draws tears at its climax through the career best performance of John P. Ryan.
The remake immediately tries to throw some curveballs to those who know the original film. This would actually be a welcome thing, if any of the changes they made to the story didn’t gut the premise of its inherent power. By having the baby appear normal, the filmmakers probably assumed they could tease out a little more mystery from the story. Instead, that idea is rendered moot by stupid little touches such as a closeup of the baby’s hand that reveals something that looks more like an animal’s claw. If the baby is supposed to appear normal, why don’t any of the characters ever acknowledge the fact that the baby has hands that look like they belong on a werewolf?
Focusing on Lenore as she quickly discovers her baby is a killing machine should have been a good idea. Questions about the limits of just how far a mother will go to protect her child could be raised. Instead, Lenore quickly goes from proud new mother to eye-rolling psycho in the blink of an eye. The idea of using the situation as a metaphor for postpartum depression is very briefly touched on and just as quickly abandoned. It simply becomes ludicrous that Lenore would dispose of the numerous bodies that pile up without giving the matter a second thought. The character isn’t helped any by the performance from Phillips. There is a touch of high camp to her hysterics, but she’s impossible to sympathize with–a quality needed for the film to have a chance at working.
But the biggest problem is the change in the baby’s motivation. In the original film, the baby had mutated to exist in a hostile world where even the environment is a threat to survival. It only attacked and killed people when it was scared or felt threatened. This kept the infant sympathetic and cut a lot of the inherent tastelessness of the killer baby premise. The filmmakers behind the remake don’t seem to understand such complexities.
In the remake, the baby is just an evil little shit. It sees something living and–in a whir of cheap CGI–kills it. Rats, cats, rabbits, birds, humans, it doesn’t matter. If it has a pulse and gets close enough, it’s going to die. And it’s going to die in a flood of gushing blood and gore. That’s right, in place of the compelling characters and nuanced motives from the original film, the remake just offers up frenetic gore.
Even worse than the idea that a child could come into the world as a purely evil presence is the third act explanation for why the baby behaves the way it does.
It seems that when she first found out she was pregnant, Lenore bought some herbal supplements that were supposed to bring about a “natural miscarriage”. She gulped down several with a glass of wine and became horribly sick. Frightened, she immediately regretted taking the pills and prayed for her baby to be okay. Obviously, the pills didn’t work, but the filmmakers point to this event as the catalyst for the baby to have its strange physical developments and to be such an evil killer. But even this idea doesn’t hold up to the most basic of logic. The baby is revealed to be intelligent, only killing when no one is around and never threatening the family that it needs to survive. If the baby is so smart and wants to kill because it was nearly killed in the womb, why doesn’t it go after Lenore for her attempt at a home abortion? Why does it only go after innocent bystanders?
Even without those logical questions, the message behind the film still feels horribly sleazy. Not only are the filmmakers exploiting unplanned pregnancies and attempted abortions, they’re making a pretty aggressive statement: If you’re an unwed college student and you try to abort your pregnancy, you will be the cause of numerous violent deaths. No matter your politics, that comes across as pretty sordid.
Beyond the changes from the original film that cheapen the story and the dubious moral at its center, the film is just shoddily put together: Subplots are brought up and suddenly dropped; the threadbare budget is obvious at every turn; the acting (featuring the finest U.K. and Bulgarian thespians a DTV budget can buy), is functional at best, the special effects are crudely done, and the somber tone is so all-encompassing it becomes the film’s only source of amusement.
Larry Cohen has two credits on the film. The first states the film is based on the 1974 film written and directed by him. More puzzlingly, he also receives a co-screenplay credit. Outside of the basic premise and the character names, there’s not a lot of his film visible in the remake. He doesn’t have a producer credit on the film, which would assume at least an endorsement of the remake on his part, so I’m willing to bet his name only wound up on the screenplay of the film because of a fluke ruling by the impossible to predict WGA. I certainly hope so, because it would really be depressing if he had a creative hand in this slop.
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