Cult filmmaker Larry Cohen is, and has always been, an idea man. Whether commenting on rampant consumerism (The Stuff), religious fanaticism (God Told Me To), or vigilantism (Maniac Cop), Cohen’s films (as director or screenwriter, often both) show an ambition beyond the zippered monsters and flying serpents. And while the biggest caveat regarding Cohen is that his reach often exceeds his grasp, that’s not always true. Case in point: It’s Alive (1974), Cohen’s potent take on abortion, the pharmaceutical industry, and (extremely) unconditional love.
Produced by Warner Bros. and Larco Productions, and distributed by WB, It’s Alive did not wow the executives, who gave it an obligatory release in October with little fanfare. And it did okay business for the small release it was granted. When a new regime came in to WB in ’77, Cohen asked them to take another look at the film – he felt it hadn’t reached the proper audience yet. Warners agreed, came up with a new advertising campaign (the classic “bassinet with claw” TV spot – it certainly soiled my laundry) and gave it a wider release in March of that year. It’s Alive ended up bringing in over $8 million domestically, sweet satisfaction for Cohen who knew his baby just needed to find a way home.
Frank Davis (John P. Ryan – Runaway Train) and his wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell – Night of the Comet), are on their way to the hospital as the arrival of their second child is imminent. On the way, they drop their son Chris (Daniel Holzman) off at a friend’s house. As Frank kids around with the other expectant fathers in the waiting area, he hears screams coming from the delivery room – and sees a doctor stumble out, bloodied and dying. Frank races in to find most of the delivery staff dead, his wife hysterical and still in stirrups. But where’s the baby? Because according to the surviving staff, the baby is…a monster. Vicious and deadly. Not to mention hungry.
And so the manhunt (or babyhunt, to be more specific) begins, as the police, and Frank himself, try to find the wee one and stop the romper room rampage. Will Frank’s paternal instincts kick in, or will he resign himself to the truth – people are dying because It’s Alive…
Cohen is a filmmaker who realises that a lack of budget does not have to mean a dearth of creativity. It’s Alive is brimming with queries and commentary on several hot button topics of the day (and many that still exist). For instance, the medical community in this film throw forth theories as to why the baby is mutated. Could it be an increasing reliance on environmentally unsound products such as pesticides? Maybe. How about the birth control pills Lenore was taking for years before her and Frank decided to bring another soul into the world. Possibly. The great thing about Cohen the writer is that these questions are even asked in a monster movie. The film also makes darkly humorous allusions to James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). It’s right there in the name of our protagonist, and the title of the film. As well, Frank feels enormous guilt for bringing his “creation” into the world; Lenore asks him before their fateful trip to the hospital if he even wants the baby – he acquiesces, and Cohen puts the doubt in our minds to make Frank’s journey more complex and compelling.
Before we get all chin strokey, it’s important to remember that Cohen likes to keep the B side buttered; many, many characters are harmed in the course of the film, including law enforcement, medical professionals, and milkmen. (Oh, they’re the worst, aren’t they?) Never one to shy away from a little blood, Cohen does what he can with the limited fundage provided. Snagging Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) at an early career juncture helps, even though his baby design is sometimes mocked for its relative immobility. But the look of the creature is terrific (wide eyed, dripping fangs, and bulbous egghead), and knowing its limitations they show it sparingly, which actually ups the suspense. (A similar filmic tactic was deployed a year later with a glitchy animatronic fella named Bruce.)
Ryan anchors the film with a pathos that is commendable considering the material. Of course, he’s given a great arc by Cohen; a father torn between hatred and guilt, and love and compassion. Farrell’s Lenore has nothing but love for her baby; for most of the time after its birth she stumbles around in a post partum depression, but when baby comes home, she exhibits a wild eyed clarity and a fierce sense of protection. As with any Cohen feature, the performances are all over the place – our headliners are terrific, but the further down the road you go the bumpier the ride. But it doesn’t matter; this is essentially the Existential Frank Show, and you have a front row seat.
A large part of the vibrancy of It’s Alive (and Cohen’s films in general), beside the starkly cool B flavoured mayhem, is Cohen’s desire to inject social impact among the squalor of a showing on 42nd Street. And he’s an optimist too – by the film’s end, it’s quite clear where he sits on the abortion debate. Or is that just Frank’s point of view? Welcome to Cohen Land, where the questions pile up as often as the bodies.
It’s Alive is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)