Thursday, June 21, 2012

It's Alive (1974)

... aka: Baby Killer

Directed by:
Larry Cohen

One of the biggest fears of a soon-to-be-parent is that something's gonna be wrong with their baby and that's the realm director / writer Larry Cohen works within here. With today's technologies, future parents can find out all kinds of useful information long before the actual birth, but back in the 70s things as simple as weight and gender weren't even known pre-birth, let alone major problems such as deformities. As It's Alive opens, it's in the wee hours of the morning when middle-class suburban housewife Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) goes into labor. She and her husband Frank (John P. Ryan) drop their 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman) off with family friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.) and head to the hospital. Lenore's first birth went smoothly enough. The baby was out in less than an hour. But this one just feels different. The pain is more excrutiating and it looks like it's going to be complicated birth. Instead of being able to stay with his wife, Frank is ushered off to the waiting room with a few other expectant fathers. The next time he'll see his wife, she'll be strapped down to the table deliriously screaming "What's wrong with my baby?" The operating room is covered in blood, every doctor and nurse in the room is dead and the Davis baby is missing in action.

At first Frank thinks someone has abducted his baby, but it's made quite clear that the carnage was caused BY his baby... and it has escaped the hospital. Questions quickly arise about just what the baby is - Animal? Mutant? - and what caused it turn out the way it did - Genetics? Pollution? Radiation? Side effects from medication? - but there are no easy or clear answers. As if that shock isn't bad enough already, because the incident quickly makes the news, the family not only has to deal with the media following them everywhere they go but also being stigmatized by their own community. Frank is promptly canned from his job at a public relations firm by his boss (Guy Stockwell) and a nurse hired to care for Lenore starts drilling her with personal questions because she's trying to secretly record the information. The family can't trust anyone and their son can't even go to school. Meanwhile, the mutant baby - who possesses fangs and claws, super strength, telepathy and sees in blurred vision - is prowling around the neighborhood killing people (including the neighborhood milkman).

Frank tries to maintain his composure through all of this and attempts to disassociate himself from the child emotionally. He only refers to the baby as an "it" or a "monstrosity," cooperates with the police in trying to kill it and even signs over the body of the baby - once it is apprehened or killed - to a medical research facility. The manufacturer of a birth control pill Mrs. Davis took wants the baby more than just dead, but completely destroyed so no autopsy or research can take place and possibly implicate them. Police Lt. Perkins (James Dixon - a regular presence in the director's films) - leads the police investigation as various victims turn up. Strangely, the baby pays a visit to Frank and Lenore's son Chris's school, which leads authorities to suspect the baby may be hunting down its birth family. And there's definitely no doubt about that once the baby turns up at the Davis home. Lenore, who's gone a little crazy over all this, is even able to temporarily pacify the usually violent infant with kindness, milk... and raw meat. Once Frank finds out what's going on, he manages to shoot and injur the baby. Things end up underground in the L.A. sewers as the police and Frank try to hunt the baby down.

The idea of a killer infant may sound funny in theory, but the filmmakers take this material rather seriously and present the idea in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Much of what makes this film so interesting and oddly compelling is that it is told, rather unexpectedly, from the perspective of the father instead of the mother; detailing Frank's conflicted emotional journey to come to terms with what's going on. Ryan is excellent in the role and adds much credibility to this film. There's some pitch black comedy in here as well, such as a funny bit where a police squadron hear a baby's cry and end up surrounding and pulling their guns on a normal human baby. Rick Baker was in charge of creating the mutant and did an effective job of it, though it is actually seldom shown. Andrew Duggan (a professor), and Michael Ansara (police captain) both have small roles and Bernard Herrmann did the score.

A surprise commercial and critical hit, It's Alive helped to put Cohen on the map. He followed it up with the bizarre GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) and then IT LIVES AGAIN (1978), the first of two It's Alive sequels. The other was IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE (1986). It was remade in 2008 by director Josef Rusnak. VHS / DVD from Warner Brothers.


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