It’s Alive is one of the key achievements in the unusual yet fascinating career of Larry Cohen. It played a major role in his success as a director, becoming successful enough to allow Cohen to make two sequels. Such was its cachet that is also inspired a non-Cohen remake in 2009. The original films remain big favorites with fans of ’70s horror for their distinctive “killer baby” monsters and the variety of fascinating ideas they explore about parenthood, society’s notions of child-rearing and the business that has grown up around infant care.
But It’s Alive was not an instant hit. In a classic Hollywood tale, one group of executives who supported the film signed off on its production but were replaced by a different group of executives by the film was ready for release. The new regime gave the film a half-hearted campaign and release. As a result, it only made a modest sum at the box office. A few years later, the executives who ho-hummed the film’s release were gone and Cohen approached the latest group for a re-release. They went for the idea, a new ad campaign was created and the film was a big hit its second time out.
Looking at the trailers from each release reveals how important it is for a trailer to be simpatico with the content of the film it represents. The 1974 trailer for It’s Alive is a frenetic mess. It spends nearly three minutes meandering its way around the film’s content – a family having to deal with the chaos that results from having a new child that was turned monstrous by pregnancy drugs – by piling on a bunch of screaming, scenes of cops running around and snippets of conversation taken out of context. It feels more like an assembly of footage, one designed to obscure the film’s plotline. A narrator shouts the film’s title at the beginning and end, to little effect.
A t.v. spot from the second campaign provides a dramatic contrast. This teaser is minimalist in style, using a single visual whose importance is drawn out by carefully-crafted narration. As a wicker baby carriage is shown on screen, the narrator tells us about how the Davis family has had a new baby. Instead of being the usual nervous new parents, they’re terrified. As the carriage rotates around for us to get a glimpse of the baby, the narration utters the all-important tag line: “There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby. It’s alive.” Suddenly, the camera moves in close to reveal a gnarled, three-fingered claw emerging from the carriage as we hear an awful, mutated baby howl.
The latter ad is beautiful in its single-minded focus. In 30 seconds, you learn all you need to know: it’s a horror film, it’s all about the fears that new parents feel and it replaces the usual monster with a mutant baby. You know exactly what you’re in for and what type of buttons it will be punching on your psyche. This spot made a mark on many a kid who saw it pop up between shows on television and remains a testament to the importance of good salesmanship in trailer-making, particularly when you’re dealing with offbeat narrative concepts.
To read Schlockmania’s review of It’s Alive, click here.