Retro-review: New on BluRay in an IT’S ALIVE TRILOGY COLLECTION from The Shout Factory; help me out and pick it up here on Amazon!
IT’S ALIVE (1974)
aka BABY KILLER
Directed by Larry Cohen
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, Daniel Holzman
Now, this is no strike at developmentally handicapped people or their brave parents, but I think it’s pretty clear that no one wants their child to have a mental or physical malformity and it’s a fear every parent has. That almost primal notion is what makes IT’S ALIVE so powerful even though it’s a very schlocky monster movie. Larry Cohen tapped into a fear that was running rampant–most likely a rising fear due to children in the womb being effected by drug and alcohol use, and made a pretty potent film for practically nothing. It’s a film that resonated with audiences with a poster that still stands out as one of the best ever made.
IT’s ALIVE focuses on the Davies Family (Frank played by John P. Ryan and Lenore played by Sharon Farrell) who are rushing to the hospital to have their baby early in the opening minutes of the movie. This leads to one of the most iconic scenes in the movie which is the bloody and disturbing birthing scene where a group of doctors surround the screaming pregnant woman and react horrifically at the monster she births. Escaping from the hospital, the baby murders anyone in its path as it tries to make its way home to the Davies who are still emotionally scarred having birthed a monster. As a citywide manhunt begins, the Davies attempt to return to their normal lives with the stigma of the monster baby making that return impossible.
Larry Cohen is the master at making something out of practically nothing in Hollywood and does so remarkably here. In IT’S ALIVE, it’s what we don’t see that is so horrifying. We see the looks on the doctor’s faces and hear their comments and the screams of the woman during the birthing scene. Even without seeing the baby itself, it is absolutely riveting in the way the scene plays out. Pair that with the gory aftermath of an operating room drenched in doctor parts and blood and you have an opening that is tough to top. Unfortunately, the rest of IT’S ALIVE becomes a little more conventional in terms of a monster movie with the big reveal never really occurring surprisingly in the last reel.
Because the baby is simply a rubber doll being moved around by unseen hands and maybe a full body suit at times set against oversized furniture to make it look small, it is shrouded in shadow and distance from the camera for most of the movie. Only quick snippets occur. Again, this is Cohen leaving the audience wanting more—which turned out to be a winning idea since the film spawned two sequels. That said, the film really never matches the intensity of the beginning moments in the hospital in terms of true weighty terror.
What it does offer is some fantastic insight into what it would be like to have a mentally handicapped or physically deformed child in the “modern” age of the seventies. The Davies become local celebrities and are followed by the press after the hospital massacre. Frank is let go from work and both he and Lenore can’t leave the house without people recognizing and whispering about them. Frank feels less of a man because he birthed such a monster and struggles with wanting to find it himself and take care of it as a means to make it up to his public image. But once Frank is confronted with his offspring, he is once again conflicted as to whether to kill it or nurture it. These are complex themes being dealt with—ones not often addressed in schlocky monster flicks. Ryan and Farrell’s performances as the beleaguered parents are complex and hefty again elevating this film to a level beyond expectations.
I’m sure Cohen set out to make relevance with every one of his films, but with IT’S ALIVE he actually struck gold. While the level of visual intensity peters after the opening reel, the emotional and thematic levels rise to make up for it. The Shout Factory has released all three IT’S ALIVE films in one big honkin’ collection. This first film comes with an audie commentary by Larry Cohen, a new Cohen’s Alive” featurette looking back on all three films and interviewing Cohen, Michael Moriarty, James Dixon, Lauren Landon and more, trailers, stills, and TV spots! Look for further coverage of this trilogy (and I might toss in a review of the remake, if you’re nice) in the coming weeks.
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