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Oh Danny boy
A UK region 2 DVD review of the 2008 remake of IT'S ALIVE by Slarek
 

It's quite possible that you have to be of a certain age to fully appreciate the work of writer-director Larry Cohen. I have little doubt that many of those raised on the slickness of CGI will regard the more down-to-earth effects of his heyday films with a degree of amused scorn, and in the process miss out on just what it is that made these movies so much fun. A prolific screenwriter of fifty years standing, Cohen has intermittently sat in the director's chair, and when he did the results were sometimes the stuff that cults are made of. His 1976 God Told Me To (aka Demon) was a compelling collision of crime and horror genres (whose memorable opening sequence was swiped from Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty), something he was to further develop for what many regard as his masterpiece, the 1982 Q: The Winged Serpent. But try telling the cynical that one of his smartest and most enjoyable films – the 1985 The Stuff – was about murderous ice cream and watch the face they pull. Cohen did not have big budgets to work with and it usually shows, but his films had an energy, imagination and wit that endeared them to genre fans and that many of the present, rather woeful American horror movies could learn a lot from.

But perhaps Cohen's most famous creation, one that spawned two sequels of his own making, was the 1974 It's Alive, in which a woman gives birth to a monstrous baby that slaughters everyone but her in the delivery room, then escapes into the city and goes on a killing spree. Cohen used this as a launch pad to explore issues of parenthood, child rearing, abortion and more, and was aided no end by a spot-on central performance from John P. Ryan as the baby's father, a man who initially rejects this monstrous creation but whose paternal instincts kick in when brought face-to-face with the creature in a memorable finale.

That the film would eventually be ingested by the Hollywood remake machine is not that surprising, given that just about every other even slightly well-known genre piece of the period has already suffered this fate and the machine is now running short of food. And there's actually potential here for a remake to stand on its own subtextual feet, to explore the changes in society and the pressures on the family in post 9/11 urban America, and CGI is even on hand to beef up the monstrous baby for those who like their effects to have a little more polish. So it's actually kind of depressing to report that despite this potential, this is one remake that manages to get just about everything wrong.

The first and biggest problem is that the characters are, almost without exception, charm-free drones. As played by Bijou Phillips, the baby's mother Lenore proves a thoroughly uninteresting heroine, while her high pitched nasal delivery made me long for a rapid and bloody matricide. No such luck. Mind you, father Frank (Raphaël Coleman) is no better, an ineffectual drip who looks at the baby all starry eyed and says things like, "How can something so incredibly beautiful have come from us?" and thinks this cannibalistic, pointy-toothed monster "really does look like an angel." Presumably one drawn by Hieronymus Bosch after a weekend of vodka and PCP. But even these two come across as models of animated expression when compared to Owen Teale's investigating officer Sgt. Perkins, whose consistently wooden delivery prompted my increasingly weary viewing companion to start referring to him as The Cyborg.

The script is consistent in its banality, and as with so many recent US genre movies, the dialogue proves little more than off-the-peg functional, with seemingly no effort put into building character through believable or witty banter. It's partly this that makes it so hard to care for the fate of, well, anybody much, with everyone cut from cardboard templates and given nothing to work with that might give them a third dimension or make them feel remotely like real people. This lazy way with dialogue reaches a peak when Lenore blows off her college friend Marnie after she's dropped round to express her concerns, prompting Marnie to squeak "Oh-my-God!" twice in that way only American high school girls do in movies, and to tell her friend profoundly, "You know, you're not the first woman to ever have a baby." Oh, right, got it, so THAT'S her problem.

By keeping the baby within the family home and transporting them all from the city to the most isolated house in America, the film looks to be going its own way by exploring Lenore's maternal instinct and just how far she will go to protect a child whose actions she is initially appalled by but quickly learns to cover up. Except it doesn't explore it, it simply portrays it, leaving it to us to provide the missing depth, analysis and subtext. The real surprise is the restraint shown in the presentation of the baby and its actions, with the nastiness of little Danny's gnawing on animals suggested purely by Nicole's horrified or angry reactions, the massacre of the operating theatre staff seen only in aftermath, and the slaughter of one character in his car shown as an explosion of blood so copious that you'd think his body consisted of little else. While those familiar with Cohen's original will likely appreciate this small but rather neat tribute, for a younger audience unaware of the reference points it may well feel like a cop-out, and one completely out of step with filmmaking that is otherwise by the very modern numbers, right down to the musical bangs to accompany the scares and the presentation of Lenore's delivery room memories as an explosion of noisy MTV flash-cuts.

OK, we're not big fans here of the recent spate of horror remakes, but I genuinely thought there was potential for this one to infuse the story while a whole new layer of social subtext, and thus wasn't prepared for the unremittingly naff experience it proved to be. By some small miracle it even manages to feel cheaper than it's famously low-budget original, whose memorable storm drain climax has been transposed to a burning house with an exterior that looks suspiciously, if the size and physics of the flames are anything to go by, like a rather small model.

sound and vision

A pretty good but unspectacular 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer, as clean as you'd expect from a modern movie and with decent enough sharpness and contrast, though shadow detail is not always what it could be and black levels are sometimes a bit off in the darker scenes. The colours are slightly muted – except for the bright red of the blood – but this appears to be intentional.

Soundtrack-wise there's a choice between Dolby stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1. The surround track is a little louder and has a better spread than the stereo, particularly the music, though apart from a couple of sound effects and the music, surprisingly little use is made of the surrounds or frontal separation.

extra features

Only a Trailer (2:22), which plays out as expected and is about as much fun as the film itself.

summary

Ah well, another 70s horror favourite gets recycled and in the process has been stripped of everything that made the original the cult favourite it still is. Dull characters, a lifeless script, formula filmmaking and not a single exciting or original idea to its name. Given the potential offered by the situation – and as well as Cohen's three films there's also a short story by Grave of the Fireflies writer Akiyuki Nosaka that I'm assured has a few original twists of its own on the same basic set-up – it seems almost tragic that it becomes the basis for quickie knock-off with no character or thematic depth. Not much on the DVD apart from the film, so if you pick it up then I hope you enjoy it more than I did.

It's Alive

USA 2008
80 mins
director
Josef Rusnak
starring
Skye Bennett
Raphaël Coleman
Sigal Diamant
Jack Ellis
Laura Giosh

DVD details
region 2
video
2.40:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
NONE
extras .
Trailers
distributor
Optimum Home Entertainment
release date
7 September 2009
review posted
4 September 2009

See all of Slarek's reviews