This week on TCM Underground: It’s Alive (1974) and Spider Baby (1964)

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You may well want to gather the family together for this week’s Turner Classic Movies Underground double-creature-feature: a to-die-for pairing of Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE (1974) and Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1964). Individually, these movies have a lot going for them and inestimable cult movie credibility to boot but taken together they make for a wild night indeed. 

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Made for $400,000, Larry Cohen’s monster baby movie IT’S ALIVE reaped better than $30 million in worldwide box office rentals for Warner Bros., with credit for the film’s unexpected popularity due in large part to an unforgettable advertising campaign: a 30-second TV spot consisting of a back-to-front camera move around a wicker perambulator while a narrator declaims “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby… It’s Alive!” and a monstrous claw juts violently from within. That the film earned back nearly ten times its budget is less remarkable than the fact that its success came three and a half years after its original theatrical release. Given the go-ahead by Warners head of production Dick Shepherd, IT’S ALIVE fell victim to a regime change that occurred when Shepherd jumped ship to MGM. Disowned by its home studio, the film was dumped into a single Chicago bijou before being remaindered to the ass-end of double and triple bills. Encouraged by praise from overseas (IT’S ALIVE was exhibited at the Cinémathéque Française in Paris and became Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing release in Singapore), Cohen kept hope alive. When the players at Warners changed yet again, he showed the film to marketing executive Arthur Manson, who concurred with head of distribution Terry Semel that they had a potential hit on their hands. IT’S ALIVE was given a proper re-release in March 1977 and, later that year, was booked in support of EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC. Conceived in the aftermath of such scandals as Watergate and thalidomide-born birth defects, at a time when the so-called Generation Gap seemed stretched to its snapping point, IT’S ALIVE reflects the fears of parents about the nature and implications of procreation. While recalling the sundry monstrosities of Greek mythology (Cohen hired New York actor John Ryan to play Frank Davis, a businessman whose newborn child tears its way from the womb and wreaks havoc across Western LA on its journey home, after seeing him play Agamemnon on Broadway to Irene Papas’ Medea), Cohen also imbues IT’S ALIVE with a canny sense of film history. While ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) is an obvious precursor, Cohen’s use of the Los Angeles River Basin forges a kinship with the noir classics HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) and THE THIRD MAN (1949), as well as the big bug scare film THEM! (1954), which was about yet another form of contamination leaching into the gene pool of American life. 

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SPIDER BABY is another tale of an American family’s problematic issue. Writer-director Jack Hill has remained steadfastly closed-mouthed about any possible inspirations, explaining away its provenance as a spark that just came to him. Still, it’s intriguing to speculate as to what works of art might have suggested, even if subconsciously, the particulars of “the maddest story ever told.” The star casting of Lon Chaney, Jr. suggests familiarity on Hill’s part with the Universal Studios monster classics, while the film’s Gothic blandishments hearken back to James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932). The moldering Merrye household shares some similarities with the dilapidated Hudson Mansion, setting of Robert Aldrich’s WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962); the Merrye Kids and the Hudson Sisters both evince a singular dying-on-the-vine atavism aggravated by the unkindness of strangers. (Distributor David Hewitt drew a parallel between the films in his ad campaign for SPIDER BABY.) Some of SPIDER BABY‘s action seems lifted from Dracula, with credit due more to Bram Stoker than to Tod Browning. Mantan Moreland’s journey to Merrye House comes complete with frightened locals yanking their children indoors at the mere mention of the Merrye name, while Jill Banner subsists on the Renfield Diet of bugs and sundry “little lives.” Later in the film, Sid Haig’s retardate Ralph spies on acquisitive cousin Carol Ohmart by crawling upside down along the facade of the crumbling mansion, as had the Undying Count in Stoker’s original novel. In pinning its narrative to a weird family’s desperation to keep its own shadow from touching the outside world, SPIDER BABYanticipated a score of disparate works, including Jack Clayton’s masterfully eerie OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE (1967), Mario Bava’s LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973), Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) – hell, even the Maysles Brothers documentary GREY GARDENS (1975). Blackly comic, mercilessly savage and light years ahead of its time (the film’s release was held up for four years), SPIDER BABY has definite legs.

Tune in to TCM on Saturday night at 11:45pm PST (2:45am EST). Truth be told, you should rightly watch DARK OF THE SUN (1968), which airs before these. Just clear your calendar for the 12th and put on a pot of coffee. Do it for the children.

5 Responses This week on TCM Underground: It’s Alive (1974) and Spider Baby (1964)
Posted By AL : September 9, 2015 11:40 pm

Richard–Re IT”S ALIVE: didn’t Bernard Herrmann do the score?

Posted By AL : September 9, 2015 11:42 pm

Yes he did. DUH! I neglected to read that wonderful poster you provided…

Posted By Autist : September 10, 2015 12:06 am

“Richard–Re IT”S ALIVE: didn’t Bernard Herrmann do the score? Yes he did. DUH! I neglected to read that wonderful poster you provided…”

That’s one good reason to watch it, or at least listen to it.

Posted By Bill : September 10, 2015 10:39 am

Guess it’s a mlxed blesslng that because Herrmann’s approach had gone temporarly out of style, Cohen could afford hlm. Thlnk he was scheduled for Cohen’s God Told Me To when he passed. Same wlth Mlklos Rosza, who brought all hls bombast to scenes of paper shredders in Cohen’s Prlvate Files of J Edgar Hoover.

Posted By swac44 : September 15, 2015 1:54 pm

A friend of mine once showed It’s Alive to his wife while she was pregnant, she was not impressed.

Oops, I meant to say, his ex-wife. (I have no idea what bearing the Cohen film had on the marriage breakup, but it couldn’t have helped.)

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