Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: IT'S ALIVE

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Directed by Larry Cohen
91 mins.  Color.
DVD Trilogy Collection from Warner Home Video

If you read our site with any regularity, you've probably figured out that I love Larry Cohen.

Well, I think part of the reason for that is because each time I see a film of his, I become more impressed.  He has the ability to make genre films that are both entertaining and thought provoking.

It's Alive is the first of a trilogy, the following films being It Lives Again (1978) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987) (maybe the best title for a film... ever?)  It is notoriously known as "those killer mutant baby movies."  Which is an accurate description, but I think too simplified and dismissive.

At this point in Cohen's career, he had only directed a few blaxploitation films with Fred Williams (Black Ceasar and Hell Up in Harlem).  It's Alive would catapault him into a different genre and define his career.

The Rundown:
*there will be a few spoilers, as I don't believe this is a film I can discuss without giving details*

From the outset, Cohen places you in a contemplative frame of mind.  Bernard Herrmann's beautiful score soars over a dark screen.  Slowly lights bounce up and down.  At first, they seem to be an unrecognizable collage of color, slowly they become a mob of flashlights, and then fade again into the obscure.

It's a small moment, but striking in what it conveys to the viewer.  It's an image that will recycle with the end of the film, as Frank combs the sewers with the police, in search of the Davis Baby.  The terror of mob mentality.  It's also about the unreliable nature of genetics.  It's the procreative process.  The sperm race in, but which ones will have deformities?  Or, how will our bodies react to certain medication?

I was in the perfect place for my first viewing of this film.  I had just arrived home from a double shift and was ready for something crazy.  This opening put me in a state to quietly take in whatever the film had to offer.  I shifted quickly to take it seriously, and my expectations for what Cohen would do with it rose as well.  I was not disappointed.

The film concerns John Ryan (Frank Davis) and Sharon Farrell (Lenore Davis) as they prepare to add another child into their lives.  As we come out of the melange of color, we see the couple asleep in bed.  Lenore wakes up and turns to Frank, letting him know that "it's time."  In a very sweet fatherly moment, Frank gently brings their cat into his son's room to wake him and lays it across his head.  I had reflections of being awoken by our dag Cathy.  It seems like the standard parent wake-up call.  Anyway, they head calmly to the hospital.

While Frank stirs in the waiting room impatiently, other fathers-to-be discuss the merits of bringing a child into such a horribly dangerous world.  Lenore shares her concern with her doctor, knowing that something is wrong.  Lenore is afraid that the new baby will make Frank feel tied down as he did with their first child.  In her moment of trial, anxieties billow out.  The doctor tries to assuage her fears, continually reassuring her that its just a big baby.  But, he soon changes his tune...  Frank leaves the room and waits outside.

The doctor comes running out of the operating room with his throat ripped open.  Ryan rushes to the room, just to find all the nurses are dead in a horrible blood bath.  The baby is missing and the police begin a search for the hideous little creature that Lenore has just birthed.

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What childbirth always looks like.
The whole affair gets into the press, Frank loses his PR job and the authorities continue to search for the missing homicidal mutant baby.  The body count rises daily, as the baby continues it's rampage.

Cohen is not one to leave out political implications to horror films.  Pharmaceutical companies have deep fears that their medication could be found to be the reason for the mutancy.  They work with the police to do their best to not only find the murderous baby, but to make sure that there is nothing left of it to study.  Frank is convinced that the baby must be killed and proceeds to help with the babyhunt.

The Davis Baby makes it back to their home, only to be shot by Frank and escape.  The hunt then goes to the sewers, and Frank is determined to be the one that does the deed.  Instead, he finds it alone, cold in the water, crying for it's father.

The Evaluation:

The thing that makes this movie is so impressive is how seriously Cohen treats it.  This doesn't "feel" like a throwaway trash film.  It's played straight, and very well put together.  The photography is superb and the pacing is perfect.  It slowly unravels, never showing the baby in it's entirety until the end.  

Ryan's performance is amazing.  His torture and shame about his baby is transformed into a beautiful scene where he seeks to protect it from the authorities.  He truly understands a father's love and his tears are genuine.

Cohen does a wonderful job playing into the fears of becoming a father.  The thousands of things that could go wrong and the deep anxiety about miscarriages, birth defects, or even raising a psychotic kid who becomes a school shooter were going through my mind as I watched it.  

At the same time, he turns this on it's head, as a viewer you quickly feel for the vulnerable and afraid baby.

And, you get all this in a mutant killer baby movie.

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The love of a father
Set Yourself Up:
  • Baby Carrots with hummus (maybe a little red food coloring in the hummus)
  • get your baby blanket out of storage from your mom's basement
  • hold that machete your good friend got you for your birthday tight
The Goods:
I have the Warner Home Video Collection, which has all three films on it.  I think it's pretty great and there isn't really a better release out there.  Hopefully Shout Factory or Blue Underground or Synapse or somebody puts out a special edition of some kind.

-J. Moret

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