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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It's Alive ('74)

The 1974 film titled It's Alive (IA), by Larry Cohen, is an entirely different story from the 1969 film by Larry Buchanan. The '74 film is essentially a horror story, but it gets put into sci-fi lists of movies, so it is included here. Actually, there is a trace of sci-fi theming, with a typical 70s mood, which may explain the sci-fi/horror hybrid label. The film is written, produced and directed by the same man: Cohen. Typically, this spells trouble for a film, but Cohen manages to avoid most of the usual pitfalls. John Ryan and Sharon Farrell star as the parents of the monster baby. Several other familiar second-teir actors play minor supporting roles. Cohen would go on to create two sequels, one in '78, the other in '87, expanding the monster baby trope.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Frank and his wife Lenore wake one night. It is time for her baby to be born. They drop off their 11 year old son, Chris at a friend's house. At the hospital, things are mostly typical, though Lenore keeps saying things feel different this time. No one listens. When the doctor delivers the baby, using forceps, the baby -- unseen, but a little monster child with fangs and claws -- kills the five doctors and nurses. The police are called to the crime scene. The baby escaped through a skylight. News is out about the monster killer baby, so Frank's job in a PR firm is over. He brings Lenore home, who seems a little loopy. Random other people are killed in the area: a musician, a milk man. Everyone assumes the baby must be killed. A professor wants the baby's body to study. A man from a big pharmaceutical firm urges a police lieutenant to totally destroy the body to preclude any lawsuits. The baby makes its way to Chris's school. Somehow the cops know and swarm the school. Frank goes there and shouts that the baby is no kin of his. It kills a policeman. Frank notices Lenore's oddly unconcerned behavior, and how food (milk) is disappearing from the fridge. He connects the dots. Lenore has been hiding the monster baby. Frank gets his hidden revolver. At the same time, young Chris has run home and lets himself in to the basement via the ubiquitous hidden key. Frank goes downstairs. Chris talks consolingly to the baby. Frank shoots at it. Charlie (the friend) shows up just in time to get killed by the baby. Frank shoots again, this time wounding the baby. It flees. The police eventually trace the trail of blood to the sewer system under L.A. Frank goes along, intent to be the one to finish off the monster baby. Police search the sewer system. Frank finds it. His heart softens. He bundles the wounded monster baby in his coat and tries to run from the cops. Eventually, he's surrounded, with many shouting for him to kill it. Kill It! This includes the doctor. Frank tosses the monster baby on the doctor, who is killed by the baby. Police open fire killing the baby. As sad Frank and Lenore sit in the back of a cop car, the Lt. gets a call. Another monster baby was born in Seattle. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Cohen does a fair job of keeping the pace moving. Both Ryan and Farrell give credible performances as the conflicted couple. To his credit, Cohen does not reveal too much of his monster baby puppet, leaving most of the monster to the viewer's imagination.

Cultural Connection
Abortion -- The Supreme Court decided, in the Roe v. Wade case in 1973, that abortion was legal. While they decided that on a narrower technical ground, the popular mindset was much broader. Abortion became, then, simply another elective surgery.

The Usual Suspects -- The thin sci-fi link in IA is the intimation that Lenore's monster baby may be a mutation caused by exposure to radiation. This would be the classic 50s explanation for any and all monsters. A bit later, the intimation shifts to Big Pharma (drugs with hidden risks) or pollution. Those were much more 70s suspects for the evil in the world. There is even a hint of Evil Corporations as a suspect, when the Pharma executive urges destruction of the baby so as to avoid lawsuits and loss of profits.

BabyPhobia -- Why would a newborn ever be considered a suitable monster? Perhaps Cohen was tapping into a subtle 70s sentiment. After all, the many "free love" flower children of the 60s were (by the mid 70s) over 30. Was Cohen's monster baby an analogy for how the "free love" generation viewed having children and settling down? A baby "ruins" everything. It "kills" their free-spirited self-centered lifestyle. IA may have resonated with maturing hippies, afraid to enter the adult world of family life. 1968's Rosemary's Baby was an early example of Baby Fear in film.

Abortion Metaphor -- It's unclear if Cohen was intending this, but his screenplay could be seen as a metaphor for an abortion. Consider how Frank (and all the other men, it seems) are so adamant that "It" must be killed. Call it a 4th trimester abortion. Note how the mother loves "It" unconditionally. The son, Chris, can see the baby as a little brother in need of protection. Frank, the father, at first feels nothing by scorn and denial for "it". But, once wounded and whimpering, Frank sees the mortality and maybe the humanity of the baby. His human heart trumps his selfish hate. Still, in the end, the System manages to prevail and "it" is killed.

Who's The Monster? -- At one point, Frank is reminiscing about seeing James Whale's 1931 movie, Frankenstein. He recalled how as a kid, he always thought of the monster was named Frankenstein. It was only in college that he read the book and realized it was the doctor's name. He muses, who was the real monster, the creature, or the creator? Cohen includes this as commentary on his own screenplay. Who is the real monster in IA? Is it the mutant baby, or is the society which is so eager to kill it. Where the 1931 monster had a mob of angry villages shouting for the death of the monster, in IA, it is a ring of policemen, led by the doctor, who are the mob shouting death-to-the-monster.

Sewer Star -- Fans of older sci-fi can be amused by the L.A. sewer system once again providing the setting for another monster hunt. The most famous of these was Them! in 1954. Lesser known, but very similar was Indestructable Man in '56. There were others too. To those who lived in L.A., the vast network of sewer tunnels must have felt like a whole other netherworld -- the realm of nightmares and monsters.

Bottom line? IA is almost pure horror, but the sci-fi connections are there. As horror goes, it's mild enough by modern standards (or lack thereof). Gallons of bright red latex paint get mere flashes on the screen. The monster itself is well handled -- revealed in only PoV shots, glimpses and tight close-ups. The acting helps keep IA from lapsing into a campy B-movie. Fans of sci-fi with saucers, spaceships and aliens might be disappointed at the mostly-horror aspect of IA. Fans of 70s-style angst over the harmful effects of pollution, corporations or Big Pharma, might be better entertained.

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