It’s Alive. 1974. Directed & Written by Larry Cohen.
Starring John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, Andrew Duggan, Guy Stockwell, James Dixon, Michael Ansara, Robert Emhardt, William Wellman Jr., & Shamus Locke.
Warner Bros./Larco Productions
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Larry Cohen might not have be making serious dramas like someone such as John Cassavettes, but his legacy as an independent filmmaker – in my mind – is no less impressive and influential. There are numerous stories about Cohen’s legacy. My favourite is about Q: he was meant to be working on another film, so when it fell through (a.k.a he got fired) he pulled the screenplay together and started shooting within six days because he didn’t want to waste a trip/hotel room; turned out an exciting, if not odd bit of cinema in its own right. Just a tiny anecdote relaying the industriousness of Cohen and how determined he’s been in making the movies he wants in the way he wants.
It’s Alive is endlessly interesting. There’s horror, there’s a dramatic part of the plot reminiscent of elements from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and by proxy also John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and, of course, there’s a healthy dose of satire.
Above any of that is a kind of prodding of the sacred; something Cohen isn’t afraid of in many of his films. God Told Me To takes on Christianity, The Stuff pokes American consumer culture and capitalism right in their eyes. It’s no particular surprise, to those of us who love Cohen, It’s Alive takes aim at the family unit, touching on everything from the act of birth – something society almost fetishises – to the sentiment that parents are supposed to be happy about it all instead of letting existential dread set in. And it’s all in the form of a monster movie. More than that, outside of certain major studio monsters this might be one of the first truly postmodern monster films out there.
The black comedy of It’s Alive and the satire are what make the outlandish concept work so well. Because even when it’s funny there’s still grim and macabre qualities at play. It’s hilarious to see the police force chasing down babies, pointing guns in their faces and yelling “Freeze!” at innocent toddlers. And does one reason, seriously, with having to hunt and possibly kill what – for better or worse – is still a child?
It isn’t just the cops who are ridiculed in their hunt for the killer baby-thing. The parents don’t escape implication of wrongdoing, either. At the heart of the story Cohen’s asking: how far, as parents, are we willing to go to accept difference? Sure, the baby is terrorising the city, it is slightly inhuman. Yet, again, it’s a baby. Moreover, it’s the child of Davies family. Obviously there’s no debate over whether you’d still love a child with mental or physical issues – most of us, I hope, know we would – versus whether to be terrified of a monster baby running around chomping on people; they aren’t the same. Nevertheless there is an uncomfortable theme running throughout Cohen’s film, which he focuses us on by having this creature be a newborn baby.
It isn’t like Godzilla or some other big monster from the sea/under the earth/the sky; this is a much more personal, much more taboo concept. We see the terror in the parents of having birthed a ‘different’ baby, but this is partly fear of the unknown, and it makes us start questioning how deep a parent’s love runs. This is partly why the film operates on such an unnerving level.
Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore (Sharon Farrell) Davies are also a compelling case study in how the media treats the parents of murderers. Once more, satire does return. It’s not like the baby is even 6 or 7, let alone a teenager or a young man. That doesn’t change the commentary behind how Frank and Lenore find themselves constantly hounded by the media, as if they’re to blame and somehow responsible for creating the monster. They did create it, though unwittingly.
Here’s where some great connections to literature come into play. Frank is reminded of Frankenstein; particularly the performance of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film. The dad envisions himself like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and his child becomes the hideous creation. Trace it back further to the original novel by Mary Shelley herself, then go back farther, to her own inspiration in John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. In the Milton poem, God has created Satan, but eventually casts him out, down to Hell. There, Satan laments his own creation and God is left questioning what he has created – thus the inspiration Shelley found, being a literary buff, for her own creator v. created dichotomy.
Only the stakes, for Mr. Davies, are much higher. He’s faced with a double-edged sword, as he helped give the baby-creature life, now he must try to help killing it. The climax in the tunnels is a dark finish, both in tone and in style. Frank must do what’s necessary in order to save others; the unthinkable act of killing his own child. Or else more people will be killed by his spawn. It’s almost like a mangled, reverse, horror movie version of Sophie’s Choice.
But Mr. Gore, what if I don’t care about Shelley or Milton, or any of that sanctity of family nonsense? Will I still enjoy It’s Alive?
Well, to add to the Cohen-y goodness, there’s also two major reasons why you have to see this film: 1) Bernard Herrmann’s score, & 2) makeup and puppet effects by Rick Baker. The score aids Cohen’s directorial choices by giving us that classic feel, something taking us back to those first modern monster movies allowing him to build of a familiarity when he brings his viewer into a postmodern scenario. I know that sounds convoluted, but that’s something I admire about this man’s filmmaking. Others see ‘just a genre movie’ whereas I see masterfully executed independent genre cinema.
Baker’s effects and makeup, in combination with Cohen keeping the creature itself obscured for a greater part of the story, are perfectly at home in the monster movie format. The brief glimpses of the baby-thing are gross, and equally as unnerving. Most of the time people want to show off their children. Not this baby! There’s juicy irony in that aspect. The whole aesthetic of the monster child, from Baker’s work to Cohen’s directing, makes the film terrifying at times.
It’s Alive does a lot in a relatively short time. For so long, I imagined this was just a throwaway flick to put on with friends and have fun with for an hour and a half. Behind the funny VHS covers and posters this film really digs at the heart of the American family, using some interesting literary connections and social commentary, alongside proper horror movie monster effects, plus a solid performance from Ryan as the existentially tortured father. Don’t miss out. I mean, I think Cohen is always worth giving your time. Hopefully you’ll be convinced to, at the very least, give him 91 minutes.