* * * 1/2
Dir. Larry Cohen, 1974
“I am being murdered before their eyes. These doctors, these nurses don’t realize what hidden thing has happened to me….nobody knows except me and–the killer, the little murderer, the small assassin.” -Ray Bradbury, “The Small Assassin”
The opening of Bradbury’s 1946 short story is a classic Bradbury misdirect. The reader thinks they’re starting the story about a killer newborn in-media-res, only to find that these very horrifying descriptions are only of Alice giving birth in a hospital. Throughout human history, and until very recently (though still far too often for our medical capabilities in the US), childbirth has been an act associated with death and dread…and that only takes into account the physical danger with which it was/is fraught. The ambiguity in Bradbury’s story is whether Alice is suffering severe postpartum depression and imagining it all or if her baby actually is a killer. These two very real and very understandably scary experiences explain why babies and birth have become reoccurring motifs in horror films (from Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, The Fly , Dawn of the Dead , The Brood, Grace, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5, The Kingdom 2, Inside, etc.). Many of those examples tend to borrow on vampiric metaphors; that the babies are sucking the life from the parent or using that the birth of something sinister is requiring the death of the mother. But It’s Alive (sometimes formatted with an “!”), as suggested by the title, draws its parallels to Frankenstein.
The setup is that Frank and Lenore Davis are having their second child. However, Lenore begins to feel that something isn’t right. At this point an interesting change in focalization changes; the first few minutes seem to be tied to Lenore’s POV, but then it shifts to Frank as he discovers the aftermath of a horrific act of violence that has left the delivery room full of doctors and nurses dead (this scene still packs a punch). From this point on the story isn’t about Lenore (she’s injured and psychologically scared so stays at home most of the film), but Frank. It’s suggested in the film that Lenore doesn’t entirely believe that Frank wanted this child. The film then follows Frank (via a police investigation in a patented Larry Cohen procedural style) as he comes to terms that the fanged child is his and that he wanted it, and as he tries to track it down and destroy it. The concerns of the film are not so much about the child usurping that parents, but rather the responsibility a parent has for a child, even when that child is a terrible monster (the anxiety of fatherhood might mean that Eraserhead is a nice companion film to this, with a key difference in paternal reaction). Larry Cohen, one of the more consistently interesting b-movie sci-fi/horror auteurs in cinema, made some occasionally silly films (The Stuff is one of my favorite bad movies) but they are all surprisingly literate. It’s Alive plays things more straight than many of his later films, but like God Told Me To or Q, this is a well-made but messy exploitation film that asks big, profound questions.
As an exploitation film, it shouldn’t work as well or as deeply as it does but it speaks to the level of talent involved. Character actor John Ryan provides a surprising amount of depth in his performance as Frank. It probably goes without saying, but Bernard Herrmann’s score is almost enough to recommend the film itself, but the real MVP of the film is cinematographer Fenton Hamilton. For a b-horror film made at the same time as another Cohen film, this is a beautifully shot film. Surprisingly, Hamilton would only go on to film the sequel to It’s Alive (1978’s It Lives Again; Cohen made a trilogy of it), and then I can’t seem to find where he disappeared to.
While they don’t hold especially well, Rick Baker’s special FX are good enough to prevent the film from being too campy, and Cohen does a nice job disguising the baby for most of the film. However, the film might be 20 minutes too long, and the speed with which the film was made (and being made simultaneously with another Cohen film) does show up in some confusing or ill-timed edits.