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June 27, 2010

It's Alive

1974, Dir. by Larry Cohen.

(This review is written with inspiration from the Final Girl Film Club, over at the most excellent Final Girl blog. Go there for many other commentaries on and reviews of this flick...and other awesome stuff too!)

There's a scene near the beginning of Larry Cohen's It's Alive - which must be labeled as such due to a recent remake - that is as effective as any scene in any horror film I've seen. In it, Frank Davis (played by John P. Ryan) is standing in the hallway outside the room in which his wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) is trying to give birth to the couple's second child. The actor's mannerisms fit the role of expectant father perfectly, as he paces quietly while eyeballing the newborns the hospital is already caring for. Though I've only witnessed the expectant father in his native habitat as a spectator (thank golly, y'all definitely don't want a Little The Mike runnin' 'round this place) it's easy for me to see that this man is comfortably in that place where "I'm gonna have a new kid" meets "Why the heck isn't this over yet?".

Then, the doors which lead to the birthing room burst open. Knowing the film's title and premise (and especially the wonderful tagline "There's only ONE thing wrong with the Davis baby: IT'S ALIVE") the viewer might expect a monstrous attacker, or a fleet of fleeing doctors, or at least some kind of shrieking scream. Instead, we simply get one male doctor, who gets outside the door, takes a deep breath, and falls limp to the floor.

Witnessing this immediately sends Frank, who was peaceful 4 seconds earlier, into a frenzy. He sprints down the hall, past attempted restraints, frantically attempting to reach his family. Along the way the camera lingers just enough to give us a glimpse of a nasty gash in the doctor's face, the type an animal's claw would probably leave. When Frank finally reaches his screaming wife, he finds a lot of blood, an umbilical cord that appears to have been severed by a bite, and a hole in the ceiling from which "it" must have escaped.

The trouble with It's Alive is that a scene that shows off that kind of brutality, both physically and mentally, is really difficult to top. Even in this case, where the viewer is left with little to no clue of what "it" looks like or really is, the dilemma that's left for our characters doesn't seem likely to top those few moments in pure terror. Though it's not really a bad thing to have a scene that is so affecting, it seems like the movie hits a peak that threatens to take the wind out of the rest of the film.

It's Alive manages to stay interesting through its 90 minutes, mostly due to the strong performance of Ryan (any aspiring horror filmmakers who want to know how to get the most out of their actors should really try to seek out Cohen, the man has some kind of gift) and the film's focus on the differing reactions the father and mother have to "it". But it also seems to drag at times, especially when the police get involved; and I never felt Lenore's side of the story was given enough screen time.

Despite these concerns, It's Alive has definitely grown on me during this second viewing. That hospital scene should earn it a place on any horror addict's "To Do" list, and Cohen is smart enough to avoid having the film fall completely on its face in the hour that follows that "money" scene. If you want to find the most straight-faced killer baby film out there, you can't do better than trusting one spawned by Larry Cohen.


Emily said...

I might have to give this film another watch!

I have only seen it once, and I didn't really like it- although I do remember the hospital scene and I did enjoy that part as it was definitely the highlight of the movie.

Maybe it's just a film that benefits from repeated viewings, and since I watched it last, years ago, I have experienced a variety of horror films that I hadn't been exposed to at that point- so maybe that will help as well!

Scare Sarah said...

I've not seen this film but loved your write up, as always. I'll check it out.

AE said...

Totally agreed on the hospital scene -- I was not expecting the guy to just drop over like that! And agreed too on Lenore's side of the story. I guess the "my wife is acting crazy since she had that baby" angle is supposed to help turn Frank into Everydad, but Lenore's perspective would have been interesting.