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Friday
May042012

It's Alive (1974)

No Child of Mine

I may have brought this up before, but it's true what they say: becoming a parent changes your perspective on things.

Now, allow me to address the two percent of you still reading this.

It's hard for me to say whether or not It's Alive is a good film. My love for it shines through the rosy prism of fatherhood and may have no basis in objective reality--if such a thing exists. To modern audiences and/or viewers who don't yet have families, it may play like a cheesy, made-for-70s-TV movie, where the main draw is ridiculing disco-era fashion, characters smoking in hospitals, and a monster who could have been scraped off the floor of a Target seasonal-goods aisle on November first.*

But with a different set of eyes, one can get great, irony-free pleasure out of writer/director Larry Cohen's mutant-killer-baby picture. In fact, the only thing keeping this from being a "legit" drama are brief cut-aways to the monster; had we never seen it, It's Alive would have been a pretty serious, demented portrait of a once happily married couple tearing apart at the seams.

The movie opens with the Davises, Frank (John Ryan) and a very pregnant Lenore (Sharon Farrell), waking up in the middle of the night to go to the hospital. They drop off their son, Chris (Daniel Holzman), with a friend and giddily promise to return soon with a brand-new sibling. What follows is a touching and surprisingly authentic portrait of a middle-aged couple in love. They joke with each other, comfort each other, and await their child's arrival with a mix of joy and dread that can only be captured, filtered, and translated by someone who's gone through it.

The good times fizzle as Frank is pulled away from the waiting room by a commotion down the hall. He busts into the birthing room to find everyone dead except Lenore, their throats slashed and limbs severed by a vicious thing that has left its mark and vanished. From here, It's Alive becomes part police procedural, part marriage-on-the-brink movie. The media latch on to the story right away, costing Frank his job as a PR rep, and sending him into a rage: he subconsciously channels his embarrassment at having fathered a monster, his empathy for Lenore, and his frustration at no longer being able to provide for his (human) family into a fierce determination to hunt and kill his newborn son.

As with many of Cohen's films, It's Alive is a Message Movie that wears the skin of horror to get people in the door. More so than George Romero, who took up the social-relevance mantle only after it was foisted upon him by fans, Cohen constructs his theses deliberately. Whether masking corporate greed as killer ice cream in The Stuff, or taking on our isolating culture of connectivity in Phone Booth, he always leaves the audience with two villains to fear.

This film covers a few bases, all of them related to child-rearing. We learn that the Davises considered having an abortion when Lenore found out she was pregnant. And while we never find out exactly what caused Junior to be born with oversized talons and an insatiable urge to rip out throats with its vampire teeth, a pharmaceutical representative who works at the hospital seems very keen on keeping the mother's use of his company's birth control pills on the down-low.

It's Alive doesn't take a stance on these issues so much as present them as ideas for the audience to consider--or not consider. The corrupt doctor working with the pharma rep doesn't fare too well, so I guess that serves as commentary. But like Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, the answers to really big questions are scattered about the story in ways that are meant to be picked up on by those willing to look. Take the high-falutin' social issues out of play, and you're still left with a smart, well-acted human drama.

That's not to say the movie holds up in this been-there-done-that age. It's too dark in a lot of places and the editing is pretty atrocious, particularly in the infant-attack scenes. I'll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume this was done to preserve the movie's PG rating. But there's definitely a weird time-capsule quality to It's Alive that nearly obscures the really cool themes Cohen has to offer. That's not his fault, of course. I blame the 70s.

Speaking of which, the strangest part of It's Alive is its rating. It's hard to imagine a family-targeted movie coming out now that features gaping wounds and a milkman whose body is so badly mangled that blood mixes with dairy and gushes out the back of his truck.

It's also hard to imagine a movie like this even getting made today. The closest thing I can think of is Splice, a heady sliver of sci-fi that no one went to see. Where that film dealt with science and morality, this movie concerns itself with average people facing the grander questions of the universe in the form of bastardized science--while running from a bat-faced monster-baby. Like the Davis's unfortunate spawn, It's Alive feels out of place in this world--misunderstood by the people who should love it most.

But most imperfect children are perfect to their parents, and I've adopted It's Alive as my own. Just don't tell my wife and kid.

*It's hard to be hard on the creature effects, though, seeing as Oscar-winning artist Rick Baker was only twenty-four years old when he sculpted the thing.

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