Retromedia dug deep into the vaults of AIP-TV for a pair of themed double feature DVDs slated for release this coming Tuesday. The first pitted Gamera vs. Monster X against another Japanese rubber monster flick, Monster from a Prehistoric Planet. This second pairing features In the Year 2889 and It's Alive!, and...no, not Larry Cohen's immortal (and as-yet unreleased on DVD) killer mutant baby flick. Both movies were helmed by another filmmaker with a vaguely similar name -- Larry Buchanan, whose threadbare-budgeted remakes of AIP genre films were a mainstay on late night fright shows throughout the '60s.
"That's impossible! There's nothing like that for millions of years...but it's there...it was real...alive!"
It's Alive! (1969) owes its origins to Richard Matheson's short story "Being". The movie opens with an interminable driving montage that approaches Manos-level monotony, following jackass New Yorker Norman Sterns (Corveth Ousterhouse), who loathes his wife Leilla's idea of driving to some hopelessly out-of-the-way park. The couple takes an extended wrong turn and stops at a small farm to hit the owner up for gas. After being berated by Norman for not having the means to kowtow to his every demand, the kindly Greely (Bill Thurman) invites them in so they can bide their time in comfort as they wait for a truck with some petrol to arrive. Of course, there's a sinister underbelly to the rustic surroundings -- Greely's miffed that no one's come to visit his collection of personally captured critters, so in retaliation, he rounds up victims to feed to the forty foot tall, 75 million year old monster in his cave. Norman, Leilla, and helpful assistant professor of paleontology Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk) are next on the beast's buffet, taunted by the crazed Greely and helped somewhat by his sympathetic slave Bella (Annabelle MacAdams).
If you disregard the kill scenes, the laughable rubber monster suit, the clunky photography, the plodding pace, and ample padding, It's Alive! really isn't that bad. The opening sequence is right out of Manos, complete with endless footage of a couple driving, missing their destination, stopping at a random place, and immediately making gruff demands of the cheerful fellow who greets them. The drive is broken up with some narration (provided by Buchanan, natch) and a bit of dialogue, but it runs for five whole minutes. If that sounds excruciating, Bella's flashback detailing the torment she's suffered as a prisoner -- almost completely silent, aside from some very sparse narration and some bizarre harp-driven musical accompaniment -- drags on for twenty-two minutes. This, in a movie that barely breaks eighty minutes in total. There's also the matter of Wayne's plan to escape their caged prison. He schemes to have Bella use her key to open the cellar door, fetch some dynamite, and bring it back to him so he can blow the doors open. He's befriended someone with a key to the outside world, yet he's determined to spark a detonation that's slightly, incrementally more likely to attract attention than tiptoeing in Greely's front lawn. Still, the cast does a decent job with what they're given. Corveth Ousterhouse doesn't have another film or television credit to his name, but he's appropriately loathesome as a smug New Yorker accustomed to getting his way. Shirley Bonne, who plays Leilla, used to top-line a CBS sitcom, and Tommy Kirk was a Disney mainstay before becoming entrenched in the B-movie world. Annabelle MacAdams and Bill Thurman, both Buchanan regulars, chime in with only slightly more convincing performances than the rubber monster.
In the Year 2889 (1967; labeled Year 2889 on the cover and menu, although the on-screen title is lengthier) is a remake of Roger Corman's Day the World Ended. Neil Fletcher stars as Captain John Ramsey, a former military man who retreated to the mountains in fear of an impending nuclear holocaust. His home was built in a location that would be ideal for fending off radiation, stuffed with enough rations to sustain him, his young, attractive daughter Joanna (Charla Doherty), and her fiancee Larry. His precautions may sound hopelessly paranoid, but the world does eventually succumb to atomic devastation, leaving the Ramsey homestead as one of the only remaining safe havens. Joanna is distraught because Larry's missing in action, but taking his place in blazingly quick succession are the clean-cut to-be-hero Steve (Paul Petersen), his irradiated brother Granger (Max W. Anderson), slimy hustler Mickey (Hugh Feagin), his stripper pal Jada (Quinn O'Hara), and drunken moonshiner Tim (Bill Thurman, returning, or preceding, dependin' on your perspective). Pops is none too pleased with having his house overflowing with so many people, fearful of contamination, depleting rations, and the inevitable internal strife. Still, his kind-hearted daughter refuses to turn anyone away, so they're all more or less stuck together. Mickey makes a play for both power and the lovely Joanna, Steve ingratiates himself to both father and daughter, Tim and Joanna indulge themselves with whiskey from his still, and Granger develops a curious craving for raw meat. The elder Ramsey notices a strange parallel with irradiated animals from his military career, and he and Steve soon suspect that the forests surrounding their home are teeming with near-invulnerable flesh-eating mutants.
These two movies have more in common than their director. Although both It's Alive! and In the Year 2889 have hideous creatures on display, they're not really "man versus monster" flicks at heart. Humans prove to be the most dangerous foes, and the beasts are only briefly glimpsed in both flicks. The bulk of the action is driven by its lead characters who are placed in claustrophobic, prison-like conditions (literally, in the case of It's Alive!). The effects, or often Buchanan's attempts to cover up for the fact that there aren't any, are the weakest aspect, predictably. In It's Alive!, the monster wears a recycled suit from another Buchanan production, and an actor who's probably barely pushing six feet is supposed to portray a forty-foot prehistoric creature. Of course, it's not feasible to put a monster that size on-screen with an actor, so there's awkward and wholly unconvincing cutting back and forth between them, sometimes with bad blur effects tossed in to obscure the action. The death scenes are generally handled pretty poorly in both movies, with that goofy cutting in It's Alive! to a climactic murder in In the Year 2889. Without squips or bags gushing fake blood on-hand, when a character is shot, there's an accompanying sound effect and the groaning victim slumping down from the shoulders up. The sound effects also often don't match what's happening on-screen particularly well, with certain effects and occasional lines of dialogue appearing a bit out of sync.
My familiarity with Larry Buchanan was based partially on his reputation and mostly on the MSTied Attack of the the Eye Creatures [sic]. I went in expecting entertaining ineptitude and got...well, movies that weren't stupefyingly bad and actually kind of enjoyable in their own right. I felt the same way about The Screaming Skull from Elite's first Drive-In Disc volume, and apparently I'm squarely in the minority on that one. Though I'm fairly certain I'll never watch them again, It's Alive! and In the Year 2889 are kind of endearing, and Buchanan fans might want to pick this double feature DVD up, at least as a rental.
Video: Larry Buchanan built his reputation on churning out no-budget knockoffs of already low-budget genre flicks, and since television was his playground, the full-frame aspect ratio of the movies on this DVD is presumably correct.
After recoiling in horror from the dismal presentations on the simultaneously released Gamera vs. Monster X / Monster from a Prehistoric Planet disc, I didn't go into the Larry Buchanan Collection with the loftiest of expectations. The first movie on the disc, It's Alive!, actually looks fairly decent, despite its flaws. The source material doesn't exhibit extensive wear; there's some scattered speckling, colors still shift intermittently, and a handful of print anamolies rear their head, though not nearly to the same extent as the other double feature DVD. The level of detail and the presence of film grain don't seem inappropriate for a movie of this age and slim budget. Not bad.
In the Year 2889, on the other hand... This double feature marks the first release of It's Alive on DVD, as far as I can tell from a casual skim on Amazon. Maybe Retromedia got their hands on some passably decent source material, spiffed it up to whatever extent they could, and plopped it on this disc. In the Year 2889 has been churned out by a couple of the public domain machines, and I'd imagine this DVD is based around a similarly lackluster source. Colors are faded so heavily in some scenes that they take on a sepia tone, and pretty much every conceivable brand of print wear and damage is visible to at least some extent. The image is much murkier than It's Alive! and also suffers from some vertical jitter.
So, quick summary for readers disinterested in skimming: It's Alive! looks okay, but In the Year 2889 seems like a warmed over VHS transfer from a couple decades back.
Audio: Both movies are accompanied by Dolby Digital mono tracks, encoded at the usual bitrate of 192Kbps. The audio is thin, and hollow, and somewhat scratchy. Dialogue is usually discernable but sounds fairly rough, and light noise lurks in the background. No subtitles, closed captions, or alternate soundtracks have been provided.
Supplements: "Rappin' with Paul Petersen" is a ten minute interview with the actor, who begins by touching on the early years of his career, starting as the first ex-Mouseketeer and progressing to an eight year stint on The Donna Reed Show. He continues by discussing life as a teen idol, recording songs like "Lollipops and Roses", working with Roger Corman, his experiences on the set of In the Year 2889, and the advocacy group A Minor Consideration. It's a solid, entertaining interview and well-worth taking the time to watch. The footage is letterboxed to 1.78:1 or so and is not enhanced for widescreen displays. Petersen also contributes a two-minute gallery of stills from his collection. Rounding out the extras is a link to Retromedia's website.
The disc's menus are focused around stills from each movie, with a hypnotic animated background and some ominous music sputtering underneath. Both movies have been divided into six chapter stops a piece.
Conclusion: Though I'd still be hesitant to recommend shelling out the full $19.99 list price, Retromedia's Larry Buchanan double feature is worth a rental for schlock enthusiasts. Both movies are surprisingly watchable, and the interview with Paul Petersen helps to set this disc apart from otherwise similar releases from the public domain houses.