Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.
There are a bunch of ways that a film like It’s Alive can be explained. Any really good horror movie is about more than just the scares, of course. Just as good science fiction is about more than aliens and robots, good horror speaks to the human condition and tells us something about what frightens us. Horror is always a product of its time. It’s no surprise then that a film that concerns itself with a mutant, murderous freak of a baby came out during an era when people first became concerned about the effects of pesticides and chemicals on people and in the years following Thalidomide.
It’s Alive has a bunch of things going for it and one significant negative. First and foremost in the positive category is the basic idea for the story. One of the things that horror movies can do really well is play on our fears of what should be happy moments in our lives, like the birth of a child. There had been films that went in this direction before (Rosemary’s Baby comes to mind), but never to this extent. That this takes the basic idea as far as this does is a stroke of brilliance.
Second is the work of Rick Baker, who created the monster baby. We don’t get a lot of shots of the baby, mostly fleeting glances and quick shots, but it’s pretty nasty. That’s what we pay for in a horror movie, after all. It would be great to see it more, but it’s actually used really well and on a deeper level, it shouldn’t be on screen more than it is.
Third is that somehow Larry Cohen managed to get Bernard Herrmann, he of the classic Hitchcock soundtracks, to create the score for this. It lends a sense of importance to what is otherwise a low-level gore (for the time) shocker. One of the classic examples of Herrmann’s wit is that the music for the scene where the infant slaughters a milkman is called “The Milkman Goeth.”
Fourth, and what really sells the film, is the performance of John P. Ryan as Frank Davis, the father of the evil critter. For what is essentially a low-budget B-movie, Ryan plays it as straight as he possibly can. He gives a stoic performance as a man thrown into an unbelievable situation, moving essentially through the five stages of grief during the short running time of the film. (Actually, I think he skips “bargaining,” but he hits the rest of them.) We get a similarly interesting performance from Sharon Ferrell as Lenore Davis, the creature’s mother.
Actually, there is a fifth sell here, and it’s the birth. This happens pretty early, as it’s the first real scare of the film. We don’t see anything but the aftermath, and that’s enough to sell the entire premise. Essentially, Frank realizes that something is wrong and he bursts into the maternity room to a scene of carnage and destruction, blood everywhere, and his wife strapped to the table screaming about her baby. It’s one of the great set-up scenes for the horror to follow that I’ve seen, and even if the rest of the movie was crap, it would be worth it to see that.
I mentioned above that there’s a significant downside to It’s Alive, and there is. That downside is the direction of Larry Cohen, who seems to direct everything he does as if he’s wearing oven mitts. It’s almost a shame that no one could be found to direct Cohen’s ideas, because as this film demonstrates, he was an inventive and creative screenwriter. There are moments of dark comedy and absurdism here that can’t be removed even by the clumsiest director. That’s a good thing because Cohen might well rank on the list of such clumsy directors. It’s Alive is about as subtle as a roundhouse kick. That’s not always a problem with horror movies, but it’s even more noticeable here. Almost all of the mood and suspense of the film are created by John P. Ryan, Sharon Ferrell, and the score of Bernard Herrmann and in spite of Cohen’s direction.
For all of that, though, it’s hard not to love it for the same reasons that a film like Evil Dead is loved and appreciated. It’s loved because of its flaws, not despite them. While this would almost certainly be better—better paced, smarter, more tense—under the hand of a more experienced and better director, it’s appropriate that Cohen is the one blundering his way through it.
It’s Alive is a fantastic example of mid-1970s low-budget horror. It’s a crappy film, but it’s not supposed to be more than a crappy film, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Why to watch It’s Alive: Great idea, great work from Rick Baker, and John P. Ryan.
Why not to watch: Larry Cohen directs with a sledgehammer.