The Cohen Case Files: It’s Alive (1974)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen

Larry Cohen has the ability to take himself seriously at times.  For most filmmakers who traffic in genre pictures and satire, this can be a recipe for disaster.  In Cohen’s case, this led to arguably his two best films: God Told Me To and It’s Alive.  Where God Told Me To was a chance for Cohen to delve into the destructive effects of religious fundamentalism, It’s Alive allows him to take a traditional monster movie and turn it into a claustrophobic domestic drama anchored by one of the best examples of movie acting I’ve ever seen, courtesy of John P. Ryan.

Frank Davis (Ryan) is a successful public relations executive living in Los Angeles.  He has a nice home and car.  His beautiful wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) is pregnant with their second child and Chris (Daniel Holzman), their first son, is so precocious and well-mannered, he might as well have stepped out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver.  In short, Frank is pretty happy with his life and has every reason to believe it will get better with the birth of his second child.

As usually happens in horror films, it’s when things look the best for the characters that the worst usually happens.  In Frank’s case, this moment occurs when Lenore gives birth to their child.  The baby turns out to be a mutant.  Unlike latter-day movie mutants, it doesn’t have superpowers and self-esteem issues about being different, it has sharp claws, fangs, and an overwhelming survival instinct that finds it lashing out when afraid.  Unfortunately, the baby is often afraid.  After slaughtering the doctor and nurses in the delivery room (but leaving Lenore unharmed), the baby escapes from the hospital.

In a lesser film what would follow is a massive manhunt as the police try to track down the baby as it kills its way across Los Angeles.  That element is only present as a small subplot.  Instead, Cohen turns the genre on its head by focusing on Frank as he reacts badly to the news that he is the father of a killer mutant baby.  Becoming distant toward an increasingly bipolar Lenore, Frank professes his desire to the police for the baby to be killed on sight.  So disgusted and ashamed is he that his genes could have produced something so monstrous, Frank eventually deteriorates to the point where he wants to be the one to pull the trigger on his own child to prove some misguided idea of machismo to the public and to himself.

Needless to say, this is a very daring direction to take what was supposed to be a cheap exploitation film, but Cohen pulls it off thanks to Ryan’s terrific performance and a sensitive understanding of the changing dynamics of men in American society in the mid ‘70s.

At the start of the film, Frank is straddling the line between the traditional “tough guy” American male and the contemporary “sensitive” man.  He holds a white collar job, he’s unafraid to show affection to his wife and son, and the impending birth of his second child nearly brings him to tears.  At the same time, he adopts the cocky swagger of a tough guy, trying hard to always appear cool under pressure and maintain control of his family and his emotions.  But the situation with the baby does not allow him to be both of those men any longer.  Frank is forced to choose between being a tough guy who hunts down his own killer spawn or being a loving family man who takes on the delicate task of putting his shattered family back together.  For most of the film, it’s never completely clear in which direction Frank will go.  Much of this dynamic comes through in Ryan’s haunted performance.

A talented character actor who specialized in bad guys throughout his career, It’s Alive gave Ryan one of his few leading man roles.  Like most of the male protagonists in Cohen’s films, the role was incredibly layered–a dream come true for an actor willing to commit to the absurdities Cohen’s plots usually provided.  Like Tony Lo Bianco in God Told Me To, Ryan grasps the human drama behind the genre trappings and attacks his role with a fearless intensity that grabs the audience and dares them to look away.

As played by Ryan, Frank goes through a slow motion mental breakdown.  As his career, his family, and his dignity is taken away from him, Frank becomes a shell of a man, unable to regain control of his life until he takes decisive action about his baby.  It’s not a glamorous role and Ryan plays it with a refreshing lack of vanity or concern over holding audience sympathy.  It’s an amazing performance for an actor who deserved better than the career he ended up with.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a Larry Cohen film without heavy-handed references to the hot topics of the day.  There are conversations about public health concerns regarding chemicals in the air and drinking water, the impact of legalized abortions, the influence of pharmaceutical companies on doctors, the damaging effects of overmedication, and the intrusion of the press into private lives.  For the most part, Cohen is able to weave these ideas into the story in natural ways, adding to the texture of an already scarily dense story.

The film is also one of Cohen’s best as a director.  Instead of falling back on just pointing the camera in the general direction of the action and letting the actors and script do the heavy lifting, Cohen adds some much needed atmosphere to the film, lending some actual scares to the horror sequences.  Using a distorting wide-angle lens, cinematographer Fenton Hamilton gives the film the look of a familiar place turned into an alien landscape.  Hospital rooms and hallways look far too large and shadows always creep into the edges of the frame.  Between Hamilton’s stylish photography, the nightmarish score by Bernard Herrmann, and the performances by Farrell and Ryan, the bloody aftermath of the delivery room massacre raises genuine goosebumps.  Cohen may be more interested in the human story, but he’s not afraid to let the audience remember that this is also a horror film.

Despite the unpleasant subject matter, It’s Alive turned out to be Cohen’s biggest hit.  Some of the effects and editing techniques may be dated, but the story and acting hold up very well.  This is a film that could have aged badly into cheesy camp, but it is just as effective today as the day it was released.  If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out.  It’s a true gem.

James Dixon Sighting: As the police detective in charge of tracking down the baby.

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