May 19, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: It's Alive (1974)

by Nick Schager

It's Alive [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the star-studded babies-'a-poppin' rom-com What to Expect When You're Expecting.]

Never has a movie made having children seem less appealing than It's Alive, Larry Cohen's terrifying examination of personal and parental anxieties. Cohen's genre gem is unquestionably a horror film, but its mutant-monster terror is its least scary element, not to mention the one Cohen cares least about, a fact made plain from a prolonged introduction sequence in which Lenore (Sharon Farrell) awakens in the middle of the night to inform husband Frank (John Ryan) that the baby is ready to go. That news instigates preparations to depart to the hospital, including getting dressed, packing up clothes, and waking their 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman) and taking him to stay with friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.), arrangements that Cohen depicts with a laid-back sweetness—be it Frank sticking a cat in slumbering Chris' face, or affecting a jokey Western patois as they drive through the night—that immediately creates intense empathy for this happy family on the brink of further joy. Cohen's fondness for his characters is genuine and infectious, but despite the lack of panic in the air, there's trouble brewing, first spied in Lenore clenching her face in unnatural discomfort, and then at the hospital, when she asks Frank for reassurance that the new child won't make him feel trapped "like the last time."

It's Alive

Ominous undercurrents are amplified by Frank's chat with other expectant waiting-room fathers about how chemicals in food and smog in the air are leading to bodily pollution. Yet when Frank and Lenore's baby emerges from her womb as a squealing, clawed creature of death—a revelation visualized via a peaceful close-up of Frank gazing at newborns that's shattered by the background sight of a bloody doctor bursting through doors and then collapsing—the cause seems less environmental corruption than something far more elemental, and uncontrollable. Specifically, the monster's arrival, which involves slaughtering the delivery room staff and then escaping through a skylight, comes across as a manifestation of every angsty fear, worry, regret and hesitation that accompanies parenthood (and the act of childbirth). More troubling still, the baby's birth increasingly feels like the physical expression of Frank's own failings as a man and as a father, shortcomings which Cohen allows to slowly rise to the fore in the aftermath of this traumatic event, as it becomes clearer and clearer that Frank's disinterest in parental responsibility and emotional absenteeism (suggested by his keeping Chris away from the family home) are apparently also to blame for his new son emerging as "some kind of monstrosity."

It's Alive

Cohen's stance toward Frank, however, is far from sharply critical—rather, like its portrayal of his guilt, shame and resultant killing fury toward the beast, It's Alive presents Frank as a relatable figure of emotional contradictions, complexities and flaws. To that end, Ryan delivers a performance of poignant inner chaos, the anguish in his eyes and sweaty countenance felt as potently during quiet moments of teeth-brushing as it is during more obviously upsetting incidents such as a meeting with his PR firm boss that finds him helpless to avoid his transformation into a freak-show celebrity to be faux-pitied and politely shunned. Frank elicits both scorn and sympathy from the audience because he's at once subconsciously responsible for the monster and yet, consciously, not responsible at all, and that dichotomy drives the film's drama far more than any traditional horror-gore clichés. This B-movie's awfulness is located in Frank's eyes and inextricable situation, and consequently the action, tensely scored by Bernard Herrmann, barely bothers with traditional moments of suspense—and, when it does, the monster is spied so furtively, and its kills take place so quickly (and largely off-screen), that they feel like afterthoughts, or concessions to genre dictates.

It's Alive

As also suggested by investigating Lt. Perkins (James Dixon) remarking that his about-to-deliver wife previously suffered a miscarriage, to which a coworker replies "People who don't have children don't know how lucky they are," It's Alive posits having children as a burdensome process universally rife with fright, remorse and potential death. Amidst all manner of subtly sexualized imagery, Cohen slams environmental desecration, self-interested scientific researchers, and pharmaceutical bigwigs (who want to cover up the baby's existence, lest it be traced back to birth control pills!). His real interest, though, remains Frank, whose consuming inadequacies and feelings of culpability are summed up by his anecdote about the first time he realized that Frankenstein wasn't the name of the monster, but of the doctor who created him ("Somehow, the identities get all mixed up, don't they?"). It's Alive's compassion for its protagonist culminates, fittingly, in a vaginal womb-style sewer system where Frank, face to face with his offspring, finally understands the true selfless, unconditional nature of fatherly love. It's a heartening moment that Cohen, ever the provocateur, nonetheless makes sure to complicate with a sequel-ready final line that also encapsulates the film's overarching portrait of deteriorating parent-child dynamics as a burgeoning epidemic.

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Posted by ahillis at May 19, 2012 6:00 AM