Judge Dennis Prince believes he's an old hand at raising babies. Then again, he's never coddled a baby that has claws for hands.
There's only one thing wrong with the Davis baby. It's alive!
Any B-movie fan that's worth his or her salt is certainly familiar with frugal filmmaker Larry B. Cohen. Initially a television screenwriter, he was responsible for such cult favorites as Way Out! (1961) and The Fugitive (1963), and later was the creator of The Invaders (1967). He turned to directing in 1973 with Bone, followed by a pair of highly successful "blaxploitation" pictures, Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. His first foray into the horror realm was this seemingly unpretentious yet highly potent thriller about a birth gone awry, It's Alive. Some have dismissed this barbarous baby flick as just another low-budget blip on the genre radar. Yet, upon closer look, it's clear that the film offers much more than just the exploits of a wailing waif with murderous instincts.
Facts of the Case
The Davises, Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore (Sharon Farrell), are eagerly anticipating the arrival of a second child. After dropping off their son Chris (Daniel Holzman) with a family friend, they head to the hospital to welcome the new addition—and so begins the horror. From the waiting room, Frank is stunned to see a bloodied orderly stumble out of the delivery room. Bursting in, Frank finds Lenore screaming from the stirrup table, all other attending doctors and nurses mutilated and dead. But where's the baby?
"What does my baby look like?!" What's wrong with my baby?!"
The Davis baby is severely mutated; it's an enormous and apparently vicious newborn that has escaped the hospital and is on a murderous rampage in Santa Monica. Frank is distraught, denying any genetic connection to such a hideous creature. He teams with Lieutenant Perkins (James Dixon) to track down the monstrous infant and kill it. The baby, however, continues to elude capture and appears to be making its way, instinctively, to the Davis house. Are Frank and Lenore truly prepared to destroy their newborn child, one deformed through no fault of its own, or will they wind up the next victims of this ungodly creation?
Okay. So this is just another of those "crazed kid" pictures, right? Not really. On its surface, this is classic "cost-effective Cohen" at work and it's the sort of picture you'd expect to drunkenly assail with ad-libbed insults at a drive-in showing. No doubt, the film does suffer from being very poorly lit, giving it a rather unimpressive garage-film feel. Add the uneven editing and the sometimes-clumsy camera work and you'll be tempted to dismiss this picture from the very first frames. Look closer, though, and you'll find a rather smart script at work here—biting, even (no pun intended)—bolstered by some truly respectable acting.
Beginning with Cohen's script for It's Alive: It quickly overcomes the low-budget look of the film by operating on a decidedly sociological plane, inciting analysis and debate over several highly sensitive issues associated with birth and child rearing. As the story begins, Frank and Lenore are truly excited about the new baby; both bubbling with joyous anticipation as Lenore announces, "It's time." However, after the birth and escape of the misshapen and murderous child, Frank chillingly rejects it, not necessarily out of concern for or shock over those killed, nor apparently for the health of his own wife, but rather for the selfish fear that the creature could somehow be the product of his own deficient genes. His subsequent musing about how a rampaging man-made monster could ever become identified as "Frankenstein," that being the name of the unorthodox doctor and not the creature itself, shows Frank's growing concern that somehow he'll be blamed eternally for the existence and actions of this monstrous "Davis baby." Through Frank's self-absorbed worry and anger, Cohen confronts us with the angst and despair of a parent of a deformed or otherwise disabled child, clearly probing feelings of self-blame and then proceeding to the inevitability of a couple blaming one another for such a mishap. Cohen's sermon doesn't stop there, however, as the narrative continues to make numerous unflattering statements about the raising of children, dealing with the handicapped, and a even a casual approach to abortion.
As the search for the Davis baby continues, Lt. Perkins off-handedly (albeit anxiously) quips, "Hunting and killing babies doesn't seem to be my specialty." In response to the utterance, the police captain (Michael Ansara in an extremely brief cameo) coldly asserts, "You're lucky you don't have grown kids nowadays. People without children don't realize how lucky they are."
Cohen finds stride with his message as the film progresses. Sure, we'll snicker a bit at the ice cream truck that, in a rather obvious gag, displays a warning of "Stop Children" emblazoned across its rear doors; it's clearly a joke and we'll take it as such. However, when Frank's boss attempts to provide some consolation, his remarks leave us feeling more than uneasy: "These things happen, Frank. You know O'Connors down in accounting? He's got a retarded kid; insists on keeping him in the house, too." Wow.
Most uncomfortable is Frank and Lenore's own casual attitude about their decision to have the baby: "I'm so glad we decided to have this baby," Frank lovingly tells his wife; then, when discussing the horrible outcome of the birth, Frank interjects with icy indifference, "Doesn't everyone inquire about [abortion] nowadays? It was just a question of convenience and we decided to have the baby." No matter your stance on the abortion issue, this is a line that resonates as rather stark and abject. In the end, it's not clear if Cohen is using the script to convey misgivings about children, or if it was intended as sharp commentary exposing those who would harbor such insensitive sentiments. (He never answers this question for us, even during the running commentary.)
I have to credit actor John P. Ryan for turning in an excellent performance here, one in which he punctuates each line of dialogue with incremental believability in portraying a father's denial, anger, and ultimate acceptance of such a distressing situation. Initially, he appears somewhat stiff and almost unintentionally comical; yet, as the drama unfolds, his anger and aggravation takes on a realism that makes the film entirely engaging. He shows continual annoyance with Lt. Perkins, the doctor (Shamus Locke), and anyone else who attempts to console, coerce, or confront him. Throughout the picture, he convincingly appears on edge, off-kilter, and completely uncomfortable in his own skin.
The rest of the actors are clearly in lesser roles—even Sharon Farrell as Lenore. She acts reasonably well as the confused mother, all in a dither over the horrifying events, but never emerges in a significant way, since the script never fully develops her character. All others are pretty much just "prop pieces" who merely move the story along.
Speaking of prop pieces, the mutant baby here is the early work of Academy Award winner Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Hellboy). With a couple other features under his belt, including Octaman and Schlock!, Baker was signed on to create the mutant baby, and did so with relative success. Recalling that this was well before the days of sophisticated cable-controlled armatures or CGI shortcuts, Baker delivers a spooky-yet-static monster baby "puppet" that is only seen in full via quick cuts. Most often he utilized baby claw-hand gloves, and fashioned a larger monster-baby face-and-body appliance that was worn on screen by his wife. (Unfortunately, the shifts in scale are very apparent.) However, working on a shoestring budget and at a time when makeup effects were in a renaissance period (largely propelled by Dick Smith's incredible breakthrough work in The Exorcist), Baker turned out some decent results that are still entertaining today.
Finally clawing its way to DVD, It's Alive is offered by Warner Brothers Home Video in a new anamorphic transfer framed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The source print seems to have been quite clean and free of dirt and damage, resulting in likely the best transfer you'll ever see. The original design and execution of the production itself resulted in some low lighting, heavy shadowing, and frequent grain. Again, when compared to previous VHS releases, this DVD is the best product yet. The audio, a Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono track, is quite energetic and suits the film well. The dialogue is a bit muffled at times, again due to the low-cost filmmaking on display, but it's generally quite decipherable for the duration of the film.
While this is certainly not a major release, the extras found here are quite enjoyable. Writer/director Larry B. Cohen sat down to offer a feature-length commentary during which he very proudly shares details of how he came up with the script, enticed B-list actors, and shot the film in a very budget-conscious manner. There are few gaps in his monologue; the affable director was seemingly well prepared to discuss his first horror venture. You'll also find an original trailer for this film as well as trailers for the two sequels. In all, it's a nice package. Oh, and I couldn't help but notice that this disc has come housed in an Amaray keep-case instead of the usual inferior-quality snapper case that Warner has used exclusively in their DVD releases. Have they finally seen the light?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Well, this is a low-budget venture, so expect to see some low-end acting by most of the supporting actors and extras. Also, prepare yourself for an onslaught of '70s style, both in bad clothing and even worse home décor. The wild patterns and heinous hues would be a challenge for any DVD authoring team, but thankfully none of the plaid jackets or mustard yellow draperies seep or smear on this disc. As a side warning, be on guard for a white go-go boot assault during the second reel.
I should also note that the film was scored by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (Psycho, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad); but unfortunately this is probably his weakest effort (and also his second-to-last score prior to his death in 1975). He uses a good amount of bass riffs that only serve to ingrain the drive-in feel of the picture, with the remaining of string arrangements sounding like leftovers from his score for Brian DePalma's 1973 thriller Sisters.
Look past the rough feel of this one and you'll find a deeply intense and thoughtful exploration of the darker aspects of parenthood. Thanks to John P. Ryan's solid performance, I find this film to have a definite replay quality. Genre fans should definitely add this one to their library; those who might be mildly curious to revisit 1970s horror and effects work should give it a rent.
This court decrees that all children need love and nurturing, even the ones with claws and fangs. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Running Commentary
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