Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Netflix Roulette: It's Alive (2008)

I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to remakes. As I'm fond of telling people, the Bogart/Huston version of The Maltese Falcon is the third screen version of that story within a ten year period. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get it right. Which, by the way, is why filmmakers are better off rethinking bad movies rather than classics. Of course, this line of thinking presupposes that the remake improves on the original. The nature of contemporary remakes means that the actual quality of the movie is an afterthought.

Here's the thing about Larry Cohen's original version of It's Alive: it's ridiculous. It's a film that attempts to exploit the unease that pregnancy generates for new parents. It exploits the fear that something is wrong with a newborn child. It's the product of the thalidomide tragedy. The method it uses to examine this unease is a mutant killer baby. This is it:

Not one of Rick Baker's better creations.

So, really, the 2008 remake of It's Alive (directed by Josef Rusnak) has a high bar to clear: first it has to justify its existence by being a better film than the original--which isn't so difficult, I would think--and it has to make its premise actually work. This second requirement is a bit more difficult, because it's something that eluded the original item, as well. In fact, it may well be impossible, even for a movie that's making the effort. Unfortunately, this one's not even trying. Hell, if you excuse the need to remake old horror movies on the basis of upgrading sometimes dodgy special effects, this fails that litmus test. Here's the remake's killer baby:

Not much of an improvement on Baker's work, is it?

The story here follows the evocatively named Lenore Harker, who leaves college early to have a baby with her architect husband. The baby is early, and must be delivered by C-section. After the operation, the entire surgical team has been murdered. Her baby is okay, though, and contentedly nursing. The baby seems normal enough, but when Lenore and her husband, Frank, take it home, mutilated small animals begin to appear around the house. Frank's younger brother begins to suspect something is up. Lenore begins to behave in an unhinged manner. The cops start to become suspicious. Mayhem ensues.

This movie is red meat, it should be noted. It doesn't skimp on the gore, perhaps under the mistaken impression that the more extreme it can make its violence, the less ridiculous its premise will seem. It's a crude technique, but there's a certain low cunning involved and I'd be lying if I said that the adolescent sadist in me didn't respond to this. I sort of do. I admire the enthusiasm with which this paints the walls red, and I LOVE the shot where our little tyke punches a hole through the back of a woman's head. If the movie were better, I'd really dig this. But it's not better.

This fails in two areas: the screenplay and the casting. The screenplay takes the killer baby from the original and practically nothing else. The killer baby here, as in the first film, is modeled on the Tasmanian Devil: it's a whirlwind of destruction that belies his small size. If I were to suggest a secondary source for this film, it would be The Brood, from which it borrows the concept that the killer baby is Lenore's id, and from which it steals at least two central images. There's also an underlying message here concerning abortion, I think, but it's such a confused bundle of elements that it's hard to tell if the movie is pro- or anti- choice. It doesn't have the courage of its convictions. It's a mishmash of ideas that's not actually sold by its cast.

The main problem here is Bijou Phillips in the lead. She's not a good enough actress to pull it off. Her line deliveries are perfunctory at best and risible at worst. She does a lot of blank-faced staring. The actress isn't helped by an over-complex set of motivations. She's burdened by a crushing sense of guilt for attempting to abort her baby, and then by the notion that the abortion attempt is responsible for the mayhem that occurs once the baby comes into the world. We're asked to believe that this weight of guilt is so heavy that she'll look the other way while her baby kills and kills and kills? No. No. No. James Murray as Frank gets a big scene at the end in which he has to contend with the baby in a dark basement. No other character gets the stage for any appreciable length of time. Maybe they're the lucky ones.

This whole production screams "knock-off," which is about par for the course these days, I guess. But then, I don't have anything invested in the original, either, so whatever.


Aubyn said...

I can see why filmmakers are so drawn to the killer baby (so much paranoia you can draw from there). And yet, whenever I try to imagine a baby as an actual physical threat, it just gets too goofy. You can draw fangs and blood, it's still a baby.

The only killer baby story I remember liking was Bradbury's "The Small Assassin" and the EC Comics adaption was pretty good. And even that is damned silly when you try to imagine the actual baby crawling around on his evil deeds. But it still works.

EC adaptation here

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel. I thought about mentioning "The Small Assassin", which I love, but couldn't work it in. Also: EC Comics in black and white rock. I only have the reprints in color.