Based on Characters Created for the Screen, Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen
NOTE: This review will contain spoilers for It’s Alive, the film to which It Lives Again is a sequel. Please watch It’s Alive before reading this review.
Given that It’s Alive is not only Larry Cohen’s masterpiece, but arguably also one of the best American films of the ’70s, it’s not surprising that It Lives Again fails to live up to its predecessor. That said, it is an interesting—and severely flawed—sequel that is not afraid to delve into the messy psychological aftermath of the gut-wrenching events from the first film. Whether that makes it a good film is open for some debate.
Picking up a few years after the events of It’s Alive, expectant couple Eugene (Frederic Forrest) and Jody (Kathleen Lloyd) are celebrating at their baby shower. Their house is crowded with friends and family vying for their attention. In fact, it’s such a chaotic scene that no one really notices a sad-eyed, middle-aged man quietly biding his time in the background. Occasionally he offers a genuine smile at Eugene and Jody’s reaction to a gift, but mostly he just observes while remaining unnoticed. As their guests leave, it becomes impossible to ignore the man. With a mixture of embarrassment and annoyance, Eugene and Jody finally approach the man to ask who he is and what he wants.
It is a masterful opening scene that quickly establishes Eugene and Jody’s characters, shows how far along Jody is in her pregnancy, and is wracked with tension since the audience knows the stranger is Frank Davis (John P. Ryan) and that his presence at a baby shower is not a harbinger of good news for the couple.
Frank introduces himself to Eugene and Jody and calmly explains that there are strong signs pointing to their baby being a mutation like Frank’s baby was in the first film. He informs the increasingly frightened and angry couple that their doctor is working with a secret government organization that kills the babies at birth and that they are already under surveillance by this organization.
But Frank is not all doom and gloom. He reveals he has been pretending to cooperate with the secret organization to steal information about couples such as them. In reality, Frank is working with a small group of scientists and doctors to rescue the babies. He offers Eugene and Jody the chance to have his team deliver their baby. Naturally, the couple is skeptical, but after he leaves them to think it over, they find a mutual acknowledgement that while Frank does not seem altogether sane, much of what he has told them adds up.
This opening scene lasts nearly ten minutes, introduces three main characters, and is a massive exposition dump, but still manages to crackle with suspense and emotion due to Ryan’s stellar performance (continuing his amazing work from the first film). If not for some dodgy ADR, this could be the best single scene that Cohen has ever directed.
As Jody nears her due date, Frank and Mallory (John Marley)—the head of the government organization—assemble their respective teams. In the paranoia of post-Watergate and Vietnam America, Frank and Mallory’s different approaches and what they represent couldn’t be clearer: Frank brings in doctors and scientists with a specially-built mobile delivery room in the back of a semi-truck trailer while Mallory surrounds himself with policemen and soldiers armed to the teeth. Given this presentation of apparent enlightenment vs. brute force, it’s easy to understand why Eugene and Jody go along with Frank’s brazen plan to save their child.
But things are never as clear cut as they seem. Jody successfully gives birth to her child—which immediately attacks and injures a doctor before it can be sedated. Eugene and the baby are delivered to a secret location in Los Angeles where he finds out that two other babies are being studied and raised by a team of scientists led by Dr. Perry (Andrew Duggan), another character returning from the first film. Perry reveals that the babies are growing at a rapid rate and are already as intelligent as normal two-year-old children despite being just a few days old.
Not fully prepared for just how monstrous his baby would appear, Eugene is already horrified by his son’s aggressive nature before discovering that there are two other babies. Despite his initial support for Frank’s plan, he finds himself wavering in his commitment and immediately falls under Perry’s suspicions. As Frank and Mallory try to out-maneuver each other, Eugene becomes the wild card between the two secret groups, leaving the audience wondering just whose side he is on and what he will do when he makes up his mind.
Like the first film, Cohen uses the outlandish—yet horrifying—premise of killer mutant babies to study the ways people react when their entire world is changed. But the difference between the two films comes from a poor casting choice and possibly too much attention paid to the ethical and sociological questions raised by the script. Where It’s Alive wisely focused on Frank’s unraveling and redemption through Ryan’s career-best performance, it also functioned as a suspenseful horror film with gruesome shots of the corpses left in the baby’s wake and the constant ramping up of the manhunt as it crossed Los Angeles in an attempt to get home. In It Lives Again, Jody does not even give birth until thirty minutes into the film and the inevitable “prison break” by the three babies is over an hour into the running time of what is only a ninety minute film. Too much time is given to over-explaining various plot details and trying to establish Eugene as a character worth caring about.
Where Ryan’s performance in It’s Alive allowed the audience to be fascinated by—and eventually sympathetic to—the character of Frank Davis, Forrest largely plays Eugene as a sarcastic jerk. His performance is one grating note that makes him a difficult character to spend time with, let alone follow on a journey that is intended to mirror Frank’s arc from the first film. Eugene becomes increasingly problematic as a character when Frank, Jody, and Mallory are all more interesting and better performed, making it something of a head-scratcher that Cohen stubbornly sticks to the idea that the audience will follow him as the protagonist.
While the film stumbles down the stretch, Cohen does find small moments and character details in the performances that enrich the sometimes sketchy narrative. This is mainly accomplished by showing how the events of the first film have fundamentally changed three of the characters and altered the direction of their lives.
Frank had an enormous arc in the first film and Ryan once again provides a live-wire presence in the role, picking up emotionally from where he left off at the end of It’s Alive. All soulful eyes that occasionally flash with something resembling madness, we want to follow Frank and believe in his mission, even though he shows all the classic signs of a zealot who ignores facts that don’t fit into his narrowed worldview. Dr. Perry, a callous scientist in the first film, is given a conflicted manner by Duggan. Now that he has been confronted with living examples of the babies, he is unable to view them as just a phenomena to be coldly examined after death. But he does not seem to share in Frank’s certainty that they simply are the next step in human evolution that need our protection. Driven by a scientist’s curiosity and human empathy, he wants to help the babies, but that doesn’t stop him from keeping a gun by his side at all times. Even police detective Perkins (James Dixon) returns. Despite uttering the immortal line “Hunting and killing babies doesn’t seem to be my specialty,” from It’s Alive, he is called upon to track the escaped infants, much to his disgust. When taking the call, his first reaction is sadness and a refusal to report for the duty. When forced into the assignment, he carries himself with a large dose of self-loathing. He is a man trying to convince himself he is saving lives by doing his job, but he cannot stop thinking that he is nothing more than a baby killer.
Cohen treats these characters with an enormous amount of generosity, even when their actions become morally questionable. They are all doing what they can to deal with an impossible situation. The ambiguity of how Cohen seems to want the audience to feel about them and the emotional damage they have suffered is easily the most fascinating thing about the film.
The film falls apart in the third act as Cohen abandons the interesting characters, ideas, and setup for a rote manhunt while focusing on the strain the events are taking on Eugene and Jody’s marriage. While that formula was a winner for It’s Alive, this time around, it results in a hodgepodge of Forrest going over the top with his obnoxious sarcasm and disjointed scenes of policemen wandering around in wooded areas while the babies remains mostly hidden due to budgetary constrictions. The climax and denouement are flat and unimaginative—a far cry from the breathless, emotionally staggering ending of the first film.
If Cohen had somehow managed to successfully combine the nuanced character work of the larger ensemble with some actual horror movie jolts, It Lives Again could have approached the rarified air of its predecessor. Even if he had completely done away with the horror angle to simply look at how the saga of “the Davis Baby” had irrevocably changed the people who survived it, the resulting film would have been a fascinating and satisfying experience. But in trying to craft a third act that delivered solely as a horror piece, Cohen abandoned what had worked very well in the first hour of the film. It Lives Again could have been great, but is eventually left stranded somewhere in a foggy no-man’s-land between an interesting failure and good enough. The characters and Ryan’s performance deserved better.
James Dixon Sighting: As mentioned above, reprising his role as Detective Perkins from It’s Alive.
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