Writer-director Larry Cohen began his career creating television shows before he moved into low-budget genre movies (horror and Blaxploitation, mainly). By 1974, he was known for campy humor, wry social commentaries, and well-rounded characters facing dilemmas audiences actually cared about. It’s Alive certainly helped define the ‘Keep It In The Family’ vibe of horror in the mid-1970s.
The monster baby movie landed in cinemas just a year after the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States. Whether intentionally or not, it plays into the ongoing furor about women’s reproductive rights, along with ongoing concerns about Big Pharma – the thalidomide scandal was very recent and very real. Cohen has always asserted that the meaning of his text lies with the reader – audiences interpret the movie according to their own beliefs about abortion, so it can be read as both pro-choice and pro-life:
It’s Alive is whatever you want it to be. Whatever feelings or beliefs or attitudes you have are merely reinforced when you see the film. So, it works both ways. That is why I thought the picture was because if It’s Alive had been staunchly pro-abortion or staunchly anti-abortion it would have quickly turned off a large portion of the audience. As it was it worked for everybody. The movie allows the audience to decide for themselves and that’s the way movies should be. Once you fall heavily on one side of an argument, everything becomes too literal. That’s less interesting dramatically because the drama comes from the doubt and the debate.Larry Cohen quoted in “Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters” by Michael Doyle
It’s Alive also draws on other aspects of the zeitgeist, from the Men’s to pollution, to the Vietnam-era ideological gap between the Baby Boomers (in their teens and 20s at this time) and their Greatest Generation parents. The monster baby itself sits in the sweet spot between science fiction and horror. As the title suggests, the narrative frequently references the Frankenstein mythos: the monster is an abomination of nature, the consequence of humans meddling with things they shouldn’t. However, it’s the creation, not of a single mad scientist piecing together corpses, but a shadowy corporation employing dozens, possibly hundreds of chemists who pump toxins into the environment without considering the consequences. It’s Alive is a morality tale warning us about our collective responsibility for the actions of these hubristic yet faceless individuals. They mess up, everyone else is going to have to clean up. Perhaps we shouldn’t permit them to mess up in the first place?
It’s Alive is a movie made by men about men’s experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Much of the horror comes from the remoteness the protagonist, Frank Davies (John P. Ryan), feels from the biological processes of reproducing his own flesh and blood. After conception, he’s relegated to a supporting role while his wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) undertakes the transformation – and mutation. He has very little power over this process and is, consequently, reluctant to take responsibility for the end result. Frank isn’t alone in feeling the distance. When Lenore’s waters break and they head for the hospital, Frank tells his sixth-grader son, Chris, that “the doctors simply don’t allow little boys in hospitals”. This shuts down the boy’s anxiety about his mother’s health and reinforces to the next generation that the best thing for a guy to do while a woman births a baby is sit the whole escapade out.
At the hospital, a group of men pace and smoke in a waiting room while their unseen partners scream their way through the miracle of birth. These complete strangers touch on environmental pollution as an appropriate topic for small talk (“We’re slowly but surely poisoning ourselves, you know that?”) to pass the time. These men seem as casual and ambivalent about the impending chemical apocalypse as they do about fatherhood – it’s clear they need a wake up call on both fronts.
And then that wake up call comes, it’s brutal. Lenore’s insistence that something is wrong with her baby is ignored by her medical team, to their peril. Frank is alerted, too late, by a medic who staggers out of the delivery room and collapses in the corridor. He bursts into the room to discover carnage, with no sign of his child other than the bloody evidence left by its sharp teeth (“the umbilical cord’s been severed but not surgically”!).
Frank then rides quite the emotional rollercoaster, even by new parent standards, as he cycles through his feelings about the creature with his DNA. Initially, he’s in shock, all he cares about is that Lenore and the baby survived. Then, he thinks a delivery room invader stole his baby, killed the medics, and fled through the hospital skylight, despite the size of the exit making this a physical impossibility. He’s defensive when doctors quiz him about any possible exposure to radioactivity, and resists the implication that this is somehow his and Lenore’s fault. He’s disbelieving when, after he and Lenore are named in a local news report, he’s fired from his job at a PR agency. He enters denial, telling Lenore he’s going to take some vacation “because you’re more important”, and sending Chris off on a fishing trip with a family friend to keep him out of the way (“the baby’s sick and everything here is a mess”).
Everything is indeed a mess. Lenore, her brain fried by postnatal hormones, only wants to love and cherish her child. While still at the hospital, she’s regarded with a mix of disgust and pity. A nurse tries to secretly tape record information with an eye to selling her scoop. The cops, several of them family men, are concerned about this latest “hunting and killing babies” mission. The hospital – and the Big Pharma rep, who’s learned that Lenore was taking the Pill for 31 straight months – want to shut down the news coverage in favor of “absolute destruction”. Meanwhile, the fast-growing baby skitters in and out of Los Angeles’ storm drain network, claiming more victims.
Frank, with time on his hands, involves himself in the hunt. At first he’s dispassionate, practical, willing to sign away his parental rights to the creature, releasing it into the hands of scientists when it’s captured, to do with as they choose. Even as he’s being commended for his scientific distance (“It’s not my child”. “That’s very wise, to disassociate yourself emotionally.”), he starts thinking about the Frankenstein story, and the way creators, however accidental, can become entangled with their creation. There’s nothing he can do to prevent future textbooks from referring to this monster as “the Davies child” or “the Davies monster”. It’s always going to be his kid.
While Frank continues to insist to anyone within earshot “I want this thing destroyed as much as anyone else… it’s no relation to me”, Lenore is trying to repair her family unit. She welcomes her baby home (It’s a boy!), hiding it in the basement, and asks Chris to come and meet his new brother. Lenore sees what Frank cannot, that this child, however monstrous, is deserving of love. Like Rosemary, she cannot deny her maternal feelings towards her baby. Perhaps there is a precedent for this, and Lenore wouldn’t be alone in raising a concealed child? Earlier (just before firing his star employee), Frank’s boss Clayton mentions “O’Connors in accounting”, drawing a cynical comparison. “He’s got a retarded kid. Insists on keeping him in the house, too. Nobody thinks a thing of that. Nobody blames him.” In 1974 Los Angeles it seems that any deviance from the nuclear family norm needed to be hidden from view.
Frank, when he gets home, still has the urge to suffocate it on sight, but his wife’s affection for the creature sets him on a different track. He acknowledges that it is more than just alive. It’s sentient, capable of recognizing its family. It’s killed, but only because it was hurt, frightened. It’s just a baby. Does it really have to die? His belated paternal feelings put him on an Act Three collision course with ‘Them’, the law enforcement and Big Pharma authorities determined to wipe the baby off the face of the earth. He becomes his child’s protector and, after an epic chase through the storm drains, ends up pleading for its life on the banks of the LA river. Of course, his pleas fall on deaf ears, and the baby is slaughtered – in front of both horrified parents.
Nature, or abominations of nature, always find a way, nonetheless. The film ends with the declaration “Another one’s been born in Seattle.”
Most reviewers at the time regarded It’s Alive as solidly-crafted, schlocky fun, linking it to the familial horror of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. Genre audiences appreciated Cohen’s steady hand, Ryan’s thoughtful performance, Bernard Herrmann’s excellent score, and some showy horror set pieces (the milk truck killing makes budgetary constraints into an art form). It’s Alive‘s cult status grew steadily after its release, possibly because it could be partnered with one of Cronenberg’s mid-70s hits such as Shivers or The Brood for an ideal gynecological horror double bill. It’s aged well, for a $500K movie of the era, partly because so many of the social ills it addresses remain major concerns today: men’s reproductive rights and responsibilities; Big Pharma cover-ups; heavy-handed policing; and toxins leaching into the system causing prenatal mutations.
Warner Bros weren’t ever going to let that last line of dialogue go to waste and Cohen was ready for another couple of go-arounds on the mutant-baby/toxic environment/abortion/social control carousel. He wrote and directed the first sequel, It Lives Again in 1978. Frank continues his crusade as the defender of mutant children, advising parents-to-be Jody (Kathleen Lloyd) and Eugene Scott (Frederic Forrest) how to keep their baby safe from the murderous authorities. It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) begins with a dramatic courtroom scene, in which another father, Jarvis (Michael Moriarty) pleads for his mutant child to be spared execution. He manages to persuade a jury that his child, and three others, should be allowed to live their lives quarantined on an island. Of course, those pesky scientists can’t keep their noses out and leave the children in peace. An expedition to investigate the children’s development precipitates more carnage. Shout Factory released a blu-ray edition of the It’s Alive Trilogy in 2018.
For some unknown reason, a remake of the original was produced in 2009. This version focused more on the relationship between Lenore (Bijou Phillips) and her rampaging cannibal of a child, who she names Daniel. Cohen hated it (“It’s a terrible picture. It’s just beyond awful”).
- Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters by Michael Doyle (BearManor Media 2015)