Tuesday, November 1, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: IT'S ALIVE (1974)

It's Alive


John P. Ryan as Frank Davis
Sharon Farrell as Lenore Davis
Daniel Holzman as Chris Davis
William Wellman Jr. as Charley
James Dixon as Lt. Perkins
Shamus Locke as The Doctor
Andrew Duggan as The Professor
Guy Stockwell as Bob Clayton
Michael Ansara as The Captain
Robert Emhardt as The Executive


Cinematography by Fenton Hamilton
Editing by Peter Honess
Music by Bernard Herrmann
Written, Directed, and Produced by Larry Cohen


"There's only one thing wrong with the Davis Baby . . ."


We begin at the Davis household. Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) is going into labor pains. Hubby Frank (John P. Ryan) gathers her and his son, Chris (Daniel Holzman), into the family car, drops Chris off with a family friend, Charley (William Wellman Jr.), and it's off to the hospital. In these early scenes, we get to know the Davis family. The father is a bit of  a joker, doing funny voices, keeping up everyone's morale. Lenore is more serious, very much into the idea of becoming a mother. The son, Chris, is eager to have a younger sibling, not jealous at all, a nice kid.

Frank spends hours in the waiting room, chatting up the other expecting fathers. Some idle chat about a guy stirring his coffee with a pencil. Something about too much lead in the water supply. Doesn't he know that pencils are made with graphite, not actual lead?

All this is build-up for the revelation of horror: screams, and a delivery room full of mutilated corpses of doctors and nurses. Lenore is unharmed, but in shock. What the hell just happened? Did some maniacal slasher kill the medical staff, and kidnap the Davis baby? Not exactly . . .


Frank and Lenore Davis were expecting a child. What they get is a rubbery demon that tears out people's throats with its sharp fangs. The cops and the surviving medical staff quickly come to the conclusion that the Davis baby was born some kind of ultra-aggressive mutant. It's decided that it must be hunted down and destroyed with extreme prejudice. Frank Davis is eager to kill the thing, mutant, demon, whatever the fuck it is. He's already decided it's not really human, just some aberration that should have never came into the world.

Frank is also eager to get back to his job as a public relations agent at a major corporation. But his boss forces him to take a three week vacation. This is a pretense to eventually fire Frank, but Frank doesn't know that. Frank has become a liability to the company as a PR man. He's become known in the media as the father of the mutant.  Frank is hounded by reporters eager to get a statement from the father of the murderous monster baby.

Meanwhile, Lenore is losing her mind. She can't quite confront the reality of the situation. Frank and Lenore decide not to tell their son, Chris, what's going on, and they enlist Charley in this scheme by convincing him to not let their boy watch any news casts. But how long can this denial of reality go on? Chris is a smart kid, too, and he starts to suspect something is not right. Part of what It's Alive is all about is denying reality. There's a theme going on here that people try to deny whatever is unpleasant and will go to great lengths to cover it up.

 What exactly is the monster baby? Was Lenore impregnated with the Anti-Christ? Was God feeling randy enough to plant a Second Coming? Not exactly. This movie suggests that the monster baby was the result of birth control drugs that Lenore had been taking, and maybe other environmental and pharmaceutical factors. The movie further suggests that there's pressure being placed on the cops to hunt down and kill the mutant baby so that agents of Big Pharma can destroy the corpse and prevent a conclusive autopsy which would prove that unsafe meds caused the mutation. This conspiracy angle is just barely sketched into the movie. It's basically a couple of guys talking in a hallway. It's interesting, but not the strongest aspect of the film. I don't think it really matters what exactly created the monster baby. The idea is, "What if you're expecting a child, and instead you get a murderous monster?" The quasi-science fictional explanation is superfluous hand-waving.

The cops bumble around darkened buildings, some of them getting killed off by the mutant. For a mutant baby, it sure gets around, claiming victims here and there. The baby is never seen all that clearly or for long periods of time, but it's clearly a rubbery beast. In one memorable scene, the mutant kills a milkman in his truck. You just see the outside of the truck, hear the sounds of screams, bottles shattering, and then a flow of blood and milk mixed together coming out of the back door of the truck. I dunno, maybe it's symbolism . . .

Eventually, Frank decides that he has to kill the baby himself, which is good because none of the cops in this movie can shoot worth a damn.  At first, he tries to present this decision as doing the responsible thing, but on another level this is Frank fulfilling a selfish fantasy: of eliminating the unwanted mutant, of making the hated thing go away, denying the unpleasant reality. Frank's journey towards confronting the mutant, facing reality, is where this movie's true strength lies.

It's Alive is totally absurd, but it has some striking moments. John P. Ryan holds it all together as the father who is determined to kill the mutant baby. He brings a naturalness and intensity that is surprisingly understated. The best scenes involve him negotiating with his boss, the cops, the doctors, all of these scenes involve Ryan trying to convince himself, as much as he is trying to convince the other people, that he is ready to kill the mutant, that he feels no connection with his offspring whatsoever. And yet his voice and his face quiver with barely suppressed emotion. Why the strong feelings, if he has already committed himself to destroying the mutant? The movie provides a poignant and surprising climax.


Post a Comment