Collins’ Crypt: IT LIVES AGAIN Is An Ideal Sequel

BC wishes more horror sequels took cues from Larry Cohen's followups to his mutant baby opus.

I saw a pretty funny tweet a week or so ago, which had screenshots of articles side by side - one championing A Quiet Place as a refreshing alternative to the sequel plagued horror landscape, and the other (from the same site) posting news about the just announced Quiet Place 2. It was inevitable that the film would get a followup once it began its record breaking box office run, of course; there are precious few horror movies that make a lot of money and are left alone. But just because they announced the sequel doesn't mean they necessarily have a script or even much of an idea of what it will be about. Considering that (spoiler) the end of the first one has the characters figure out a fairly quick and easy way to kill the monsters, they have to come up with a reason for people to be quiet again. Maybe Emily Blunt and her kids get killed before spreading the word? Or they ignore the "be quiet" element and give us 90 minutes of the family driving around blowing the damn things to smithereens? Or maybe it ignores them entirely and focuses on new characters in a different area, set prior to or alongside the original's timeline, i.e. before their weakness had been discovered? 

There's a bunch of different ways it can go, but the problem is that none of the scenarios I've suggested can possibly please everyone. Those who loved the characters might find themselves annoyed if they go unmentioned or get killed off, and those who were drawn to the nail-biting suspense of people being unable to as much as burp without getting killed for their mistake probably won't want to watch a movie where the humans have the upper hand. It's an issue that faces nearly everyone making a sequel: do you cater to fans of the characters, or of the situation? It's something that Larry Cohen found a mostly successful solution to when he made It Lives Again, the first follow-up to his earlier hit It's Alive, which concerned a mutant killer baby and the parents that were torn between protecting their child and saving the lives of others. Hero Frank Davis (John P. Ryan) was a terrific character, and you really felt for the poor guy; it wasn't his fault the baby was a monster, and as any good parent can tell you there is nothing in the world that can make you turn off the protective instinct you have for your offspring, so when he did try to save it from the police and such it was easy to believe. The movie ended with Davis finally letting the cops shoot the baby (otherwise they'd just shoot them both), distraught but alive - what would happen to him next?

Cohen didn't necessarily have to answer that question; it's never a guarantee that we will find out what happened to the survivors when a horror sequel is made. So it's a relief when Davis shows up early on in It Lives Again, informing a pregnant couple that they were about to have a baby like his, and offering to protect them from the police who were prepared to kill it as soon as it was born. As it turns out, after his ordeal in the first film he dedicated his life to helping couples who were in the same situation he was (his wife is left out of the proceedings for whatever reason), working with a team of scientists who would study the children instead of killing them. Our new couple, Gene (Frederic Forrest) and Jody (Kathleen Lloyd), is different enough from Frank and his wife to keep it from feeling like a remake, though they're sort of going through the same motions - on one hand they don't want to be responsible for a monster, but on the other it's still their child and aren't particularly keen on the psychological trauma of seeing it murdered before it's even done anything wrong. 

This gives the sequel a "best of both worlds" situation; we get to see what happened to our hero from the first one without forcing him to go through the same experience, and we get the "parents give birth to a monster that goes on a killing spree" stuff that is what probably drew people to watch the original film in the first place. It's an approach I'm kind of stunned I don't see more often, quite frankly - it maybe isn't a perfect movie (it takes a long time to get to the monster action, for starters) but it's undeniably a good way to go about a followup that can indeed satisfy all fans of the original, giving them something old and something new in equal measures, beyond just changing the location (Leprechaun goes to Vegas! And outer space! And the hood!) or setting a new group of people loose in the same (summer camp/haunted house/cornfield/etc) without any real follow-through from the previous film. Scream Factory could have just done a new edition of the original and dealt with parts two and three down the road if interest was high, but I love that they did a boxed set instead - it will encourage folks to check out the sequels they might have skipped otherwise, and they'll get something somewhat unique out of the deal.

Don't get me wrong; I (obviously) love plenty of sequels and happily buy tickets for them even when I know they're not even trying to be interesting. But my patience can wear thin when the "it's happening again" approach starts to get impossibly silly even by horror movie standards. The Jaws series is an excellent example - why did it always have to be about the Brody family fighting a shark? Martin Brody and Matt Hooper were great characters and a huge part of why the film is as beloved as it is - I would have happily watched a "sequel" about them going on a road trip, as far from the water as possible. We also could have just gone elsewhere, where new characters dealt with a shark having no experience with such a thing. Instead the producers created a world where the Brody family - which was hard to get attached to, since they lost Roy Scheider after Jaws 2 and changed the actors for the sons every single movie - were seemingly cursed by killer sharks, until Jaws 4 when they flat out said they were as part of the plot. In the words of John McClane*, "How can the same thing happen to the same guy twice?" It can't, or at least, it shouldn't - it's hard to get scared if we're too busy rolling our eyes at the idea of so many things happening again to the same people.

Unlike Jaws, slasher movies are kind of silly to begin with, so sequels are easier to swallow - but they're just as guilty as disappointing in the story department. Either they kill off any survivor early on (Friday the 13th Part 2) before more or less going into remake mode, or turn them into someone as indestructible as their boogeyman killers, which is how we ended up with FOUR Scream films where Sidney survives a bloodbath aimed directly at her (with pals Dewey and Gale always managing to survive as well). Occasionally there is an attempt at doing something like what It Lives Again did; H20, for example, has new teenagers for Michael Myers to kill while also letting us see how fucked up a life you will have if you are Laurie Strode, the only survivor of his first killing spree. But with the killer being the same guy it's not quite the same - you're still talking about a movie where a guy named Michael Myers puts on a white Shatner mask and kills a bunch of people while Laurie Strode survives (come October we'll find out if this describes the new film as well). One thing that's interesting in It Lives Again (spoiler for forty-year-old movie ahead!) is that it kills Frank Davis off after about an hour or so; his journey had come to an end and if he had stuck around for the climax, it would start feeling like a retread. It's the new couple's baby, so it has to come down to them vs. it and whether or not they will follow in Frank's footsteps. 

It actually checks in with a few of the original's characters, giving them an interesting role in the proceedings and showing some actual progression in their lives, rather than just tossing them in as fan service. At the end of the first film we learn that another baby is being born in Seattle, and now we meet that father - he turns out to be the cop leading the charge for killing the babies as soon as they're born, making him the antithesis of Frank Davis. And Perkins - the cop who was calling the shots in the first film - is brought in to help with this new manhunt, troubling him as he's not thrilled about being the "baby killing expert". By showing these characters who have lived through it already and how it's affected them, it adds to the "repeat" scenes of the new parents fretting about their own mutant baby - now that we know all the different ways things can turn out, who will they end up more like, if they survive at all? 

Again, this isn't the only sequel to take this approach (Conjuring 2 even qualifies - new family, new ghost, same investigators), but it's the one I find the most engaging on a narrative level. Using returning characters to guide us into the new story and giving them an active role in the proceedings, rather than show up and get killed in the first ten minutes like Laurie in Halloween: Resurrection just to get their face on the poster, is an inspired idea that is rarely utilized elsewhere. Other follow-ups make the mistake of trying something like this early on but ultimately focus on the returning characters and leave the new ones underdeveloped, rather than fully allow the torch to be passed - Hellraiser II, for example, probably could have benefited from spending more time with Tiffany instead of focusing on Kirsty so much, as it led to unnecessary repetition (acknowledged by Pinhead in the film itself!). Frank Davis' part in It Lives Again isn't just a quickie cameo - but he isn't the main character, either, allowing him to have a real impact on the plot without hogging the spotlight. Sure, it could use a little more action, but at least there's an obvious reason - Cohen already did that (and we've already seen it), so he gave us new things to see and kept the film from ever feeling like it was on sequel autopilot.

Larry Cohen didn't repeat himself for the third film; either - he used the nearly ten year gap between entries to his advantage, showing what happened when the babies became adult sized, and also how being the parent of one can really screw up your dating life now that the mutant baby outbreak is common knowledge (women are afraid to even touch dad Michael Moriarty, thinking they'll "catch" the disease). It's the primary benefit of having a writer/director involved with the sequels - they will (presumably) care enough about the concept and characters to not screw it up too much, but they're also less likely to turn in carbon copies of the previous installment, as they'd want to make it interesting for themselves as filmmakers as well. This makes the It's Alive trilogy one of the easier ones to watch back to back; you don't get that fatigue that can occur with watching the same plot occur over and over, but there's also a consistency that can be elusive when binging most genre franchises, as new filmmakers come along and disregard films that you just watched. The original is the best, but give the sequels a look, and keep Cohen's approach in mind should you ever be hired for the (thankless?) job of making a followup to a movie people love for many different reasons.

*I don't want anyone to think the horror genre is the only one capable of making ridiculous sequels. There's nothing as silly as the idea that John McClane would spend TWO Christmases fighting terrorists to save his wife (and being hampered by Dick Thornburg's selfishness), and calling attention to it via dialogue doesn't excuse it. Even if I only liked Vengeance, I'm glad the next three sequels did away with Christmas and putting Holly in harm's way.