Sci-Fi Invasion month: It’s Alive! (1969)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: JH Rood is from El Paso, Texas. He’s part of Ghoul Inc. Productions, a DIY group who are inspired by Roger Corman, Larry Buchanan, Frank Henenlotter, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Edward D. Wood, Jr., S.F. Brownrigg, Barry Mahon and others. I’m so glad that he took this movie, as I knew he’d not only  tell us about how it got made, but share why it means so much to him.

There’s a legend in these here hills: “When it rains and the sun shines at the same time, The Devil is kissing his wife”. And thus begins the odyssey of It’s Alive! Now, there are two films with that title, and it so happens that they were both directed by guys named Larry. This is not the mutant baby flick from 1974 brought to us by Larry Cohen. This It’s Alive! (yes, the exclamation point belongs there) predates the more well known of the two by 6 years, and was directed by Larry Buchanan. It tells the story of a freshly married couple from New York on a road trip to California, who take a wrong turn down south and run out of gas. They bump into a paleontologist named Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk, who appeared in a whole slew of Disney movies back in the day) who tells them there’s a house a few miles down the road with a gas pump, and they could probably find some assistance there. The couple follow his directions and find themselves at the home of an odd fellow named Greely, played by late, great Texas actor Billy Thurman, who was a Buchanan Alum and had appeared in a number of his pictures throughout the 1960’s. Greely lives with his housekeeper, Bella (Annabelle MacAdams, aka Annabelle Weenick, another Buchanan regular) in a large, creepy house in the middle of freakin’ nowhere, and runs a small roadside zoo with coyotes, lizards, snakes and various other indigenous critters. Greely is strange yet friendly at first, and explains to the stranded couple, Norman and Leilla Sterns (played by Corveth Ousterhouse and Shirley Bonne) that his zoo and gas pump were once his livelihood, before they built the new interstate and cut him off from civilization. He mentions his disdain for “The Highway People” and shows some signs of psychosis, but invites the couple inside his home to rest up a bit before the gasoline transport truck shows up to fill his tank and they can go on their merry way. Norman is a curt, rude, stereotypical New Yorker and is about as likable as a painful pimple, while Leilla is genuinely kind and rather naïve. Once inside the ginormous house, they’re introduced to Bella, who comes off as shell shocked, skiddish and mildly terrified, like a frightened dog. It’s apparent that Greely is perhaps not the easiest man to work for. For reasons unknown, Greely excuses himself to go outside and leaves the couple with Bella. While outside, Mr. Thomas shows up to check on the Sterns’. He’s greeted by a smiling Greely, and explains that he’s the one who suggested the couple ask him for help. He pops the hood on the couple’s car and asks Greely to retrieve a screwdriver from his Jeep. Greely happily obliges, but returns with a large, blunt wrench instead, and bashes Thomas over the head. He then drags the unconscious man away.

Back in the house, Bella nervously serves tea, and the stranded couple becomes more agitated with their current situation. A jovial, smiling Greely pops in, and sensing the tension, invites them to pass the time looking at the animals in his zoo. The couple agrees, mostly because they haven’t much else to do, and a caged bobcat probably seems like better company than Bella at this point. They meander their way to the crude wood and chicken wire enclosures and peer in on the poor captive animals. Greely points to the entrance of a cave, and tells Norman and Leilla that within that cave is his “prized possession”. The couple exchange glances, as if telepathically telling each other “eh, what the hell” and follow Greely into the cave. The three meander their way down dark, dank catacombs for what probably felt like an eternity, until they reach a large, dark room. Greely excuses himself to go turn the lights on, but instead pulls a lever that brings down large iron bars, trapping Norman and Leilla inside the cave. Big surprise: Greely is nuts!

After cackling maniacally and walking away, Greely disappears back to the house to have supper with Bella, leaving Norman and Leilla befuddled and terrified. Luckily, our buddy Wayne is in the cave, too, and after waking up from that nasty bump on the head, the three begin to assess their situation. Bella returns with some food a short time later, and after being pleaded with by the three captives, she tells them that she wants to help them, but she simply can’t. If she upsets Greely, he will feed her to “it”, the “Thing” that Greeley keeps in that cave that has disposed of all the other unfortunate souls who found themselves at his place. Evidently, Greeley isn’t the only monster around here. A short while later, Norman makes his way through the winding passageways of the cavern and awakens the monster! From out of the bubbling water of a hot spring comes a lizard-like creature with a massive overbite and ping-pong balls for eyes, looking like a bargain basement Sleestak. This particular monster getup was actually recycled from a previous Buchanan film, Creature of Destruction. Without going into too much detail and letting any spoilers slip through, we learn a bit more about our boy Greely and his pet
monster and how Bella came to be in Greely’s “employ”, and the whole thing plays out about as predictably as one would expect, though like most Buchanan films, it’s thoroughly entertaining through and through.

When looking at Larry Buchanan’s body of work, the films that tend to stand out, and the films he’s mostly known for, are the ultra-cheesy, made-for-television flicks from Azalea Pictures and American International, of which It’s Alive!  was the last. These films were greenlighted by Sam Arkoff, who was recycling scripts from earlier, successful films that were released theatrically. More often than not, Arkoff would get Buchanan on the phone and say something like “I need this picture made, and I need it done yesterday!”. Larry Buchanan was no stranger to working under pressure and thinking outside the box. Often times, given the extreme time and budget limitations, he would devise ways to get a scene across that was crude but effective, such as smearing petroleum jelly mixed with blue food coloring on a camera lens to create a day-for-night effect. Larry was a real trooper, and put up with things many of his contemporaries wouldn’t. His resiliency could be traced back to his beginnings, which were less than ideal for anyone. Born on the last day of January in 1923 in Lost Prairie, Texas, Larry was orphaned at an early age, and was brought up in a crowded orphan’s home just outside the Dallas metro area. He showed a serious interest in motion pictures at an early age, and was unofficially “adopted” by some of the folks at the Variety Club, a show business club in Dallas. They would give young Larry free passes to the various picture shows around town, and they let him dig through the discarded reels of film that wound up on their cutting room floor. Larry would carefully edit the mish-mash of reels together, and show them to the other kids at the orphanage, using a donated projector. Most of these were industrial films with no sound, so Larry would invent stories to go along with what was happening on the screen and do a live narrative for the other children. After high school, Larry hitchhiked to Los Angeles and managed to get a job at Fox studios briefly, before relocating to New York to join the Army Signal Corps and make military training films. At this time, Larry also began to produce short, one-reel films such as The Cowboy and The Wetback, which caught the attention of the Jamieson Film Company in Dallas, who reached out to Larry and beckoned him back to the Lone Star State. Having just become a father and not wanting to bring up a family in New York, he jumped at the opportunity to return home and make movies, a real win/win for him.

Before cementing his cinematic legacy as a schlockmeister responsible for such film as Curse of the Swamp CreatureMars Need Women and Zontar: The Thing from Venus. Larry had more dramatic aspirations, and it shows in some of his earlier work. Films like High Yellow and Free, White and 21 teetered on blaxploitation, but with more heart, feeling and social conscience. His 1964 film The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald presented audiences with a controversial yet welcomed “what if” storyline about the man who assassinated President Kennedy getting the trial denied to him by Jack Ruby. All in all, Larry helmed over 40 films during his career, and is today considered the father of the Texas feature film industry. Far from being a household name, his influence has had a ripple effect throughout the world of cinema. That young orphan boy from rural Texas who dreamed of growing up and making motion pictures did just that, and he did it with a fervent zeal. So, when you settle into watch It’s Alive!, or any other Buchanan film, I challenge you to not envision that precocious lad gleefully piecing together random bits of discarded film from the bottom of a trash bin as he concocted wild, imaginative stories to go along with them for nothing more than the entertainment of his peers. Larry is one of those filmmakers I look up to and admire the most, because he could make something from nothing. His films are a middle finger in the face of cinematic pretention and snobbery, simply by existing.

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