Larry Cohen is one of the most dis­tinc­tive film­mak­ers to emerge from the low-bud­get are­na.   His rough-hewn direct­ing style often divides fans and crit­ics alike but there’s no deny­ing the unique nature of his approach to gen­re film­mak­ing.  He has a unique knack for com­bin­ing unusu­al con­cepts with odd humor, time­ly social themes itsalive1-posand raw, potent dra­ma.  One of the best, most effec­tive exam­ples of this sig­na­ture blend is It’s Alive, a fusion of pri­mal parental fears and clas­sic mon­ster movie style.

It’s Alive begins in a straight­for­ward, almost doc­u­men­tary-style fash­ion as it chron­i­cles a fam­i­ly prepar­ing for the birth of their sec­ond child.  Frank (John P. Ryan) and his wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) are very hap­py to be expand­ing their fam­i­ly but Lenore is unnerved about her labor pains, not­ing they are much more intense than they should be.  She grows more dis­tressed as the doc­tors ignore her warn­ings that “some­thing is wrong.”

If only she knew how right she was.  The baby is an unearth­ly look­ing beast with fangs and claws and it slaugh­ters every doc­tor and nurse in the deliv­ery room before escap­ing.  Soon sto­ic police­man Lt. Perkins (James Dixon) is plot­ting to kill the baby and a heart­less doc­tor (Shamus Locke) is fig­ur­ing out how to make this tragedy play to his own sci­en­tific, careerist advan­tage.  Frank is at first drawn into the hunt to regain his sense of nitsalive1-01ormal­i­ty but dis­cov­er some sur­pris­ing things about the mean­ings of fam­i­ly and father­hood as the film moves toward an unearth­ly father/son reunion.

It’s Alive is not the slam-bang crea­ture fea­ture its premise might sug­gest because Cohen directs his tale with admirable sub­tle­ty. For instance, he lim­its the screen time of the film’s Rick Baker-designed mon­ster baby.  This sub­tle-old school approach great­ly enhances the effec­tive­ness of both the crea­ture design and the film’s con­cept.  He also works in some effec­tive odd humor to occa­sion­al­ly give the audi­ence a break from the somber sto­ry­line: one of the best moments is a scene of expec­tant fathers casu­al­ly dis­cussing the dan­gers of the world they are bring­ing chil­dren into. itsalive1-02

Along the way, Cohen’s sense of social con­scious­ness brings out a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing the­mat­ic con­cerns that prompt his night­mar­ish sce­nar­io.  The many seri­ous sub­jects the film touch­es on include the role of drugs in mod­ern preg­nan­cy, the heart­less nature of sci­ence, the need for big busi­ness­es to cov­er their mis­takes at all costs and society’s habit of stig­ma­tiz­ing its unusu­al mem­bers while also try­ing to prof­it from their mis­for­tune.

More impor­tant­ly, Cohen puts a focus on the human dra­ma ele­ment of his tale and this approach brings a psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly potent edge to the pro­ceed­ings.  It’s Alive remains res­o­nant today because Cohen draws his tale from the age-old fears of par­ents  – fear of hav­ing a deformed or dis­abled child, fear that one’s child will become a killer, fear of being unequipped to be a par­ent and the fear of hav­ing to see one’s own child die.  Cohen smart­ly plays to the­se parental fears by set­ting many of his major sus­pense set­pieces in places asso­ci­at­ed with the inno­cence of child­hood – a baby’s nurs­ery, a class­room, a mater­ni­ty ward, etc.

The film’s dra­mat­ic com­po­nent is aid­ed con­sid­er­ably by an effec­tive pair of lead per­for­mance by under­rat­ed char­ac­ter actors John Ryan and Sharon Farrell.  Ryan effec­tive­ly under­plays at the out­set, grad­u­al­ly work­ing in a greater inten­si­ty of emo­tion as his char­ac­ter moves from con­fu­sion to anger to an under­stand­ing of his bizarre sit­u­a­tion.  Farrell adds effec­tive sup­port, giv­ing the film its heart as a wom­an who suf­fers an emo­tion­al break­down but nev­er los­es her moral com­pass or sense of moth­er­ly com­pas­sion.

Longtime fans will also appre­ci­ate the pres­ence of Cohen reg­u­lars Andrew Duggan and James Dixon: Duggan gets a fun cameo as a sci­en­tist try­ing to lay a claim on the baby’s remains and Dixon gets one of his best roles in a Cohen film as the chilly but devot­ed cop try­ing to end the killing spree.

itsalive1-04Despite this sub­tle, dra­ma-ori­ent­ed approach, It’s Alive doesn’t skimp on hor­ror movie style or creepy moments.  Cohen brings plen­ty of atmos­phere to the film via Fenton Hamilton’s moody pho­tog­ra­phy, which makes effec­tive use of noc­tur­nal set­tings and shad­owy inte­ri­ors to cre­ate an omi­nous, often claus­tro­pho­bic mood.  This mood is tak­en to the next lev­el by a spar­ing­ly used but very effec­tive score by the late, great Bernard Herrmann, who brings some Hitchcockian ‘sturm und drang’ to the film with a min­i­mal­ist yet pow­er­ful com­bi­na­tion of strings, brass and analog syn­the­siz­er.

Using the­se tools, Cohen achieves some gen­uine­ly chill­ing moments, includ­ing a nerve-fraz­zling scene where Frank’s old­er son final­ly meets his broth­er and a dra­mat­ic finale set in the Los Angeles storm drains.  Without giv­ing away details, Cohen also achieves one of the more effec­tive false-scare sce­nes you’ll ever see.  Overall, Cohen’s effec­tive com­bi­na­tion of emo­tion, psy­chol­o­gy and shock tac­tics helps It’s Alive tran­scend its hum­ble ori­gins to become a true clas­sic of 1970’s hor­ror film­mak­ing.