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December 2009

It's Alive

cast: Bijou Phillips, James Murray, Owen Teale, Skye Bennett, and Raphael Coleman

director: Josef Rusnak

80 minutes (18) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Mark West

It's Alive
Lenore Harker (played complete with irritating voice by Bijou Phillips) is a college student, heavily pregnant, who decides to leave just before her exams to go and live with the father of her child, Frank Davis (James Murray) and his crippled little brother Chris (Raphael Coleman). Lenore appears to go into labour six months early, is taken in for a C-section and, without anyone seeing it, is the only survivor (along with her baby, Danny) of a complete bloodbath. Sergeant Perkins (Owen Teale), who, with his partner, seems to constitute the entirety of the New Mexico police department, don't have any clues, so Lenore goes home. Then things start to go wrong - half eaten animals (rat, bird, rabbit) are found around the home, the baby grows exponentially and bites Lenore's nipple repeatedly during breast feeding, Mummy keeps having flashbacks to the bloodbath and what might have caused it - and whilst Chris suspects something, Lenore has seen what's happening but doesn't seem able to cope with it.

Before I start, I should point out that although I am a fan of Larry Cohen's work and I think Rick Baker is a master craftsman, I've never seen the original It's Alive (though I've seen plenty of images of Baker's baby). To that end, there'll obviously be no comparison in this review between original and remake (the current remake - 'hey, it's more than 10 years old, let's redo it and put in tonnes of crap CGI' - trend being something that I'm not overly happy) and the film will have to stand, or fall, on its own merits.

It doesn't get off to the best of starts. The film clearly identifies the action as taking place in New Mexico, a location which comes complete with snow-capped mountains, thickly wooded forests and everyone's breath clear to see (and then the end credits reveal this is another Bulgarian-filmed production). Not a problem in itself, but it feels sloppy and doesn't give the viewer a lot of faith. Then we have half the cast, who are recognisably British, but donning varyingly successful US accents. So, a confused film, then..? Yes, most certainly.

On a technical level, this is very good. The locations are nicely shot (even if they don't necessarily fit), the production design is very good, the direction is concise, the acting is all above standard (apart from the college room-mate, who dies halfway through anyway and Ms Phillips, who begins to chew the scenery from the halfway point) and the atmosphere feels nicely oppressive (helped by a very small cast).

But the film does fall over because it doesn't seem to be quite sure exactly what it's trying to be. We hardly ever see baby Danny (either as a regular baby, or as a monster) and that led me to think that it was going to be a psychological horror, that Lenore was behind everything, with the climax showing her wigging out and killing everyone in sight. It'd certainly work, as there's a big deal made that she took abortion tablets just after she found out she was a pregnant - did it harm the baby? Is this a pro-life film, taking pot-shots at opposing views?

No, because there is a mutant baby, who has been eating rabbit and rat and pigeon, and who can only crawl about but is able to leap onto people and chomp away to his heart's content. And there's the rub - apart from a few quick cuts of a clearly CGI face rushing at the camera, we don't see what we're supposed to be scared of (and the one scare scene that works, when Chris' cat gets dragged under his bed, does so because we're not supposed to see what did it). Worse still, the end credits list the 'puppet FX supervisor' as Tony Gardner - surely he didn't do that bad a job? This doesn't mean that I'm advocating a rush of CGI babies going mad on screen, but if you're going for psychological, do it - don't turn into a monster-movie right at the end and then refuse to show the beastie.

The baby itself, then, is represented more by the camera - a very low-angle POV that's accompanied, for some reason, by muttering and heavy breathing that made me think a hobgoblin had got onto the set, rather than a healthy little baby, who wouldn't mutter anything at all.

This isn't a bad film by any means - as I mention, it's very well made and it acquits itself quickly - but it does keep trying viewers' patience. Dad completely misses that anything is wrong, Mum is obviously going mad and baby Danny - well, we don't know about him because we never see him - and all of that would be acceptable if this was either a straight thriller/ horror or, even, within a film that knew it wasn't the greatest work of art ever made, but it can't seem to make its mind up. My wife enjoyed it, I thought it was okay.

The only extra relating to the film itself is a trailer, which gives away all of the set pieces and then has a bizarre add-on, of Lenore saying "Mummy's here," which again paints the film in a completely different light.

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