March 06, 2011

IT'S ALIVE! (1974) - Larry Cohen's monstrous baby

(1974, USA)

Kill, baby, kill, kill!

Hollywood movies usually have an A-list cast, beautiful cinematography, superb production design and state-of-the-art special effects. It's Alive has none of these. But director Larry Cohen still provides a unique horror concept and a script rich in ideas. It still keeps me interested right to the bloody finish where many mainstream movies fail to. Anyway, why bother with production values when you can make it cheap, make a profit and spawn a couple of sequels?

The first of the three is easily the best - don't feel compelled to watch the sequels...

A newly born baby slaughters five doctors and nurses in the delivery room, before escaping into the night. As the parents struggle to cope with why they've given birth to a monster, the police try to track 'it' down. The newborn craves milk, toys, and its parents. If anything gets in its way, it has teeth and huge claws...

Unlike traditional monster movies where our heroes are isolated or trapped (at sea, in space, in a remote mansion), this attempts a realistic portrayal of a menace in a modern city, including nosy media, tired cops, and the politics of putting down killer babies. Cohen, who also wrote this, depicts the media as especially insensitive, intruding on the family during their crisis. The use of gentle irony and satire is similar to his later films The Stuff and Q - The Winged Serpent.

Presumably It's Alive was inspired by Rosemary's Baby and a desire to see what happened next. The poster even repeats the image of the pram (though there isn't one in the films). But rather than link this mutant baby to religion, Cohen switches the probable cause of abnormal size and psychosis to manmade - suggesting food additives, pollution, and radiation.

The opening images are simple but disorientating - a growing multitude of flashlights in the night. But even for the 1970s, the low production values are very basic - stark lighting, sometimes scenes are underlit, with bizarrely wide camera compositions and very shaky tracking shots.

While it looks cheap, most of the acting manages to convince that this is all happening to a real couple of people. The late John P. Ryan (Runaway Train, Death Wish 4), as Frank Davis, holds most of the film together, with a transition from happy prospective parent to a reluctant hunter. Some of the supporting actors are on the clumsy side of naturalistic, but the key roles are solid, with Frank's wife (Sharon Farrell) particularly well played.

The film is also blessed with one of the last soundtracks to be composed by Hitchcock favourite Bernard Herrmann.

While the drama is consistent, it's less successful as a seventies monster movie, and especially lacking now. While Jaws succeeded in gradually revealing the monster, It's Alive barely ever shows us the goods, despite the excellent photos of the creature that were published. While the larger-than-lifesize model may have looked good, it couldn't move convincingly. Some quick cuts look like someone waving a plastic monster baby around. There were stories of the young make-up artist Rick Baker dressing up his (then) girlfriend as the creature and tricking the scale down, but again, these shots are so brief, most of his hard work isn't in the film. It's a classic design, but it's not showcased onscreen.

All the films under-deliver in showing us the title character. It's hard to even get a sense of its size. The horror content relies on the repetitive throat wounds, without showing the actual attacks.

Cohen's cheeky script for Maniac Cop, gave us the ultimate in police brutality and a inarguable reason for the public not to trust the police (any of them could be the maniac killer!). It's Alive also plays devil's advocate with a hard decision to make - surely a baby should be terminated if it's going to kill the moment it's born...

If the baby was seen more, like in all the classic monster movies, this would be better known. As it stands, it's a rewarding cynical horror with real people and some substance.

At the time, with very little competition, this was a sufficiently powerful monster movie and audiences wanted more...

It's Alive 2: It Lives Again (1978) kicks in soon after the first, with another couple about to have a monster baby (an echo of the events of Village of the Damned). The young couple, played by Kathleen Lloyd (hot off The Car) and Frederic Forrest (Coppola's The Conversation) are lucky to get advice of Frank Davis (John P. Ryan again).

Coincidentally Ryan, Lloyd and Forrest had just appeared together with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando in a western The Missouri Breaks. Demonstrating how good Larry Cohen was assembling his casts.

After an unlikely escape from a heavily-guarded hospital, there's an even nuttier storyline - a group of idealists trying to protect this 'new line of evolution', with unsurprising results. While there are plenty of fresh situations, the carnage is slow to kick in, with very few glimpses of now three monster babies. The camerawork is often so poor as to be mystifying. The drama is uneven and often implausible, but it's closer in tone to the original than...

It's Alive 3: Island of the Alive (1987), Cohen released the monsters again, with a project perfect for the lucrative VHS market. While the world had changed considerably, Cohen's increased special effects budget didn't deliver anything more realistic, and the next generation of child mutations mostly keep to the shadows, even when battling very-eighties post-punk troublemakers. Michael Moriarty bounces between over-acting and going for laughs. Karen Black and Gerrit Graham act their socks off in a project that's gotten silly.

It's Alive is still around on DVD (don't get it confused with Larry Buchanan's 1969 It's Alive!), the two sequels are available together on DVD, and there's also a set of all three (above). It would make more sense to keep the first two films as a pair, and leave the third for fans of the 80s...

OK. Now should I face the 2008 remake?

An original trailer for It's Alive (1974) is here, from YouTube...


  1. I tried watching this one but was bored to death with it, its really frustrating how little they show the monster babies...Cohen did the same thing with Q The Winged Serpent, we hardly get to see the creature on that one either. I never went past the first one...but have always been curious for the sequels.

  2. I just watched and did a review on "Q", and I can see that it can be frustrating to some viewers as the creature's not as prominent as expected.
    That said, Cohen's writing is quite good and his dialogue has an authenticity most movies lack.
    As well, his concepts (a monstrous killer baby, maybe turning the appellation baby killer on its head)was pretty ambitious: just like "Q" the likelihood would have been for it to fade into obscurity after a rather short release.
    Instead, "it's alive" did spawn two sequels. I'd say Cohen's pretty competent.

  3. I have to agree with the Film Connoisseur, I too found it rather slow. Cohen though is someone I admire greatly . A film maker who makes what he wants to make with a low budget but who always delivers something with some sort of merit.

  4. I've been a big fan of Cohen since childhood. I thought for a minute he was going to have a comeback after Cellular, but I haven't seen much of him since.

  5. I just wrote up Cohen's kaiju, Q, at the blog here: Q The Winged Serpent

    Also, there's an excellent interview in one of the RE/Search magazines with Larry Cohen talkin' shop. Really good stuff.


  6. I haven't watched IT'S ALIVE in years, but saw it as a kid and it scared me and I also liked it quite a bit; more than the other two. Actually, towards the end of Q, the giant creature is shown a lot when it's fighting the mass of police officers.

  7. I've always been a fan of these bad, bad babies. I too have reviewed all three films over at my blog (but have not yet braved the remake).

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I enjoyed this post so much that I chose it as one of my favorites of March, and included a link to it in the latest "issue" of SPATTER ANALYSIS.

    Check it out!