Written and Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell
Reviewed by: Wes R.
ďI assure you, Mrs. Davies...your baby is very much alive.Ē
The 1970s were a pivotal decade for the horror film. The vampires, aliens, and other monsters that had been scaring audiences for the previous two decades had worn out their welcome and moviegoers were looking for more realistic and sophisticated scares. Horror films of the 70s, by large, took a close look at contemporary society and said ďWhat is wrong with this picture?Ē The Amityville Horror took a horrific look at the modern American home, The Exorcist showed a demonic change in an otherwise ordinary, all-American girl, and Jaws gave vacationers a good reason to re-assess their plans. One surprise hit from early in the decade dared to offer potential parents a gruesome ďwhat ifĒ: What if your newborn baby was born hideously deformed and bloodthirsty? Larry Cohenís Itís Alive was a brave new experience in cinematic horror that dealt with issues that had never before been tackled in film, let alone in the horror genre.
Awakened by his wife in the middle of the night, Frank Davies immediately takes her to the hospital. She is pregnant and says the two words that instill both dread and joy into the hearts of fathers-to-be: ďItís timeĒ. There is friendly banter by the fathers-to-be in the hospitalís waiting area, and if Mr. Davies is nervous, he isnít showing it. Itís natural to worry, even if you have little reason toÖalthough soon, Mr. Daviesí world will be irrevocably turned upside down, as unfamiliar screams are heard from the delivery room. Not the screams of a newborn infant, but adult screams of blood-curdling terror. A fatally wounded doctor stumbles from the room with a neck wound and then falls to the floor. Rushing into the delivery room, Mr. Davies stands aghast. Amidst the bodies, bloodstains, and overturned medical equipment, Mr. Davies finds his wife, still strapped in leg stirrups. His newborn son is nowhere to be seen. Soon, reporters are surrounding the Davies family. Police want to destroy the baby, while the local university wants to study it. All the while, the baby itself is loose in Los Angeles and killing for survival.
What sets the best 70s horror apart from horror films before and since is that they presented things in a very real manner. While other movies deal with the plot at hand and the resolution of the plot, 1970s horror films delved into how the horror affected those involved with the story. For instance, in Itís Alive, upon finding out about the incident at the hospital, the PR firm Frank works for fires him (as all the recent media attention brought to him and his family has made him a liability for their clients). The horror doesnít just affect the characters in a physically threatening way, it affects every aspect of their lives. Frank is suddenly a societal outcast for something completely out of his control. If this same story had played out in a 1950s film, his character would have heroically gone after the monster and tried to hunt it down with a cheesy, handsome grin and a cheerful brunette by his side. Here, in a more realistic movie, there really isnít a whole lot that Mr. Davies can do except sit at home, comfort his still-disbelieving wife, and wait for the news that the babyís life has been terminated.
I really love Itís Alive. A lot of people talk about how slow it is, but I like when a horror film actually takes its time to tell a compelling, scary story and allow us to be familiar with the characters and their plight. The story plays out very realistically, and very seriously. There is little comic relief in the film. The only scene of humor comes from the scene where the baby attacks a man driving a milk truck. The scene isnít laugh out loud funny, but the meaning behind the scene (heís a babyÖhe wants milk) allows a sort of dry humor to enter the film without breaking the tension with a chuckle. The mutation of the baby is never explained, although Cohen and the film present many theories: side effects from medication, the chemicals from pesticides, radiation, etc. It gives the viewer a reason to think. What really did cause this mutation? Could this happen to you or someone you know? That, my friends, is a scary thought. As presented in the film, it could certainly happen to anyone. When a horror film can take something common and wonderful, and instill even the slightest of fears into our sub-conscious and everyday lives, it has done its job. The acting is top-notch with no bad performances at all. Being a major studio film, this isnít surprising. At 91 minutes, Larry Cohen keeps the film and its action fairly tight. Cohen not only produced and directed the film, but he also wrote it. Even to this day, he is among the most sought-after screenwriters. His spec script, Phone Booth, fetched a hefty price after a heated studio bidding war. The thing that attracts most people to his scripts is their concepts, which are often simple, but immensely intriguing and almost always surprising.
Itís interesting to note that my original VHS copy of the film was rated R, however the DVD version from a couple of years ago says PG. I have since read that the film (once banned overseas) was re-evaluated and a new rating was issued in Britain. Perhaps a new rating was also granted here in the US as well. The DVD isnít edited at all, itís just the film was never that graphic and bloody to begin. The original rating of R was probably only given because the violence involves an infant. Given the baby factor, I think the film shouldíve gotten a rating of PG-13 instead of PG. Young children watching the film might not be able to handle seeing a baby (many kids may have young brothers and sisters) murdering people. Most of the blood in the film amounts to only a few gashes to the neck of the babyís victims, but itís never anything overly graphic. The kills happen off-screen (or at least, out of the cameraís view). The horror of the film comes from both the concept of a murderous, mutant baby being born to your everyday family, and from not knowing exactly when and where the baby will pop out next. Bernard Herrmannís musical score further goes to show why he is truly a master of his craft. This time, in addition to his trademark horns and violins, he adds a good dose of eerie 70s synth at times.
Rick Baker's puppet and makeup work on the Davies baby is great. Though we only get to see the baby in quick, often muddled glimpses, it has a very distinct and memorable look. We do get to hear plenty of its animal-like cries, which are equally effective in both creating tension and compassion for this monster. The baby is ghoulish to be sure, but itís still partially human. Its cries are heartbreaking in the last half hour, when Frank does manage to take it upon himself to lead the group who is trying to kill the baby. For most of the film, he distances himself from the baby, at one point reciting that his name will forever be synonymous with the killer baby, much like Frankenstein is the name of the creator and not the lumbering monster. But toward the end, he comes to terms with the infant, hearing it cry like any other baby that is frightened and hurt. Will he still insist on being the one to destroy it, or will he fight to keep it alive? Watch and find out. I highly recommend this film to horror fans that want to see something a little bit different. If you want to follow a good cast acting out a good story, with a thought-provoking and horrific concept, Itís Alive will give you a good eveningís worth of entertainment. If youíre already a fan of the film but havenít yet bought it, what are you waiting for? Buy it!
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