Writer and director Larry Cohen filmed his 1974 cult classic It’s Alive at the very same time he was making Hell Up in Harlem , spending the weekdays shooting It’s Alive and working on Hell Up in Harlem on the weekend. Tied with Q as his best horror film IMO, It’s Alive boasts an eerie, truly otherworldly score by the one and only Bernard Hermann (Psycho ) that helps the film stay with you days after first viewing it. Cohen’s script has plenty of his trademark black comedy that pokes fun at various cultural conventions, and he has a field day satirizing societal norms such as childbirth, parenthood and marriage, as well as the often negative influence of the media in the United States. The movie is miles ahead of its 2008 remake in every department, particulary the creepy makeup effects of the Davis baby by a young Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London ) that make the rather poor CGI effects in the remake seem laughable. Part of the problem with the effectiveness of the remake (among other things) is that it shows the evil baby too much, a prime example of the excess of modern horror cinema; in Cohen’s It’s Alive , the deadly infant is seen only very briefly, making it seem much more intimidating. The film features a very original concept for its day and executes it beautifully, and was popular enough (eventually) to allow Cohen to direct two sequels: It Lives Again (aka It’s Alive 2 ) in 1978 and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive in 1987.
Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) are a happily married couple who are expecting any day now to add a brand new bundle of joy to their current family of three, which already includes 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman). Hoping for another boy, they’ve got their spare room all jazzed up as a nursery and painted in shades of azure, and the morning that Lenore wakes up having contractions, our expectant couple rushes to the hospital and checks in. But Lenore begins experiencing an unusual amount of pain after being admitted, and breathlessly asserts that something is wrong. While waiting in the hall near the lobby for Lenore to give birth (remember, this was 1974, and fathers weren’t seen in the delivery room during the actual birth very often), Frank sees the delivery room doctor burst into the hallway, drenched in blood, and collapse in a morbid heap on the hospital floor. Upon rushing hastily to the delivery room, Frank is horrified to see that the room is awash in the blood of the delivery nurses and doctor and the baby has disappeared, with Lenore — still strapped to the delivery table — screaming bloody murder and hollering the film’s classic line: “What’s wrong with my baby?!?!”
As luck would have it for Frank and Lenore, their baby is a bloodthirsty mutant with razor-sharp claws and a very short fuse and has escaped from the hospital, prowling the streets and dispatching anyone who is foolish enough to try to attend to its freakish infant cries and screams — even slashing to death an unlucky milkman. One theory offered for the cause of the mutant birth is Lenore’s exposure to contraceptive pills years before, but this is impossible to confirm. The media is whipped into a frenzy and jumps all over the incident, exposing Frank and Lenore’s identity and causing Frank to lose his cushy office desk job. While the police search frantically throughout the city for the demon child, it eventually tracks down Frank and Lenore psychically and comes to be with its natural parents; but it soon becomes apparent that a loving family reunion between the creature and its mom and pop is not meant to be when the police learn of the baby’s whereabouts and come after it with a firing squad.
The lead acting is one of It’s Alive ‘s strongest points, with veteran, wild-eyed actor John P. Ryan delivering an award-worthy performance as the increasingly paranoid Frank who is enraged and bitter about the turmoil the media (and rest of the world) is putting his family through. Sharon Farrell is equally stunning as Lenore, the increasingly fragile matriarch who is losing her grip on reality day by day. Moody, eerie and unsettling are three appropriate adjectives for this classic sleeper, which also functions as a ’70s time capsule while remaining relevant today. Director Cohen won a special jury award for It’s Alive from the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival in France, and the film was critically acclaimed upon its release for its knowing sense of satire. However, it failed to attract audiences in 1974 was generally considered a failure until being re-released in 1977 with a brand new trailer that showed a zoom-in on a baby carriage as a clawed hand emerges from within the crib, and featured the immortal tagline: There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby … it’s alive!” The new trailer successfully drew audiences three years after the film’s original release and made it a minor hit, prompting production to begin on the film’s very solid 1978 sequel .
It’s Alive is a well-crafted horror film for thinking viewers that provides plenty of rewards for patient viewers who allow themselves to be drawn into the bizarre story. I rate it an 8 of 10 and recommend it highly to all ’70s horror fans who are tired of the usual slick Hollywood fright fare.