Movie Discussion: Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974)

  • Monthly Theme: Evil Childrenits alive poster
  • The Film: It’s Alive
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: October 1974
  • Studio: Warner Bros. & Larco Productions
  • Distributer: Warner Bros.
  • Domestic Gross: $7.1 million
  • Budget: ?
  • Director: Larry Cohen
  • Producers: Larry Cohen, Peter Sabiston & Janelle Webb
  • Screenwriter: Larry Cohen
  • Adaptation? No.
  • Cinematographer: Fenton Hamilton
  • Make-Up/FX: Rick Baker
  • Music: Bernard Herrmann
  • Part of a series? Yes, this is the first film in the It’s Alive trilogy, followed by It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987).
  • Remakes? Yes, there was a 2008 straight-to-DVD remake also called It’s Alive.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? No.
  • Other notables?: Yes. Character actress Sharon Farrell.
  • Awards?: Special Jury Award at the 1975 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival.
  • Tagline:  “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby: it’s alive!”
  • The Lowdown: Suburban couple Frank and Lenore (John Ryan and Sharon Farrell) get unexpectedly pregnant with a ‘change of life’ baby. However, the baby turns out to be a flesh-eating murderous mutant! Frank joins the police hunt for the baby with the sole intent of destroying it, yet as the baby’s trail of bloody mayhem spreads across the city Frank finds that his feelings about it are changing. Will he be able to go through with killing his mutant offspring? Or will he fight to defend it?

If you haven’t seen It’s Alive our discussion will include massive SPOILERS.

Kristine: Just so you know, I’ve got the springtime blues and watching It’s Alive did not help matters.

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The rarest elixir: heterosexual man tears

Sean: How did It’s Alive add to your ennui?

Kristine: It just hit me really hard and there were streams of tears rolling down my face during the climactic sewer tunnel scene. Don’t make fun of me.

Sean: Oh my god, I agree that the ending is full of pathos and really hard to watch. I was shocked at how much I dug rewatching this movie, since I remembered it as being sort of stupid and boring back in the 1980s when I first saw it. But no, this movie’s great and weird and silly/serious in the way that only a 1970s horror movie can be.

Kristine: I love Baby. I mean it. At first I loved him just for being awesome, but then I actually loved him and wanted to protect him and raise him as my very own.

Sean: This is amazing.

Kristine: He is in my top three movie babies of all time, joining the gleeful zombie tot from Dead Alive and Boh, the giant baby from Spirited Away. Sean, my supposedly non-existent maternal urge was in fact a dormant urge. It’s Alive has awoken it. I now want to have a child, but only if it’s Baby.

Sean: In my opinion, the best piece of design in the whole movie is the baby’s screams/cries/yowls. They are so wrong and upsetting.

Kristine: I agree. They chilled me and filled me with true anguish.

Sean: What were the best things about the baby/why did you love it?

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Blood semen milk period gusher

Kristine: First of all, stop calling Baby “it.” What did I love about him? I mean – everything. I thought the gradual reveal of Baby over the course of the movie was done well. All of his victims were either assholes out to kill him or whoevers that I didn’t care about. Well, except for the kitty. But Baby’s just acting out of self-preservation. I liked how he was still a baby, just trying to find sustenance, whether it be human flesh or milk…

Sean: The baby’s murder of the Carnation driver and subsequent tantrum where it’s breaking bottles of milk and the milk and blood is all mixing together and streaming out of the back of the truck is one of the most glorious moments in the movie.

Kristine: I also like how Baby is connected to his family and they are connected to him once they see him. And really, who could resist Baby? I thought the way he looks is perfect. Perhaps terrifying to basic bitches, but he is still recognizably humanoid. And he was smart and knew who was a fake-ass and he took them out. I am indignant and heartbroken over his murder. What about you? Did you love Baby or just the movie?

Sean: Oh, I love the baby. I was surprised by how good the FX are. I didn’t remember that they were so effective, but the baby puppetry – designed by Rick Baker of An American Werewolf in London fame – was top-notch. Those close-ups of the baby squealing with it’s little tongue darting around its mouth and fangs are awesome.

Kristine: Especially for 1974.

Sean: I actually think this is an artfully made B-picture. Like that brief, surreal moment in the tunnels where we see all these intercuts of the baby and the police and the sewer in between the pulses of the flashing red police lights. That moment is grotesque and beautiful. I was really struck by the artfulness of the movie overall.

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The novelty photos at the county fair are getting weirder and weirder

Kristine: Oh, I agree. Remember that the opening credit sequence also features an antagonizing swarm of flashlight glare as the background, which underscores the significance of the mob mentality that the last half of the movie focuses on. The relationship between the monster and the mob (representing society) is something we’ve seen a lot over the course of the blog, from The Phantom of the Opera to The Host to the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. So, in that sense, It’s Alive is a classic monster movie.

Sean: I completely agree. Especially since the movie’s title puts it in dialogue with James Whale’s Frankenstein (which we’ll be watching later this year). I think the way this movie invokes (and sometimes subverts) the tropes of the monster movie are worth exploring.

Kristine: I am going to jump the gun and reveal one of my ratings: This movie’s protagonist IS me (and I don’t apologize). Obviously I consider Baby to be the protagonist. It’s possible I feel this way because I just celebrated a birthday and Baby and I were basically born less than a year apart, which practically makes us soulmates. He is me. I am he.

Sean: Woah, I didn’t see this coming.

Kristine: Really? I love hearing what you thought my reaction would be.

Sean: I thought there was a very good chance you’d think this movie was boring and garbage-y and that the baby was dumb.

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Laughter or weeping – it’s all the same

Kristine: Nope. I want to live in the sewer with Baby forever. Sean, when Frank was in the schoolroom where Baby was hiding and he is blustering about how “He’s no relation to me!” all I could think about was Baby hearing his hateful lies and being devastated. I didn’t think Frank could ever make it up to me, but he did with his emotional breakthrough in the sewer at the end. I seriously thought that was a great acting moment.

Sean: Oh, John Ryan and Sharon Farrell are both amazing as Frank and Lenore.

Kristine: Yeah… I mean, I have opinions…

Sean: Hold on. The moment I was really taken by John Ryan’s performance is that scene where he is at work meeting with his (horrible, evil, Mad Men-esque) boss and through the entire scene Frank’s face is twisted and bloated and reddened and at any moment it seems like he might break down, but then he keeps being really wry and dismissive and it’s just…. I was really into that scene and genuinely moved by Frank as a character.

Kristine: I agree that the character of Frank is pretty interesting. He is the ultimate failed RIMA [Rational Inquiring Masculine Authority], right? At first, he seems utterly pragmatic and rational to the point of being cold and inhuman. I’m thinking of the exchange at the hospital where the inappropriate asshole doctor says, “I noticed that you did inquire about abortion eight months ago” and Frank is like, “Doesn’t everybody inquire about it nowadays? It’s just a question of convenience, and we decided to have the baby.” Umm, alrighty Frank. But it quickly becomes clear that he is anything but rational, as evidenced by the depths of his denial about his connection to Baby. When Lenore asks him, “Why are you so eager to be the one to [kill] it?,” the answer is that he wants to stop everyone from “looking at [him]” and “to show everybody I feel the same way they do. I’m no different from anybody else.” He is desperate to be approved of by society and to not be associated with “the Other.” Like when Frank says, “Whatever it is, you can’t classify it as an animal. It’s human, doctor. That’s what’s disgusting to you, isn’t it?” but then to his boss he says, “We’re not talking about a retarded kid, and you know it. We’re talking about a monstrosity of some kind.” It’s either human or it’s a monstrosity, depending on who Frank is talking to. He can’t decide. When Chris finally sees Baby, Frank tells him, “It’s no relation to us, Chris. It can’t be.” Another reason this movie made me super sad is that I kept thinking about Frank as the father of a little gayling and his reaction to his son is one of extreme homophobia. But at the end, he comes around. To quote Heathers, he has his “I love my dead, gay son!” moment.

Sean: I totally agree. This movie is, ultimately, about fatherhood, and a heterosexual man’s relationship to being a father (and, I’d say most importantly) to how a father’s ideas about himself get projected onto his son. How a father’s son becomes some metaphor for the father’s own masculinity. It’s Alive is pointedly not Lenore’s story, which unfortunately means that she gets turned into a bit of a stage prop as a character.

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The relief of the matriarch

Kristine: Yeah, I was just about to make that point. We are one brain.

Sean: I was willing to forgive the movie all of its pathologizing of Lenore because of (a) Sharon Farrell’s amazing performance and (b) that slow pan into Lenore as Frank begs the police not to kill the baby, and you see the relief all over her face that finally, she and Frank are connected and are feeling the same thing. I thought that was an amazing moment. It brought everything back around to the opening when she’s in labor and asks Frank, “[The baby’s] not gonna tie you down, is it sweetheart? Are you gonna feel trapped like you did last time?” That anxiety – that ultimately fatherhood is always a chore and an existential quandary for men – is a big part of what this movie is about.

Kristine: Yes, I agree. Though overall, I wasn’t as engaged with the Lenore/Frank dynamic and their crumbling relationship as I thought I should be. When Frank slaps her and turns off her cartoons and all the other dickish things that he does to her, I clocked them but I didn’t really care that much. There was just too much else going on. I did think that it was a pretty accurate depiction of a 1970s marriage. Remember when Frank discovers Lenore has been harboring Baby (that refrigerator full of uncooked meat is an amazing symbol of conflicted maternal instinct) and, in a desperate attempt to sway Frank from killing Baby, Lenore screams, “And he’s a boy!” The idea being that if Baby was female, Frank’s sense of alienation might be justified, but how could a father not love his son? I also found the hospital’s treatment of Lenore to be grimly realistic. The movie portrays the act of childbirth as one of intense dehumanization by the hospital staff, with Lenore being forced to lie flat on her back, strapped into stirrups. The doctor is so impatient and condescending to Lenore, and I was traumatized/moved by her desperation, like when she says, “I am trying to cooperate!” That was awful.

Sean: It reminded me a lot of the Mad Men episode where Betty gives birth.

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The rare desert cottontail emerges

Kristine: Yep. I had the exact same thought.

Sean: Would you agree that this is the most 1970s movie we’ve watched? And maybe the most 1970s movie ever made?

Kristine: The only film we’ve watched that comes close, in terms of true 1970s realness, is The Amityville Horror and this is way better, with more fun style moments like that amazing gal with the white go-go boots, jumpsuit and teased hair that first hears Baby’s cries. She was everything.

Sean: Right? Such a remainder from the mod ‘60s still rocking that style in 1974. The fringe purse?

Kristine: She’s my style icon.

Sean: What about the wallpaper in Chris’s bedroom? Gold and yellow wallpaper of interlocking gender symbols, the word “LOVE,” and butterflies?

Kristine: Yes to Chris’ bedroom. No to Chris’ face.

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Genderfuck wallpaper

Sean: I agree that the politics of the Frank/Lenore marriage read as very 1970s. Enlightened and modern in some respects (for instance, I thought Frank was a pretty good, encouraging partner during her initial labor) but also retrograde and Archie Bunker-ish in others, like when Frank actually covers Lenore’s mouth with his hand to make her stop talking or when he yells at Lenore,  “I wish somebody would respect my feelings around here!” I couldn’t believe him in those moments.

Kristine: Do you agree with me that Frank is a warped RIMA? That he is not a mucho macho guy, but someone who desperately wants to be liked and accepted by society?

Sean: I don’t know if I think he’s a RIMA, but I do think he’s someone who is conventional in the ways you’re describing. He doesn’t want to stand out or break from the way things are done or how things should appear.

Kristine: He’s trying to be a RIMA in contrast to Lenore’s hyper-emotional outbursts of female hysteria. Having a womb is a liability in Frank’s world (as evidenced by the brief bit of office politics we glimpse at his workplace).

Sean: Another very 1970s part of the movie was its ideas about environmentalism and Big Pharma, that prove how American society really hasn’t come that far in the ensuing 40 years. We’re still obsessed with what might be in the food we’re consuming (cue the locavore, macrobiotic, raw and organic food fads) and how pharmaceutical companies are probably knowingly poisoning us. The movie also gives voice to a deep-seated American paranoia that all organizations are out to get us, that the world is full of conspiracies, which also feels very contemporary. Birthers, 9/11 truthers, chemtrail theorists, et al – conspiracy theorizing is an endemic part of American culture. Also, It’s Alive anticipates a lot of very contemporary angst over media culture and what it means to suddenly become the story. In light of Monica Lewinsky’s recent Vanity Fair piece, I was really struck by Frank yelling “They named us, the bastards. They named us!” when he hears the news coverage of his son’s birth and the murders at the hospital.

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So what’cha what’cha what’cha want?!?

Kristine: Yes, agreed. I’ve been consistently surprised during this blog project by how long tabloid culture has been something that the horror genre was openly reckoning with (going all the way back to the 1920s with The Lodger).

Sean: Especially considering that Frank is a PR man, someone whose career has been built upon shaping media narratives and manipulating public perception. One of the movie’s heavy ironies is how this media relations person suddenly finds the mechanism of media turned against himself and his family.

Kristine: Yep, that was a nice touch. I did think the Big Pharma evil elf man was a little broadly drawn. In his big speech he says, “if we find out that the cause is medication that we manufacture and was administered over a long period of time, it would be bad for you and even worse for us. We’re susceptible to lawsuits.” That trope – that the pharmaceutical industry would not look into a potentially harmful medication in order to protect itself from lawsuits – is absolutely convincing, but I think the character should have been more slick and Don Draper-esque and less a chortling, rotund Evil White Man!!! with multiple exclamation points.

Sean: Agreed. I loved the dads all hanging out in the waiting room talking about ecological decline: “There is an overabundance of lead in all the things we eat nowadays. We’re slowly but surely poisoning ourselves, do you know that?” It works as a lampooning of the middle-class bourgeois sensibility, but also does some thematic work for the movie. Remember some of the more obviously working-class dads are like, ‘You with your statistics, shaddup!’ but then the exterminator dad is like, “Years ago we developed this spray to kill roaches and other household pests. Well, all we ended up doing is creating a new breed of roaches. Bigger, stronger, harder to kill.” He’s obviously setting up a possible story to explain the existence of Baby, and Cohen keeps referencing that conversation throughout the movie with shots of rusted mousetraps and other symbols of pestilence. I liked the idea that our children are possibly nothing more than a planetary infestation, something that is mutating and becoming more and more grotesque, that must be stamped out. Somehow, It’s Alive manages to be both fatalistic and dystopian while also being humanist. Not an easy balance to achieve. I also have a theory that this movie is actually about abortion politics. Does that sound off-base?

Kristine: Do you mean how the doctor is all judgey about Frank & Lenore considering an abortion, but then all anyone wants to do is destroy Baby once he is born?

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The secret capitalist troll doll

Sean: Absolutely. I’d also add that we could read the mutated baby as a manifestation of Frank and Lenore’s reticence about having this baby, that they on some level didn’t want the baby, and thus it is born monstrous. Then the whole movie is actually the long, agonizing process of aborting the child and all of the grief and pathos and rage and shit that comes along with that. Am I crazy?

Kristine: No, that is a good point that didn’t occur to me.

Sean: It’s no accident, I think, that they’re a middle-class family that has no “real reason” to even consider abortion. They all ready have a kid, blah blah. And remember that the horror plot’s link back to Big Pharma is through the birth control pills that Lenore was taking. From multiple perspectives it is possible to see the monstrous infant as a direct result of Lenore and Frank’s attempts to control their own procreative potential, to do some family planning.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: In that way, I think its possible to read something conservative and pro-life into the movie.

Kristine: Oh, I disagree. Sort of… My interpretation is that Frank and Lenore’s choice to have the baby is an example of them doing something because society says they should do so. Like you pointed out, why wouldn’t they have the baby? Yet we know that (at least) Frank had some serious misgivings about it (the abortion inquiry, Lenore’s concern that Frank will “feel trapped like last time”, the notable age difference between Baby and Chris) and that the movie itself is conflicted about the value of parenthood (the police detective’s flippant comments about childless people not knowing how lucky they are). The movie could be saying, ‘See what happens when you have a child you don’t really want? When you cave to sociocultural pressures to be ‘normal’?’

Sean: Very good point.

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We’re trying!

Kristine: But, on the flipside, once Frank really sees the child – that he probably didn’t want in the first place, who cost him his job and his good standing in society, who he was determined to exterminate – he instantly recognizes him as his own and loves him fiercely and unconditionally. I will reiterate that I loved and was deeply moved by that scene and found it utterly believable even in this over-the-top B-movie. However, that could easily be read as a pro-life message: if you just have the baby, you will love it, no matter what the cost is. I would argue that’s an insidious and untrue idea, but there it is. There are plenty of planned, wanted, non-demonic babies whose parents feel alienated and disassociated from, and society’s taboo against such feelings is a crime that leads to abuse and general misery for all involved. So, I am mixed on what the movie’s message on procreation is, if it indeed is trying to transmit one (and I think it is).

Sean: Right, right. Like at the end, when the cops are yelling shit like “That sonofabitch dies here and now!” and “It can’t be saved. It’s gotta die!” We’re supposed to be disgusted by that, right?

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: But then there are moments of pitch black comedy in the film, like when the cops are searching the city for the baby and the camera lingers on the words “STOP CHILDREN” painted on the back of an ice cream truck.

Kristine: I missed that. One point to the pro-choice agenda. But then, on the pro-life side, there’s that other very dark comedic moment where the cops all pull their pistols on the innocent baby sitting on his blankie in his own back yard.

Sean: I loved that moment. Also, right after that wretched, pathos-filled standoff at the end, the last line of the movie is: “Another one’s been born in Seattle.” Like, the babies are still not human, they are still a bunch of its (not hes and shes) regardless of the journey Frank and Lenore just went on.

itsalivewrongkid
Blanketmonster

Kristine: Right. The movie leaves all of those questions about parenthood and procreation unresolved, still a mess of contradictory feelings. Nothing’s been solved by the horror narrative. If anything, shit’s gotten more complicated.

Sean: I think that lack of tidy resolution is to the movie’s credit. I think a horror narrative should not be about offering resolutions – they’re about articulating and dramatizing problems. A horror movie that tells us exactly how we’re supposed to feel about the monster is probably not a very good “horror” movie. A good monster movie – The Host, The Phantom of the Opera, The Fly – refuses to untangle or ‘solve’ the skein of problems represented by the monster. It’s messy, emotionally and viscerally. An inferior monster movie – Jeepers Creepers or Deep Blue Sea, for example – simply presents a morally simplistic and cartoonish universe. The monster represents nothing, it just is. It just needs to be destroyed, because.

Kristine: When you see the monster, you should be compelled to yell “It’s… alive!” with a mixture of terror and triumph and fascination.

Sean: Exactly. This movie’s title is one way Cohen is asking us to recognize that he’s reaching back to a classic, time-honored tradition. That his monster belongs in the same psychosexual/symbolic space as Karloff’s monster from 1931. The movie is not subtle about that – naming the father/protagonist Frank (duh) and also giving that character a speech about Karloff. Frank tells us, “When I was a kid I always thought that the monster was Frankenstein, you know, Karloff walking around in his big shoes grunting. I thought he was Frankenstein. Then I went to high school and I read the book and I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow the identities get all mixed up, don’t they?” That doubling of the contemporary American father with the mad scientist of Gothic tradition is pretty subversive, I think.

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Queer breastfeeding bloodbath

Kristine: Oh, yes. Because Frank is the “maker” (gross), which is what motivates all his crazy talk about how Baby is not his, is not related to him, etc., and why he needs to be the one to exterminate Baby. He must disassociate himself from the scourge of society, and not be seen as the source of the horror/mutation/freak. But you are, Frank, you are. You and your hate-sperm created Baby. Remember the whispers of gossip at the school when Frank is walking by? “Bad genes….” Spell this out for me, though. How is that subversive? And what is it subverting?

Sean: It’s subversive because the movie relocates the perverse act of procreation to the normal, heterosexual, middle-class, white couple. In Frankenstein and other classic monster movies, the unnatural creature is created in laboratories by pairs (or trios) of men. There’s a gay subtext there that identifies the “cause” of the perversion as the attempts of men to procreate without women – a kind of homosexual procreation that must (from a homophobic way of thinking) result in something freakish and abhorrent. Yet It’s Alive disposes of that homophobic element and incorporates the uncanny into the ‘normal’ union of man and woman. If regular old heterosexual procreation produces monsters, then that really destabilizes society. The monstrousness cannot be contained by simply policing/eradicating all the secret gay lairs/labs where homo-scientists are jerking each other off into test tubes and making monsters. No, now it’s everywhere, in the very fabric of heteronormative society. That’s fucking radical.

Kristine: I also feel like It’s Alive is also about how society always blames the individual instead of the system. Like, your child grew up to be a drug addict/whore/criminal because you were a bad parent and/or are fucked up yourself (hello, The Bad Seed, where Christine – and the narrative – sees her biology as the cause of Rhoda’s perverse nature). As opposed to, your child is this way because they were born into a fucked-up world rigged against them and the system/The Man never gave them a chance.

Sean: Good point. I think that’s right on. Thus at the end we get, “Another one’s been born in Seattle” because Frank and Lenore are actually not the sole cause, this is something systemic that goes beyond them.

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I prescribe 10ccs of humiliation and 200mg of shame.

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Who would win in a fight – Rhoda or Baby?

Kristine: Baby.

Sean: Before we wrap up, I just want to mention the nurse with the hidden tape recorder. She was so current, to me. Today, that character would be like, “Well, I am a real nurse, but I also have this blog…”

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: When she was twisting the knife in Lenore as she lay there bedridden and miserable, I was kind of loving it. “They say it has teeth and claws. Did you know that? Were you aware that it killed another person just last night?” I lived for that evil nurse with journalistic aspirations.

Kristine: That nurse was ratchet and pretty fun. Very La Dolce Vita meets Night Nurse.

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Let’s just load up these phallic symbols, kiddo.

Sean: Also, we must discuss Charley. I kind of want to say that Charley makes this movie for me.

Kristine: Okay, can you explain that character to me? I didn’t really understand who he was or why he was there.

Sean: Well… exactly. It is incredibly tempting to read him as gay/queer.

Kristine: Is he… a pedophile?

Sean: Why would you say that???

Kristine: Because he lets Creepy Chris live with him.

Sean: See this is exactly the problem with everything. I actually think Charley is there as a representation of the idea that men can be nurturing caregivers (unlike Frank the skank). He’s a pretty unexpected character – that the person to look after Chris is this single man… It does raise all these red flags (re: pedophilia) because our culture cannot handle the idea of young, single men as caregivers or ‘maternal’ figures.

Kristine: Yes, you’re right. And again, shades of The Bad Seed. The people who are supposed to be the ideal caregivers aren’t, but this unlikely source is. That is not a conservative message.

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Baby ain’t vegan.

Sean: Agreed. Charley is a “queer” figure simply because he challenges a ton of sociocultural assumptions about how men are supposed to be and what’s ‘normal,’ just like Will Graham from Manhunter – a deeply emotional and compassionate male character who is nurturing and yet is not rendered as fey or sissy-ish. It’s like – wait, men can be masculine and actually care for kids and be emotional and loving? That’s crazy.

Kristine: Right.

Sean: But I was sorely tempted to think of Charley as Frank’s sidepiece. When Baby kills Charley and Frank says, bitterly, to Lenore, “See what your baby did to Charley???”

Kristine: Frank is a very good candidate to be living on the downlow.

Sean: It was the ’70s – Lenore probably introduced them and arranged it.

Kristine: Good point.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: This movie’s protagonist IS me (and I don’t apologize) AND Provocative and problematic AND Daddy dramz! AND This film IS America

The Freak’s Rating: Sleazesterpiece! AND Daddy dramz! AND This film IS America

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