I’ve loved horror movies ever since I was a little tyke, but my parents and my friends’ parents had no interest them. As a result, I was never able to talk to them about the movies I liked because they just didn’t care. Except this one time…
It’s Alive (1974)
My mom and the mother of one of my friends, Mrs. Callaman, were working downstairs on the Jermantown Elementary School yearbook when I came and asked if any of them had heard of a horror movie called It’s Alive. I fully expected the “no, we’re busy” answer and was halfway up the stairs to go watch it on HBO when Mrs. Callaman responded with “Oh, that’s the one about the killer baby, right?” I was astonished. Absolutely astonished. She then went on to describe the plot of It’s Alive 3, which I didn’t even know existed at the time.
A pointless anecdote, I know, but that’s always what comes to mind when I watch this movie.
Frank (John Ryan) and Lenore Davies (Sharon Farrell) are having a baby and they couldn’t be more excited. However, there are complications during birth. Deadly complications. It seems this baby is part beast; a wild monster with fangs and claws that kills anything that gets in its way. The baby is loose in Beverly Hills with an entire police force struggling to hunt the thing down. Meanwhile, the Davies try to reassemble their shattered lives, as reporters, police officers and curious onlookers turn their world into a nightmare. Frank wants nothing more than to see the baby killed, but when push comes to shove, can he really murder his own son?
It’s Alive is sort of like the polar opposite of Rosemary’s Baby, but not in a bad way. While Rosemary’s Baby was all about the conspiracy and paranoia leading up to the birth of the child and then never showed the audience said demonic offspring, It’s Alive begins with the birth of the killer baby and then proceeds to give you glimpses, both large and small, of the monster all the way until the film’s conclusion. The similarities between the two films ends there, which is why I never cottoned to the notion that It’s Alive is “the poor man’s Rosemary’s Baby”. While the two films share a handful of tenuous connections, they’re as different as night and day.
It’s Alive is a very tense movie. It starts out mundane-enough, with a very normal look at a couple getting ready to go to hospital, dropping their son off at a friend’s house on the way, checking in, pacing around in the labor room and making small talk, etc. Like I said, it’s very mundane, but also kind of pleasant in how perfectly believable it is. Then when the birth happens, everything changes.
The scene is done so well, with everything coming to a screeching halt as a bleeding doctor stumbles out of the operating room and collapses on the floor. They only show you the aftermath of the birth, with a reasonably terrified mother screaming for her child and an infuriated father being dragged off by orderlies as he struggles to understand what’s going on. This scene, if you ask me, could have been done in any number of cheesy or ridiculous ways (like showing the baby popping out of the womb and going on a killing spree), but Director Larry Cohen played it just right.
The majority of the film is done from the perspective of Frank as he tries to cope with the media circus surrounding him as well as a wife who seems to be suffering from some serious post partum stress. Interspersed amongst these moments are scenes of the baby attacking bystanders, though they’re shot through “baby-vision” and aren’t nearly as silly as you might expect.
The baby-itself is best kept out of sight, really. They use two effects to bring it to life: a puppet and a guy in a costume. The former is very stiff and immobile, but suitably freaky-looking. The latter… well… try to imagine a full grown adult in a baby costume crawling around a set with a scaled-up environment. They hide the thing in the shadows but you can still tell that it just doesn’t look right. The physique of a baby and the physique of anybody older than a baby are wildly different.
While I raved about the beginning of the film, the ending is just as strong. Over the course of It’s Alive, Frank develops this murderous loathing for the child and even wounds it with a gun. And yet, when he finally confronts the child down in the sewers, the moment is very touching. John Ryan really deserves some credit for carrying this film. It’s a goofy plot, I’ll admit it, but he sells the part no matter what he’s told to say or do. The lighting during the climax also needs to be commended, with the red strobes flashing in the darkness crafting this eerie and surreal environment that you could only find in a ‘70s movie.
It’s Alive is honestly a good movie and not half as silly as the plot synopsis would lead you to believe. There’s some great acting and inspired direction which more than make up for a less-than-convincing lead villain. The sequels, on the other hand, are probably best avoided since they pretty much embody the goofiness that people recall when they think of the franchise.