Review Date: June 30, 2006
Released by: Retromedia
Release date: 1/20/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Full frame 1.33:1
By the mid-1960ís, Hollywood had found a voracious market for their older catalog product: the TV networks, where new broadcast stations Ė both networks and independents Ė were still popping up frequently, with filler needed particularly for afternoons, weekends and late nights. The economic value of television was not lost on the always enterprising executives of American International Pictures, who started their own television distribution arm. Unfortunately, AIP found itself at a dual disadvantage. First, having only been in existence since 1954, it had a far smaller catalog from which to draw releases from. Secondly, up until the late 50ís the studioís output had been shot entirely in black and white, which was at odds with the growing number of color television sets being sold in the United States. AIP met this challenge by aggressively searching out product from other corners of the world for television release, resulting in the importation of scores of foreign genre movies, including most of the Gamera films and several of the Santo masked wrestler series. But they also commisioned Texas born and based filmmaker Larry Buchanan to do a small number of "original" productions that went straight to TV in most markets. Presented on this release are two of those pictures, giving us ample chance to to know what it was like for members of the previous generation who were unfortunate enough to find themselves staring at these films as they were broadcast at three in the morning on one of the local UHF stations.
opens with Norman Sterns (Corveth Ousterhouse
) and his wife Leilla (Shirley Bonne
) driving through the rural Ozarks. Spotting a local attraction off to the side of the road, they leave the highway to investigate, only to find themselves lost on a rural backcountry road with an almost empty tank of gas. They stop when they spot a parked jeep and they meet its owner, a paleontology professor named Wayne Thomas (Tommy Kirk
). He directs them to a farmhouse up the road where they might be able to get some gas. They follow his directions but when they get there and meet the farmer, a creepy looking man named Greely (Bill Thurman
) he tells them that he doesnít have any but that heís expecting the truck to deliver some soon. He has them wait inside the house where they meet his maid Bella (Annabelle MacAdams
), who seems to be terrified of something.
Wayne shows up at the house inquiring on whether or not the couple was able to get fuel, and Greely knocks him unconscious and drags him off. Then he goes into the house and asks them if they want to see his animal collection. Leilla is unsure, but Norman insists they go with Greely, who shows them caged animals heís caught and then leads them into an underground cavern Ė and then locks them up! What could possibly be his motivation for this? They soon find out when they and Wayne, who regains consciousness after being dumped into the cave as well, explore a tunnel that leads them to a boiling pool of water. Norman makes the mistake of getting too close and finds himself being eaten by a gigantic, aquatic creature that rises from the pool. Now it becomes clear what Greely intends to do with them Ė heís going to feed them to his pet monster!
(or, as the proper onscreen title reads, In the Year 2889
) begins withÖTHE END! In the space of one day, humanity has been wiped out by a nuclear war. We flash to an isolated house in a rural valley where we are introduced to John Ramsey (Neil Fletcher
) and his pretty young daughter Joanna (Charla Doherty
). Ramsey marvels at how he canít seem to raise a single city in the world over his wireless set, while Joanna worries about the fate of her fiancť Larry, who apparently didnít reach the valley in time to avoid the atomic holocaust. But they arenít alone in the valley, either. Soon enough the handsome young Steve (Paul Petersen
) and his brother Granger (Max W. Anderson
) show up at the house. Ramsey tries to deny them entry on the grounds that he does not have food and water to spare for them, and because Granger has been contaminated by radioactivity, leaving him deformed. Nonetheless, Joanna insist that they be let into the house, and soon they are also joined by petty thug Mickey (Hugh Feagin
) and his girl Jada (Quinn OíHara
) and old mountain man Tim (Bill Thurman
Ramsey chose the valley for his house because it was relatively protected from radioactivity. It is far from any major city, is surrounded by mountains with lead ore and it features a lake with updrafts that will keep much of the radioactive fallout away. Ramsey has stocked the house with food, water and other provisions, but he only planned for his hideaway to house three people. With seven now living there it lessens their chances of survival dramatically. And so this conveniently ill-assorted group of people tries to live together. Steve and Joanna form an increasingly close bond, while Mickey lusts for her and ignores Jada.
Unfortunately for everyone, some very strange things are now happening. It starts with Granger, who regains his strength and begins wandering the woods at night, searching for raw meat. It becomes apparent that there are more like him somewhere out there, roaming around in the radioactive mists that surround the entrance to the valley. Joanna begins having strange feelings whenever she leaves the house, and seems to be able to hear something watching her from the woods and trying to talk to her. Faced with the reality that there really is something out there, Ramsey confides in Steve what he knows about radioactive contamination. He is a retired naval officer, and during an atomic test in the south Pacific he was given the duty of towing a ship full of animals that had been exposed to the fallout. Three of them were still alive when the ship was inspected, and all of them had been horribly mutated. It now seems that the same thing has happened out in the clouds of radioactive contamination, and whatever it is seems to be getting bolder and coming closer and closer to the house...
Following the runaway success of his 1963 racial drama Free, White and 21
, Larry Buchanan found himself signed with American International Pictures in a contract to produce a slew of features. Though he was able to produce a number of theatrical films during the time he was signed at AIP, without exception every single one of those productions is virtually forgotten today. What Buchanan is remembered for during this period Ė and in fact, what many people remember his career in general for Ė are the seven ultra low budget horror and science fiction films produced under the banner of Azalea Films that AIP released to TV (eight films were actually produced by Azalea, but the final one is a war picture called Hell Raiders
that has fallen into complete and total obscurity). Of the seven, five are remakes of old 1950ís AIP films and two are based on original stories. This release contains an example of both - Itís Alive!
is from an original script (though some have claimed it was inspired by a Richard Matheson short story), while In the Year 2889
is a remake of Roger Cormanís Day the World Ended
I once had the honor of speaking with Texas lawyer Edwin Tobolowsky, who served as the associate producer on all the Azalea productions. Tobolowsky, who served as the intermediary between Buchanan and AIP head honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff, told me that the main reason why AIP wanted them shot in Texas was because there were no film unions there, thus making it possible for each film to be budgeted at just $30,000 (it should be noted that the AIP originals all had budgets of around two to three times that amount). Also, Tobolowsky told me that it was AIP who insisted on Buchanan producing remakes of the films, though itís a mystery why in godís name they wanted new versions of those mediocre old potboilers. Even thirty years after the fact, he himself still hadnít figured out what could possibly have motivated them.
Since we are on the subject of the remakes, weíll start by looking at In the Year 2889
. The year 2889 has nothing to do with anything in the movie. Itís actually the title of a Jules Verne novel that was announced by AIP at one point, but which never reached the production stage. Rather, itís a movie that was made in the late 1960ís, but feels like something made in the 50ís because it copies the screenplay for Day the World Ended
virtually scene by scene and line by line. This was a typical pattern for Buchananís remakes, and the other four films are the same way (though Tobolowsky had nothing to do with the shooting scripts for any of the movies and didnít remember much about them, I do suspect that the hand of Sam Arkoff was behind the copycatting of the original stories). The only part of the script which isnít dated is the fact that the nuclear war starts because of Formosa (better known to us today as Taiwan), a large island several hundred miles off the coast of China which is still a hot spot today because the Chinese government views it as a renegade province and has threatened to use force to bring it under control (Beijing has also threatened nuclear retaliation against the United States if this country were to try and assist Taiwan in the event of a war between it and the mainland).
If youíve already seen Day the World Ended
, then there will be no surprises here, except in how much worse the remake actually is. The fact that Buchanan was working with an impossibly low budget shows itself at every opportunity. The editing is choppy (probably because the budget didnít provide for enough film stock to do retakes and extra coverage shots), the cinematography looks rushed, and the monster effects are never convincing. The creature looks like heís wearing a cheap mask of the type you find in dollar stores during the month before Halloween, and the various make-up effects that are applied elsewhere to actors that are supposed to be playing radiation scarred mutations are never very convincing either.
Still though, while In the Year 2889
is bad, Itís Alive!
is absolutely rock bottom. If youíve gotten this far in the review youíve already figured out that itís not the Larry Cohen killer baby movie. Rather, itís an extremely weak attempt at creating an original monster movie. In the story arena, it has a disadvantage over its companion feature. At least in the remake things actually happen, if only because it is a carbon copy of another movie where things happen. But, in Itís Alive!
, practically nothing happens, or at least nothing happens for long stretches of time. It just doesnít have a story which can sustain an eighty-minute film. The plot might make for a decent entry in an anthology film, but as a feature film itself it just doesnít work. We end up with a movie with long stretches without action, or even a lot of dialogue. One of the best Ė and most infamous examples Ė is a flashback sequence where Bella describes how she first met Greely and how he took her prisoner and tormented her. Running approximately twenty-two minutes (or, in other words, over a quarter of the filmís total length), it is presented without any dialogue whatsoever and only limited voiceover narration, making it one of the most excruciatingly painful bits of cinema that Iíve ever watched.
It goes without saying that the production values on display are no better than those of its companion feature. The monster suit in particular is atrocious, perhaps the worst aquatic monster ever made, even beating such costumes as those seen in movies like The Horror of Party Beach
(amazingly, this is the second time Buchanan used this particular suit; the first was in Creature of Destruction
, a remake of The She Creature
). Since the script tries to pass the monster off as a gigantic prehistoric creature, the obviously man-sized monster suit has limited contact with the actors. The creature only appears together with a cast member once, and that is through an optical effect that hides the size of the suit (something which was surely expensive enough that Buchanan could only afford it once). Other than that, the filmmakers have to resort to various cinematic tricks. Sometimes the camera is pointed downwards on the actors from a height to mimic the monsterís point of view. Other times, the camera is pointed upwards at the creature to give the impression that the characters are looking at a beast of great height. Either way, it doesnít work, though, and the monster isnít any more convincing as a dinosaur than it is as a gill man.
Each of the Azalea films features one or two recognizable name performers imported from Hollywood (the good thing about AIPís involvement in the productions is that it afforded access to talent that might otherwise have been unapproachable). In the case of Itís Alive!
we get former Disney star Tommy Kirk, while with In the Year 2889
we get former child actor Paul Petersen and minor Hollywood debutante Quinn OíHara. The films made by Larry Buchanan during this period have gotten a reputation for always featuring stars on their last legs, and though thatís an overgeneralization, it is true in the case of Tommy Kirk, who also appeared in Buchananís Mars Needs Women
(the best of the seven Azalea productions, by the way). He looks to be sleepwalking through most of the movie and has no eagerness, and according to Larry Buchananís autobiography Kirk was heavily into drugs at the time they worked together, even though he still bore himself in a completely professional manner during shooting.
At the time of production Buchanan had with him a veritable stock company of local performers. Though not every single one of them appears in every movie, there never is a movie that goes without at least one of them being present. The male side of his acting ensemble consisted of five core male performers by the names of Bill Thurman, Anthony Houston, Warren Hammack, Neil Fletcher and Roger Ready, with a number of others popping up from time to time as well, while the female side consisted mostly of Annabelle MacAdams and the lovely young Patricia Delaney. It is the presence of this group of regular performers that helps give all of Buchananís films under the Azalea banner a consistency (a consistency that is also reflected in the choice of music, special effects and locations). Whenever you watch one of these films you know youíre always going to see at least one of the men, and usually one, if not both, of the women. Thatís why itís easy to tell itís a Buchanan film from just a minute or two of footage.
Neither movie gets a recommendation from me, or at least, not the type of recommendation that I'm used to giving. I like some of Buchanan's work very much (even a few of the Azalea titles), but even from the time ten years ago when I started to become very familiar with his films, I regarded It's Alive!
and In the Year 2889
as some of his least interesting work, and even after all this time, viewing them again I discover that I still feel the same way.
Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 broadcast ratios. It's Alive!
has never looked better. Not that it looks great, mind you, but the transfer here is substantially better than I've ever seen it presented. The image frequently has a washed-out look to it, with poor shadow detail and some noticeable digital artifacts, but on the plus side colors look pretty good, and the level of detail and clarity exceeds what I would have expected. There's also little in the way of print damage, save for some occaisonal splices and vertical lines to get in the way. A thin veneer of grain covers the image, but since this was filmed on 16mm stock, a certain level of graininess can be expected. Overall it's a surprisingly watchable presentation.
In contrast, In the Year 2889
is a definite disappointment. Whereas its companion feature looks to have been struck from an actual film print, this transfer looks more like it came from an old 3/4Ē tape master or something similar. The image looks extremely washed out, with faded, smeary colors and lots of print damage. The level of detail is also slightly below average. What worse, though, is that itís afflicted with the same artifacting problems as its companion feature, only to noticeably worse degree.
A number of years ago, when Orion Pictures (the inheritor of AIPís catalog) was still in the process of bankruptcy, VHS tapes of some of the Buchanan films popped up on eBay, tapes which reportedly were of good quality and were archive reference copies that had been liquidated from Orionís shelves (apparently time codes were burnt into them). It seems fairly likely that original elements for the films now rest at the vaults of MGM, the latest foster parent to the AIP catalog - in fact, Mars Needs Women
was an early release in the companyís Midnite Movie series. If that is the case, then it is understandable that good quality elements might be hard to find. That is was makes the compression problems on this (and many of Retromediaía other releases) so aggravating. The companyís inability to find original elements for their releases can often be forgiven. Their inability to get their releases properly authored, however, cannot be.
Both films are presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono. It's Alive!
sounds mediocre at best. Though there's little in the way of background noise or distortion, the audio does have a muffled, harsh sound to it, something that's not helped by the haphazard original sound recording. The same is true for In the Year 2889
, which sounds slightly less muffled and more crisp, but otherwise it's about the same.
Surprisingly, Retromedia was actually able to give this release extras. Though Larry Buchanan is nowhere to be found, the release does include an interview with Paul Petersen, who makes for an engaging subject. Petersen spends only a short amount of time talking about In the Year 2889
(the most surprising revelation is that Bob Hope, of all people, was the person who convinced him to take the role), and says nothing about what it was like to actually work with Buchanan. Nonetheless, the interview provides an a highly interesting glimpse into what it was actually like to be a child star during the heyday of television.
Also included is a lengthy Paul Petersen image gallery, which features a wide variety of interesting pictures, including the covers to a number of novels that he has written.
You've probably already made up your mind as to whether or not to invest your time and money into It's Alive!
and In the Year 2889
. Most likely you've decided not to, and who can blame you? Both movies are relics of a time long past, and not very intriguing relics at that. But I will say this: making a movie, short or long, feature or documentary, professional or sub-professional, is hard work, often exhausting in its pace and required attention to detail. These films are worthy of examination because of this. Buchanan worked on budgets that were lower than normal even for the mid-to-late 1960's. He was stuck in a mix of burned out leading men, semi-talented local actors and technicians, and with strings being pulled by a svengali at the AIP corporate offices. To make a movie at all under those circumstances is a stupendous feat, even if the finished product is disappointing. Both It's Alive!
and In the Year 2889
are disappointments, and this Retromedia release is almost as much of one, despite the surprisingly good extras. With many online retailers still selling it for prices near it's overpriced MSRP, it seems wise to steer clear of this title until the inevtiable steep price drop that always seems to happen with Retromedia titles.
Movie Ė F
Image Quality Ė C
Sound Ė C-
In the Year 2889
Movie Ė C-
Image Quality Ė D-
Sound Ė C
Supplements Ė B-
- Running Time - 1 hour 20 minutes (both films)
- Not rated
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono
- Paul Petersen interview
- Image gallery