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IT'S ALIVE (1974)
|"Where's my baby? Where's my baby? What is wrong with my baby!?"|
Director: Larry Cohen
Starring: John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, Shamus Locke, Daniel Holzman, William Wellman Jr, Andrew Duggan, Guy Stockwell
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Synopsis: Late one night, Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) goes into labour. Her husband, Frank (John P. Ryan), wakes the couple’s eleven-year-old son, Chris (Daniel Holzman), and tells him that he must get dressed. On their way to the hospital, Frank and Lenore drop Chris off at the home of their friend, Charley (William Wellman Jr). Initially, everything seems to be fine, but as the labour progresses Lenore becomes convinced that something is wrong. She tries to convey her fears to her doctor but he dismisses them, telling her that the only problem is that her baby is very big. Out in the corridor, Frank paces aimlessly, stopping dead when he sees someone stagger from the labour ward and collapse. Running to the fallen man, Frank sees that his face and neck have been ripped open. Terrified for Lenore, Frank rushes into the ward, where he finds a scene of carnage: the entire obstetrics team is dead, while Lenore, still strapped to the delivery table, screams for her baby. But there is no sign of the child…. Police Lieutenant Perkins (James Dixon) is placed in charge of the investigation. Frank insists that the baby has been abducted, and threatens to sue the hospital. Perkins tells him that the only way out of the delivery room was via a skylight too small for an adult person to fit through. Dr Norton (Shamus Locke) asks Frank and Lenore to undergo a series of tests. Frank refuses angrily. Ignoring him, Norton asks Lenore whether she could have been exposed to radioactivity during her pregnancy, as the only explanation he can offer is that some sort of genetic damage caused the baby to be born mutated. When Frank rejects this notion, Norton points out that, early in Lenore’s pregnancy, the Davises inquired about a possible abortion. Frank denies that there was a medical reason for this. When Perkins and Norton leave the Davises alone, Frank speaks bitterly of their apparent determination to blame them for the baby’s condition. When Lenore observes wearily that they are the child’s parents, he withdraws from her. Frank rejoins the other two men, and Perkins tells him that the baby must be killed. Frank says indifferently that he doesn’t care, that the child is nothing to do with him. As he leaves the hospital, the bushes at the front of the building begin to rustle…. As he drives home, Frank is horrified to hear a radio newsreader name him and Lenore as the "killer baby"’s parents. The next morning, a woman hears a baby crying near her home, and makes the fatal error of looking for it…. Frank goes to work. His boss, Bob Clayton (Guy Stockwell), expresses sympathy for him, but suggests that he take his accrued vacation time. Frank begs to be allowed to stay at work, saying he needs the distraction, but Clayton tells him that he is now too controversial to have a place in public relations. As Frank leaves, Clayton tells his secretary to have his desk cleaned out.... Frank picks Lenore up from the hospital. Chris phones, wanting to know when he can come home, and Frank tells him that the baby is sick and must stay at the hospital. Charley, who has been keeping Chris away from the TV and the papers, offers to take the boy on a short fishing-trip. Another dead body is found. Lenore’s nurse breaks this news to her, trying to get her to talk about how she feels. Lenore discovers that the woman has a concealed tape recorder, and Frank throws her out. Meanwhile, the baby continues its journey across the city, breaking into a milk delivery van to look for food. Unfortunately for the milkman, he discovers it there….
Comments: Nobody makes films like this anymore…. Actually, that’s probably a stupid thing to say, since I’m not sure anyone ever did make films quite like Larry Cohen; certainly not like the ones he made in his “monster” phase. It’s Alive is quintessential Cohen: an outrageous premise, slapdash execution, a surprisingly effective mixing of humour and horror and, beneath all this, if you choose to look for it, an unexpectedly thoughtful message. I think it’s probably safe to assume that It’s Alive is etched in most people’s memories as “the mutant killer baby film”; and while it’s quite possible to watch and enjoy the film on that level alone, if you’re willing to dig a little deeper you’ll find an examination of the joys and pains of parenthood, an impassioned plea for tolerance and some devastating social criticism.
At its most serious, It’s Alive examines the consequences for the parents of a child when, as the euphemism would have it, “something goes wrong”; how society reacts to them; and most importantly, how they react to each other. The film suggests, not unreasonably, that the predominant emotion of a parent whose child is born with some kind of disability is guilt. Certainly this is true of the Davises, Frank in particular. No concrete reason for the child being born the way it was is ever given, although a number of hints are built into the screenplay, varying from the firmly biological to the distinctly esoteric. This lack of a first cause cuts right to the heart of the problem: when there is nothing obvious to blame, people tend to blame themselves or, even more tragically, each other. In its examination of this heart-rending situation, It’s Alive chooses to focus upon the father, Frank Davis, initially his own child’s deadliest enemy, finally its desperate if unavailing protector.
Once it becomes apparent that, as the film’s tagline puts it, There’s something wrong with the Davis baby, Frank’s response is swift and decisive: it is to reject the infant on every level. Initially, Frank is willing to exempt Lenore from responsibility, too. When Dr Norton suggests “a series of tests”, Frank reacts with indignation: “Can you imagine those guys trying to blame us?” Lenore, however, is having none of it. “We are the parents,” she says. This simple response has an electric effect upon Frank. Unable to accept that “we” are responsible, he begins, in a classic example of transference, to put all the blame for what has happened upon Lenore.
(Frank’s shift in attitude is symbolised by his pulling the curtain around his wife’s hospital bed, even though she has a private room.)
At the same time, Frank becomes fixated upon proving that the baby is none of his fault. When Perkins tells him, apologetically but firmly, that the baby must be killed, he responds with an elaborate shrug. “I don’t care.” Not content with this, Frank later insists upon joining the manhunt, finally deciding that he himself will be the one to kill the child. This, he reasons, will show everyone that he feels as they do, that he’s no different from anyone else. “No-one’s blaming you,” people tell Frank repeatedly. “It's no-one's fault.” At heart, however, Frank simply cannot accept this. The reasons for this are uncertain, but part of it at least is guilt over his status as reluctant parent. When Dr Norton observes that, early in Lenore’s pregnancy, the Davises inquired about an abortion, Frank’s reaction is so very defensive that we know instantly that the idea was entirely his, and not Lenore’s.
(Some critics have interpreted It’s Alive as an anti-abortion polemic, arguing that it is the consideration of a termination – the sense that it was unwanted in utero – that causes the baby to be born the way it is. While Frank Davis might perhaps feel that way, Larry Cohen’s own stance is, I think, more complex. More on this later.)
Guilt then, is what drives Frank: guilt at the pregnancy’s beginning, guilt at its outcome. This is made painfully clear when, in a rambling speech, Frank confesses that as a child he thought Frankenstein (Frank-enstein) was “the monster”. It was only as an adult that he realised that Frankenstein was the…. He hesitates here, before pronouncing the word “doctor”, and we feel that the word that first came into his mind might have been “father”. “The identities,” he finishes helplessly, “they – get all mixed up....”
(Frank’s allusion to Frankenstein sets up a moment that is simultaneously another instance of the unfeeling incomprehension surrounding the Davises, and one of the film’s funnier one-liners: “One must not allow oneself to be impressed by escapist literature,” responds the researcher to whom Frank has just signed over the baby’s body. [Nor by low-budget monster movies, presumably.])
As the film progresses, we come to understand that Frank’s self-image, his self-worth, his manhood, have been dealt an intolerable blow by the birth of this child. The only way he can obliterate the stain is by obliterating the thing that caused it. To facilitate this, Frank’s rejection of the baby becomes not just emotional but, still more disturbingly, biological. When the scientist asking Frank to sign the baby’s body over to him remarks, “After all, you are its father”, Frank recoils. “It’s not my child,” he insists. Later, he demands to know why everyone is looking at him that way, “Like it’s my own flesh and blood! It’s not: it’s nothing to do with me!” The final, the ultimate act of repudiation comes when Frank tries to convince Chris that the baby is nothing to do with him either: “It’s no relation to us. It can’t be.” The baby, wounded and panic-stricken, kills the Davises’ friend, Charley. “Look at what your baby did!” Frank flings at Lenore, and the betrayal is complete. Frank has, in essence, denied his son “three times by morning”….
The falseness of Frank’s position is made apparent by the attitudes of Lenore and Chris. No thought of denial ever crosses Lenore’s mind. Whatever it is, whatever it has done, she wants her baby. Alone of the characters in the film, Lenore worries about what the child is feeling. “He’s different – he’s frightened,” she tries to tell Frank. (Significantly, he cuts her off, insisting that, “You’re exhausted – you don’t know what you’re saying.”) Lenore also blames herself for the child’s condition. Still more distressingly, she becomes aware that Frank blames her too, almost before he’s aware of it himself. “You’re not scared of me, are you?” are her first words to him when they are alone together.
Like her husband, Lenore reacts to the situation by trying to demonstrate how “normal” she is, what a “typical” couple she and Frank are. In a scene both heartbreaking and embarrassing, Lenore interrupts the meeting of Frank, Norton and the scientist, laughing and making small talk before inviting her husband’s “guests” to join them for, “Some nice lamb chops and a bottle of Beaujolais”. (She does not know, of course, that Frank has just signed her baby’s body over to his “guests” – or does she?) Lenore maintains this determinedly cheerful, everything’s-just-fine pose for so long that the audience begins to fear for her sanity. It comes as a pleasant surprise when we learn that, not only is she in full possession of her faculties, but she has, in fact, been one jump ahead of her husband all along.
In the course of the story, it becomes obvious that, through instinct alone, the baby is seeking its family. It first tracks down Chris, but loses him when Charley takes him on the fishing-trip. It is next found at what turns out to be Chris’s school, where it kills a policeman foolish enough to corner it. Then, although the manhunt intensifies, it seems to disappear. Our first clue to its whereabouts comes with the revelation that Lenore Davis seems to be buying an awful lot of milk these days….
The baby has, indeed, found its way home, and Lenore has taken it in, keeping it in the one place so obvious that no-one thought to look there: the nursery. So consumed by his own emotions is Frank that it is a considerable time before the significance of Lenore’s behaviour dawns upon him.
(There is a wonderful moment when Frank, lost in thought, stumbles over half a dozen empty milk bottles and still doesn’t figure out what’s going on. However, when the freezer becomes mysteriously emptied of meat....)
From Lenore’s perspective, everything is now as it should be. But Frank has other ideas. As soon as he learns of the baby’s whereabouts, he goes for his gun. As Lenore vainly tries to stop him (“It’s a boy – did you know?” she cries despairingly), Frank corners the baby in the basement where, unbeknownst to his parents, Chris has already encountered it. Frank opens fire, injuring the baby, which flees. It is at this point that Frank tries to disassociate himself and his eldest son from “Lenore’s baby”. Chris, however, knows better. Although kept ignorant of the full story, Chris is aware that there’s something wrong with the baby. Despite this, when he comes upon it in the basement he doesn’t see a “monster”, a “freak”, a “killer”; he just sees his baby brother. His first and only thought is to make contact with it.
Chris’s unhesitating acceptance of his sibling sends Frank into his final frenzy. Learning that the baby has retreated to the sewer system, he insists on being given a gun and joining in the final manhunt. “You’ve just got to be the one to do it, don’t you?” says Perkins, reluctantly acceding to Frank’s demands. And it is Frank, rifle in hand, who locates the baby in its subterranean lair.
But confronted by the wounded, terrified, sobbing baby – his baby – Frank can’t do it. Instead, he finds himself uttering soft sounds of reassurance, wrapping the injured creature in his jacket, cradling it in his arms. All of his twisted, dammed up emotion finally released, Frank wants nothing more than to protect the child, save it from the mob howling for its blood; the mob he was leading. And the baby, confronted by the man who has rejected it since its birth, who has hunted it and injured it, huddles close, knowing that it has nothing to fear from its father....
Tragically, however, despite Frank’s desperate pleas for understanding and his insistence that if they want to shoot the baby they’ll have to shoot him too, the forces ranged in opposition are just too great. (There is some consolation in the fact that the baby manages to take out the odious Norton before being taken out itself.) Lenore learns of Frank’s defiant stand via the police radio, and arrives on the scene in time to see him risking his life for his child’s. If Frank cannot save the baby, his actions have at least saved his marriage, his family.
Frank’s acceptance of the baby is the culminating moment of the film’s underlying premise which, put simply, is that given a chance – given help and support and above all, understanding and compassion – families are capable of coping with pretty much anything. Yet fiercely pro-family as it is, It’s Alive is never simplistic. Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of the film is the way that it acknowledges what most films – hell, what most people – cannot or will not: that parenthood is neither easy nor a source of unalloyed joy. I find few things more exasperating than the insistence that everyone is supposed to want children, and that not only does not wanting them prove there’s something wrong with you, that even having reservations is, at best, highly suspect. This black-and-white view of the world is, of course, nonsense. Not only does it make no allowance for individual character or circumstances, it also overlooks a simple truth: that emotionally, as in every other way, human beings are incredibly complex, and consequently quite capable of feeling half a dozen different things at once, all of them contradictory.
Sure, having children can bring feelings of joy, pride, excitement, fulfillment; but doubt, fear, anger and frustration are more than likely to be mixed in there too, and anyone who doesn’t recognise the fact must be wilfully blind. I doubt that there’s a parent on the face of the planet who, no matter how much they love their kids, hasn’t occasionally nursed a fantasy about strangling the little buggers. I personally think that this is both natural and healthy, and I suspect that Larry Cohen does too. (I’d lay you odds, by the way, that Cohen has children himself.)
Throughout It’s Alive, the pains and contradictions of parenthood are well and sympathetically addressed, primarily, of course, via the character of Frank Davis. That Frank considers abortion an option is not, I believe, “the reason” the baby is born the way it is. Rather, this plot point is there to illustrate one of the film’s main themes: that it is entirely possible to be both a reluctant parent and a good parent. Far from being mutually exclusive, these two states of mind may be inexorably entwined, the reluctance stemming not just from an unwillingness to take on the responsibilities of parenthood, but from the recognition of just how big a responsibility having a child is. In support of this argument, the film’s dialogue reveals that Chris Davis, too, was an “unwanted” child; that Frank initially felt “trapped” by Lenore’s pregnancy, “tied down” by his baby son’s existence. Yet clearly Chris has grown up to be a smart and stable kid, who has a warm and loving relationship with both his parents. The film insists that as long as a child is loved, knows that it is loved, the doubts, fears and frustrations will do no harm. Conversely, the film also argues that it is society’s unloved children who will, inevitably, grow up to be its “monsters”.
Throughout It’s Alive, Frank Davis’s emotional torments are thrown into relief by the blanket negativity of the people around him. At no point in the film does anyone other than Lenore and, ultimately, Frank suggest saving the baby. From the first moment, everyone else wants it killed. The reasons for this vary, some of them being pure self-interest. The manufacturers of Lenore’s newly marketed (and obviously faulty) birth-control pills, for instance, want the child not just killed but expunged, so that no culpability can be proved. A group of scientists wants to study “this phenomenon”, but even they aren’t interested in keeping it alive: they just want what’s left when the police are done. One of them wants the baby gassed rather than shot, because---well, you know….
The police, more reasonably, simply want the killing spree stopped, particularly after the baby kills one of their own. Lieutenant Perkins’ first words on the subject are, “When we find it, we’re gunna have to destroy it”, a position reiterated, more passionately, during the final confrontation: “It can’t be saved, it’s gotta die.” Dr Norton – who, we learn, was taking kickbacks from the pharmaceutical company – is also unequivocal, referring to the baby as “an animal”; while the climactic scene sees him demanding in a voice thick with loathing, “Kill it! Kill it!”
These emotive reactions from people of whom you would expect professional detachment give the viewer pause. Clearly, these are not just “professional opinions”; there is something else going on here, something deeper and much uglier: an instinctive, even animalistic desire to destroy what is different. It is here that It’s Alive’s most serious theme emerges. How does society react to those who are “different”? In Larry Cohen’s opinion, very badly indeed. While he uses the baby as an extreme case, Cohen scatters other, more subtle criticisms throughout his screenplay. For example, in the scene between Frank and his boss, Clayton, in a clumsy effort at consolation, refers to another co-worker with “a retarded kid”, pointing out that he “....insists on keeping [the child] in the house. No-one thinks anything of that,” he adds hastily. Possibly not, but the parents’ decision to care for the child themselves rather than, presumably, putting him in some kind of home is clearly considered unusual, even downright weird.
This point is just the tip of the Cohen iceberg. It’s Alive is comprehensively critical of the world in which its story is set. Early in the film, a group of expectant fathers shakes its collective head over the state of Los Angeles. One remarks on the amount of lead in the environment, another on the smog that envelops their city. (“Fine world to bring a kid into,” comments Frank.) As the film progresses, we understand that these external problems are merely the physical symptoms of a society that is spiritually sick.
Almost everyone in the film is out for themselves; the predominant tone is a selfish insensitivity that grows increasingly disturbing as events progress. One of the expectant fathers uses the time of his wife’s labour to advertise his exterminators’ business. Someone at the hospital leaks the Davises’ name to the press. Lenore’s nurse turns out to be a part-time freelance writer, who tries to exploit her professional appointment to “get an exclusive”, driving Lenore into screaming hysterics in the process. The head of the pharmaceutical company acknowledges that his drugs may be responsible for the existence of the baby, but his only concern is the avoidance of lawsuits. Frank’s boss reacts to his employee’s tragedy by sacking him: Frank Davis, PR man, has become something that not even his own firm wants to touch.
(It is in this scene with his boss that Frank makes his one and only effort to put his true feelings into words, at least before the breakthrough moment towards the end when he cradles his son in his arms: “I don’t what to do – how to behave….” Acutely embarrassed, Bob Clayton interrupts with a forced laugh and the suggestion that Frank get “a good PR firm” to handle the situation. “That’s very funny,” responds Frank through teeth clenched so hard, it’s a wonder it didn’t induce lockjaw.)
Worst of all, however, is that the society depicted is a place where children simply aren’t welcome – and not just children who are “different”, either. In response to Norton’s barbed observation that he and Lenore “inquired about abortion”, Frank says defensively, “Doesn’t everyone inquire nowadays?” When Frank goes on to explain that he and Lenore just decided to have the baby, Lieutenant Perkins chips in with, “We all make mistakes.” He apologises immediately, but the sentiment lingers. We later learn that Perkins’ wife is eight months pregnant herself, and that she lost their previous child. The colleague to whom Perkins confides this responds unconcernedly, “People without children don’t know how lucky they are.”
This blinkered callousness occurs again and again throughout the film. In the face of it, the baby seems not just a product of his environment, but a reaction to it. The exterminator-father tells of a spray meant to kill roaches, but which instead resulted in their being born “bigger, stronger, harder to kill”. This would seem to account for the baby’s existence, too. Needing to survive in a world both physically and emotionally polluted, he has indeed been born “bigger and stronger” and, above all, with the innate ability to do it to them before they do it to him. The suggestion that the baby is not just mutated but evolved is present in a minor character’s remark about the human race “adapting” to the contaminated state of the world. Interestingly enough, it was this extremely muted but inarguably positive interpretation of the film’s events that Larry Cohen chose to run with in the sequel, It Lives Again.
Another intriguing aspect of the film is its stringent criticism of the medical profession; or at least, of those representatives of the profession who have lost sight of the stern Hippocratic warning, First do no harm. This initially becomes apparent in the labour ward, when we realise that Lenore’s obstetrician has more or less the same professional attitude as John Cleese’s character in The Meaning Of Life. Again and again, Lenore tries to express her conviction that something is badly wrong, but is brushed aside with patronising small talk. It is, quite frankly, some satisfaction when this smug know-it-all becomes the baby’s first victim. Lenore’s desperate pleas have alerted us to another fact: that throughout her pregnancy, she tried to tell them that it was different this time, but they wouldn’t listen to her….
This is our first introduction to Dr Norton, who we learn has been dosing his patients with inadequately tested drugs in return for substantial payments. The payments come courtesy of a pharmaceutical company whose response to the baby’s existence is not to order a recall of its products, not to implement a more stringent testing regime, but to instigate a cover-up. (Given the film’s production date, it comes as no surprise when government involvement is hinted at.) Overall, this plot thread seems less a criticism of the medical profession per se, and more like just another layer of Larry Cohen’s main argument: that society, as a whole, simply doesn’t care enough, not even the people who are, after all, paid to care.
One of the things I like best about It’s Alive is its shifts in mood. The scene in the delivery room, with the obstetrics team slaughtered and Lenore, locked in the stirrups and strapped to the delivery table, screaming in pain and terror, is almost Cronenbergian. At the same time, the film contains some of Larry Cohen’s most memorable visual gags: a camera pan past a van emblazoned with the words STOP CHILDREN, for instance; or most unforgettably of all, a dozen members of the LAPD, armed and definitely dangerous, pouring into someone’s backyard and finding – a perfectly normal baby. As you might imagine, the child looks somewhat taken aback by this sudden invasion.
It’s Alive is probably Larry Cohen’s best known film. It is certainly his most representative, chock full of both his strengths and his flaws as a film-maker; although in my opinion its positives easily outweigh its negatives. On the debit side, the main problem is the pacing of the story, with some scenes dragging unnecessarily, others thrown together so rapidly that their individual impact is diluted. Still, this is a minor point when you contrast it with the film’s virtues. The seriousness of the story’s themes, and the compassion with which they are handled, lifts It’s Alive out of the realm of the pure exploitation film, no matter how firmly its central premise might seem to put it there. I’m not ashamed to admit that the first proper meeting between Frank and his baby makes me tear up every time.
As was commonly the case with Larry Cohen, he gets a lot more out of his cast and crew than his budget would justify. John P. Ryan is excellent as Frank Davis, giving an intense, layered performance that helps the film over its, shall we say, more improbable moments; and he is well-supported by Sharon Farrell and James Dixon in particular. Farrell has some heartbreaking moments as Lenore, while Dixon, a reliable Cohen regular, gives Lieutenant Perkins some interesting shadings, making him a compassionate man with a very dirty job to do. The film benefits enormously from a rich score by Bernard Herrmann, while the special effects were an early effort by Rick Baker, who had clearly taken the painful lessons of Octaman to heart: the baby is kept off-screen 98% of the time, and not depicted with any clarity the rest of the time. Thus, it remains an unnerving presence, equally frightening and pathetic. (In It Lives Again, we have multiple babies that are seen way too often and way too clearly; the film suffers accordingly.) Proving that Larry Cohen knows his monster film history, the final scenes of It’s Alive take place in a Los Angeles storm sewer, on the precise spot used in the climax of one of the best monster films of all, Them!
One of the other, ah, “pleasures” of It’s Alive is its role as a time-capsule for the year 1974. I can think of few films that illustrate so thoroughly the appalling extremes of early seventies fashion, both in décor and clothing. Check out, for instance, Bob Clayton’s office, or the lurid mustard-coloured curtains mysteriously present both in the Davises’ living-room and Lenore’s hospital room. Better yet, take a good look at what Frank Davis chooses to wear to the hospital in the opening sequence – although you might want to don your sunglasses before you do.
(As the baby cuts a swathe through the population of west Lost Angeles, you begin to feel that it might have been sent by the fashion police.)
In short, it’s entirely possible to enjoy It’s Alive without taking the film anywhere near as seriously as I do. Important themes and social criticisms aside, this is, after all, a film about a mutant killer baby. The sight of this infant, teeth and claws at the ready, disposing of adult after adult, is as entertaining as it is ridiculous.
Even so, there’s no denying the purity of Larry Cohen’s intentions here. So laugh at the film if you have to, but at the same time, spare a thought for the outsiders of our society. After all, mutant killer babies need love too.
Footnote: This review is dedicated to my sister-in-law, Rosemary, who gave birth to my nephew, David, on March 31st; and to my brother, Ross, who chose to be present at the birth rather than attend a Cinematheque screening of It’s Alive with me. There’s no accounting for taste, I guess….