It's Alive

Goddamn it! Your demon-baby got into our garbage AGAIN!
★★★
☆
Released: 
1974
Director: 
Larry Cohen
Starring: 
John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, Shamus Locke
The Setup: 
Couple give birth to a demon baby that goes on a killing rampage.
Discussion: 

From Larry Cohen, master of the pulpy trash horror movie with surprisingly well-drawn characters, comes one of this first big non-blaxploitation movies [where he started], and one of his biggest successes. This is definitely one of those movies I remember seeing newspaper ads for back in 1974, and being fascinated by what could possibly happen in it. Back then—I was six—I had NO CLUE what might happen in a horror movie, and my brain was filled with all sorts of bizarre imaginings. One other thing to understand is that this movie was considered [and could very well be] a kind of attempt to jump on the bandwagon of Rosemary's Baby, which came out six years prior… when movies had a much longer shelf life than they do now.

Okay, so the credits show lots of little lights in the dark, which are eventually revealed to be flashlights. It's fairly effective, because they sort of suggest sperm-and-egg, which we know will be very pertinent to this film. In here we also notice that the music is by Bernard Herrmann! …And it sounds like it, in a good way.

So we meet our characters, Dad Frank, Mom Lenore, and son Chris, about eleven or so. They wake in the middle of the might, very pregnant mom saying "It's time." It's nice that Mom and Dad are obviously very excited and happy, especially as we know what's about to happen. Dad goes and wakes up Chris by taking the cat and pushing it against his neck—that is one mellow cat, I'll tell you. They take Chris to stay with his uncle [or something] and head off to the hospital. I thought the subtext was going to head off into abortion-land when Lenore turns to Frank and says "I'm glad we agreed to have the baby. It's not going to tie you down, is it, sweetheart?" but no, this doesn't really go anywhere.

Now a regular feature of Larry Cohen movies are nicely-shaded characters, and scenes that divert from driving the storyline straight ahead and pause to deliver character moments, which have the effect of giving the entire movie a lot more texture. Here is good one, as we have Frank in the waiting room with four other men, each a vivid little character in his own right, and Frank strutting around as though he's superior to all of them, trying to work in the fact that he's having a baby into the conversation any way he can. The whole scene is like a little mini play. In the meantime, mom is having some trouble with the baby, and keeps telling the doctors it "feels different," to which they essentially tell her to shut up. The doctors say the baby is "humongous," and shuttle Frank out of the delivery room. There's a good cut when the baby is just born, then suddenly we are out in the waiting room with Frank, and see a doctor stumble from the room and collapse. Frank rushes in, only to find the entire delivery staff slaughtered, and no baby anywhere!

Now begins a good section, which is where everybody subtly blames the parents for the demon baby, because they must be responsible in some way. At one point Frank mentions that they thought of aborting the fetus, but didn't, and some guy says "Everybody makes mistakes." I liked it because it seemed realistic as to how unfair everyone would be, and it brings to the surface that undercurrent of judging parents by their children that almost everyone is susceptible to. Frank finds that the radio names him as the father, and soon his boss is firing him because he's become "controversial." Meanwhile, Lenore, whose cerebellum didn't seem wedged in too tight before, is being given the guilty business by her home nurse, who turns out to be a reporter who has infiltrated the home! Meanwhile, the escaped baby eats a woman in these mod white lace-up boots, and soon after devours a milkman. There's an effective shot of the white milk flowing down this suburban street.

So other potent real-world anxieties that this movie exploits quite well are the fear parents have that something will be terribly, TERRIBLY wrong with their infant, and also that they will be blamed as the source of the problem when their kid does awful things. Frank signs the body away to the university for study once the infant is killed, and repeatedly says "It's not my child." Then now-bonkers mom comes downstairs to unleash some weirdness, and around 44:55, we see from the décor of the parents' kitchen that they are accustomed to living with atrocity. Then a guy from a pharmaceutical company makes a deal with the cop on the case to incinerate the baby when they kill it, to avoid potential scandal and lawsuit. The only explanation the film gives as to why this might have happened is mutation from the various chemicals in our environment.

SPOILERS > > >
So the police call to say that they have the infant "cornered," at a school just two blocks from Frank's house. So the police let Frank in—this movie obviously had a high budget for policemen, as there's scathes of them everywhere, and many of them are sweeties with mustaches—and let him sit alone in a room until the detective arrives. Now, what does the word "cornered" mean to you? To me, it means that they have the infant trapped in a place from which there is no escape, like, say, a corner. Well, I guess that the police in this vicinity have a somewhat more loose definition, as they baby is clearly on the loose inside the school, where the police and everyone are just hangin' out like no big deal. Then dad returns home and finds that someone's drank all the dang milk! It's a little funny, because dad sees the while fridge full of glass milk bottles, then walks over to talk to mom, and when he comes back the entire fridge is empty—meaning that the baby came in and neatly removed the full contents of the fridge, without clanking a single glass bottle, which Frank was right there in the next room! The baby's also ripped up son Chris' room, in part because the movie is now toying with the idea that the infant wants to come back and kill his older brother.

Meanwhile Frank realizes that Lenore is harboring the baby in the basement without letting him know [which is good, as he's been trying to keep info from her and 'fool' her the whole time, not knowing she was having him on]. What's more, their son Chris just ran away from his uncle's, and has entered the house through the basement! I won't spoil what happens, but there is an increase to the body count, which causes Frank to say to his wife: "See what your baby did?" Because Chris is now "his" son, but the demon baby is "her" baby. Frank is also accused by both the police and by Lenore of "having to be the one who kills it."

Now I'm REALLY sorry I didn't get a picture of this for you, but there's a very funny little visual joke here, where we cut to the back of an ice cream truck which has "STOP CHILDREN" written on the back of it. Then, almost to the climax, there is a sequence with makes a lot of these flashing red police lights, which is fairly effective, so it's unfortunate Cohen has to draw attention to it by showing a close-up of he light fixtures themselves, which kind of ruins the effect. The ending is pretty good, although my DVD was quite scratched and it was really touch-and-go if I was going to make it to the end at all.
< < < SPOILERS END

Overall, pretty good! My quibbles are relatively minor. One is that the movie stretches about 60 minutes of content to 90 minutes, and it becomes clear that certain things are just being extended forever just to waste time, which can lead to viewer boredom. Normally I would have just fast-forwarded, but as I said my DVD was holding on by a thread and trying to scroll forward nearly resulted in complete meltdown, so I was forced to sit there watching the whole boring thing in real time. In its defense, however, at least it extends each sequence equally, so the story does progress at a not-insufferable pace. There are a few false and dishonorable scares—like showing the baby's perspective [it has double vision, so it is easily identifiable] coming right up to Frank's feet, then—it was just Lenore! That's not really fair, and just kind of annoys one… if you think movies should be honorable with their perspectives.

I was also beginning to wonder what Cohen regular Michael Mortiary might have brought to the role, but then I decided that I liked John Ryan's natural arrogance and bitter, high-strung quality, which I thought really worked for the character. Besides—Mortiary stars in It's Alive III, which is supposed to be quite a hoot! So I'll be looking forward to that.

But for the most part this movie does well with Cohen's strengths, which are his real, intriguing characters, and the very clever scenes and situations he thinks of to put them in. With many movies you can sense what "point" each scene accomplishes in the screenplay, but Cohen is very good at writing scenes that just seem organic and realistic. In this vein, he's also very good at letting the larger subtexts and questions the material raises rise up with seeming naturalness, so ideas about the way people subtly blame parents for their kids, or the way parents come to blame the other spouse, not themselves, for their child's behavior seem to have occurred to you, the viewer, rather than being shoved down your throat by a director who underestimates you.

So there you go! Overall a good, somewhat scary, somewhat funny and definitely somewhat disturbing movie with great characters and which takes unexpected directions. Go Larry Cohen!

Should you watch it: 

Sure! It's not the greatest horror movie ever, but it's quite good, with good characters and clever direction, and you've seen a lot worse.