Sunday 10 March 2013

It's Alive [1974]

IT'S ALIVE is an American horror film that was written, produced and directed by Larry Cohen and originally released in the US in October 1974.  It stars John Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, William Wellman Jr and Daniel Holzman.  From the lurid-sounding premise of a mutant baby running amok in suburban Los Angeles, Larry Cohen managed to create one of the most moving and, in its own way, profound horror movies of the 1970s.  It also boasts one of the greatest performances in a horror film, from any period, by the wonderful American character actor John Ryan who - getting star billing for perhaps the only time in his career - pulled out all the stops and delivered the finest hour-and-a-half of his career.

Ryan plays happily married PR executive Frank Davis, whose wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) is expecting their second child.  When Lenore goes into labour late one night, Frank packs son Chris (Daniel Holzman) off to friend Charley's (William Wellman Jr) and rushes her to the hospital.

Killing time in the waiting room with three other expectant fathers, the naturally upbeat and positive Frank finds his companions talk of pollution and pest control tedious and makes his way back up nearer the maternity ward.  To his horror, a doctor staggers through the door clutching a gaping wound at his throat.  Rushing into the delivery room, Frank sees all of the hospital staff dead, his wife lying delirious on the table, and his newborn child nowhere to be seen.

The thing I love about Larry Cohen's movies, and about good genre movies in general, is that they can take ideas or situation that would simply be too daft, distasteful or otherwise untouchable, and turn them into cinematic gold.  Like George A. Romero, Cohen just doesn't accept that merely because he happens to be making a horror film he is unable to deal with serious themes, real human emotion and believable characters. If you look back through Cohen's body of work, at first glance all you see is some attention-grabbing titles, in the best tradition of exploitation cinema: BLACK CAESAR [1973], GOD TOLD ME TO [1976], Q - THE WINGED SERPENT [1982] and THE STUFF [1985].  But actually when you come to see these films and others by Cohen you realise there is a fierce intelligence behind them as well as real compassion for his characters who are invariably ordinary characters facing circumstances beyond endurance.

IT'S ALIVE is a case in point.  Frank Davis is a moderately successful family man who adores his wife and son and can't wait for another addition to his family.  What he has to face up to, however, is not only the tragedy of seeing that dream die but also of seeing it turn into any parent's worst nightmare.  The life that he and his wife have created is a monstrous perversion of humanity, one that reacts to human contact with lethal violence.  Although Cohen still delivers the requisite shocks and scares for the die-hard horror crowd, he seems just as interested, if not more so, in the side effects of the birth on Frank's personal life.  The case of the killer baby is soon all over the media and Frank finds that the revulsion it provokes among the general public is reflected back on to himself.  He's effectively fired from his job because his boss can't afford to keep such a notorious figure on the staff of a PR company.  He even begins to question what it is within him that produced such a monstrosity.

The luckless Frank gets the poke from his boss who asks him to leave by the back door
As the film unfolds, Frank feelings towards the baby slowly start to change and, just at the point at which most horror movies have their hero realising the creature / monster / devil (or whatever it happens to be) is thoroughly evil and has to be destroyed, he finds himself beginning to understand that the child isn't simply evil incarnate but merely a product of forces beyond its control.  His desire as a father to protect his own flesh and blood comes into conflict with his desire as a human being to put an end to all the killing.  The climax, when it comes, in the subterranean tunnels of the LA river, it seems to me intentionally recalls the personal moral dilemma facing Holly Martins in Carol Reed's peerless THE THIRD MAN [1949]: how do you resolve a situation whereby someone you love so dearly has to be killed to protect mankind?

Larry Cohen's films aren't particularly adventurous visually but what they do have is a terrific immediacy.  There's no wasted time in his pictures and, putting it bluntly, no bullshit.  They set up the characters and situation so quickly and effectively that before you know where you are you're right in the thick of things.  That sense of being personally caught up in events is central to Cohen's films and he achieves this chiefly through an almost unparalleled skill at location shooting.  If you watch any of his films listed above, but particularly the first three, you'll get a truly vivid sense of location, of being there; I'd say that the only person who has photographed New York City as well as Larry Cohen is Woody Allen.

John Ryan was a terrific character actor who usually featured some way down the cast list but nevertheless created memorable supporting characters.  He had a wonderfully odd face that usually wore a smile but a scornful, somehow threatening smile; a good example of what I mean can be found in his performance in Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES [1970].  But given the chance to play a leading role, and what's more a sympathetic character, he really went for it and in so doing elevated the film into greatness.

Edited (18/06/13) to add:  One glaring omission from my original review of IT'S ALIVE was mention of the wonderfully ominous score by Bernard Herrmann.  In my view it's right up there with his very best work.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Mark of the Devil [1970]

MARK OF THE DEVIL is a German period horror drama that was directed by Michael Armstrong and originally released in February 1970 under the title Hexen bis aufs Blut gequält, which roughly translates as the does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin Witches Are Tortured to Death.  Regardless of what you call it, it stars Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina, Reggie Nalder, and the splendidly named Herbert Fux.  Evidently the producers decreed that you can never have too many Fux in your movie so also cast actress Gaby Fuchs.  It's a very dark tale of witch hunts, the moral vacuum that is organised religion, confessions, torture and executions.  All good delirious themes you might think, and you'd be right.

An Austrian town is in the grip of witch hunt mania, with loathsome local official Albino (Reggie Nalder) doing most of the hunting.  News of his zealous sadism has however reached the church and even they are dismayed, although mostly by his failure to keep adequate records.  Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), the church's top man in this field, despatches his protege Christian (Udo Kier) to the town to prepare for his Lordship's visit.  Christian's only been there five minutes when he gets into a scrap with Albino, who is most put out that someone is coming to put a stop to his fun and games.  He's a busy lad, Christian, because shortly after that he's falling in love with barmaid Vanessa (Olivera Katarina).

I'm sure you can see how this all pans out.  Vanessa's simple peasant charm and enormous knockers melt Christian's heart and he begins to see the error of his witch burning ways.  Albino meets Lord Cumberland and, recognising a fellow sadist when he sees one, threatens to expose the Lord for the moral hypocrite he is.  Cumberland strangles Albino, accidentally witnessed by Christian who is then arrested and next in line for the sharp instruments.  Vanessa stirs up the townsfolk, who descend on the Lord's castle for a showdown.

It's all very much in the wake of Brit horror classic WITCHFINDER GENERAL [1968], a film which spawned a load of imitators at the end of the 1960s and beyond.  Of those that I have seen I'd say Jess Franco's THE BLOODY JUDGE [1970] has the best cast but is the sleaziest, Michael Reeves' aforementioned WITCHFINDER GENERAL is the most intelligent while MARK OF THE DEVIL is the most explicit and the most upsetting.  Coming much later than the others, Michael Armstrong and producer Adrian Hoven evidently decided that to have any sort of impact at all they'd have to go a lot further than their predecessors and consequently really upped the ante in terms of violence.

A 'witch' about to be lowered on to a bonfire
I suppose you could say that these films were the 'torture porn' movies of their day but at least they offered some sort of historical context, however spurious or inaccurate, to the mayhem.  Indeed, in Matthew Hopkins and George Jeffreys two real-life figures were put on to the screen.  Armstrong's film can't boast that but instead sets out in forensic and gruesome detail the realities of what characters like those actually got up to, deep in the dungeons of wherever they had set up shop.

What's most upsetting about the film though is not the brutality of the torture sequences, as grim as they are, but the understanding - made clear in the film - that such sadism was being visited upon almost entirely innocent people.  Not only that but the perpetrators of such inhumanity and injustice were senior figures in the church, who knew full well what they were doing.  The torture thus becomes even more unbearable and provokes even more outrage.

Possibly the most distressing torture in the entire film: this poor chap is locked in a cell and forced to endure hour after hour of ice cold water dripping on to his head, one drop at a time
I should add that I suspect this actually rather profound effect was unintentional.  Producer Adrian Hoven seems to have been a somewhat unscrupulous character whose intention was simply to make as bloody a film as possible, figuring that notoriety alone would ensure his film turned a profit.  Director Michael Armstrong had other ideas which apparently led to clashes on set.  It's very rare that films made under those conditions reflect anything other than the muddled circumstances of their production.

Herbert Lom
The cast is worth a word or two.  Herbert Lom of course is familiar to millions, both from his big budget films and the smaller genre films he appeared in so regularly.  Herbert sadly died last year at the ripe old age of 95 and was quite rightly included in the 'In Memoriam' section of the 85th Academy Awards show last month.  Udo Kier is something of a legend in European horror and has racked up a vast filmography, no doubt due to the fact that will seemingly appear in absolutely anything.  He's still an elegant figure today but in his mid-twenties, when this film was made, he was a quite incredibly handsome guy.  Too handsome in fact, and with piercing blue eyes, which gave him the air of there being something not quite right about him - a positive boon in the horror field in which he has so frequently and memorably worked.  If you can try and catch the two films he made in the mid-70s with Paul Morrissey: BLOOD FOR DRACULA and FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN.  He's outstanding in the title role in both films: utterly committed and totally fearless.

The great Udo Kier
If Kier is a major icon of horror then Reggie Nalder must at least qualify as a minor one.  Kier's looks made him the perfect perverted anti-hero but Nalder's unique visage quite definitely and inescapably made him a monster.  From the lower lip down, Nalder at some point in his young life obviously suffered some appalling burns which twisted and contorted his flesh into a permanent mask of horror.  Credit to him though, he turned this to his advantage and ended up playing some of the most memorable and striking monsters in film history.  Not only that but he also claimed roles in films directed by the likes of Hitchcock, Frankenheimer and Fellini.  But I suspect the image with which he will forever be associated is a true face of terror: the centuries-old vampire in Tobe Hooper's adaptation of Stephen King's SALEM'S LOT [1979].

An extreme close-up of horror icon Reggie Nalder