Lurking in the back of every expectant parent’s mind is the dread that their new child will be a little…off somehow—sick, deformed, psychotic or maybe even Satan incarnate, here to herald the End of the World. It’s Alive taps into that fear. It’s a fear filmmakers have been tapping into for a long time in everything from The Bad Seed and Village of the Damned to Rosemary’s Baby and Humanoids From the Deep. Most of those films involve potentials—what kind of monster your kid might turn into once it’s old enough to start talking—but what about before that? Childbirth itself can be a terrifying ordeal marked by an awful lot of blood and unimaginable pain. And it’s even worse in a sterile hospital environment, surrounded by trays full of gleaming metal instruments and people in masks. Even after going through all that, you still don’t know what kind of monster you could end up with.
In 1974’s It’s Alive, writer/director Larry Cohen pushed that fear to extremes, taking the core of the Frankenstein story (as hinted at in the title) and producing the first mainstream American picture about the horror of childbirth. It was also, so far as I’m aware, the first film centered upon a murderous and bloodthirsty newborn.
Cohen’s fourth film as a director marked his breakthrough as a filmmaker with a very unique and uncompromising imagination. It also spawned one of the most disturbing ad campaigns of the era. In the end, though, it’s far more than simply a monster movie about a rampaging killer baby.
It’s Alive opens like any traditional drama about expecting parents. Frank (the great John P. Ryan), a public relations executive in Los Angeles, is awakened by his pregnant wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) who informs him it’s time. They grab their bags, drop their 11 year-old son off with an uncle and drive to the hospital. This being the ‘70s, Lenore is wheeled into the delivery room while Frank is sent into a waiting area to join several other nervous fathers-to-be as they pace and smoke and try to keep themselves distracted.
Throughout the film’s first ten minutes Cohen drops a number of hints as to what lays ahead. Several times Lenore comments that things “just don’t feel right.” One of the waiting fathers complains about all the toxins we dump in the air and in our bodies, while another explains that pesticides have led to a new strain of bigger and tougher roaches. Even Frank’s son worries aloud that something might go wrong based on something he saw on TV.
Well, it seems they were all pretty much on the mark, as a few minutes later Lenore’s new baby slaughters all the doctors and nurses in the delivery room before escaping through the skylight and disappearing.
At that point the baby’s killing spree across LA takes a back seat. Although we get occasional cuts back to assorted attacks, most take place off-camera. Instead, Cohen concentrates on what happens to Frank and Lenore. Doctors interrogate them about radiation exposure. A medical researcher asks Frank to sign over the baby for further study. After their names are leaked to the press the media hounds them endlessly and the bad publicity costs Frank his job. The clear implication is that it’s all their fault—they did something bad that resulted in this inhuman baby. The guilt starts to eat at them as they try to convince themselves they’ve done nothing wrong. In the meantime they try to shield their son from learning what happened. And through it all Frank keeps insisting that it’s not his baby, that he had nothing to do with it, that it’s nothing more than a monster and needs to be destroyed.
In a smart and telling exchange that both explains the film and once again clarifies the film’s origins, Frank tells a doctor that when he was a kid he always thought “Frankenstein” was the name of the monster, not the man who created it. And like Frankenstein, in spite of its father’s clearly conflicted feelings and public claims, in the film’s final third we get the sense the baby is not so much a monster as it’s simply frightened and trying to get back to its parents.
For all the human drama, Cohen still maintains the atmosphere of a horror film, mostly through the lighting (much of the film takes place at night,and even those rare daylight scenes are gloomy) and the music, with Bernard Herrmann’s brilliant late score creating an air of tension with the threat of violence just beneath the surface. Also, in true horror movie fashion, Cohen never shows us the baby except in fleeting partial glimpses, relying on POV shots until the tragic father-child reunion at the close.
Unlike, say, David Cronenberg’s Scanners, we are never given an explanation for why the baby turned out that way. A number of theories are tossed around or implied—environmental toxins, genetic damage, over-prescribed pharmaceuticals—but no one knows for certain. The only thing we do learn is that it was no fault of Frank and Lenore’s, even if plenty of people have their doubts. The film ends with a cop getting off the radio and commenting matter-of-factly, “Another one was born in Seattle.”
You hear “killer baby movie” and you immediately assume you’ll be dealing with some over the top hack job from Troma, but It’s Alive is an oddly subdued and mature picture dealing seriously with basic adult fears (all of which probably sounds disappointing until you remember there’s a savage, flesh-eating infant at the heart of it all). But in retrospect it becomes clear that the film essentially exists as a prologue—a starting point laying down the groundwork for the two sequels that would eventually follow. And we’re lucky for that, because Cohen is one of those rare writer/directors who doesn’t see sequels as a cheap excuse for making a bunch of money by repeating the same story over and over again. Instead, it’s a way to expand the ideas of the original in some stranger, wilder directions, telling the stories he wanted to get to in the first place, answering a few questions along the way while posing a few more.
And taken as a whole, all three films can be summed up with a line spoken by a cop in the original: “People without kids don’t know how lucky they are.” It’s with this quote that It’s Alive scared a generation of parents.