“It's Alive!”(1969) -***
It seems faintly absurd to talk about a director like Larry Buchanan having a best movie, but I believe I may have stumbled upon precisely that. This last entry in Buchanan’s infamous series of made-for-TV horror and science fiction films is the only one of the bunch that owes nothing to any previous AIP production, and while hardly impressive in the absolute sense, it is nevertheless far more successful than any of its misbegotten companion pieces. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that “It’s Alive!” simply cries out to be remade by somebody who, unlike Larry Buchanan, possesses both a modicum of real directorial ability and the capacity to invest some minimally useful amount of money in the project. The basic premise and plot are so compelling that not even an absolute no-talent like Buchanan is capable of fucking them up completely— which is less surprising than it might initially seem, given that “It’s Alive!” appears to be an uncredited adaptation of a particularly fine Richard Matheson story called “Being”— and for once, the script doesn’t demand much more of the typical cast of Buchanan regulars than they are capable of delivering. Even the pacing is pretty solid for the first half of the film, and someone who missed the opening credits might very well not realize they were watching a Buchanan flick until about the 35-minute mark, when the magnificently shitty monster suit (recycled from Creature of Destruction) makes its first appearance.
We begin with an asshole and his wife on a cross-country drive. The asshole is Norman Sterns (Corveth Ousterhouse), the wife is named Leila (Shirley Bonne), and the cross-country drive is meant to take them from their home in New York all the way to Los Angeles and back while spending as little time on the interstate highway system as possible. The whole business was Leila’s idea. Having lived her entire life in America’s largest city, she now wants nothing more than to see what the countryside really looks like. When we join the Sternses, they have just hit the Ozark Plateau, and Leila is excitedly insisting that they take a quick detour to check out the life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs at the Spider Creek Camp, which can just be seen from the road. Norman indulges her, but he grumbles all the while. And truth be told, a certain amount of grumbling is perhaps in order, as Leila has apparently insisted upon so many such quick detours that their gas-guzzling Oldsmobile 98 is getting dangerously low on fuel, and it is far from obvious when the next opportunity to fill up the tank might arise. What’s more, when the Sternses stop to ask for directions from a man who turns out to be paleontologist Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk, from Village of the Giants and Mars Needs Women, playing an age-appropriate role for once), they discover that they must have left their planned route without realizing it at some point, and that they are therefore entirely lost.
At Wayne’s suggestion, the Sternses pull in at the nearest dwelling, the home of a middle-aged man called Greavey (Bill Thurman, of Zontar, the Thing from Venus and Creature from Black Lake). To Norman’s dismay, Greavey has neither gasoline to spare nor a telephone over which arrangements to purchase gas in the nearest population center could be made. However, Greavey says he expects the truck which supplies his fuel (evidently all the electricity at his place comes from an on-site generator) to arrive fairly soon; if Norman and Leila don’t mind waiting, they can fill up their car when it comes around. As a matter of fact, they mind waiting very much— Norman because he’s an impatient, argumentative cock, and Leila because Greavey and his pet reptiles give her the creeps— but since neither one of them has any better ideas and because roaming the countryside at random in the hope of stumbling upon a gas station is manifestly out of the question, it looks like sticking around at Greavey’s house for a while is just what they’ll do. With that settled, Greavey goes off to fetch his housekeeper, Bella Pitman (Annabelle MacAdams, from Keep My Grave Open and Creature of Destruction), so that the Sternses might have some refreshments while they wait.
Okay— so if Greavey is such a helpful, friendly guy, then why does Bella seem to be so terrified of him? And how do you explain what he does when Wayne Thomas swings by to check on Norman and Leila? Rather than bringing Thomas inside, the other man keeps him in the front yard with a story about how his unexpected guests’ car is not merely low on gas but suffering from mechanical troubles as well. Then when Wayne pops the hood to have a look, Greavey sneaks up behind him and whacks him on the head with a wrench. Soon after disposing of Thomas, Greavey comes back inside and makes a suggestion to Norman and Leila: if they’re getting bored and antsy, maybe they’d like to step out back and have a look at the “zoo” he used to run as a roadside attraction back in pre-interstate days. He’s got monkeys, coyotes, snakes of every description, and God alone knows what else, all of them caught by him personally (a claim which is more than a little hard to swallow in the case of those monkeys). And if his guests don’t mind extending the tour a little longer, Greavey has something really impressive down in the caves below his property.
Norman and Leila may not have known what to expect down in the cavern, but it’s probably safe to say they hadn’t bargained on being locked in a cage with Wayne Thomas in anticipation of getting fed to some sort of monster. You see, when Greavey discovered the caves that riddle his land, he also learned that they were not uninhabited. Living in a hot spring at the bottom of one of the deepest chambers was a fierce reptilian creature about the size of a large man, evidently a freak holdover from the Mesozoic Era, and the lizard-loving Greavey took to feeding it, perhaps with an eye to incorporating it into his zoo someday. The interstate took away all of his tourist trade long before he’d tamed the creature sufficiently to trap it, but by then Greavey already looked on it almost as a pet. In any case, the thing in the cave was content to eat the sheep and cattle and wild game which Greavey brought it, but it never seemed quite satisfied until the day when it ate the traveling salesman. Knowing at last what his pet monster really wanted, Greavey set about making sure the thing got it; the raging case of misanthropy that took hold of him after the interstate wrecked his livelihood made that a lot easier than it might sound, too.
Greavey’s captives think he’s just a nut at first, but they get the hint when the monster climbs out of its pool and chows down on Norman. Now as it happens, Wayne has something that would almost certainly save his and Leila’s asses— either by opening the cage or killing Greavey’s creature— but the bag containing his blasting caps is still out in the Jeep, where it can do him and his remaining cellmate precious little good. The situation changes to their advantage, however, when Bella overhears Greavey offering to reprieve Leila on the condition that she assume Bella’s place in the operation. Bella, you see, is a captive herself, seized two years ago in much the same way that the Sternses were. Greavey used classical brainwashing techniques (starvation, sleep deprivation, various forms of physical and psychological abuse) to break her will and make her, for all practical purposes, his slave, but she’s never accepted her role in the care and feeding of the cave monster in any more than the most grudging way. So if Greavey is thinking seriously about cutting her loose and feeding her to his creature, then Bella is perfectly happy to give Leila and Wayne whatever assistance she can.
Well… Surprisingly enough, it seems that not even Larry Buchanan is entirely hopeless when given a sufficiently good (and sufficiently small-scale) story to work with. With no alien invasions or top-secret military operations or nuclear holocausts to worry about, the budget (and talent) overreach that plagued the rest of Buchanan’s output is much less of a problem, while the prosaic setting saves the cast from having to be convincing as anything other than the ordinary folks that most of them were. Bill Thurman’s performance is especially shocking coming after his turns in Curse of the Swamp Creature and In the Year 2889. He’s an abject failure at diabolical mania, it’s true, but when the script calls for quiet menace, he absolutely nails it. You really can believe this guy kidnapping sidetracked travelers and murdering them to feed his pet.
But let’s not get carried away here— an unusually effective Larry Buchanan movie is still a Larry Buchanan movie. As usual, that means ludicrously inept day-for-night cinematography, awkward and uneven pacing, glaringly obvious cost-cutting measures, a monster suit that aggressively defies belief, and a few directorial decisions that are outright inexplicable. To begin with Greavey’s pet dinosaur man, not only is it impossible to take the thing seriously, it’s impossible to take seriously the very idea of trying to take it seriously! When you consider that Buchanan liked this monster suit enough to use it twice, the mind simply boggles. And nowhere are the effects of the movie’s cramped shooting schedule more apparent than in the creature’s scenes; all of the monster footage was obviously shot in one go and the suit returned immediately to the closet where it had spent the two years since Creature of Destruction, because never once does the dinosaur man appear in the frame with any of its supposed victims. The fucked-up pacing is the most disappointing of the film’s defects, because the first 40 minutes or so move along at a pretty good clip before “It’s Alive!” bogs down in the accustomed Buchanan manner. What makes this doubly unfortunate is that just about all the blame for the dragginess of the second half can be laid on a single stupid decision on Larry’s part. When the time comes to give us the exposition related to Bella’s background and her role in Greavey’s crimes, Buchanan gives it to us in the form of one continuous flashback which consumes fully 22 minutes of the film’s 80-minute running time, during which the only dialogue of any kind is a sporadic voiceover from Annabelle MacAdams. It stops “It’s Alive!” dead in its tracks, and by the time the flashback is over with, there just isn’t enough left of the movie for it to regain its momentum.