It’s Alive! (1969)

Before we begin, I’d like to give a shout out to the newest member of the B-Masters’ Cabal, Will Laughlin of Braineater.com. Welcome aboard, sir, and glad to have you.

On a sadder note, Joe Bannerman of Opposable Thumbs has tendered his resignation. You’ll be missed, buddy. The good news (and it’s very good) is that Joe is keeping his fine site up and running. You’ll be missed, Joe, and thanks for classing up the joint.

The B-Masters' Cabal takes on its most dangerous assignment yet: We all have to review Larry Buchanan movies. Who will live & who will die?! If you survive this article, click on the above banner to peruse the offerings of my esteemed colleagues.

How does one convey the essence of a Larry Buchanan movie? Here’s an anecdote:

It’s twenty-odd years ago, say 1980 or ’81. An especially nerdy high school student—we’ll call him Ken, for convenience’s sake—is hanging out with the amorphous assemblage of fellow outcasts who constitute his friends and associates; they refer to themselves en masse as The Group. It’s Saturday night. A BBQ is in session, with various disparate knots of youths engaging in the sort of earnest and/or ironic conversations brighter than average but socially inept teens are prey to.

Ken, however, has removed himself from the mainstream of even this comparatively isolationist enclave. His chief goal this evening is to watch the recently introduced horror host the Son of Svengoolie. (More mundanely, Rich Koz paying tribute to his fictional sire, Jerry G. Bishop.) This is an especially boon evening. Son of Svengoolie’s feature presentation tonight is a classic bad movie by Ken’s then favorite bad movie director, Larry Buchanan. The film, well known among the devotee of such matters, is Zontar Thing From Venus.

These are nascent days for the hobby of bad movie watching. The Medved Brothers’ seminal tome, The 50 Worst Films of all Time, was slowly gathering unto the field a small number of adherents. (Ken himself being one such.) Even so, such enthusiasts are sparse on the ground. This is years before the Internet was even a word to the populace, and connecting with others sharing such odd inclinations was a difficult task. Mystery Science Theater 3000, the program that introduced the idea of mocking bad movies to a generation of snarky college students and other would-be wags, was yet to be conceived of.

Moreover, neither cable TV nor the then-primitive VCRs were to be found in the majority of American homes. This meant you basically had to select viewing material from whatever the six or seven local channels were showing. When, that is, most of them weren’t shut down for the night, as usually occurred after midnight. Anyway, this situation was directly responsible for Buchanan’s onetime status as a bad movie demigod. More on this later.

Back to our narrative. And so Ken sat alone, shunning the fellowship of even his comrades. Soon he was in the thrall of that Buchanan magic, the alchemy that turned a goofy, albeit intriguing, B-movie into a turgid, incredibly more inept Z-movie. The source material: Roger Corman’s sci-fi meller It Conquered the World. Even Corman might have cringed had he seen what Buchanan had wrought upon his swiftly churned out programmer.

Ken sits upon the floor, leaning back against the sofa, shadows of electronic images dancing across his fevered countenance. (Let’s just call it dramatic license and move on.) After some time has passed, though, he’s joined by two fellows he knows in passing. They are Steve and Greg, siblings of some of Ken’s fellows. They come seeking refuge from the interactions of their younger sisters’ cohorts.

After a mumbled exchange with Ken, they settle in to watch whatever being shown. It’s clearly a monster movie of some sort, which will do. A general query has Ken quickly blurbling on about the mad genius that is Larry Buchanan. The two nod and make non-committal noises and continue watching. With a proselytizer’s eye, Ken now watches his newfound compatriots as well as the movie. However, their expressions evince growing bewilderment rather than amusement.

Some time later, they reach one of Ken’s favorite parts in the film. This involves a bout of mind-bendingly poor ‘comic relief’ revolving around two soldiers engaging in a purportedly wacky conversation. Ken laughs knowingly, but his comrades remain patently perplexed. Eventually, Steve leans forward and asks Ken what this scene is about. The result is an exchange that Our Hero would remember throughout his days:

Steve: “I don’t get this. What’s this all supposed to be about?”
Ken: “This is a comic relief sequence.”
Steve, clearly not much edified: “Oh.”

Steve sits back and continues watching for another twenty or thirty seconds. Then he sits forward again.

Steve, still confused: “How can you tell?”
Ken: “It’s easy. Listen to the background music.”

Steve blocks out the bad acting and insanely inept dialog and focuses instead on the music track, now hearing the overly jocular, almost calliope-like tuba music that accompanies the scene.

A now-enlightened Steve, with Greg nodding beside him: “Ah, OK.”

That’s pretty much what watching a Larry Buchanan movie is like.

****

Long ago—was I ever so young?—I wrote my Amazing Bad Movie Origin Story. Two paragraphs are pertinent to today’s article:

“The fire [of my raging bad movie hobby] was kept alive in part due to a comrade-in-arms to share this odd hobby with. I had met Andrew Muchoney in high school as part of a group of people who hung out together. Among his various occupations, Andrew had a background similar to mine in terms of monster movies and sarcasm. I excitedly described Curse of Bigfoot to him. Luckily, by keeping an eye on the TV listings, I was able to find a repeat showing, and garnered an early video recording. His viewing of my copy resulted in a similar enthusiasm. Shortly after, we hooked another classic, Larry Buchanan’s It’s Alive (not to confused with Larry Cohen’s “mutant baby” flick).

We were teenagers, and so brought a certain passion to our new hobby. We would watch Curse of Bigfoot (and later It’s Alive) over and over and over again. Amazed at how slow segments of either film were, we would time sequences by watching them again. Then forgetting how long exactly the scenes were, we would conduct the experiment again. Sometimes, operating under a “Chicken” principal, to see who would surrender to common sense first (the loser), we would watch the films repeatedly over the course of an evening. We’ve between us seen hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Bad Movies in the decade and a half since. None, though, were studied with the fervor and detailed preoccupation with which we gawked at those two. They were, in terms of the hobby, our first loves.”

Looking back, it’s not just that I’ve never gotten around to feting It’s Alive (or Curse of Bigfoot, for that matter) as it so richly deserves. No, my crime is more monstrous still. Amazingly, over all these years I never paid homage to any of the cinematic offerings of Mr. Larry Buchanan. It was partly this that drove me to campaign for a Buchanan roundtable—yes; you can blame the whole thing on me—in the first place.

I had to keep at it, too. I first nominated the topic back in early 2001. My peers met the suggestion with some degree of nervousness and even repugnance. It says something about Mr. Buchanan’s oevre that reaction from this particular elite demographic should be so direly against him.

Part of the initial resistance was based on the notion that the bulk of Mr. Buchanan’s films were horribly cheap and inept remakes of earlier sci-fi movies. In an effort to refute this, I listed his numerous social dramas, including sordid and quite crude Hollywood exposés—Goodbye Norma Jean, Hughes and Harlow: Angels In Hell, etc.—and paranoid political fantasias.

In Down On Us, a.k.a. Beyond the Doors, for instance, Mr. Buchanan lays bare the facts about how the U.S. Government assassinated Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Presumably because nothing threatened the Union so much as drugged out pop stars with letter ‘J’ first names. Then there was The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, set in a world in which Oswald reached the courtroom alive and revealed the Huge Government Conspiracy behind JFK’s death. (Another ‘J’!) Buchanan’s efforts lacked polish, but they definitely paved the way for such filmmakers as Tom “Billy Jack” Laughlin and Oliver Stone.

And so another roundtable topic was chosen. I persevered in my mad quest, however. Eventually tiring of my badgering, as well as being drawn to that which we dread the most—or why would we have the sites we do?—my fellows capitulated. And, in the end, nearly everyone chose to review of Mr. Buchanan’s horribly cheap and inept remakes of earlier sci-fi movies.

(To my vast chagrin, after all this maneuvering it was Lyz Kingsley who immediately jumped in and claimed It’s Alive. I had an ace up my sleeve, though: I whined. I knew Lyz had more class in her fingernail than I in my entire bloated corpus, and sure enough, she quickly ceded me the title and then averted her gaze in embarrassment.)

And so did I remove the ancient copied-from-TV cassette of the film, one that had lain upon my video shelves, unwatched, for many a year now. I had little doubt that it would hold up to scrutiny. Yet, as the years pass, memories of former loves can become hazy. Thus it was with an exaggerated mix of eagerness and trepidation that I hit the play button on my VCR.

****

We open in the interior of a moving car, the occupants of which are unseen. The camera peers tightly out the front windshield as the vehicle drives along lonely rural highways. This continues for several minutes. Soon it begins to rain, and the wiper blades looming before us begin swishing back and forth. This visual is accompanied by a squeaking sound effect, although the latter isn’t strictly synchronized with the former.

Happily for the Bad Movie buff, the scene is further embellished with some typically verbose Omniscient Narration, anonymously provided by none other than Mr. Buchanan. This informs us of several things regarding the landscape before us. “The Poets [what, all of them?] would have called the place pastoral,” our Omniscient Narrator (ON) muses in a dry, detached manner. “The day, tranquil.”

Wow. Those Poets sure had a way with words. I mean, you guys can’t see the surroundings as I do now, but…pastoral…tranquil… Actually, I guess even if you can’t see the scene in a literal sense, you can now probably picture it in your mind in almost frighteningly precise detail. To capture so vividly the place and day portrayed here seems to suggest a talent greater than that rightly possessed by any merely human vessel. Divine inspiration, perhaps?

Traveling in the car are a man and a woman. The latter is Leilla Stern. She’s cute in her fashion but seems jittery and brittle. We begin to understand her reticent personality after getting to know her husband Norman, the vehicle’s driver.

Norman’s a real piece of work, petty and sarcastic. In nearly every shot he appears in he looks like someone who just sucked on a lemon. Imagine Reggie from the Archie comics, now a bitter alcoholic wondering where the promise of his youth went, trapped in a loveless marriage and a job he hates. In a higher budgeted version of the film he’d be played by Richard Belzer. Of, had the film been made ten years earlier than it was, he could have been ably portrayed by Hans Conried.

To help establish the mood, the ON explains that as the two toured the lonely Ozark roads, “an ominous feeling invaded the privacy of the car.” That’s why they shouldn’t have had those roadside burritos for lunch. Anyhoo, the rain begins to fall. “There’s a legend in these hills,” the ON explains, “that when it rains and sun shines

at the same time, the Devil is kissing his wife. And speaking of the Devil…”

These lines were an ongoing source of profound amusement for my friend Andrew and I. First, we found the ‘legend’ to be of somewhat dubious provenance. Second, the sky in the footage is cloudy, and thus the “sun shines” isn’t actually apparent. Third, we liked the way the remark comes out of left field and then is used to justify the “speaking of the Devil” follow-up. It’s like if you heard a great story about a hedgehog but couldn’t fit it into a conversation. So you say something like, “I’m so hungry I could eat a hedgehog. And speaking of hedgehogs…”

Finally, of course, a sentence beginning, “And speaking of the Devil,” implies one will then, well, speak of the Devil. Here, as the ellipsis indicates, the sentence peters out to a premature end.

Anyway, the tour, and the narration, continues apace. At a bit over the two-minute mark, the credits begin to overlay the driving footage. For the Buchanan-o-phile, these contain a series of beloved, familiar names. First we note that the film is one of the “Azalea Pictures” that have ensured Mr. Buchanan’s cinematic immortality. More on these later.

There follows a roster of names familiar from several, or even most or all, of the eight Azalea Pictures productions. We thrill to the credit “Starring Tommy Kirk”. Mr. Kirk had also assayed the lead role in Mr. Buchanan’s Mars Needs Women. Other actors, meanwhile, appeared with great regularity in these films. Bill Thurman and Annabelle McAdams being the primary offenders.

Other names stand out even aside from their association with Mr. Buchanan. Corveth Ousterhouse (!) may have never worked with Larry B. in another project–or anyone else, for that matter–but his portrayal of Norman is quite, er, memorable. Also, the film’s eminent consultant on all matters prehistoric is credited with “paleontology…….Skip Frazee.” And, ah, yes, there he is. Edwin Tobolowski, Azalea Picture’s Associate Producer. Buchanan himself, meanwhile, handled the scripting, line production and editing chores along with helming the film.

At one point in the journey we see a dilapidated tourist attraction, consisting of some large, plaster dinosaurs placed amongst the woods beyond the road. Then, as we approach the four-minute mark, we get our first (dubbed in) lines of dialog. These indicate that Leilla and Norman are prone to squabbling, and also that they’re lost and nearly out of gas. “We could at least have been in Los Angeles by now!” Norman gripes. Man, they must have been driving around the Ozarks for a loooong time.

After four straight minutes shot from inside the car—in a film running just under eighty minutes total— they begin opening things up. Sure, we’re still watching the vehicle automobile driving down a lonely Ozark back road, but now it’s from the outside. Then, with a bare, scant five minutes on the clock, Norman actually stops the car and steps out of it. Let no one say this picture isn’t action-packed.

Norman stopped because he saw a jeep parked among the trees. We see it, too, thanks to an awkward, jerkily executed pan shot. He gets out to investigate, but no one is in sight. Seeing a water tank amidst the jeep’s gear, he looks around and then helps himself. “Go ahead,” a friendly voice calls out. It’s Wayne Thomas, the vehicle’s owner, who’s standing nearby. How Norman failed to see him is something of a mystery. It is well documented, though, that characters in bad movies often can’t see anything or anybody standing off-camera.

Wayne confirms that the couple is lost. Norman turns and blames the situation on Leilla, who had requested they pull off the main road to have a closer look at the plaster dinosaurs. This is our first good look at her, and she’s a vision of ’60s-ness. Her blond hair is cut short but goes fairly high, ala Petula Clark. She’s wearing a bright yellow shift dress that falls to mid-thigh, matching yellow oversized Elton John sunglasses and a scarf tied around her neck. Norman is also of his time. Ah, the days in which cruising around the Ozarks for days on end required one to wear a dark suit and tie.

Norman continues to bitch, while Wayne thoughtfully offers Leilla a drink of water. She reacts to being noticed with an air of thankfulness. Seeing this, Norman assumes an even more than normally sour expression. Thus are our characters firmly established. Norman is a self-absorbed petty tyrant, Leilla is nice but beaten down by her husband’s constant carping, and Wayne is a thoughtful guy.

I assume he’s also supposed to project a more rugged, manly air than Norman. After all, Wayne’s clad in denim work clothes rather than the latter’s suit and tie. Any such intent is defeated, however, as Wayne is played by Tommy Kirk, an actor typified by a complete lack of edges and hardness. Norman may be a rat, even a coward, but he’s also got a mean streak, and you don’t really see Kirk being able to take him.

Norman petulantly—to save time, just prefix everything Norman says or does with ‘petulantly,’ ‘bitterly’ or ‘angrily’—asks Wayne if he has any spare gasoline. Wayne admits he doesn’t, but notes a farmhouse he saw further on down the road. Perhaps, he suggests, they can get some gas there. Norman, annoyed at Leilla’s pleased reaction to someone treating her politely, shepherds her back to the car and drives off.

We cut to a decent-sized snake. I suspect this is meant to be mildly scary because, you know, a snake. “Clara,” a voice is heard, “what are you doing out?” The slithering fugitive is corralled by Greely (Bill Thurman), one of those obese, middle-aged but tremendously strong looking redneck types. Speaking gently, he lifts her back into her cage, one amongst many half a dozen similar hutches. Why we hear the echoing gibber of monkeys is a question we’ll address further on. Pausing to ascertain the circumstances of her escape, he is angered to find her cage had been left unlatched.

The Sterns’ car, running on fumes, arrives outside Greely’s inexplicably huge house. Greely hears their horn and comes over to investigate. He admits he has no gas on hand to offer them. The truck that delivers fuel out to his remote home was due the day before, but hadn’t shown up. Needless to say, Norman reacts to this news with his customary displeasure. Asked where they hail from, Norman replies “New York.” “My wife’s fond of traveling by car,” he acidly notes with exaggerated, nearly Shatner-esque diction. “Unhurried excursions along the scenic byways.”

Greely expects the truck to be by sometime today, and invites them inside to wait. As they approach the house, Greely continues asking Suspicious Questions about whether anyone’s expecting them, etc. Meanwhile, their progress is watched from a window by the middle-aged, somewhat portly Bella. (As opposed, I guess, to porta-Bella.) She communicates her severe agitation through her slumped posture, constant hand wringing and the sort of facial contortions that make Peter Lorre look like Buster Keaton.

Norman and Leilla enter the parlor. Greely takes his leave, promising that he’ll have Bella, his housekeeper, make them some iced tea. After he departs, Leilla—being a woman and all—declares that she Senses Something Wrong. Norman, of course, caustically responds to her premonitions. Still, she was put off by something in Greely’s mien. “Did you see his eyes?” she asks. “They were like a…GASP! CHOKE!”

The Jabootu website is not responsible for any fear-related deaths or derangements caused by viewing this picture.

In what yet remains one of the lamest false scares I’ve yet encountered in my decades of cinematic study, Leilla breaks off in mid-sentence to issue her startled gasp. The camera whips around, at least as well as a severely intoxicated person might, and wobbles to and fro until it locates and zooms in upon the object of its search: A stuffed iguana resting upon the fireplace mantle. Say what you will about Larry Buchanan, but few outside of Italy can match his laughably unnecessary and poorly executed zoom shots.

This Incident of Raw Terror concluded, we return to our Examination of a Failing Marriage. Norman complains about their straits, reminding Leilla that he offered her a vacation in the Bahamas. This leads to a little monolog that’s actress Shirley Bonne’s big moment here, and she gives it all she’s got. Which, sadly, isn’t all that much. Unsurprisingly, her appearance in this film proved the last dying rattle of Bonne’s acting career. Which means, sadly, that this speech represents her last hurrah. Perhaps Bonne realized this fact, because she pulls out all the stops. (Which, as usual, results in a catastrophic wreck.) Face aglow, she invests the following with all the emotive power at her command:

“No, no, no, no! I’ve lived all my life in New York! I always wanted to see the rest of the country! Not just the Big Cities, but towns…and the villages…people that live there!”

Bravo! Bravo! And…curtain!

Greely finds Bella huddling in the kitchen. It’s soon apparent that Leilla’s intuition about him is correct. He treats Bella cruelly, and obviously has some sort of hold over her. Bella pleads with him not to involve her in his plans for the visitors, but to no avail. A slap across the face ensures the tortured woman’s compliance. Greely orders her to serve their guests while he disposes of their car, and to keep her mouth shut as she does so.

Shirley Bonne just had a big moment, and this is one of actress Annabelle Weenick’s. Which, given the exaggerated nature of Ms. Weenick’s histrionics, isn’t necessarily a good thing. Bella exhibits a spurt of fearful defiance. The best Buchanan can think to do to showcase the moment—or, more generously, the best he could achieve given his onerous time and budgetary constraints—is to place his one camera in a static position and slowly zoom in on the two actors. This is a directorial gambit the viewer will all too readily become acquainted with.

Greely, meanwhile, is perturbed to note the arrival of Wayne’s jeep out in the driveway. He commands Bella to follow his instructions. “And remember, if they get scared and run away,” he warns, “you’ll take their place.” (One can only hope it’s with an acting coach. Seriously, somebody should have told Ms. Weenick that sometimes less is more.) Bella, terrified and again compliant, scuttles off to do his bidding.

Outside, Wayne leaves the Jeep and approaches the Sterns’ car. Actor Kirk noticeably has much trouble clambering out of his vehicle. This sort of thing is often seen in productions with insanely tight shooting schedules. First, the actors don’t have time to even familiarize themselves with props they’ll be using onscreen. Second, when miscues result from this, they can’t be bothered to do a reshoot. In extreme cases even more severe problems are kept in. Lines are flubbed. Sometimes a character will refer to another by the wrong name. Even ‘corpses’ have been known to move around.

Greely runs outside to head off Wayne, and is disconcerted to learn that he knows of the Sterns. Realizing that he can’t be allowed to leave, Greely tricks him into examining the Stern’s engine and then decks him with a wrench. He drags his unconscious victim off.

Inside, Bella is serving the Sterns their drinks. Norman, being a sullen jerk, doesn’t perceive Bella’s agitated state. (Which is like someone not noticing Torgo’s knees.) Leilla, on the other hand, is more attuned. In the end, though, her comments serve only to draw more of her husband’s scorn. In the meantime, Norman demands that Bella open the curtains. Seeing Greely hauling off Wayne through the glass, she refuses, nervously noting that Greely prefers the curtains be kept closed.

Needless to say, the obnoxious Norman stands up and flings them open himself. At this point I was wondering why they didn’t give him a long, thin mustache to twirl. Not that he’s the film’s villain. That’s obviously Greely. Instead, Norman is what I call a Dr. Smith character, a member of the protagonists’ party whose role is to actively work against his fellows. Such actions usually culminate in an act of outright betrayal, which is then quickly followed by the Dr. Smith character’s horrible demise.

Anyway, back to the whole curtain thing. My assumption is that this was supposed to be suspenseful, because, you know, Norman might see Greely going about his business and the jig would be up. Which is why, actually, it isn’t suspenseful—we’ve still over an hour of movie left. So by the time the curtains are parted Greely and Wayne are out of sight, just as we pretty much figured they would be. Even so, Bella lets out a horrified gasp at Norman’s actions, just so we get how close things were.

Bella starts breaking down, asking them why they’ve come. This provides Norman a two-fold opportunity to demonstrate his jerkiness. First he browbeats Bella for acting strange, then he again ignores Leilla’s concerns. At this point I was thinking Norman’s essential worthlessness had been established firmly enough that we could get on with things.

Greely returns. (Actually, given the camera angles with which the scene’s composed, I think he teleports back in.) Leilla pushes Norman into driving back to where they met Wayne, so that they can hitch a ride into town. Greely hurriedly replies that Wayne had just been there, but had already left to fetch the Sterns some gas. Greely assures them that they need only wait a little longer.

Leilla is jittery enough that she wants to wait outside in the car. Greely counters by offering to show the two his “collection.” Bored, and presumably just in the habit of overriding his wife, Norman opts for the tour. As they head out, Buchanan masterfully foreshadows the Sterns’ fate by again zooming in on the stuffed iguana. In addition to the object’s stark artistic symbolism, though, it’s, you know…a stuffed iguana. It’s just spooky, is all.

Outside Greely is showing them his rather meager display of exhibits. There are a couple of snakes, including the aforementioned Clara, a bobcat, a small wild dog or fox and the small monkeys (??) we heard earlier. (As to why one monkey is wearing a leash, well, you got me.) The latter are especially amusing, as Greely had just told Norman “I captured them all myself.” Ah, yes, the feral Echo Monkeys of the Ozark Mountains. It’s a rare woodsman who’s able to track down those cunning beasts. As they walk away echoing monkey sounds are heard again, and they don’t make much more sense now then they did before.

Upon finally reaching the end of this exhaustive tour, Greely slyly refers to something else. “You ain’t seen my prize,” he boasts. “The best part of my collection!” What?! Better than two snakes, a bobcat, a fox and two Capuchin, er, Echo Monkeys?! Could such a thing even be possible? Leilla, for her part, again senses danger. (And her exaggerated facial expression indicates that her time spent with Bella has had its effect.) Norman, however, is as dubious about Greely’s extraordinary claim as I was, and demands to soldier on.

Leilla frantically resists going, but Norman pushes her into it. Exasperated, he assures her it’ll only take them a minute. “It’ll be over before you know it,” Greely slyly agrees, in trademark villain fashion. (Sadly, actor Bill Thurman doesn’t sell this ironic rejoinder with anywhere near the oomph Bela Lugosi displayed in The Devil Bat.) In an artistic flourish, the scene ends with the party heading towards a nearby cave, whereupon the camera drunkenly swivels toward the monkeys and, that’s right, zooms in on them. Hmm, two monkeys trapped in a cage. What could it mean?

The pathway to the cave and the caverns themselves, which sports elaborate lighting, are clearly parts of an actual tourist attraction. (Although, since the Azalea films were shot in Texas, they’re not in Bronson Canyon.) I’m assuming Buchanan got permission to shoot in a cave and wrote the script around the locale. Certainly he wouldn’t have decided on such a scenario if he didn’t have a location in mind*.

[*Since I’m a dunce, it took me a minute to realize that these must be the same caves parts of Zontar were filmed in.]

Eventually they end up in a section of the cave, in which, oddly, a pair of cots are kept. “I spent everything I had wiring this thing for tourists,” Greely ruefully announces, a tale familiar to many following the Great Lighted Cave Depression of ’63. Then he heads off to check on things. Leilla once more tries to convince Norman to leave, he rebuffs her again, but it’s too late in any case. A cell wall divider descends from the ceiling (which is clearly impossible, so they don’t really show how it gets there) and blocks their escape. With the two safely trapped—like so many monkeys in a cage, one might say—Greely is free to go into full chortling Snidely Whiplash mode. And so he does.

“The man’s insane,” Norman trenchantly observes. No flies on that guy. Yet. (Oops, sorry.) “I knew it the minute I saw him,” Leilla blurts. Needless to say, Norman doesn’t enjoy being reminded of this. So, he shifts the blame—with some small justification, I admit, although I don’t think we’re meant to notice—to her whole road trip idea. “Traveling across country in an automobile like a couple of poverty-stricken gypsies!” he sputters. Wow. Why is whenever anyone mention gypsies they’re always poverty-stricken and touring the country in an automobile? Fie on these insidious stereotypes!

Leilla expounds upon her belief that others have been kept here before them. Suddenly a moan issues from nearby. Leilla shrieks, the camera staggers in an arc and *Gasp! Choke!* we see an injured Wayne crawling around in the rear of their cell. Man, I’m glad it wasn’t that stuffed iguana again. I’d have had a heart attack. Good thing for Greely, meanwhile, that Wayne didn’t come to and escape while he was fetching the Sterns, or awaken before the two were safely imprisoned.

Back to the house, where the spotlight now shifts to Greely. Buchanan has whipped up a masterful monolog for the film’s villain, one crackling with rich psychological insight into Greely’s madness. Actor Thurman’s good here, but I can’t wait to see Sir Anthony Hopkins take his crack at it when he gets around to remaking this. (It should be soon after The Devil and Daniel Webster wraps, I’d think. Hey, maybe he could talk Jennifer Love Hewitt into playing Leilla! That’d be keen.)

You can also see Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber working his magic with the scene in his stage musical Alive! Or, if instead Harold Pinter adapts it into a straight dramatic piece, I’d say Brian Dennehy would be a natural for Greely, with Dame Judith Dench the obvious choice for Bella. Then, once the play hits the dinner theater circuit, you have your George Wendts and Richard Karns, your Candace Bergens and Bernadette Peters. (Oh, wait, right, Peters would be doing the Webber musical version.)

The moment is built around a humble tableau. Greely and Bella sit opposite one another at a small kitchen table, bowls of steaming soup before them. Greely happily partakes of his, but becomes agitated when his distraught companion maintains she has no appetite. Suddenly Greely reveals a glimpse into his own soul, and a potential cipher of a character assumes the tragic depth of a Richard the III or MacBeth. His tone begins reproachfully, but softens as he proceeds. It’s apparent he’s trying to share with her some hard-learned knowledge. Bella, for her part, yet retains a spark of the person she once was:

Greely: “You’re wasteful. That’s a sin up here in the mountains, you know that. Everything is used again and again! Even when it rains, a drop of water falls from the sky and a plant catches it. An insect eats the plant and it falls prey to a lizard. A snake devours the lizard and his blood in turn quenches the thirst of a hawk. So you see, that little drop of water sustains life in one animal after another. See, each animal is served by another. And each must serve his turn.”
Bella, stoking the dying embers of her defiance: “A human being is not an animal!”
Greely, angry once more: “Who can tell?!”
Bella: “You can’t! That’s why you have no right doing the horrible things you do!”*
Greely: “Man has a right to protect himself!”
Bella: “Not with the life of others!”

[*That’s true. Only someone fully cognizant of the fact that a human being isn’t an animal has the right to kidnap people and arrange for them a horrible death. For more on the ethos of such a situation, consult the writings of Emmanuel Kant.]

The exchange rages on as Bella asks how many victims Greely’s had. He snarls that she should be glad he’d spared her their fate. “Sometimes I wish you hadn’t!” she cries. Realizing what she’s said, she recoils in horror and frantically recants. “Sometimes you annoy me, Bella,” he hisses. “You make me real mad!” His retaliation is devilishly sly, however, as he sends her to bring food to the prisoners. Bella, of course, wants nothing more than to avoid contact with Greely’s prospective victims. Which is exactly the point, after all. “Take enough for three,” Greely laughs, “in case the other one is still alive.”

Back in the Cave, Leilla is tending to Wayne’s sore noggin. She and Norman fill him on in their situation. “Looks like we’re prisoners here,” Leilla sums up. Yes. Yes, I guess that really does get at the core of it. Meanwhile, Norman sniffs around the tunnel from which Wayne emerged earlier. “It goes almost straight down,” he observes. Wayne’s injury has left him whoozy, however, and all he remembers is hearing their voices and crawling towards the sound.

Establishing one of the film’s more evident logical fallacies, Bella pops straight into their cave. She just enters from stage left, having obviously used an entrance that bypasses the cell door. In other words, there’s a passage directly from the cell to Greely’s house, although the captives fail to ever capitalize on this fact. “That tunnel,” Norman demands. “Where does it lead?” Bella nervously confirms that it goes to the cellar of the house. “Oh, but Mr. Greely keeps it locked,” she adds. Oh. I forgot that part. Well, no wonder they never bother trying to use the tunnel as an avenue of escape. You know. Locked door. And yeah, sure, presumably Bella has a key on her. But, still…locked door. And even if you get past that, there’s the stuffed iguana in the parlor. Might as well just pack it in.

Norman’s braying at Bella proves of little utility, so Leilla tries more of a soft soap approach. Nice guy Wayne comes over and aids her in this. Bella admits that she’d help them if she could. “Oh, I, I’d like to help you,” she quivers, “I’d like to! Oh, but I can’t.” Here one can but marvel at Bella’s extraordinarily accurate Floyd the Barber impression. “Oh, yes, Andy, I’d like to help you escape. But, but Howard Sprague, oh, no, oh, he’d, he’d kill me, Andy. Oh, yes, he’d, he’d kill me.”

Meanwhile, we get our first intimations of where the film’s going. When Leilla asks Bella why she can’t help them—gee, yeah, that’s a puzzler—she answers, “Because…because, then he’d let It have me!” At this she turns to head back to the house (with, of course, no one bothering to follow after her), although she does leave them her flashlight at their request. Actually, they ask her to leave the “lantern,” which is an odd thing to call a flashlight. My guess is that the line read “lantern” in the script, and no one bothered to change it when they couldn’t dig up a matching prop.

Much to Norman’s disgust, Wayne and Leilla express deep sympathy for the departed Bella. They’ll make a nice couple after Norman’s snotty personality reaps him a horrible death. (Oops, sorry.) Then they muse about what “thing” Bella was referring to. Norman’s theory is that Bella’s part of a plan to scare them. “So that they can bleed us for every cent we’ve got,” he explains. This leads to one of the most laughably obvious lines of exposition I’ve yet come across. “They don’t stand to make much off an assistant professor of paleontology,” Wayne clunkily retorts. Maybe he uses this line to pick up chicks.

Wayne grabs the, er, lantern and heads down the incline. He wants to know what Bella was referring to. Norman, of course, disparages the idea and refuses to join him. OK, we get that we’re not meant to like Norman. Yes, he’s an insensitive jerk. But does he have to be surly, stupid and cowardly as well? Apparently so. Suddenly a tremor occurs, causing dust to fall from the ceiling. “See,” Norman says. “It would be foolish to go any farther into the cliff.” Now, that’s a pretty damn reasonable position. Again, though, Norman’s a Bad Guy and so his statement is merely a front to hide his gutlessness. This is highlighted when a disgusted Leilla joins Wayne instead. Not wanting to be shown up by a girl, Norman joins them, albeit by taking up the rear.

Using the flashlight (despite the quite voluminous lighting already present), Wayne follows a staircase down into a lower chamber. “Listen!” Wayne says, as the Foley guy brings up the volume on a bubbling sound effect. “Good Lord!” Norman exclaims. “Look at this!” ‘This’ proves to be another descending stairway, one that lies more or less directly in front of them. If it were any more obvious it would have bitten them.

Although festooned with glowing lights, the area it leads to is obscured with dry ice fog. So you know something spooky is down there. Loud, Mysterious Bubbling Sounds, Dry Ice Fog…do I have to draw you a map? The camera tracks downward and we see a (supposedly) large pool of bubbling water lying below them.

Wayne heads down for a closer look. Leilla cautions him to be careful, while Norman petulantly snarls at his wife’s concern. In case I haven’t communicated this adequately, Norman’s a bit of a jerk. However, before Wayne can proceed, Greely appears behind them. Covering them with a .45, a reasonable choice of weapon for a guy that big, he asks Wayne, “You once told me that you were a, what was the word you used…?”

“Once told me?” When the hell was that? We saw their one short meeting and I don’t remember it coming up. I suppose it’s possible the two had met before, while Wayne was doing his fieldwork. If so, however, they sure didn’t establish this fact. And how hard would it have been? For instance, when Wayne appeared at the house while checking up on the Sterns, he could have greeted Greely by name. He didn’t, though.

The word Greely was groping for, needless to say, was paleontologist. He begins ranting about the “creature” down in the pool. “It’s great and powerful,” he shouts, two adjectives that had remained otherwise unpaired since the Wizard of Oz employed them. Greely even calls the mysterious creature his “greatest discovery.” Which, given the snakes, fox, bobcat, echo monkeys and stuffed iguana is indeed a bold statement.

Wayne attempts to humor him, saying that such a beast should be exhibited. Norman, catching on, eagerly offers to pay for a publicity campaign. There’s one fatal flaw in their plan, however. Which is that the people lying to their captor are, after all, Tommy Kirk and Corveth Ousterhouse (!). Not exactly a duo likely to convince an audience of much of anything. Greely reacts to their duplicity with rage.

However, he also wants to trade up from Bella. (Luckily, the nature of his relationship with her remains kind of vague. You could speculate about it, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to.) Therefore, he tells Leilla he’ll spare her life if she’ll consent to becoming his new, er, housekeeper. Norman prods her to consent, as she’d then have a chance of helping them escape.

This, typically, is played as another debit against Norman. Frankly, I thought it was a good idea. With her on the outside there’s myriad ways she could proceed. The best of which would be to get at Greely’s gun and blow his head off, although I suppose that’s a bit much to ask for from such a drippy character. Instead, because Norman’s a Creep, we’re to view his enthusiasm for the idea as a further sign of cowardice. After all, she’s only a wee little girl, blah blah. Actually, if you follow that thread all the way through, it’s even possible that he’s supposed to be urging her to prostitute herself to Greely. Which, admittedly, would be pretty gross.

Wayne, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, continues with the “Let’s put on an Exhibition!” thing. Greely responds by wounding him with the .45. Wayne, however, manages to toss the flashlight at his tormentor and knock the gun away. Wayne must be a lot tougher than I’d thought, because even a grazing hit from a .45 should have knocked him on his ass. On the other hand, it’s not really helping Greely’s Menace Credentials that he’s a poorer shot with a handgun than Tommy Kirk is when heaving a flashlight. In any case, the gun skitters down into the Mystery Grotto. Greely promises them an unpleasant end, then retreats.

Leilla tends to Wayne’s wound, which despite appearing to be in the meat of his shoulder is somehow only superficial. Norman, meanwhile, continues his bitching and snide accusations. This finally causes Leilla to boil over. Apparently urging her to offer herself to a psychotic fat man was the final straw. She mouths off until he slaps her across the face. She basically tells him to hit the road.

Seemingly seeking a little space, he mentions going down to see what’s in the Mystery Grotto. However, it’s not knowledge he’s after, it’s Greely’s gun. It’s pretty apparent he doesn’t appreciate being tossed over by the little woman, and furthermore that he’s assigned part of the blame to Wayne. Calling up to his imaginary rival—the moment is highlighted with a blaring music cue, so that we ‘get’ that his attentions are foul (duh)—he yells that he’s found a way out. (Good thing Norman’s such a psycho, since otherwise Greely leaving the gun behind would have all but assured their escape.)

In any case, it’s here that the film really earns its stripes. For just as Norman is about to bring about his fellow captives’ dooms, out from the pool leaps the film’s menace. And what a specimen it is. There’s a definite hierarchy of really bad B-Movie monsters. Ro-Man, the Giant Claw, the Sea Serpent, The Creeping Terror, etc, at its acme. The beastie here, however, ranks right up there. Prior to this the film was merely dull and plodding. This one scene transforms it into a comic masterpiece.

Boo!Aieee!! A GIANT monster!! Look!! It's GIANT!!

As you can see from the regrettably murky photos accompanying this review, the monster is, er, realized by a guy in a monster suit. The suit itself consists of an old wetsuit with flopping rubber ‘scales’ on the torso, rubber gills and ridges on the head, wobbly rubber fangs and, most memorably, halved ping-pong ball eyes with tall slits cut in to indicate the pupils. As the Halloween costume of an inventive twelve year-old, it’s a triumph. (Well, OK, maybe not a triumph…) As the centerpiece of even an unimaginatively cheap monster movie, it’s appalling.

However, there’s a lot more to it than that. For instance, this wasn’t the costume’s only appearance in the thrifty Buchanan’s work. The suit was also used to portray the titular menace in Creature of Destruction, Buchanan’s equally threadbare remake of Roger Corman’s The Amazing She-Creature. Then there’s the fact that the suit, which is basically a really, really bad knock-off of the Gill Man, is no way resembles a ‘dinosaur,’ which is what it’s supposed to be this time around.

Finally, and this really pushes things to another level, the beastie here is supposed to be a giant one. They suggest this—sort of, it took me months of intense viewings to convince the then more naive Andrew Muchoney that this was meant to be the case—by what must be one of the worst examples of ‘forced perspective’ on record.

In basic terms, this means using a deep-focus lens (i.e., one that shoots both the foreground and the background of a scene with equal crispness), and placing an object meant to look larger than another closer to the camera. In other words, it’s like those gag photos where you stand in the foreground of a photograph so as to appear to be propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

The technique is simple and venerable—the deep focus lens was first employed in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane—and with a modicum of skill still quite effective. Peter Jackson used this hoary device in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the first film Bilbo the Hobbit serves tea to Gandalf, who seemingly towers over his host. In actuality, the actor playing Bilbo was twenty feet further from the camera than the one playing Gandalf was.

Unfortunately, forced perspective is not so well employed here. (Hope you were sitting down for that pronouncement.) The primary problem—aside from the tears that have filled our eyes since we first saw the monster—is the lens they use here isn’t very good. The monster has a slightly blurry aura effect around it when it’s in the same shot with an actor standing far in the background. For instance, here with Norman. It was the manifest flaws that led Muchoney to so bitterly contest my assertion that they were trying to make the monster look big. Finally, after some months watching similarly desultory fare, he conceded the point.

Anyhoo, the guy playing Norman stares upward in a truly hopeless effort to convince us that the monster looms above him. (In fact, if the proportions of the forced perspective shot were correct, the ‘dinosaur’ would have to be like a hundred feet tall.) Since the two obviously can’t touch, Norman’s fate is more implied than portrayed. Admittedly, this aspect might not strike the casual viewers, given how cumbersome the editing is throughout the rest of the flick.

Anyway, exit Mr. Sterns.

Horrified, Wayne and Leilla turn away. “Oh, my God!” she cries. “I saw it! It was there!” So much for the layman’s perspective. Wayne, in turn, brings all his scientific expertise to bear: “It’s impossible! There’s nothing like that for millions of years! But it was there! It was real! Alive!” By the way, the actors here deserve a special nod for their utterly wretched attempts to seem terrified.

Inside the house, Bella is wiling away the hours by playing the organ (!). As her performance comes to a thankfully quick conclusion—not a phrase I’ll be employing much in this review—she decides to sneak down to the cave and see how everyone’s faring. Actually showing her in the passageway between the house and the cell is a bit of a mistake, however. The well-lit condition of the hewn corridor makes the captives’ continual ignoring of it all the more unbelievable.

Back in the Cell, Leilla is comforting Wayne. He’s huddled against her and she’s stroking her hair. I have to say, Norman was a complete jerk, and apparently about to become a murderer, but she sure seems to take seeing him eaten alive by a giant monster in stride. Also, I hope Wayne appreciates the fact that she’s clearly just reapplied her make-up. You might want to lay off the eyeliner a bit, though, dear.

“Wayne, what was it?” she asks, with at best a look of mild interest on her face. “It’s impossible,” he again replies. Not much of a vocabulary for an Assistant Professor of Paleontology. Surely he could have substituted ‘laughable,’ ‘risible,’ ‘ridiculous,’ ‘absurd,’ ‘ludicrous’ or any other number of words. “The only thing

I’ve seen,” he continues, “are drawings, fossils, prints. What it looked like is a Massisaurus, which is a kind of aquatic lizard, the most successful of its kind, grew to forty or fifty feet tall. There were hundreds of them around here, seventy-five million years ago.”

After that wad of silliness, they offer up some more. This probably isn’t a good idea, but once you’ve made one of your characters an APoP (Assistant Professor of Paleontology), I guess you’re stuck. Skipping over many key details, like why an “aquatic lizard” would have arms—Buchanan at least was savvy enough to always hide the bottom of the suit, so at least it’s legs weren’t displayed—Leilla asked how it could have possibly survived. Which, admittedly, merits some incredulity.

“We talk a lot about suspended animation,” he replies, although I’m not sure if the ‘we’ here connotes APoPs and PoPs or rather characters in bad science fiction movies. I must admit, though, that I’ve never heard suspended animation further described as “the art of slowing down the aging process.” Wayne muses further. “Maybe, through some freak of nature, it’s already happened here!” Yes! Yes, that does explain everything! Still, I’ve got to deduct two points for not mentioning the coelacanth, as is stipulated in the Sci-Fi Movie Union Rules.

Bella, I guess, was lurking during this conversation. She silently returns to the house, looking sickened. I’m assuming over Norman’s death, since Wayne’s conclusion that the monster is an aquatic lizard hardly seem that surprising. Bella keeps looking back as she walks through the house, so it’s less than surprising when a hand from in front of her grabs her arm. It’s Greely, of course, and he wants to know what she’s been up to. He forces a report out of her, and is pleased to hear of Norman’s demise. “I’m glad you’re beginning to take an interest in these things,” he sarcastically replies.

The next day, Bella again leaves the organ (I assume the shots of her playing it are so short because the actress can’t pretend to do so very well) and heads down to the Cell. Outside, though, Greely seems to be doing the same thing, as he’s walking past the animal cages—cue the typically loud Echo Monkey gibbering—and using the cave’s front entrance. Meanwhile, Leilla is waking Wayne up and offering him some coffee. She explains that Bella brought it, which is strange because when she left the house she wasn’t carrying anything other than a sweater.

Greely’s presence outside their cell wall is announced with a jarring musical cue familiar to any Zontar veteran. Wayne, being, you know, the man, is the one who approaches to see what he wants. “Do you realize the significance of what you have down there,” Wayne exclaims. I have to give the film a minor point here, as Wayne’s interest in the beast, even when his life is at stake, seems entirely credible.

Greely, meanwhile, is pleased to hear in Wayne’s interest. Wayne begs for details on how Greely found the creature. When Greely asks if he’d really like to know, Wayne replies, “Any scientist would give his life to discover something like that.” And in the movies, quite a few of them have. However, I’m taking back the minor point I just awarded the film. Wayne’s interest should be consuming, but actually talking about giving his life seems a bit much.

The slip doesn’t get past Greely, either. “Since that’s what about to happen,” he snorts, “I’ll tell you.” And so the tale begins. “I came here several years ago, looking for gold. And I found it, some, before it was taken from me. One morning I dug through to a cavern. And then I found there was something down there, something alive! I decided to make it my friend! I brought it food. Cattle, sheep, sometimes a coyote I’d catch. And then one day, a stranger came trying to find what I had in the cave. He found it, or rather it found him. I chose those who couldn’t be traced, those whose families and friends thought they’d been swallowed up.” [Insert Villainous Laugh here.]

Greely again offers to spare Leilla’s life, if, well, you know. This is a shock to Bella, who through the miracle of bad editing we suddenly see lurking, er, somewhere. She’s shocked to realize that all her kowtowing to Greely is only buying her a temporary stay of execution. Meanwhile, Wayne shouts at his retreating captor to “think like a scientist! Do you realize the value of your discovery for mankind?!” Actually, I’m not taking all that stuff too seriously. If a scientist had found the creature, he’d be feeding people to it, too, but while also trying to create a mutant lizard/human hybrid race or something. Greely’s antics, by comparison, are almost benign.

In any case, Greely responds to his importuning by yelling, “What do I care about mankind!” and then engaging in a bout of Madman Laughter that would make Dr. Evil roll his eyes.

And since I haven’t found a good spot to mention it, let me here wonder how many people Greely’s grabbed over the years. I’d think a fifty-foot reptile would need to eat an awful lot of 150-pound humans to keep its strength up.

After Greely departs, Bella pops up and tells Wayne and Leilla that she’ll help them escape. Now, Greely just exited through the mouth of the cave. It’s going to take him several minutes to negotiate his way back to the house, even if he means to returns there directly. Meanwhile, the now compliant Bella could lead them through the direct passage and into the house before Greely got there. Presumably she knows where Greely keeps his other guns. (As he’s a Southerner, I assume he has more than the one he lost in the Mystery Grotto.) If not, surely the kitchen offers some weaponry.

There are flaws with this plan. Even if he got his hands on a gun, Wayne would have to be prepared just murder Greely in cold blood. You could try to capture him, of course, but that raises the danger level significantly. Also, if guns aren’t found, Wayne would have to fight him one-on-one. After all, this is the ’60s, so you know at best the woman are going to just stand there, hands to mouths, shouting “EEEK!” Now, Wayne is a younger man, but he’s played by Tommy Kirk. If I had to lay money down on him beating Greely hand-to-hand, I wouldn’t bet on him. Still, it’s a far better chance than they currently have.

The paramount issue, of course, is to grab Bella and her key and get into the house as quickly as possible. If everything works out well, you might have an hour or two to get things ready before Greely shows up. Yet your edge might only be minutes, so speed is of the essence. So do Wayne and Leilla grab Bella and start booking towards the house?

No. They sit her down and ask her life story. Morons.

On the other hand, this leads to the film’s most jaw-dropping sequence. At this point we’ve about thirty-six minutes of movie left. Given the point the plot’s reached, significant padding is required to stretch things out. This scene provides that padding. And how.

Bella is asked how she ended up here. “I was like you, once,” she begins. Cue flashback, and the beginning of perhaps the worst hunk of movie Larry B. ever whipped up. This flashback, filmed in artistically (and economically!) sans dialog of any sort, will last a shade over 22 minutes! Remember when I reminisced earlier about how my friend Andrew and I would time out sequences, over and over again. This was the main culprit. I mean, no matter how many times you check the clock, how many times you rewind the tape and subject your eyes and brain to it, how can the human mind conceive of such a thing? 22 minutes!!

If there is no dialog, there is sporadic narration from Bella. We open on her, obviously a happier woman, driving along in his car. “It seems like an eternity,” Narrator Bella notes, looking back. Hey, save that line for 22 minutes from now! Instead, though, Bella’s travails started two years ago.

Reading these incredibly ponderous reviews over the years, visitors to the site must have wondered, “Are there no limits to the ludicrously petty aspects this man will blather endlessly on about?” Before, I could safely have said the answer to that question was usually a big, fat “no”. However, I now admit defeat. There’s just no way I’m going to go through this entire flashback in excruciating detail. So here’s the ‘highlights’:

  • (0:30 of Flashback) The idea is that Bella is a teacher on vacation. Since teachers back then made substantially less then they tend to do now, economy is a definite factor as she seeks lodging for the night. “The luxury motels are out of the question,” Narration Bella explains as Flashback Bella drives past various flea-bitten dives. “Teachers…well, they don’t have fancy credit cards or expense accounts.” OK, I buy that teachers, especially rural ones, made peanuts back then. Still, was a ‘credit card’ really all that ‘fancy’ back in 1967?
  • Note: Minister of Proofing Carl Fink writes, “Well, yes. I doubt that many rural teachers had them. American Express had only introduced theirs in 1958. Bank Americard was still years from becoming Visa.”

  • (0:55) And so she drives past the town, continuing on in her search for cheaper quarters. “That was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Narration Bella bitterly notes. Hmm, yes, I guess it was, given the whole “I’ve become a slave and sexual plaything for an insane redneck fat man who feeds people to his giant monster” thing.
  • (1:55) The previous statement is followed by a minute straight of unnarrated driving footage. At about the two-minute mark, the car encounters a ‘road closed’ sign. Flashback Bella finds herself gratefully seeking refuge for the night in Greely’s house. There’s some stuff from Narration Bella about the situation, but let’s move on.
  • (2:40) Greely, mugging for the camera behind Flashback Bella’s back, shows her to her room. From here on out, believe it or not, the flashback continues without narration for six and a half minutes.
  • For a while, we watch Greely and Flashback Bella engage in a pantomime conversation. Then we watch FB unpack her suitcase. And so on. It’s cinema excitement at its finest!
  • (6:00) FB begins changing her clothes. (Luckily, we are spared any results of this.) How dragged out is this? We spend forty seconds just watching FB removing her sweater and then unbuttoning her blouse.
  • Boy, the ongoing eeeee-rie music sure ain’t helping all this.
  • (8:22) We begins the Psychological Torment Section of the flashback. It begins small, when FB finds she’s been locked in her room. Then she finds her window is *ahem* barred by some rather scrawny looking old wooden slats.
  • (9:10) “I was trapped,” Narration Bella explains. Yeah, thanks. She goes on, revealing a poetic streak. A poor one, but even so. “A prisoner of a man I would later learn was a madman. And who wouldn’t rest until he could pull me into the twilight world with him.” She further explains that he used “every fiendish trick he could imagine”—although she doesn’t mention him making her watch this movie—to accomplish this goal. First of all, he starved her and denied her water.
  • (9:52) “The restless animals kept me awake at night,” she notes. What, all like six of them? Here’s a suggestion: Close your window.
  • (10:00) “After the third day without food or sleep, the gnawing hunger was more than I could bear.” Her state is portrayed by some wobbly POV shots. By the way, if you ever wanted to watch a woman sit in a chair for a minute straight and stare at tilting furniture until the camera becomes blurry, this is the movie for you!
  • (11:45) Blah blah. Greely finally agrees to bring her a meal. We waaaatch him climb up the stairs with the covered dish. Finding Bella finally asleep, he leaves the tray behind.
  • (12:55) Flashback Bella pulls the napkin off the dish, discovering *Gasp! Choke!* a dead mouse. (Of course, the camera quickly zooms in on her rodent repast, accentuating the raw terror of the moment.) Her horror is supposed to be punctuated by a horn blare, although the cue is mistimed and the blare begins before the mouse is revealed.
  • (13:19) “It was only the beginning,” Narration Bella explains. Not a sentence you wish to hear over thirteen minutes into a seemingly endless flashback sequence.
  • (14:05) Greely further denies FB sleep by sneaking into her room and blowing a whistle to snap her awake. She cries, he runs off laughing manically.
  • (14:40) FB begins planning for an escape bid.
  • (16:05) When Greely next enters her room to torment her, FB dashes the contents of a peroxide bottle in his eyes. (Despite the fact that she clearly hadn’t been holding it.) Greely is blinded, and he really should be, since he reacts to the pain by rubbing his eyes. Then he stumbles out of the room and falls down the stairs. However, since he’s a movie character, he quickly recovers, and without even rinsing his face first.
  • (16:15) FB makes it outside and kicks off a long, laborious chase scene through the surrounding woods.
  • (17:00) Magically recovered, Greely runs outside, beginning said pursuit. This lasts for some minutes, just shots of her in the woods, and then him in the woods. The scene is accompanied by a lethargic tune played, I believe, on a tuba.
  • (21:20) After nearly five straight minutes of such footage, including some slo-mo stuff that looks like a parody of Blake Edwards’ 10 (and believe me, watching the jiggling torso of Bill Thurman in slow-motion is no treat), Greely catches up with her and beats her savagely with his belt.
  • (22:05) Narration Bella explains that the beating broke her spirit. “I became one of Gravey’s animals,” she moans. And so Bella’s Origin Story finally, after twenty-two minutes and ten seconds, comes to a long-awaited end.
  • I want to make sure I’m getting this across. When the flashback began, we had roughly thirty-six minutes of running time left. After it ends, we have just under fourteen.

    And so, having wasted all this time, Wayne finally asks if she can “get us a key?” (Uh, doesn’t she have one on her right now? Dammit, you wimp, just take it from her.) Bella fearfully responds in the negative. Which leaves us some doubt as exactly what ‘help’ she’ll actually be willing to provide. In the end, after much prodding, she finally agrees to bring Wayne his “chemist’s bag” (?), which is stashed in his jeep.

    After Bella leaves, Leilla asks him what’s in the bag. “Dynamite caps,” he replies, “for excavating.” (!!) Gee, maybe if he didn’t blow his fossil evidence to pieces he’d be a full Professor of Paleontology. Anyway, he thinks he can use them to blow down the cell door. Which is made of metal bars. As opposed to the ordinary wood door that the passage to the house contains. YOU MORON!!

    Note: Both Jabootu Minister Carl Fink and Learned Correspondent Bill Leary have pointed out that such an explosion, especially when focused by the surrounding rock, would almost certainly blow Wayne and Leilla to bits. I had thought of that, but figured that if the characters hid down in the second level chamber, it just might provide enough protection to merely see them deafened for life. On the other hand, such a huge explosion would quite possibly cause the cell cave about them to collapse, which wouldn’t help things much either.

    So Bella returns to the house, and Greely’s seen outside tending to his animals. In other words, if they’d forced Bella to take them to the house, they could have had all this time to set up an ambush. Looking up from Clara’s cage, he sneers, “Stupid, crazy woman!” Why? Uh, because this shot was obviously intended to follow his discovery, some many days ago (I think that’s right), that Clara had escaped from her unlatched cage. Good continuity there, Mr. B.

    Meanwhile, Bella has ducked out to the building (which seem kind of small, given that Greely supposedly keeps all the cars of his previous victims in it) and retrieved the bag. While she prepares the prisoners’ meal, however, Greely pops up. I think the idea that he might find the bag is meant to engender tension. In a theoretical sense, of course. He sends Bella off to fetch the pair some napkins (!), and unbeknownst to her slips a Mickey Finn into their coffee.

    Bella brings the bag to Wayne. As he clutches it, it almost completely folds in. Apparently he carries nothing in it but the necessary props, er, dynamite caps. Well, actually, the contents aren’t caps, but rather entire sticks of dynamite. Caps are small explosive devices used to set off the more powerful dynamite. Needless to say, this makes Wayne’s remark that he uses the ‘caps’ for excavating sites even more bewildering.

    Wayne tells Bella to meet them at the jeep in half an hour. (Can he hotwire a car? And how do they intend to get past Greely? And again, why blow down the cell door when Bella can lead them to the house itself? Anyway.) Then, instead of readying one or maybe two sticks, Wayne bundles together what has to be five or six. (!) That’s a hell of a lot of dynamite. Sure, it’ll blow the door to pieces, but given the already established structural unsoundness of the cave, it doesn’t seem like the brightest idea.

    Meanwhile, Leilla makes goo goo eyes at Wayne and begins talking about where their relationship will go once they escape. (Man, this woman really needs to spend some time with herself.) “Look,” Wayne replies, “when we get out of here we may have like thirty or forty or seventy years to find that out.” OK, Norman was a right bastard, even, in the end, a potentially murderous one. But cripes, you two, you just saw him get devoured by a giant lizard! Show a little decorum, for heaven’s sake.

    The highlight of their little tête-à-tête occurs when Leilla laughingly notes, “I just remember reading somewhere, a very famous woman wrote, ‘Its’ very interesting being married to a paleontologist.'” Why, Wayne asks. “The older you get,” Leilla laughs, “the more interesting you become!” Oh, my sides. By the way, is being married to a paleontologist more ‘interesting’ than being married to a businessman who gets eaten by a gigantic, er, dinosaur?

    Unfortunately, with their freedom—or self-induced oblivion by TNT—supposedly right at hand, they chug down the coffee and in due course fall unconscious. “What’s happening to me?” Wayne slurs as Leilla slumps over. “Ah, it’s the damn coffee.” Wow, good thing you explained that, or two of the people who ever saw this film might not having ‘gotten’ it. After all, it was only set up with a long close-up of Greely pouring a sizable amount of white powder into the coffee urn. In any case, Wayne manages to toss the dynamite under his cot before he blacks out.

    Greely shows up in a bit to examine his handiwork. He leers exaggeratedly at the unconscious Leilla before carrying her off. Then Bella shows up. In a nice bit of Bad Continuity, she’s shown in a section of cave earlier established as being near the main entrance—you can tell by the junction boxes—yet appears in the cave via the (never actually seen) entrance leading from the house.

    Anyway, she rouses Wayne. “He’s taken her to the cavern!” she blurts. First, why the hell would Greely take Leilla there? Second, how would Bella know? She was in the house. What is she, telepathic? Meanwhile, the very next shot shows Greely still carrying Leilla down. Given the proximity to the cell and general cave acoustics (sound carrying well because of all the rock), he should hear Bella yelling at Wayne and know something’s up. But he doesn’t.

    Greely gets Leilla down in the Mystery Grotto and begins tying her up. I guess his plan is kind of a “put out or get eaten up” sort of thing. Considering his elaborate psychological campaign to break down Bella when she first arrived, one can only lament how lazy he’s gotten in the years since. Or maybe I’m misreading things. When she begins coming awake during this—which seems to have been cutting the dose of sedative a bit fine—he explains he’s binding her “to keep you from running away, hurting yourself.” OK, but that still hardly explains why he’s brought her to the Grotto, of all places. Making this idea especially dubious are inserts of the Monster spying on the two.

    Greely’s desires are flummoxed, however, when Leilla continues to shout for Wayne rather than acceding to his demands. I guess he has gotten lazy, because he tells her this means her death. Then, hearing Wayne coming down the stairs, Greely notices the .45 sitting right at the bottom of the stairs beside him.

    Think about that. The Monster’s way too big to get up the stairs—well, supposedly—and the gun was right there at the bottom. If he’d just bothered to do a minute’s worth of safe exploring, he could have gotten the gun, shot Greely when next he appeared outside the cell wall, and then waited for Bella to come and spring them. Really, it’s hard to have much sympathy for people who have their escape handed to them on a silver platter but refuse to sup.

    So Greely runs over to Wayne to threaten him with the gun. Wayne, still on the stairway, easily kicks the pistol from Greely’s hand. (When are people going to learn that you shouldn’t violate Ken’s Rule of Gunsâ„¢?) Wayne’s feeble kick even manages to knock Greely aside. Again, being a massive bonehead, Wayne doesn’t go for the gun, or run over and try to kick Greely to death while he’s down. Instead, he ignores his foe and goes over to check on Leilla. Please, Greely, Monster, somebody…kill these idiots before they manage to breed.

    Greely, who looks pretty whoozy—I’ll be kind and assume he hit his head on a rock after falling—comes around and (three guesses) looks for the gun. Seriously, at this point I’m rooting for him. However, Wayne and Leilla have already gone up the stairs. Where to, I have no idea, since presumably both exits are still locked. Plus they’re leaving Greely, not to mention a gun, behind them. Survivalists they’re not.

    Not that they have to worry, because it’s the end of the picture. Bella, seeing the weakened Greely before her, stoops and grabs the bundle of dynamite. (I have no friggin’ clue as to how that got there.) Greely makes to shoot her, but then notices she’s holding something. “What is it?” he cries. “It’s dynamite!” she spitefully answers. “Something to destroy your creature, so that it can destroy no more!” Hereabouts we see the monster slither from the pool, by the way, which seems a little tardy of it.

    When we cut back to Bella, the fuse on the dynamite has been magically lit. We’ve never seen any indication that she smokes, and anyway, Greely’s was sitting there the whole time with his gun. Presumably he could shoot her before she reached into her pocket, withdrew a matchbook, fired one up and lit the fuse. Which, now that I think about it, is probably why we don’t actually see her doing so, but merely cut back to her once it’s a fait accompli.

    Now that her job is concluded, Bella can be safely shot down, and so she is. She’s pretty tough, though, for the pointblank .45 bullet doesn’t rock her a smidge. Instead, she just puts her hand to her putative wound and crumples to the ground. Around about here the Monster intrudes on the scene, or as much as it can given that it can’t actually enter the frame with the other characters. Apparently deciding the beast wasn’t quite goofy enough, meanwhile, they assign the fearsome creature a high-pitched honk, an “aah-ooo-ga” sound reminiscent of Fred McMurray’s Flubber Car.

    In a climax foreseen by absolutely no one, ever, the Monster that Greely has guarded all these years brings about his doom. Forgoing the “Obey me! I’m your Master!” route, he tries the “No! I’m your friend!” vein. The editing here is pretty confusing. This isn’t that surprising, given that elements involved that are beyond Buchanan’s technical expertise. There’s a monster attack we can’t be shown, an explosion that can’t be shown, and a cave-in we can’t be shown. Instead, we get Buchanan’s best attempts at implying these things.

    So here go: Close-up of Greely screaming. Cut to dynamite. Screen goes white, Foley in explosion sound. Cut to monster, jiggle camera to simulate said explosion. Cut to roof of cave, cue box of fake rocks falling down. Cut back to jiggling monster shot. More falling rocks. Show dust in air, etc.

    After this awesome display of devastation, we cut topside. Wayne and Leilla walk up the steps leading to the front cave entrance. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, impossible. When last we looked the cell door was still locked. Actually, the way things should have ended was with the two still trapped in the cell and starving to death. Unfortunately, this audience-pleasing finale is foregone.

    They eventually emerge into the daylight, covered with chalk to suggest the mighty explosion just almost witnessed. At the top of the outside stairs, Leilla turns around. “We’ve got to tell them, Wayne,” she mewls. “Yeah,” he bitterly replies. “They come and dig. They’ll dig, but they won’t find anything. Everything’s gone, it all went! Everything went when the dynamite went! There’s nothing left! Nothing!”

    Oddly, Buchanan films Kirk from behind during this tirade. Normally I’d call this a directorial miscue. However, it’s entirely possible Kirk couldn’t manage the facial expressions the lines called for (i.e., ones that aren’t bland), and this was the wisest choice Buchanan had available to him.

    Wayne turns to her, now safely wearing a tired, defeated expression. “Maybe there never was anything,” he tells her. “Understand? Maybe there was never anything!” Is that what they’ll tell the police when somebody finally notices that Norman has gone missing? Good plan. Their just leaving doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and so it’s the perfect ending for the movie.

    Only it isn’t. The end, I mean. Instead, we cut back down to the Grotto, which is, contrary to Wayne’s assertions, completely and entirely unscathed. As the camera lingers on the bubbling waters, the words THE END? appear on the screen. (!!)

    Uh, yeah, I’m pretty sure.

    Rar, I'm a Monsta!

    AFTERTHOUGHTS:

    What distinguishes “It’s Alive!” from Buchanan’s other Azalea Pictures? First, presumably because it’s not knocking off one of Roger Corman’s AIP movies, it’s utterly lacking in comic relief. (And thank Jabootu for small miracles.) The film is unremittingly grim, and thus closer in tone to Buchanan’s more personal ‘social drama’ films.

    Second, presumably because Buchanan was able to create the scenario from scratch, the picture boasts far fewer characters and shooting locales than many of its Azalea brethren. Indeed, as noted above, much of the ‘action’ takes place in a cave. Given the incredibly minute budgets he was given for these films—$30,000 apiece is the figure most often bandied about—such restrictions would represent a real advantage. Even that may be overstating things, though, as the IMDB gives the Zontar budget as being a miniscule $22,000.

    The actors, as usual in the Azalea pictures, are a mixed bag. We have the normal array of nobodies, Buchanan stock players and established actors on the skids. (With all due respect to Mr. Kirk, it’s actor John Agar who looms as the most prominent one-time star to end up in the Buchanan stable, having starred in Zontar and two other such flicks.) The most memorable performance here—not exactly the highest of accolades–is provided by Buchanan perennial Bill “Greely” Thurman. Not just because he’s the villain, which as usual is the film’s juiciest role, but also because our lead is Tommy Kirk.

    Kirk began his career as a young Mousketeer on The Mickey Mouse Club. Soon he was appearing in films, usually for Disney. His most famous role undoubtedly remains the kid in Old Yeller. In the years following he appeared in some of Disney’s best live-action pictures, including The Absent Minded Professor, Swiss Family Robinson and The Shaggy Dog.

    However, Kirk’s career was doomed by his incredibly innocuous screen presence. (As opposed to Kurt Russell, who played the same sort of parts in later Disney fare.) In effect, Kirk was the Wil Wheaton of the early ’60s. By 1964 he’d defected from Disney, appearing with fellow former Mousketeer Annette Funicello in Pajama Party. Trivia fans will note this was the first ‘Beach’ movie not to star Frankie Avalon—he has only a cameo role—a sign that the series was on its last legs. Sadder is the parade of former stars on display so obviously desperate for work: Buster Keaton, Elsa Lancaster, Dorothy Lamour, etc.

    In that film Kirk played a Martian sent to Earth who betrays his leaders after falling in love with an Earth woman. If that sounds kind of familiar, it’s because Kirk played essentially the same role in Buchanan’s Mars Needs Woman. Another of Buchanan’s Azalea pictures, it obviously was at least partly based on Pajama Party. To be sure, Mars Needs Women was a radically different take on the material, as it’s played straight—meaning, naturally, that it’s much the funnier of the two—and boasts a purportedly tragic ending.

    You know your career’s in trouble when you go from starring in Walt Disney pictures, even low-budgeted ones, to AIP movies to Larry Buchanan films in a mere four years. As indicated, Kirk’s career slide was precipitous. In ’65 he appeared in Bert I. Gordon’s Village of the Giants, then in junk like Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. ’67 saw Catalina Caper, a dopey teen caper comedy immortalized on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and available on one of the show’s DVD sets.

    In ’69, well, he appeared in It’s Alive. You’d think that would pretty much have to be the low point of any actor’s career. Still, I think an argument could be made that his role is the typically abysmal Al Adamson mishmash Blood of Ghastly Horror (1972) represented an even more dreadful nadir. Since then Kirk’s more or less retired from acting, although lately he’s popped up in a couple of direct to video horror flicks.

    Shirley Bonne (Leilla) had a short career, and “It’s Alive!” was her last stop. (Of course, there really isn’t anywhere left to go after one appears in a Larry Buchanan pictures.) Her finest hour occurred early on, when she played the titular role in the 1960 sitcom My Sister Eileen. The show lasted only 26 episodes, despite being afforded a veteran supporting cast including Rose Marie, Stubby Kaye, Elaine Stritch and Jack Weston.

    That was easily the highpoint of her career. She didn’t appear in a movie until Wheeler Dealers, in which she assayed the uncredited role of Zelda, the Cigarette Girl. Two years later she portrayed the equally essential Celebrant #9 in the risible Richard Burton/Liz Taylor soaper The Sandpiper. 1969 was the end of her career. She played a bit part in a Sammy Davis Jr. made-for-TV detective flick The Pigeon, and then starred here.

    It was one of Ms. Bonne’s TV guest star appearances that ensured her a bit of immortality, though. If there’s one crowd that never forgets anyone, it’s Star Trek fans. And Ms. Bonne played Ruth, an old girlfriend of Captain Kirk’s he dreams up in “Shore Leave,” the episode that aped the story in Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in which astronauts exploring a planet find their thoughts and memories coming to life.

    For Corveth Ousterhouse (!), meanwhile, Norman represented his entire career in film or television. (According to the IMDB, anyway.) I can’t say Ousterhouse is all that good. In fact, he has some really laughable moments. Still, he certainly manages to project a more vivid presence than the film’s male lead. Which, since we’re talking a milksop like Tommy Kirk, admittedly isn’t saying much.

    All in all, given the severe limitation of his one-note part, and perhaps Buchanan’s demands for an ever broader performance, Ousterhouse really isn’t that bad. Since he didn’t appear elsewhere, you can’t really get a sense of how much responsibility he bore for his thespian miscues here. He was a natural to play sourpuss unctuous prats, and in a kinder universe might have had the sort of career Williams Daniels had. Certainly one can see him in a sitcom, playing the tight-assed snobby neighbor constantly humiliated by the lovable rubes living next door.

    If Ousterhouse gives the (comparatively) most reserved performance—as opposed to Kirk, who can more actually be described as somnolescent—Annabelle Weenick blows the roof off with the most fearsomely exaggerated. She doesn’t seem to be acting her part so much as to playing Charades with it. Even so, this might be, again, because Buchanan didn’t tell her to tone it down. Or, conversely, told her to play the part that way. Although I suspect the latter.

    Ms. Weenick, despite what you might think, had a long acting career. She appeared in many films and TV movies shot in Texas. (Much like fellow Lone Star State resident Thurman, whom she often appeared opposite.) She appeared in, and took occasional odd jobs on, over a dozen Buchanan flicks. As well, she appeared in the non-Buchanan ’70s slasher films Don’t Look in the Basement! and Don’t Open the Door!, as well as playing Thurman’s wife in the hilarious Twilight Zone knock-off movie Encounter With the Unknown. Fittingly, she continued to appear in fiascos as late as 1993, when she had a small role in the notable Burt Reynolds turkey Cop and a Half.

    Which brings us, finally, to Bill Thurman. Thurman appeared in eleven of Buchanan’s pictures, and often in meatier parts than Weenick had. Thurman originally became a film actor while in his mid-forties. He was forty-nine when he played Greely. Despite his late start, he went on to a career spanning over thirty years.

    I remember one time, years after Muchoney and I had gotten over our passion for this film. We shared an apartment together for a while after high school. Anyway, one day we were flipping around the TV channels and came across the familiar, craggy face of Bill Thurman. (The film was Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, identifiable because it was in black & white.) We sat there amazed, because Thurman was giving a very good performance.

    What happened to that guy, we wondered. I suggested he’d gotten a ‘talentectomy’ between the two films (although “It’s Alive!” was actually made first, by two years). Andrew, as was usually the case, outdid me by instantly replying, “Yeah, a radical talentectomy.” Damn him and his devastatingly humor-adding adjectives!

    In any case, Thurman’s sensitive portrayal of a bluff cuckold proved that he could act, indicating again that Buchanan either poorly directed actors or else ignored them entirely. In any case, he continued acting in B-movies (’73’s Encounter With the Unknown, ’76’s ‘Gator Bait and Creature From Black Lake). Eventually, though, he started getting small parts in real movies. He appeared in Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical, Sugarland Express, and later Close Encounters of the Third Kind. He also appeared in Westerns like Tom Horn, opposite Steve McQueen, and Silverado. Mr. Thurman passed away in 1995 at the age of 75.

    Trivia fans will note that Weenick and Thurman appeared in both films called The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. (Presumably because both were filmed in Texas.) One was Buchanan’s 1964 drive-in flick; the other a 1977 TV movie starring Ben Gazarra and Lorne Greene. Thurman had small roles in both films, but Weenick got to play Oswald’s mother in the latter picture.

    Which brings us, inexorably, to Mr. Buchanan and his contributions to the film.

    To be fair, Buchanan does try to add some occasional weight to the proceedings. For instance, Bella and Leilla look somewhat alike, a fact emphasized by their similar make-up and hairstyles. (Although I think it funny that Bella would continue to bleach her hair after two years as Greely’s prisoner!) I believe the film might be trying to parallel Leilla’s relationship with her cruel husband with Bella and Greely’s. Leilla, in the end, stands up to her tormentor, and thus is allowed to live out the movie. Bella, damned by her submission, is only afforded a chance to take Greely with her to the grave.

    On the other hand, maybe that wasn’t intended at all and I’m giving the film more credit than it deserves.

    Even so, he obviously tried. Many of the characters are given spotlight moments, no matter how poorly executed they are. And the marathon flashback scene is artistically ambitious, if awesomely tedious. To be fair, though, the techniques used by Greely to break Bella’s will seem entirely credible.

    Still, when you get down to it, the main problem with the film—which is saying something—is Larry Buchanan. His script is problematic, to say the least. Plot holes gape, character motivations are often counterintuitive, and the dialog oft risible. Meanwhile, the actors were most likely left entirely to their own devices. Ousterhouse, for his part, at least occasionally tries to underplay things. Weenick, on the other hand, is more likely to ludicrously over emote.

    Then there’s the monster. I don’t know if Buchanan personally made the suit, in fact, you’d kind of doubt it. Still, he was willing to sign on to making pictures on the sort of budgets that would require him to use such a costume. And, as noted before, to use it in more than one movie.

    Yet, as usual with his films, it’s Buchanan’s extremely limited talents as a director that really causes the film to flounder. Buchanan quite evidently had but one camera at his disposal. This reduced his directorial options significantly; thus his perpetual over-reliance on the zoom shots. In any case, fancy flourishes aren’t really his bag, even in his moderately higher budgeted movies. Buchanan’s constant habit of shooting his actors in severe, screen-filling close-ups doesn’t help much either. Finally, Buchanan as an editor never thought speed or flow of much importance. The best word to describe the pacing of his films might be ponderous.

    Admittedly, Buchanan himself might argue that his best-known stuff, the Azalea Pictures TV movies, are also his worst pictures. (A fine calibration, admittedly.) After all, these weren’t the films he himself wanted to make, they were simply bill payers. Had he the option, I’ve no doubt Buchanan would have chosen to bypass these and focused more on his beloved social and political dramas. However, one has to put food on the table, too.

    Moreover, for good or ill, Mr. Buchanan would probably be almost entirely forgotten today—more than he is already, I mean—were it not for these seven movies. (There were eight in the package originally, but Hell Raiders, a war picture with John Agar, seems to have fallen into a hole somewhere.) The films came about when Buchanan was hired by AIP-TV to whip up, at extreme low cost, a batch of color movies. The package was pre-sold to ABC, who basically had only two stipulations. The films should be genre fare, and in color. More on this in a bit. Needless to say, the network had no plans to run these anywhere near prime time. They were purely intended to be late night and weekend matinee fodder.

    Note: While I’d always heard that the network wanted the films in color, Will Laughlin in his Zontar review, elsewhere in this roundtable, suggests that Buchanan himself demanded it. These details gets hazy in the retelling over the years, with different people claiming different things. However, Will’s research seems a little more extensive than mine, so he’s probably right.

    Since the only real necessity was to stay under the budget cap, Buchanan relied mostly on remaking some of AIP’s old sci-fi movies. These, while at the time considered drive-in dreck, tended to be quantitatively better than Buchanan’s knock-offs. Still, the network primarily wanted color movies, and they weren’t. And, to some extent anyway, the remakes were ‘new.’ And so Buchanan established the Azalea Pictures production company, which produced only these eight movies.

    The pictures were, in a way, a raging success. For decades these films played in constant rotation, both on ABC and on small local channels. See, in the days before cable and VCRs, TV stations in any given market had only five to eight competitors. The three networks got the huge majority of viewers, meaning the local station could draw a small amount of viewers, but a larger one by far than the stations and cable channels of today. If the three networks drew, 70% of a given time-slots audience, the three or four local stations had a still hefty 30% of viewers to fight over. If you spent little enough money, and could draw maybe 5 or 10% of the viewing audience, you had a very profitable situation on your hands.

    Hence the appeal of genre films. There was a core audience—I was part of it, and so were all my associates of a certain age—who when flicking around the channels hoped to find some sort of monster movie, whether sci-fi or horror. Quality was good, but didn’t matter much. There were just far fewer entertainment options in those days, and you took what you got.

    And so, due to the peculiarities of the TV business as it existed in the ’70s and early ’80s, Buchanan’s Azalea films saw near-constant play. AIP presumably charged a comparatively minute fee for their use, but collected such fees from probably hundreds of local stations. As well, while the bias against black and white movies was much less pronounced back then—especially in the early ’70s, when many of use were still watching TV on black & white sets— a certain set of viewers were still more likely to stop on a color program. (Obviously I’m not talking the buffs like me, here.)

    Buchanan’s films were shown enough that they became joke fodder for comedians and such. (Just as C.H.U.D., a film shown constantly on HBO in its early days, was often used as a punch line on stand-up comedy shows.) Especially so used was Zontar Thing From Venus, as its title was so evidently risible. The high point of this sort of thing occurred when the brilliant Second City TV, during its year of ninety-minute shows, used Zontar as the basis of one of its movie-length episodes. Sure, they were having fun with his work, but still, it was a tremendous compliment to Larry Buchanan.

    We live in a different entertainment world now, though, and Buchanan’s fallen from fan favor. Especially for the younger set, who were never exposed to his work the way we older coots were. Buchanan’s films don’t get nearly the TV play they once did, nor would they possibly draw the same number of viewers, who now have so many other places to go.

    Worse, the Azalea Pictures have tumbled into whatever wormhole seems to be keeping so many AIP pictures off home video and DVD. There’s certainly enough of a schlock market out there that somebody would be putting the films out were they available. (Not to mention the actual AIP pictures, ‘classics’ like It Conquered the World, Invasion of the Saucer Men and The Amazing Colossal Man.) The best the Buchanan fan can find currently is the DVD of his first picture, The Naked Witch. Dr. Freex has more on that elsewhere in this roundtable.

    In our younger days, my friend Andrew and I used to fantasize about releasing a set of Buchanan’s films, stored in shiny gold video boxes. That will never be, but I’m still hoping for that DVD box set.

    IMMORTAL DIALOG:

    The Omniscient Narrator, a.k.a. Larry Buchanan, opens things up. He also helpfully suggests what will happen later, for those who have to leave, or will perhaps nod off, before the movie ends:

    “The Poets would have called the place pastoral. The day, tranquil. For Lesland

    Sterns and her husband Norman, it was another day in a cross-country tour. But as they entered the Ozark Plateau, an ominous feeling invaded the privacy of the car. A feeling that intensified with each turn in the winding highway. There were reassurances from time to time, usually in the form of some familiar landmark. But soon, these were behind them.”

    “And then it began to rain. [Cue annoying squeaking windshield wiper sound effect.] There is a legend in these hills that when it rains and sun shines

    at the same time, the Devil is kissing his wife. And speaking of the Devil…”

    ” ‘Look, Norman.’ [Cut to life-sized plaster dinosaurs placed along the road.] An exclamation at something out of time, out of place. Then a simple request to explore another in

    the strange oddities that dot the roadsides of a thousand highways. Oddities that beckon the traveler to stop and see.”

    “But terror knows no time or place, and jeopardy can hide behind gentle rain or shine. And if Norman Sterns had known what danger lay, screened by an Ozark forest, he never would have left the highway.” [Yeah, that’s a pretty safe bet, I guess.]

    Readers’ Respond:

    Several correspondents have written to identity the author of the quote about being married to a paleontologist. Sandy Petersen is the most recent, as and he notes:

    “My dad is one of the world’s worst joke-tellers – he puts the punch lines first, forgets them, mixes conflicting jokes together, and otherwise messes up on his delivery. In fact, I and my brothers derive considerable mirth from his inept attempts at humor. Anyway, I suspect Larry Buchanan may emulate this feature of my beloved father, based on his bungling of the following:

    “An archeologist is the best husband a woman can have; the older she gets the more interested he is in her.” Agatha Christie

    So, Buchanan’s nameless “very famous woman” was Agatha Christie. The remark was about an archeologist, not a paleontologist. (Christie was actually married to an archeologist, which is why the Middle East and archeology play a prominent part in many of her books.) And he manages to retell the quote in such a way as to deaden whatever humor it has.”

    Of course, Buchanan’s scripting in this instance may have been a sly commentary on how people do, in fact, often scramble such quotes.

    Probably not, though.

    Thanks to Minster of Proofreading Carl Fink for his typically helpful efforts, and to Learned Correspondent Bill Leary for additional notes.

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    • P Stroud

      FYI. “Hell Raiders” starring john Agar was on Comcast On-Demand Free last year. I proudly made a DVD+R of it. Haven’t watched it yet though.

      It’s alive is currently showing on March 24th on IFC. Get those recorders ready.

    • commodorejohn

      A while back, I read El Santo’s review of this thing over at 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting. In that piece, he notes that “It’s Alive!” is actually an uncredited adaptation of a short story by Richard Matheson! Since any excuse to read Matheson is a good one, I tracked down a copy (the story, “Being,” is collected in the anthology Duel: Terror Stories by Richard Matheson. Well worth the purchase!) It’s a fine read on its own merits, and it’s really interesting to see where the story came from. Most interesting in that regard are the many significant ways in which “It’s Alive!” differs from its source material. There’s too many similarities for it to be anything but an adaptation, but there’s a lot of changes to the movie, too.

      For starters, the story’s monster is intelligent, and the story occasionally shows things from its perspective. This is interesting, but it’s a lot trickier to portray a character’s thought life in film, so it’s no surprise that they dropped it. It’s also unsurprising to find the story version to be a much more out-there sort of critter, a kind of protoplasmic Shoggoth-esque space creature that nonetheless has a hard outer surface that can deflect bullets covering its squishy, vulnerable interior (foreshadowing!) Naturally this kind of thing would’ve been well out of Buchanan’s budget, and he had what he evidently considered to be a perfectly good monster suit kicking around, so we got that instead; the change from an alien to a dinosaur is less easily explicable, though, since the suit in “It’s Alive!” might just as easily pass for a space monster; the idea that it was locked away from the world for millions of years is also an invention of Buchanan’s (well, assuming it wasn’t ripped from The Thing from Another World) – in the story, it’s been on Earth a mere sixteen days.

      The creature is also capable of thought transference through physical contact, which leads to the single biggest difference in the story: the original version of Greely’s character, Merv Ketter, is quite a different kettle of fish. He’s still definitely a villainous figure, but a much more sympathetic one; rather than being a gleeful psychopath, he’s a lonely and embittered veteran (presumably of WWII, since he’s in his thirties and the story was published in 1954,) and it’s he rather than Bella who is the abused, dominated flunky of the alien (which has a heavy psychological hold on him due to the thought-transference and just generally being terrifying.) Indeed, Bella’s character basically doesn’t exist; Ketter had a wife (and the bit with the resemblance between Marian, Leilla’s original, and Bella actually pertains to her,) but she’s some years dead at the time of the story – which means that the entire flashback sequence, abduction, brainwashing, and all, was entirely Buchanan’s. Ultimately, despite the murdering, he comes off somewhat better in the story, and it’s he who finally brings the creature down (though more as a last act of spite when it’s coming for him than a noble intentional self-sacrifice.) This is probably the story’s best sequence, as it repeatedly inter-cuts between the alien’s perspective and Ketter’s mid-sentence, keeping the pace up and reinforcing the idea that the creature has a mental hold on him.

      Also portrayed quite differently is Les, the original of Norman’s character. While he is irritable at the start of the story, there’s no particular implication that this is his default state as opposed to just being due to dealing with a broken-down car in a hot part of the country on a summer road trip, and his and Marian’s marriage seems to be a perfectly happy one; his characterization as a weasely asshole who dies more-or-less karmically is all Buchanan, and the character of Wayne as replacement-love-interest is entirely absent from the story (there are other captives who get fed to the creature, but they’re not named and play no major role; the only significant players are Les, Marian, and Ketter.) Marian too gets a better portrayal, being much less of an ineffectual damsel-in-distress, though not exactly a Corman or Cameron-esque go-getter, and the couple make their escape together at the end, alive and relatively un-mauled.

      All told, it’s a very interesting comparison. Usually the cheaper and lazier the ripoff, the less likely you are to see significant changes, but there’s quite a few here. Some of them (changing the depiction of the creature) are obviously done for the sake of economy, but some of them not so much – the addition of Wayne’s character necessitates a whole other actor, and while having Tommy Kirk in the cast might’ve been to satisfy AIP’s requirement for having at least one “name” actor, he could just as easily have played Les/Norman and kept with the original characterization. On the other hand, the split might’ve been done to give the monster a victim without having to get extras to play the assorted other captives who get et over the course of the story. Bella’s addition, too, seems counterintuitively complex, but it might just be that she provided a cheap way to pad out the movie for an extra twenty-plus minutes to meet the minimum runtime requirement. But in any case, there’s a surprising amount of effort put into re-writing, even if the end product is still just a Larry Buchanan movie – the whole portrayal of Greely as a sort of Darwinian-fetishist, the rather in-depth portrayal of his enslavement of Bella, etc. One wonders what it all means.