It’s Alive (1974)

14 Oct

 

It's almost cruel how happy and calm they seem, isn't it?

 

The blurb for “It’s Alive” promised a blend of gore and giggles. Instead, I found it to be a blend of gore, social commentary and tragedy — even a bit like an after-school special in places — which is about as far from gore and giggles as you can get.

Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) are expecting their second child. On the night Lenore goes into labor, they leave son Chris with a friend and head to the hospital. Lenore tries to tell the staff something seems different about this delivery, but the medical staff chalks up her discomfort to the unusual size of the baby — maybe 11 pounds says the obstetrician. Once delivered, the infant’s enormity proves to be the least of anyone’s problems, as it attacks the doctors and nurses and leaves a trail of death in its wake. Police quickly set up a manhunt, telling shell-shocked Frank the infant will have to be killed. Frank and Lenore try to return to a semblance of normal life as their private pain is deemed fair game for media outlets. The infant seems eerily cognizant of important places in its family’s life. Its circle of destruction draws ever nearer to the house where its parents — one welcoming, one reluctant — are virtual prisoners.

When “It’s Alive” is on point, it’s quite effective. Director Larry Cohen wisely uses shadow to hide its monster for wide swaths of the film, giving just enough of the horrifying infant’s appearance to let the audience’s imaginations fill in the rest. The full infant is rarely shown, with the bulk of those shots coming toward the end of the film. But the glimpses of claws, frighteningly oversized canine teeth, a mutated and alien-like head — those are unsettling. Maybe it’s because I happen to be a woman of child-bearing age, but the labor and delivery sequence is just terrifying thanks to Farrell’s frenzied reactions to what’s happening to her. Her blood-curdling screams are only partly due to her pain; she screams also out of fear for her unborn child, and the emotion feels genuine.

The acting in general is quite a bit stronger than I had hoped for in a film of this type. Lenore and Frank verge into melodrama toward the end of the film, but you can’t really blame the characters at that point. Ryan’s Frank seems particularly well-acted for a low-budget horror film. There is a moment when the character first suspects the infant may be in his house, and Ryan’s face registers the full weight of that thought. It’s a quick sequence, but a powerful one — Frank is wrestling with a number of impulses, and the audience is able to see that thought process play out. He never says what he intends to do, but we are well aware of what will happen when he heads back into the house.

Unfortunately, “It’s Alive” can’t settle on what story it wants to tell, and so the film ultimately has a disjointed, chasing-its-tail feel. A lot of plot threads are packed into a short amount of movie, and all of them are shortchanged. The most fully formed of these is the devastating effect the birth of this monster has on its parents. We’re shown a lot of the fallout Frank and Lenore deal with, from the loss of Frank’s job to the attempted infiltration of the Davis home by a nurse who hopes to sell some salacious details to the press. They run through a tumult of conflicting emotions, from grief to acceptance to anger to fear. This portion of the plot seems more fitting for a serious drama about a tragic family event instead of a horror flick, and this (probably too sad) thread gets abandoned as soon as the action ramps up.

The creature effects are pretty unsettling when it's mostly in shadow. The shots are quick and timed for maximum scare, so this "monster" isn't as hokey as it could have been.

Also abandoned is Frank and Lenore’s son Chris. He spends much of the film at the home of family friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.) and has only one sequence with his little mutated brother. It seems as if he cares for the infant, but who’s to say because Chris literally disappears from the film at that point. He’s never seen again. There’s a not-even-half-formed subplot about a conspiracy launched by a large pharmaceutical company to cover up the birth and eliminate the “evidence,” which is intriguing and gets referenced a few times but is never explored beyond a few lines of dialogue. There’s the hint of a looming argument over what should happen to the infant — whether it should be killed on sight, trapped and given to scientists to study, etc. — but that idea also fails to materialize into anything meaningful.

Even with all those plot points floating around, “It’s Alive” is marred by a noticeable lack of logical ones. To wit, why are people still roaming the streets of the neighborhood if the entire Los Angeles police force is searching for this bloodthirsty man-eating infant? Why does no one seem to care what caused this horrible mutation in the first place? (There’s a little lip service paid in the form of wild speculating, but nobody seems to be too bothered about it.) I know it was the ’70s, but shouldn’t an ultrasound have shown the mutations and excessive growth well ahead of delivery?

By the time “It’s Alive” comes to its too-abrupt loose-logic ending, the impact of its well-timed scares and smart direction has been irreversibly diluted by its meandering storyline. And the awesome poster art? That shadowy and ominous baby carriage? It never even comes into play. It’s just another wasted opportunity in a film that squanders its potential. Two stars out of four.

It’s Alive“: Rated PG. Starring John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, William Wellman Jr., Shamus Locke, Andrew Duggan, Guy Stockwell and Daniel Holzman. Written and directed by Larry Cohen. Cinematography by Fenton Hamilton. Original music by Bernard Hermann. Special effects by Bob Biggart and Pat Somerset.

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