Monday, May 17, 2021

"Everything Went When the Dynamite Went" - It's Alive! (1969) - Film #204

Before Larry Cohen's topical horror film It's Alive (1974) shanghaied the title, another Larry created a masterpiece and used the more lively title It's Alive! I refer, of course, to Larry Buchanan's 1969 dinosaur film, which features an extended role for the respected movie star Tommy Kirk.

Reviewer PaulCurt calls It's Alive! (1969) "dull and interminable and saddled with a startlingly low budget...most viewers will find it almost unwatchable." Reviewer preppy-3 complains, "the dialogue is lousy and the basic plot is pretty stupid." And reviewer BA_Harrison writes, "Technically shoddy from start to finish, this is a real test of patience."

Read on for the truth about It's Alive!...

The film opens with shots of hills and a forest taken from a moving car as a vacationing couple drives along a highway. A narrator intones eloquently, “The poets would call the place pastoral, the day tranquil. For Leilla 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.”

The sound of the windshield wipers beat a suspenseful heartbeat rhythm as the couple continues toward a roadside attraction featuring dinosaur statues. After a few minutes, the narrator continues, “There is a legend in these hills that when it rains and sunshines at the same time, the devil is kissing his wife. And speaking of the devil...’Look, Norman.’ An exclamation of something out of time, out of place. Then a simple request to explore another in the strange oddities that dot the roadside 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.”

The couple turns down a dirt road toward a lake, where they find Spider Creek Camp and the dinosaurs. Norman complains they are almost out of gas, and “We could at least have been in Los Angeles by now.” (Perhaps in your universe, the Ozark Mountains are close to California, or perhaps they have driven 3,000 miles on the dirt road.)

They stop the car next to a parked Jeep that features a water barrel. Norman takes a drink, uninvited, and is startled to see Tommy Kirk dressed in a blue jumpsuit, a white hat, and carrying a small pick axe. Mr. Kirk directs them to a farmhouse up the road that might have some gasoline for their car and they drive away to jaunty but foreboding music.

At the aforementioned farmhouse (which looks a bit more like a plantation house), Norman honks his horn to get the attention of a farmer busy putting his python in a cage (not a euphemism). The farmer tells Norman he has no gas but coincidentally (and not at all suspiciously) a gas truck should be arriving shortly. Norman, annoyed at all these inconveniences rather than grateful for the farmer’s assistance, fixes his wife with a glacial stare. “My wife’s fond of traveling by car. Unhurried excursions along the scenic byways.”

The farmer invites them into the plantation house, where Norman scolds Leilla some more, and she is frightened by a stuffed iguana on the mantel. Looking up wistfully at the ceiling, she explains why she didn’t want to go to the Bahamas instead. “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 the towns and the villages. The people that lived there. I don’t suppose you understand.”

Meanwhile, the farmer confronts his housekeeper Bella, who tells him she knows what he’s going to do and she won’t help him, though he forces her to make them iced tea while he moves their car. “If they get scared and run away, you’ll take their place,” he threatens.

Seconds later, Tommy Kirk arrives in his Jeep (now missing the big water tank) to check up on the couple. The farmer knocks Mr. Kirk out with a wrench.

The farmer shows Norman and Leilla his collection of animals, including his snake, a bobcat, and some monkeys. “You ain’t seen my prize. The best part of my collection,” says the farmer.

“Let’s have a look,” says Norman.

The farmer leads them through a gate to Onyx Cave. Leilla hesitates but Norman tells her it won’t take a minute. The farmer replies, “It’ll be over before you know it.”

In the cave, which is fixed with stairs and electric lights for visitors, they walk for what seems like several hours. At one point, the farmer pulls down the bars of a jail cell, trapping the couple inside. The farmer walks away.

Norman takes the opportunity to scold his wife again. “You and your fool notions. Traveling across country in an automobile like a couple of poverty-stricken gypsies!”

Leilla screams (as one would) when she sees Tommy Kirk, who has also been dumped into their cave/cell.

At the farmhouse/plantation, the farmer eloquently explains the workings of the universe to his conscience-stricken housekeeper at the dinner table. “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, and one animal life after another. You see, each animal is served by another, and each must serve its turn.”

Bella responds, intensely but obviously incorrectly, “A human being is not an animal.”

“Who can tell?” he argues.

Following the farmer’s orders, Bella brings food to the cave, using a tunnel that leads to the basement of the farmhouse, though the farmer keeps it locked. She tells Mr. Kirk and the others that “it” is going to get them, and then she goes back to the house, while the prisoners unaccountably fail to follow her. Mr. Kirk investigates a tunnel leading down, hoping to find “it,” and the others follow him down the metal staircase into a well-lit cavern. They see bubbling water at the bottom of another staircase, but before they can investigate to see if there’s a way out, the farmer appears with a gun. “Perhaps you know of my creature,” he says to Mr. Kirk, a paleontologist. “It’s great and powerful. My greatest discovery.”

“I’d like to see it,” Mr. Kirk says.

“You will. Don’t worry.”

The farmer tells Leilla she is a very pretty woman, and he might be willing to take her out of the cave. She refuses, but her husband immediately offers her to the man. “Do what he says. It’s our only chance.”

The farmer fires the gun but Mr. Kirk knocks it out of his hand by throwing what appears to be a bottle at him. The farmer runs away, leaving them with the gun, while Norman scolds his wife further for not allowing herself to be raped. Norman then retrieves the gun, but he doesn’t notice the first appearance of the dinosaur, who emerges from the bubbling cave water.

The gun does nothing against the dinosaur, who in one shot appears to be far larger than the cave it inhabits, and Norman is soon killed by the reptile.

Tommy Kirk identifies the dinosaur as a masosaurus (possibly referring to mosasaurus or mesosaurus), an aquatic lizard that grew to be forty or fifty feet tall. “There were hundreds of them around here, 75 million years ago.” (This information contributed, no doubt, by the film's credited paleontological consultant, Skip Frazee.)

“But how?” she asks. “I don’t understand.”

“I don’t know. We talk a lot about suspended animation.”

“I’ve heard of suspended animation.”

“Right, the art of slowing down the aging process. Maybe through some freak of nature it’s already happened here.”

The next day, the farmer tells Mr. Kirk and Leilla the story of how he found the monster, which boils down to him stumbling upon the dinosaur while looking for gold, then feeding it livestock and finally stray tourists. Then he reiterates his offer to spare Leilla, who refuses again.

Mr. Kirk yells, “Greeley, just for one second try and think like a scientist. Do you realize the value of your discovery for mankind?”

“Mankind?” The farmer laughs maniacally for many seconds. “What do I care about mankind?”

Seconds after the farmer leaves, Bella appears in the cell with them and offers to help them. When Leilla asks how Bella got involved, the filmmakers provide a flashback to two years ago during which Bella, formerly a teacher, drives around the forest alone, looking for a motel but finding only the plantation house. (One might question the value of a flashback that consists mostly of several minutes of driving footage, but the filmmakers are masterful enough to make it fit cleanly into the narrative.) Bella was trapped at the house due to a lack of gasoline, just like Norman and Leilla. The flashback also includes many shots of a guilty-looking farmer walking up and down a staircase by himself, images Bella could not have seen. Bella finds herself trapped in a room, thirsty and hungry; the filmmakers include an artful shot from Bella’s POV as she rocks in a rocking chair before she collapses, only to wake up to find he has fixed her a meal of a dead mouse.

In the flashback, the farmer continues to torture Bella. He looms over her sleeping body, suggesting potential rape, and then blows a coach’s whistle in her face. Bella attempts to escape by throwing peroxide in the farmer’s face, which oddly causes him to fall down the stairs, but when she runs out of the house she finds herself cornered on a wooden bridge. The farmer takes off his belt and whips her with it. “As the belt brought welts to my back,” Bella narrates poetically, “the will to live went out of my body. I’d become one of Greely’s animals.”

(Note the clever twist the filmmakers employ in which the dinosaur never appears in the flashback; the farmer brainwashes Bella solely through mental and physical torture.)

The film returns to the present. Instead of simply allowing Mr. Kirk and Leilla escape through the tunnel she uses, Bella tells them she will bring a bag of dynamite caps from Mr. Kirk’s abandoned Jeep. 

As the climax approaches, Mr. Kirk and Leilla drink coffee that the farmer has laced with what appears to be a packet of sugar but must be a narcotic. After Leilla tells a paleontologist joke (“A very famous woman wrote it’s very interesting being married to a paleontologist because the older you get, the more interesting you become”), the two of them fall asleep and a bundle of dynamite rolls under the table. The farmer kidnaps Leilla and then Bella wakes up Mr. Kirk. As the farmer takes Leilla (the one prisoner he offered to save) down to the lowest level of the cavern, Mr. Kirk collects the dynamite and follows.

As the dinosaur approaches, Tommy Kirk overpowers the farmer and helps Leilla escape. After they are gone, Bella lights the dynamite and the farmer shoots her. 

The farmer tells the dinosaur he is its friend and he won’t let the dynamite hurt it, but he does nothing. The dynamite explodes, blowing up the cave. 

Mr. Kirk gives the film’s final philosophy dissertation, made only slightly less impactful by Mr. Kirk’s slurred speech and the fact the director shoots him from the back. “Everything’s gone. It all went. Everything went when the dynamite went. There’s nothing left. Nothing. Maybe there never really was anything. You understand? Maybe there was never anything.” He and Leilla walk away.

Larry Buchanan, of course, is well known as a director who was able to create excellent horror and science fiction movies on a limited budget in a short period of time. It's Alive! is one of his finest creations, a minimalist story that highlights both the frustration of rural America in times of economic crisis (the farmer is angry because his tourist attraction was bypassed by highway construction) and the escape of emotions suppressed by masculine stoicism (symbolized by the probably male dinosaur emerging from the deepest part of the cavern system beneath the farmhouse). Those who complain about some of the film's characteristics--such as the perhaps unconvincing dinosaur costume familiar from other productions, and the uncertainty about why the prisoners couldn't follow Bella back to the house instead of voluntarily remaining in their cave/cell--ignore the depths of Larry Buchanan's vision of American desperation.

While some might concentrate on the dinosaur as the frightening element of It's Alive!, the creature's two appearances in the film are brief and bloodless; serious critics should pay more attention to the manic performance of Bill Thurman as the farmer, a man so desperate to control his unfortunate situation he is driven to torture and murder. Two years later, Mr. Thurman would appear in The Last Picture Show (1971), and he would go on to work with Steven Spielberg on The Sugarland Express (1974) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) before appearing in perhaps his most significant role, that of Reverend Bill McWilley in Mountaintop Motel Massacre (1983). The pairing of Mr. Thurman with Tommy Kirk is truly one of the cinema's most spectacular clashes of the acting titans.

Also, the film was remade as an absurdist comedy called Deery: Off the Wall (2019).