It’s Alive (1969)
Written and Directed by Larry Buchanan (based on the story "Being" by Richard Matheson)
Run Time: 80 minutes
Tagline: Trapped In a Cave of Terror!
|Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk)
Wayne Thomas, the intrepid and self-proclaimed “assistant professor of paleontology”, helps Leilla and Bella fight for their lives against Greely and his evil rubber-suited monster. Will Wayne manage to put his assistant paleontological professorship to the test and survive the ordeals of this film? Read on and see!
|Norm Sterns (Corveth Ousterhouse )
Bitchy, whiny Norm just can’t understand why anybody would want to drive cross country. But hell, he’s always willing to pull off the road and stop at the local creepy Ozark reptile farm. Note: Monsters love to eat people named ‘Norm’!
|Leilla Sterns (Shirley Bonne)
Leilla, Norm’s wife, screams and faints as needed. She also falls in love with Wayne and does whatever the script requires. Anything else more than that is probably asking too much.
|Greely (Billy Thurman)
The local creepy redneck, Greely, runs a “zoo” consisting of 3 snakes, a howler monkey, and an 80-foot mausasaurus. His hobbies include capturing women, feeding hitchhikers to monsters, and laughing like a maniac.
|Bella (Annabella Weenick)
Bella, Greely’s last victim, finds the strength to resist Greely’s domination and help the prisoners out of the cave…but will it be too late for her? (cue evil laughter)
|The Monster (Billy Thurman)
The “monster” lives in a cave and eats people. And that’s about it. Are you scared yet?
Say what you want about this film, director (and writer, and editor) Larry Buchanan never had any allusions as to the quality of his work. In fact, he often referred to himself as a "schlockmeister", and thought of the term as such a badge of honor that he used it in the title of his autobiography: It Came from Hunger: Tales of a Cinema Schlockmeister.
Yet no matter how bad his movies have been, and make no mistake, they are bad, they always turned a profit; even if barely. Compare that with the millions of dollars the so-called Hollywood professionals seem to flush down the toilet every week, and you have to give all the Buchanan’s and the Corman’s of the world a little credit: they made money and probably had fun while they did it. (Ed Wood is a different story, but let’s let poor Ed rest in much deserved peace for now.)
Buchanan embarked on his directorial career by helming a few low-to-middle ranking Westerns in the 1950′s before moving on to the fetid (and profitable) grounds of exploitation and science fiction. Tapping into the social and racial issues of the 60′s, Buchanan created ‘socially conscious’ films such as Free, White and 21 (1963), High Yellow (1965), and even a 1964 "what-if" film entitle The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, set in an alternate universe where Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t murdered and actually ended up facing trial for Kennedy’s assassination.
After Buchanan made a name for himself as somebody who could get the job done, and done cheap, AIP hired him to direct a series of made-for-TV remakes of some of their earlier sci-fi films such as (and among others)
- Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1966), a remake of Roger Corman’s 1956 It Conquered the World
- In the Year 2889 (1967) a remake of the post-nuclear war flick, Day the World Ended (1955)
- Creature of Destruction (1967), based on the 1957 hypnotist-turns-beautiful-woman-into-monster The She Creature.
On a side note, It’s Alive was actually supposed to be a remake of "Being", a film production of Richard "I am Legend" Matheson’s story by the same name. (By the way, if you haven’t read the original "I am Legend" book: Read it! The movie is crap compared to it.) Much to AIP’s chagrin, "Being" had to be shelved in 1964 after lead actor Peter Lorre passed away before filming could commence. Never missing an opportunity to make a few bucks off of anything, the studio dumped the script for "Being" into Buchanan’s lap for the remake, i.e., It’s Alive, even though the original film was never made. Thus, It’s Alive might very well be the only "remake" of a movie that was never actually made.
Larry Buchanan, the self-proclaimed "schlockmeister" himself, passed away in 2004 in Tucson, Arizona at the age of 81. A New York Times obituary eloquently summed up Buchanan’s opus:
“One quality united Mr. Buchanan’s diverse output: It was not so much that his films were bad; they were deeply, dazzlingly, unrepentantly bad. His work called to mind a famous line from H. L. Mencken , who, describing President Warren G. Harding’s prose, said, ‘It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.’"
Anyway, our tedious 90 minute journey begins with that eternal favorite cheap-movie bit: narration played over camera footage shot through a car window. Yes, folks, the Sterns, Norman and Leilla, are driving deep into the Ozarks mountains as part of their cross-country drive.
"And then…it started to rain."
Wow. Yeah. Exciting. This is going to be a fun movie.
Now instead of looking out of the side window as we drive by a featureless landscape, we endure several moments of looking out the windshield as, the narrator previously pointed out, it has started to rain. (The director, in a cruel touch, even includes the highly-annoying "squeak-squeak" of the windshield wipers as they sweep back and forth. Thanks, Larry.)
Ah, yes…now for the required "legend" story…
The local legend has it that when it "rains and the sun shines at the same time the Devil is kissing his wife."
You call that a legend? And I thought Johnny Longbow’s legend was dumb!
As the narration drones on (narration generously provided free of charge by Director
Larry Buchanan), we see a "Dinosaur Land" type tourist trap off to the side of the highway which "…bekons to the traveler…" At least according to the narrator. To me it says "Run the other way!"
"If Norman Stearns had known what danger lay screened by an Ozark forest…he never would have left the highway."
(And if I had known how bad this film actually would be, I never would have bought the damned DVD.)
So, narration completed, the car turns to the right, even though we just saw the Dinosaur Park on the left side of the road. But who cares, right?
With the credits rolling, and still looking out the damned windshield, Norm suddenly realizes that they’re almost out of gas. (Oh man, not the old Out of Gas bit…c’mon…)
"We should have at least been in Los Angeles by now," Norm complains.
Uh, Norm…you’re in Missouri, so you’re, what…1800 miles behind schedule! But you still have time to pull off the main road and take a look at a run-down Dinosaur Park in the middle of the freakin’ Ozark mountains??!! Oh, and you’re out of gas?!
Again: what an idiot.
After driving along a creepy dirt road for a while, Norm spots a jeep pulled off to the side of the road and stops to take a drink from a metal canister tied to the back of the Jeep. (Boy, Norm, help yourself.) When the Jeep’s owner, Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk), pops out of the bush, Norm asks for directions back to the highway. Since they’re low on fuel, Wayne suggests that the Stearns continue up the road to a, bum! bum! bum!, small farmhouse where they might be able to buy a little gas.
Cut to said farmhouse where creepy Farmer Greely runs a creepy "zoo" for the tourists. (For some reason, a howler monkey is foleyed onto the soundtrack at this point…Maybe Buchanan wasn’t aware that there are no howler monkeys in central Missouri…who knows.) The Stearns pull up and Norm begins to (rudely!) honk his horn like it’s some sort of service station. (Note to Norm: Don’t be rude to Ozark rednecks that run creepy zoos in the middle of nowhere.)
Greely announces that the gasoline truck will be around later in the day, so Norm and Leilla might as wait inside until the truck shows up. (Greely’s sly questions as too whether or not anybody is waiting for them, looking for them, etc, would have raised anybody’s hackles, but, no, not the stone-headed Stearns.)
Once inside, Greely scurries off to find his house keeper, Bella, only to find her sulking in her room, refusing to "do it again". What this "it" is, well, you can probably imagine it involves the giant ping-pong ball eyed monster on the DVD cover. Greely, always considerate of other’s feelings, smacks Bella around a bit and threatens to feed her to the monster if the Stearns catch wind of what’s going on and run away. Realizing that she has no choice, Bella goes downstairs to distract the Stearns while Greely goes outside to hide their car.
Just as Greely gets outside, Wayne drives up and asks if the Stearns are ok. (Why would he care?) Greely, responds by konking him on the back of the head with his pistol and dragging him down into a cave behind the house. Say what you may about Greely, but he sure is efficient.
Meanwhile, Bella brings the Stearns some tea and engages them in nervous chatter but balks when Norm asks her to open the curtains because she’s afraid they’ll see Greely dragging Wayne off into the woods. (Not to mention that they’d see Greely hiding their car.) Murmuring something about how "Mr. Greely doesn’t like to have them open," Norm shouts back "Well! He’ll just have to make an exception this time!" (I guess Norm isn’t used to being a guest in somebody’s house!) Leilla, the only one with any kind of sense, demands to leave, but Norm poo-poo’s her concerns and hell, the car’s out of gas anyway, so blah blah blah.
Greely, with the aid of crappy editing, suddenly teleports back into the living room and suggests that they take a gander at his "zoo" while they wait. As Leilla whimpers with nervous fear, and really Norm, maybe you should pay more attention to her misgivings, the Stearns accompany Greely behind the house to see his eclectic menagerie of stock-footage animals. (Snakes, monkeys, some sort of bob cat…basically whatever footage Buchanan could get his hands on for the scene.) At the end of the massive collection of, oh, 5 animals, Greely takes them down into his cave to see his "prize" animal.
Greely’s Amazing Zoo
Being a crappy, talky, turgid film, we’re now tormented with a long, long walking scene as the actors trudge through a real cave that I guess the producer bribed to have opened to them on a Sunday or something. (Or maybe they just filmed it when the tour guides weren’t looking.)
(In fact, the cave scenes were filmed in Onyx Cave, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a local tourist destination. I couldn’t resist looking up the web site for this place. The cave does have self-guided tours, and even though movie was filmed 40+ years ago, I suspect it has always been so – I wouldn’t be surprised if the camera and equipment were just snuck in and used to film the scenes.)
When Greely leaves the Stearns alone for a moment ostensibly to go and "turn on the rest of the lights", Norm and Leilla gaze around the cavern in numb disbelief.
"What kind of a place is this?" Norm wonders while peering about the, well, cave. So I Guess that’s what it is, Norm. Oh, wait, now I see it…there’s a bed and nightstand standing against the far wall. Yeah, that would be kind of strange.
To my great non-surprise, Greely pulls a lever which releases a set of iron bars behind Norm and his unwitting wife. "This room…wasn’t intended…just for us," Leilla stammers, "There’s been others here…what do you supposed happened to them?" (Once again, we’ll just have to take the actor’s word for it since the viewer is never shown anything.) Suddenly, up crawls a wounded Wayne Thomas from behind a set of stalagmites where Greely had previously dumped him. (How somebody couldn’t notice a grown man laying behind a little stalagmite is beyond me.)
OK, this is really BS. Thinking back to when Greely bonked Wayne on the head while the Stearns sat in the living room, there’s no way he could have dragged Wayne that deep into the cave and gotten all the way back to the living room in the time it took Norm to stand up and open the curtains. No freakin’ way. Normally I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of what might be considered an insignificant detail, but there are a couple of factors to keep in mind:
1) This movie makes me mad, so I want to "get even" with it.
2) This site thrives on insignificant details. So…there. Now I feel better.
Later that evening, Greely tries to rationalize his actions to Bella, who’s having second thoughts about the whole "feed strangers to the monster in the cave" lifestyle she’s been sharing with him all these years. Greely, using an allegory involving a drop of rain, a lizard, and a hog (!) tries to explain in a round-about way how everything is important in the circle of life.
Meanwhile, back in the cave, Leilla sees the iron bars and locked door and astutely notes, "It looks like we’re prisoners here." Boy, there’s no sneaking one by you, is there Leilla?
"Hey, there’s a tunnel back here," Norm shouts, "It goes almost straight down!" (Uh…how in the hell is that supposed to help then? Shouldn’t you be more interested in the "up" direction?)
Anyway, Bella brings some food down to the prisoners at which time Norm immediately accosts her and demands to know about the tunnel.
"The house…[dramatic pause]…the cellar of the house," Bella meekly informs him.
"You could both go to jail for this!" Norm threatens as he demands to see Greely. (Um…could go to jail?)
Leilla jumps in and tries a softer, ‘womanly’ approach.
Bella quickly confesses that there is an "it", but if she reveals any more information, then Greely will give her to "it" as well.
Realizing that this would be an ideal time to escape, Norm and Wayne overpower Bella, force her up the tunnel to the cellar door, and force Greely to unlock the passage and let them out.
Wait. No. That’s what anybody with half a brain would have done.
Our group of imbeciles, simply ask Bella to give them her lantern as they let her traipse back out of the cage and lock them in again.
"What is this thing?" Wayne asks. (Well, Wayne, actually it’s an "it", but let’s not split hairs.)
Norm, actually showing a rare glimpse of intelligence, suggests that Greely is just trying to scare them into paying him money for their release.
"Well, they don’t stand to make too much off an assistant professor of paleontology!" Wayne says in what has to be the Year’s Clunkiest Line of Dialog.
Anyhoo, Wayne takes a flashlight and decides to explore the tunnel.
"You really take this ‘thing’ business seriously, don’t you?" Norm derides him. (Again, guys, at the risk of being pedantic, if they’d listened to Bella, they would remember that it’s an "it", not a "thing". Sheesh! Attention to detail, people, attention to detail.)
Not wanting to see Wayne go into the scary crevice alone, Leilla accompanies him into the darkness. Norm, not to be out-toughed by an assistant professor of paleontology, reluctantly trudges along with them into the "darkness". (I type "darkness" in quotes because this was filmed in a tourist attraction after all, so as our intrepid prisoners plunge deeper into the unknown, there are helpful handrails (!) and artfully placed spot lights illuminating all the rock formations in cheerful colors. It just doesn’t say "Cracks of Death".)
"Listen!" Wayne says as the trio comes to an abrupt stop.
"It sounds like water," Norm helpfully explains to the viewer since the soundtrack is absolutely silent. (I guess the sound-fx guys forgot to foley water noises over the scene. I’m not kidding. It’s really that bad.)
"Good Lord, look at this," Norm says with as much enthusiasm as somebody asking for an Arby’s job application.
Yep, it’s another helpfully illuminated and hand-railed staircase leading down into even more indistinguishable caves. But this time it’s extra spooky because one of the film crew set off a fire extinguisher to make a bunch of "fog". (I just have to reiterate how funny it is to think that the evil Greely would actually install safety handrails leading down to the monster’s feeding pit.)
"I’m going to find out where that water leads to," says Wayne in a determined assistant professor of paleontology manner.
Greely, realizing that there’s about 40 minutes of run time left, teleports out of nowhere so the others can kill some time and try to convince him to let them go. Blah blah blah, in an awkward scene, even for this movie (!), Wayne manages to knock Greely’s gun out his hand; the camera gives us a quick cut-away to make sure we realize that this is a Plot Point.
Greely just laughs and runs off while the others stare at his receding figure instead of, oh, I don’t know, grabbing the gun and forcing him to let them out of the caves.
Oh wait. In the scuffle for the gun, Wayne was shot. (Nice editing.)
"I’ll be ok," he says as Leilla dabs her handkerchief directly over his heart. (So he was shot in the heart!?)
"Did he get away?" Wayne gasps.
"Yes," Norm growls, "and thanks to you he probably won’t be coming back!"
OK…what the hell is Norm’s problem? Fine. He’s a jerk. But he’s just a jerk for the sake of the script. There is no reason for him to despise Wayne as he does. I mean, Wayne managed to disarm Greely and took a bullet to the chest in the process, and Norm still feels compelled to nag on him. Why, Mr. Buchanan, why?!
Oh man, now Norm and Leilla start arguing over their relationship and what Leilla really means to him and…folks, is this really the time to air out your dirty laundry? Soooo…Norm trudges off down into the fog by himself as Leilla finishes tending to Wayne’s wounds.
"Stearn…you better get back up here!" Wayne shouts with a surprising amount of energy for somebody who’s just been shot in the heart.
"Why?" shouts Norm from below.
And…as if to answer that very question, up pops the Monster in all of it’s rubber-suit, ping-pong ball eyed glory:
This really has to be one of the goofiest monsters of all time. And after over 5 years of running this site, that’s saying a lot!
Norm fires off a couple of shots at the..oh wait…is it that big?!! Oh…come on! Yes, through the magic of foreshortening, i.e., filming the monster closer to the lens to make it look "huge", we’re supposed to believe that the creature must be about 100 feet tall.
Anyway, Norman, because he’s a jerk, gets eaten, while Wayne, magically recovered from his sucking chest wound, jumps up and shields Leilla from the horrible sight as he shooshes her up the stairs and back to the relative safety of the caged area.
"There’s been nothing like that for millions of years!" notes Wayne, who is after all, an assistant professor in paleontology.
(I’ll go out on a limb here and say that there’s probably NEVER been anything like that…)
Wayne suggests that the monster is a "massasaurus" a kind of "aquatic lizard."
Uh, sure, Wayne, sure.
Later, Greely saunters down to the cave to indulge in the film’s obligatory "James Bond Villain Exposition" scene. (The scene where the Villain spills the beans to James Bond just before he kills him because there is just NO WAY Bond can escape, so what the hell? Might as well reveal all the details…) As the prisoners listen in rapt attention, Greely proceeds to fill in the monster’s back story about how he found it, locked it up in the cavern and fed it "cattle, sheep,…sometimes a coyote that I’d catch…"
As you probably guessed, Greely eventually moved up to feeding transients and tourists to the monster, "people who wouldn’t be missed…people whose family and friends thought they’d been swallawd up [sic]."
As Greely curtly reminds Leilla that she must decide whether she wants to be his new woman or be monster food (I think I know what I’d choose), Wayne makes one last ditch effort to appeal to Greely’s rational side,
"Greely! For once, try to think like a scientist!"
(Did Wayne mention that he’s an assistant professor of paleontology?)
"Why should I care about mankind?!" Greely bitterly shouts before breaking into a bout of really, really bad mad scientist laughter. (Really, I thought actor Billy Thurman would get a hernia from forcing his laughter so hard.)
Well, while Greely laughs his ass off all the way back to the house, Bella sneaks down to the cave and explains her story to Wayne and Leilla via a long, boring flashback sequence.
"It seems like an eternity ago…" she begins, (Yeah…tell me about it!) as we fade to see her driving a car around through the woods. (Oh no, please, not another driving scene…)
Blah, blah, blah-diddy-blah. Like many others before her, Bella made the mistake of stopping over for the night and was captured by the psychopathic Greely. But instead of feeding her to <cue evil laughter>, "it", he kept her around because she was so "purdee".
He finally serves her a dead mouse on a plate and she cracks…Uh. Whatever.
OK, after 20 minutes of Bella’s flashback…
20 minutes!!! It’s a new Monster Shack Flashback Duration record! The whole freakin’ movie’s only 80 minutes long as it is!…
Bella tries to escape but Greely eventually catches her, knocks her to the ground, and begins viciously beating her with his belt.
"…I’d become one of Greely’s animals," Bella tearfully concludes as we leave the flashback and cut back to the cave.
Moving right along, Wayne convinces Bella to abandon Greely and join sides with them. Remembering that he has some dynamite in his bag (and what assistant professor of paleontology wouldn’t have dynamite with them at all times), Wayne tells Bella to sneak upstairs and bring back a couple of sticks of dynamite from his car. ( I’m not too sure that setting off explosions in a cave while you’re in it is such a good idea, but let’s just keep moving along.)
Bella, desperately needing an excuse to sneak the dynamite down to Wayne, decides that delivering a fresh pot of coffee to the prisoners is the best ruse she can come up with. (Bella, Greely’s dumb, but he ain’t that dumb!) Since everything just sort of "happens" in this movie for no reason, for no reason Greely just happens to walk into the kitchen at that very moment. Naturally, Greely suspects Bella of sneaking around, and deftly drugs the coffee behind her back so he can go down and snoop around the cell after everybody’s been rendered unconscious.
Sooooooooo…Bella nonchalantly goes back down to the cave and delivers the (unbeknownst to her) drugged coffee along with the smuggled dynamite. Wayne immediately sets to work rigging a crude bomb and instructs Bella to meet them at the car in "…oh, about 30 minutes…". (Wow! Now that’s precision timing!)
BUT WAIT!!! WAYNE AND LEILLA DRANK THE COFFEE!
I guess Greely’s poison is a slow acting agent since it gives Leilla time to flirt with Wayne and discuss getting together with him once they escape the caves. (Good grief woman, your husband was just eaten by an 80-foot beast from hell only 30 minutes ago!) Thankfully for the viewer, this nauseating flirt scene is interrupted as the drug finally takes effect causing Wayne and Leilla to quickly pass out… but not before the Wonder Wayne manages to hide the dynamite under the bed! You go, boy!
After a few moments, Greely comes down and begins snooping around to see if Bella and the prisoners have been conspiring behind his back. Not finding the dynamite which is laying juuuuuuuust under the edge of the bed (read: of course he would have seen it!), Greely scoops Leilla up in his arms and takes her down to the feeding pit. Seconds later, Bella comes down (from the house? Wasn’t she told to meet them at the car?) and tells Wayne, groggy but recovering, that Leilla is in mortal peril in the room below.
Meanwhile, down below, Greely binds Leilla’s arms and legs (why? why?) as the monster peeks out from behind a rock to see what’s on the menu for tonight.
And man, there’s no way that monster is 80-feet tall…
I mean, come on!
Greely, in a rare fit of generosity, gives Leilla one last chance to join him in the house and become his servant, or else, to put it bluntly, she’s monster chow. (That’s probably a pretty tough decision for somebody to make…hmmmm…be fed to a hell beast or become Greely’s maid…I know what I’d choose.)
Unsurprisingly, Leilla refuses, the monster gets closer, and, and…oh, here comes Wonder Wayne running down the steps to save the day. (I guess we’re not supposed to remember that he was shot in the chest 20 minutes ago. He’s seems remarkably recovered, and his shirt doesn’t even have a blood stain on it. Strange.)
As luck would have it, Greely spots his pistol laying on the floor at the foot of the stairs (Remember the pistol that Norm knocked out of Greely’s hand about an eternity ago?), but Wayne plants a vicious kick right in Greely’s kisser and knocks him unconscious before he can grab it. (Using "Greely" and "kisser" in the same sentence really gives me the creeps.)
Well, Wayne and Leilla run back to the surface as Bella walks down the stairs. (Boy, this place gets a lot of freakin’ traffic for a hell-beast feeding pit!) Seeing the dynamite on the floor, Bella lights the fuse and explains to the now-recovered Greely that she plans to blow the place up in order to put an end to the monster. (And the film.) Naturally, the time Bella uses to needlessly explain her motives to the viewer gives Greely an opportunity to grab the pistol and shoot her in the chest. (If Bella’s powers of recovery are anything like Wayne’s, she really has nothing to worry about it.)
Anyway, big surprise, the monster craws out of its goo-pool just as the dynamite goes off burying it and Greely beneath tons of rock.
Boy, it’s just so damned ironic, you know?
Back outside, Leilla insists that Wayne should tell someone about all this. (Uh, ya think?!)
"Yeah, they’ll dig," Wayne whines in reply, "They’ll dig, but they won’t find anything!" (They won’t find the corpse of an 80-foot lizard-man in a tiny cave complete with stairs, handrails, and illumination?)
"Maybe there never was anything…" Wayne puzzlingly concludes as we cut back to the monster’s bubbling pool and, yes, see the the corny closing shot…(Maybe he’s referring to Monster A-Go Go?)
Dennis Grisbeck (June 2010)
OK, not to be overly pendantic about a film of such low caliber, but:
1) The cage that Norm and the others are locked in has a tunnel to the cellar door of Greely’s house. Fine. So, Norm and Wayne: why not wait just outside the cellar door and whack Greely on the head the next time he opens it?
2) The prisoners are kept in a holding cell (complete with bed, clean bedsheets, nightstand, dinner table, and chairs!) with a tunnel that leads down to the monster’s lair. This means that Greely must enter the cage, grab somebody, and force them downstairs to be fed to the creature. Wouldn’t this make him an easy target to be overpowered by all the other prisoners every time he came in?
3) And why the furniture in the cell? Would people really be held in there so long? We’re told that the monster is 80-feet tall; think how much it has to eat each day! Would any batch of prisoners ever stay in the holding cell long enough to require a place to sleep? (And why would Greely even bother to provide such comforts to his victims in the first place?)
And once again, I like to point out the most blatant example of chewing up run time I’ve ever seen: Bella’s 22 minute flashback! Unbelievable!
OK, I’ve spent waaaaaaaaay too much time on this movie already. I’m outta here.