It was nearly impossible for a film not to have some kind of socio-political message in the late sixties and early seventies. Night of the Living Dead commented on racism; The Exorcist, on religion. Even B-flick gems like Frogs and Empire of the Ants made statements about what we were doing to our environment, and what our environment just might do to us. Whereas such platforms might not have always been intentional, even the perception of one often gave an audience something to anchor to, some tenet of real life that was likely on their minds before they walked into the theater.
It’s Alive was a film that preyed upon a (at the time) largely untouched upon fear, and like those other films I mentioned, managed to have a social statement hidden within its scripting.
The Davis’, Frank and Lenore, are the quintessential nuclear family of early ’70s middle-class. They have a one child, two Cadillacs, and a faux hacienda-type house full of atrocious wallpaper. We’re introduced to this pair as they are waking up one night, Lenore very calmly in the early stages of labor. Frank wakes their son, and they drop him off with a family friend, Charley, on their way to the hospital for the happy event. Once there, Lenore is taken to the delivery room, and after a brief exchange where she tells Frank that “something seems different”, husband and wife are parted. As was the way of things back then, Frank takes to the waiting room with other expectant fathers, measuring the time with cigarettes, card games, and stories of their working lives. There’s a little morbid conversation, one of the paternal soon-to-bes talking of how the smog in the air and preservatives in foods are poisoning us, and another (an exterminator, no less) talking of how bugs adapt to the poisons in their environment. Frank excuses himself from such talk (don’t any of these guys have a more pleasant vocation?) and heads out into the hall…only to be greeted by the sight of a scrub-garbed attendant, covered with blood, staggering out of the delivery room…
Needless to say, things kinda go in the toilet from there; the entire staff of the delivery room is found brutally torn apart, Frank and Lenore have understandable meltdowns, and local authorities are summoned. Frank is initially convinced that someone has stolen his child, but detectives and doctors quickly point out to him that the fatal wounds on the medical staff were animal-like in their savagery, and the small hole they found in the skylight could have only allowed the escape of a tiny form; no, it’s only logical that his infant is some kind of monster, and must be found and destroyed.
The beauty of this little film is that it’s not really about the monster baby; sure, it plays one hell of a central role in the plot, but like Romero’s zombies, it’s more of a catalyst for the drama that occurs because of it’s existence. The Davis’ become local pariahs, Frank loses his job (won’t do for a public relations guy to be father to a murderer, now will it?), and everyone treats them like sideshow freaks. Local scientists want in on the circus, bringing letters of release of the body for study once it’s killed; pharmaceutical companies make dark deals behind closed doors to mask any possibility of their products having caused this aberration. There’s a whole plethora of human selfishness and horror on display here, even if you leave out the occasional passerby or milkman (now that’s a great scene) that runs afoul of the marauding infant, reacting in fear and hunger to the world around it as it makes it’s way instinctively and inexorably home.
Directed by Larry Cohen, the film is well-framed, using long shots and pulling into closeups to garner reaction, and taking shadows and filling them with images that you think you see. For a movie of this era, I was very impressed with the low-light cinematography. Add to that some neat tricks like strobing effects from police lights revealing and concealing, and you get a pretty impressive visual treat for the time. Gorehounds, I can’t lie to you: there’s not much for the taking here in your department; there are some bloody bits, but it’s that lovely 1970s thick, bright Kool-Aid type stuff.
As a consolation, however, the makeup effects and the creature were early efforts of a young Rick Baker; that’ s certainly worth something. Finally, John P. Ryan turns out a marvelous performance as the father steamrolled by circumstances beyond his control, and coming to uneasy terms with the impossible. On the other side of the parental coin, Sharon Farrell’s performance as the devastated and somewhat unbalanced mother in this whole tragedy is convincing and heartfelt.
I’m a fan of this one, folks; it’s one of my top favorite horror flicks from the seventies. It hints at ecological issues, and possibly even forced evolution due to pollution, but it never gets preachy.
If you can get past the era and see it for what it was when it was made, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
That’s my two cents for this one, friends.
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