ReelReviews #108: It’s Alive (2009)

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MARCH 16, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE (2009)

It’s Remade! Most people complain about endless Hollywood remakes. The odd thing here is that there’s an entire valid case to made for remaking It’s Alive. The original film is not any sort of beloved classic and while it got a good response, the style of filmmaking doesn’t work in the 21st century and the story could be entirely updated 35 years later. The first thing many modern audiences said about the 1974 movie upon seeing it is “This movie could use a remake”, and they have a valid point. And thus, I can’t bash this movie for being a remake. I can, however, bash how they decided to do the remake.

The biggest change (and a strange choice, IMO) is that the killer baby in this version looks just like a normal human baby (except for some bizarre reveal in the third act where it inexplicably has sharp pointed teeth to make it look “scary”) The “normal” looking baby is still capable of somehow massacring multiple full grown adults with its bare hands, so the result is some very unrealistic looking CGI to create a fake “normal” looking human infant in 99% of the scenes. This turns out to the biggest flaw in the movie, and one that wouldn’t have been an issue if the premise of the movies were reversed (a “normal” looking baby played a real baby in the 1974 movie because the special effects technology was primitive, but a fully mutated deformed monstrosity in the 2009 remake)

Most of the bad reviews of this movie couldn’t get past the obviously-fake CGI “normal” baby, and I believe the film does indeed deserve to be blasted for that problem. However, other aspects of the movie also really hurt the film, with a weak script, and short running time that didn’t allow the story to be fully fleshed out, or effective.

On the other hand, this movie does not deserve the across-the-board “ZERO STARS! IT SUCKS!” scathing reviews that it got. The remake of Its Alive is very flawed, but it does have some good things going for it. Strangely, the best part of the movie was Bijou Philips, the model-turned-actress daughter of singer John Philips (of “The Mamas and the Papas”) fame. Philips is basically the lead in this movie and has to ensure all the emotional gravitas as the mother of the evil baby. The film requires her to slowly realize her baby is murdering people and that she is shocked and horrified by this fact, but tolerates it because of the love she feels for the newborn as its mother. Philips put in an amazing performance here (which surprised me since I didn’t consider her to be a real “actress”) and could have rightfully won a prize for the role if she weren’t in such a weak movie overall. Likewise, the last scene and final moment of the movie deserves to be up there with classic horror films like “Psycho” and “The Shining”. Yes, I’m serious! Without giving it away, I spent the entire movie wondering how they would resolve the story, and the film’s ending is truly heartbreaking and haunting, leaving the viewer feeling anguished at what’s happened. It’s a tragedy this brilliant ending couldn’t be part of an actual GOOD movie. Many horror films resort to one last cheap “scare” to end the movie (usually “he’s not REALLY dead!”) , others come up with more clever twists, but very few manage to “scare” you in a way that truly makes the audience feel unnerved and creeped out by what they’ve just seen. It’s Alive manages to do that, and to top the nicely chilling of the original 1974 movie! Despite being a really lousy movie overall, I’m actually awarding it an extra half a star for the great ending. The only downside is you have to see the rest of this crappy movie for the ending to be effective.

For the record, original It’s Alive producer/writer/director Larry Cohen absolutely loathed the remake of his movie. I don’t loathe it, but I do feel it was a big missed opportunity.

* 1/2 out of ****

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ReelReviews #107: It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

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MARCH 15, 2017 SCREENING: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1987)

The good news: Unlike many other “third movies” in a trilogy, this movie isn’t a complete joke that ruins everything you liked about the first two movies. The bad news? It’s still a disappointment compared to the first two. It’s watchable, yes, but unsatisfying.

Ironically, the third film provided a great setup for building on the universe from the first two movies and giving the audience something much bigger and bolder. The most obvious question from the first two films is what would the killer mutant babies actually be like IF they grew up? Additionally, there is the question of how the evil mutant babies would interact with their own kind, what they would do if left their own devices, and there was very little in the way of actually SEEING the babies in full detail from the first films because of the makeup limitations of those movies. It’s Alive III addresses all those points – and in many cases, it provides a perfectly valid answer to those questions. But alas, something is still missing.

Compared to Basket Case 3 (which shifted the tone so much from the first movie, it was like they were intentionally trying to make a bad joke), Island of the Alive sticks to the style of the first two movies very well. The film opens in a courtroom where they argue over the fate of one of the mutant babies (finally seen in full detail thanks to stop-motion animation). Without going into too much detail, the killer mutant babies are eventually quarantined on an island that is restricted to the public, hence the title. Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a plot if they just stayed there forever and no one ever saw them again, so a few years later, they decide to send an expedition out to track down if the killer mutant babies are still alive on the island.
None of this (aside from perhaps the tense courtroom scene where the father has to “touch” the baby in the cage to “prove” it’s safe) plays out as horrifically and dark as it could from the way it sounds on paper. I think part of the problem is that that Island of the Alive was made a decade after the first two movies, and the late 80s setting simply gives the movie a different feel than its mid-1970s counterparts. (I have no idea why there was such a large gap in time between the filming of the second and third movies). Strangely, 70s cult horror star Karen Black shows up in this one as a disgruntled girlfriend of one of the characters, and I found her role unintentionally funny. Even Rob Zombie couldn’t seem to use Karen Black in a serious role. It’s Alive III just seems to lack the same quiet, creepy, dark vibe of the original movie, despite having the same writer/director.

The film does deserve kudos for an interesting script that eventually reveals that the mutant babies mature at age four and are able to reproduce, and communicate with each other through some type of sign language and/or telepathy. This results in some type of “Captain Phillips” type scenario where one of the characters is held hostage on a boat commanded by the mutant babies. The scene itself, however, was neither funny & campy nor terrifying and creepy, it was just sort of there, and make me shrug, “eh?”

The film provides a satisfying conclusion to its own events, but as part of a trilogy, it’s the weakest of the trio. Whether it’s worth watching is really up to you.

** out of ****

ReelReviews #106: It Lives Again (1978)

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MARCH 14, 2017 SCREENING: IT LIVES AGAIN (1978)

The film poster summarizes this entire two hour movie very easily: The killer mutant baby from “Its Alive” is back: only this time there are three of them.

Following the rule of sequels, the second film in the trilogy gives the audience what was best about the first movie, but ups the ante and delivers more action, thrills, and violence than its predecessor. In many cases, this type of lazy filmmaking (“give ‘em what they got before, multiplied 3X!) results in an inferior follow-up movie. Here, it actually works…although the film is still a step down from its immediate predecessor. Part of the reason “It Lives Again” works so well is that filmmaker Larry Cohen wisely got John P. Ryan back to reprise his role from the first film, but gave him something entirely different to do in the sequel. In “It Lives Again”, he’s there to warn the parents of other mutant babies what they are encountering in their life, and he’s changed course 180 degrees from the film movie, since now he is trying to PROTECT the mutant babies rather than destroy them.

The entire “hook” of the sequel having THREE killer mutant babies instead of just one little nasty monster is actually the most disappointing aspect of the film. This concept could have made for some very interesting scenarios, but it is not merely as fun as its sounds. For starters, evil mutant baby killer #1 and #2 get killed off about halfway through the movie, so the climax ends with a race-against-the-clock to stop just one killer baby, just like the first film. Secondly, the three evil mutant babies don’t even interact with each other or appear on screen in the same scenes, so what was the point of including them in the first place?

Aside from John P. Ryan (who – SPOILER ALERT—gets killed off in this movie, disappointing me since he was the best thing about the first two films) the only other character to return from the first film is the local police inspector, who looks strangely like a 1970s version of 1980s Donald Trump in both movies. The film eventually runs low on steam, but it has a solid “several months later” ending where the poor father in this film assumes John P. Ryan’s role from the start of the movie of visiting future parents pregnant with evil mutant babies, thus hinting that the cycle will continue…endlessly.

Overall, I liked the movie, but it falls slightly short of the first film. Still, given the fact that it’s a sequel to the type of movie that mainstream audiences and critics would immediately turn their noses up at, It Lives Again has something going for it. It’s worth checking out, especially if you liked the first one.

** 1/2 out of ****

ReelReviews #105: It’s Alive (1974)

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MARCH 13, 2017 SCREENING: IT’S ALIVE! (1974)

In a strange twist of irony, I spent the month of March going from the most critically acclaimed Hollywood movies (namely, looking at past “Best Picture” Oscar winners) to the films LEAST likely to win prizes and critical acclaim: nasty B-grade horror films. The 1974 cult classic “It’s Alive” is actually much better than its reputation would suggestion. For an obscure low-budget Hollywood film, it has some A-list credentials. For example, famous Hitchcock composer Bernard Hermann did the score for this film – and the music is every bit as memorable as his more famous compositions. The makeup designer is Rick Baker, who would go on to do the makeup for An American Werewolf in London (1981), which launched him to fame as Hollywood’s go-to guy for top-notch special effects makeup. The lead male actor in the film, John P. Ryan (apparently “best known” for the 1985 movie Runaway Train, which I’ve never seen) puts in a terrific performance that requires an entire range of emotions and actions for his character, and writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’ story of a deformed mutant baby going a killing spree was unique and “creative” for the time, to say the least. But with all that, is the film actually good? Surprisingly, yes it is.

A few months earlier, I screened the similarly “ugly cult classic” horror film series Basket Case, which I haven’t yet reviewed on my blog. To put it simply, the first one was really compelling, the second was watchable but stupid, and the third was a pile of dung that I shut off halfway through. I wondered if the It’s Alive trilogy (and its 2009 remake) would suffer a similar fate. They did not. It’s Alive, though certainly shunned by “mainstream” film critics and considered some cheap horror film, is a compelling and dark melodrama. Larry Cohen wisely stuck with the “leave much of the horror to the audience’s imagination” rule, and while this may be partly inspired by the difficulty of showing the killer mutant baby on a rampage using low budget 1974 special effects, it works.

The film has a high level of graphic violence, but between the grisly things that occur on screen, the real heart of the story is the mutant baby’s perfectly normal, middle-America parents, who already have a perfectly normal first child who is sixth grade during the film’s chain of events. The film manages the incredibly difficult task of A) Getting the audience to suspend disbelief that such an awful thing could actually happen to this couple, and B) Making it plausible how society at large would deal with the problem. In the movie, the problem with the “Davis baby” eventually becomes a nationwide panic. As the baby’s father struggles to come to grips with what’s happening, he has a moving segment where he compares his family’s nightmarish life to the story Frankenstein because the audience associates Frankenstein as the name of the monster — rather than the scientist who created him. By the end of the film, the father finally has to confront the fact the baby is still his biological child and identifies him as its father, no matter how inhuman and monsterious s the baby acts and looks. The film has a lot of subtle social commentary on the changing role of the American family in the 1970s, even though its first and foremost a violent “things that go bump in the night” kind of movie. The final line the movie was also an excellent punch-in-the-gut for audiences after the horrific events were seemingly over.

The film was very compelling and exciting, regardless of its low budget and amateur filmmaking origins. Highly recommended.

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #21: Evil Dead (2013)

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APRIL 30, 2014 SCREENING: EVIL DEAD (2013)

The Evil Dead (2013) is a remake of 1981 movie of the same name, and watching this film unfold, it quickly became apparent to me that the style and direction they used for the film would likely result in audiences either loving or hating this movie. Put me down the “loved it” camp, but I can certainly understand why others would hate it.

If you’re familiar with the “Evil Dead” because of how the franchise famously developed, and were drawn to it expecting to see a Bruce Campbell type figure blowing away bad guys while quipping cool one-liners, this movie isn’t for you, and you’re going to hate it because it has nothing to do with the “Evil Dead” you know and love. However, if you go into this movie disregarding the later films in the franchise and look at it solely as a remake of the original 1981 movie – long before the series became more comedic in nature and when the “Evil Dead” was just known as an over-the-top and particularly gory and messed up horror film – then this movie is for you.

Unfortunately for the remake, most people are more familiar with the later version of Evil Dead than the low budget original movie. I’m also in that camp, and was introduced to the Evil Dead through the third movie (1993’s Army of Darkness), and was shocked at how different the first film in the trilogy was when I finally got around to watching it. Evil Dead progresses from a humorless, straight-laced, messed up splatter horror film, to a crazy, creep, blood-filled horror-comedy sequel, to finally a pure lightweight comedy with tons of one liners and very little horror by the third film. The main character, Ash, starts off a young guy in a awkward situation having to fend for his life, and eventually seems to become the template for Duke Nukem by the the third movie. It’s not surprise later video games and other merchandise based on the franchise used the later entries for most of their material, even “Evil Dead: The Musical” did so, despite being set in the time line of the first movie.

In the case of the remake, it did a terrific job taking the tone and style of the movie its remaking, and having it work in a modern, updated setting. It may even be a sequel and a remake, as there are subtle hints that the teens in the movie are back at the same cabin where the events of the first film took place, and doomed to repeat history. It’s an adrenaline-filled, macabre, and nasty horror film with very little humor, but several winks to the audience that reference events and scenes from the first film, but cleverly provide a new twist on them. If you’ve seen the original Evil Dead and you remember a women being raped by a tree and a hand becoming possessed and being forced to be severed, you won’t be disappointed with how its handled here.

The other thing I didn’t like about 2013’s Evil Dead, was the last 15 minutes of the movie and the “twist ending”, which was easily the weakest part of the film and made no logical sense. The film seemed to be burnt out at that point, with the screenwriters and director being too clever for their own good and trying to put up something out of nowhere to make a character they previously killed off be the “lone survivor”, instead of the male protagonist that had been with the whole movie,and whom we expected to be the survivor since that was the case in the 1981 movie. The ending was so illogical and stupid that I feel like deducting one whole star from the movie’s rating because of it. However, being the generous fellow that I am, I’m going to let the other 90% of the movie rest on its laurels. Evil Dead is one of the few remakes that does justice to the original. When I compare this to crap that rapes everything that made the original movie good, like Steve Martin’s remake of The Pink Panther, there’s no doubt that 2013’s Evil Dead deserves a very good rating. Unlike the vast majority of remakes out there, it understands what made its predecessor a great movie.

 

*** out of ****

ReelReviews #20: Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013)

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APRIL 29, 2014 SCREENING: TEXAS CHAINSAW 3D (2013)

 

Of the three horror films I looked at the final week of April, each of them was a confusing entry in an exist horror franchise. Texas Chainsaw 3D might be the most confusing of the three. After having four only loosely connected films based on the universe of the first movie, the series was remade in the 2000’s. This is not a sequel or a prequel to the remake, but rather its supposedly a “direct sequel” to the original 1974 movie. That sounded like a cool idea and I was intrigued about what they’d come up with. Alas, the results let me down.

Given that the film was advertised as picking up right when the original ended, it gave the filmmakers plenty of leeway to tell all kinds of stories about the famous backwoods inbred cannibal family from Texas. 1986’s Texas Chainsaw Massage 2 took place in real time, so it was a dozen years after the first film. Plenty of things could have happened between the first and second movies, so the new 2013 movie would have plenty of room to play around with, or so it seemed.

Unfortunately, while the movie starts off well enough and seamlessly goes from the end of the 1974 movie to minutes later to show us what happens next, the rest of the movie just bizarrely jumps ahead 40 years to “modern day” Texas. Why? I guess they figured audiences wouldn’t want a period piece and need to see events set in 2014. There’s been a ton of criticism here because the time line they came up with doesn’t make sense. I agree. It picks up in “modern day” after a baby is born at the start of the movie, but instead of an actual 40 year old actress playing the role, the character is now 25ish. Not only does this movie squander its opportunity to tell more stories in the original era of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it apparently breaks its own rules for the time line its set in.

I guess it really not fair for me to give this movie a detailed review (or any kind of review), since I lost interest after about 20 minutes. I “watched” this film in the sense that it played in the background while I went about doing other things, so I missed most of the plot developments, if you can call them that. I did stick around for the climax, which included some pretty ridiculous stuff that the filmmakers no doubt thought would be a “kewl” idea. One example is a female character discovering that Leatherface is her long lost relative that her family has shielded from her all these years, leading her to embrace him in the end as her savior. She gleefully yells “Do your thing, cuz!” as he shows up with his chainsaw to slaughter the guys that have been pursuing her. Groan. By the way, Leatherface sure seems to get around pretty well for a character that would now be in his 60s.

It’s a shame that a concept for a film that had such intriguing promise was apparently mishandled and now there’s no place for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise to go. A horror series about a deformed retarded guy wielding a chainsaw on behalf of his crazy inbred family should be pretty easy to write a fun horror story. But in this case, they totally dropped the ball.

* out of ****

ReelReviews #19: Fright Night 2 (2013)

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APRIL 28, 2014 SCREENING: FRIGHT NIGHT 2 (2013)

 

Let’s begin with a disclaimer: Fright Night “2” is not a sequel to 2011’s Fright Night. It’s not even a remake of the original Fright Night II from 1988. Despite the title, it’s actually yet another remake of the original 1985 film. You can think of Fright Night (2011) and Fright Night 2 (2013) as different ways of retelling the original 1985 movie in modern times. It’s almost as if someone in Hollywood had a contest and told two different film crews to watch the 80s film and come up with their own separate ways to keep the basic storyline intact but radically alter the material for a fresh, modern take on the story. Going into the film with this in mind, you can view the 2013 film objectively.

For a low budget, direct-to-video movie with a bunch of unknown actors, I thought the results were pretty damn impressive. That’s not to say this movie doesn’t have flaws or that its any kind of award winning film, but it is very creative and entertaining. However, it starts off strong and ultimately finishes pretty weakly. Interestingly enough, it shares the common trait that is predecessor had of re-inventing the original Fright Night story so much that you won’t know will happen next, even if you’ve seen the 1985 movie a dozen times. The basic characters are there and it takes you from point A to point B, but does so in a completely different way. Even more interesting, it tends to make the opposite choices that the 2011 remake did. For example, the 2011 movie decided to change the villain, a vampire named Jerry Dandringe, from merely a suave SOB to a bloodthirsty psychopath who still maintained an aura of a nice guy on the surface. Here, the vampire is “Gerri Dandridge”, a sophisticated female college professor, and it turns out she’s really the famous historical figure Elizabeth Báthory. The latter was a real life figure who used to bathe in the blood of her victims and claimed it maintained her eternal youth.

The Bathory twist had me very intrigued but it seemingly re-invented Fright Night from the ground up. In other ways, its much more faithful to the 1985 movie than the 2011 remake. The famous late night TV horror show host who has the persona of a real life “vampire hunter” but is just an actor was memorably played by Roddy McDowell in the 1985 movie. The 2011 remake radically changed this to a Las Vegas stuntman played by David Tennant of the Doctor Who fame. The 2013 movie goes back to Fright Night’s roots and once again the vampire hunter is a late night TV star – although this time he’s cleverly changed to a reality TV host to make it more relevant for modern times. Sadly, while the character is a major player in both the 1985 and 2011 movies, he’s reduced to a much smaller supporting role here. Another change that was more faithful is that the main character’s sidekick is much closer to the 1985 version, so much so that many of us watching the movie expected him to say one of the famous lines from the original like “You’re so cool, Brewster!” or “Dinner’s in the oven!”

Unfortunately the film de-evolves to standard vampire fare towards the end of the movie, but the journey it takes us along the way makes it worth while. In terms of the cinematic legacy of vampire films, I doubt this movie will make a blip on the radar. But as an obscure, cheaply made, direct-to-video remake that is falsely advertising itself as a sequel to a remake, it’s a pleasant surprise. I think it’s worth a watch.
** ½ out of ****