Friday, October 24, 2014

It's Alive

Evolution, the changes that occur as life adapts to its environment. It's no secret humankind has not been a particularly good steward of the planet, what with all the pollution, deforestation, hunting species into extinction, and burning fossil fuels that contribute to global climate change. As a result, in the future, there's a strong chance Earth might not be so hospitable to humans, at least not in our current form. If we're to survive a harsh planet, we're going to have to evolve, but will the future generations still be human?

That is one of several questions raised by writer-director Larry Cohen in his mutant baby opus, It's Alive (1974). The subject matter is pure B-grade schlock: a monster baby, complete with an over-sized cranium, fangs, claws, and a thirst for blood, rampages through Los Angeles after its birth. It's hard to take seriously, but Cohen, whose filmography has given us sentient dessert and a flying lizard nesting in the Chrysler building, understands this. Instead of giving in to the campy elements, he instead packs the movie with character-based drama and socio-political commentary. For a movie about a killer baby, it's much better written and acted than one would expect.

The Davis family - father Frank (John P. Ryan), mother Lenore (Sharon Farrell), and son Chris (Daniel Holzman) - are excited for the arrival of a new baby, and in the middle of the night, Frank and Lenore go to the hospital for the delivery. But something goes wrong. Frank races to the delivery room to find all the doctors and nurses dead, evidently slaughtered by his newborn son, who has been born an inhuman monster, and it has escaped the hospital. While Lenore recuperates at home and Chris stays with a family friend, Frank assists the authorities with hunting down his mutant offspring, to destroy it before it can kill anyone else.

Cohen's always been a better writer than director. The movie looks cheap, and his direction of the monster baby attacks aren't especially frightening. His strength as a filmmaker was always his resourcefulness and quirky sense of humor, and he demonstrates his flair for both here. One of the first victims of the baby is the milkman, whose blood mixes with his delivery as both fluids spill down a sewer drain.

While the competent cast is comprised of mostly no-names and a few character actors who became Cohen regulars, the behind-the-scenes talent is impressive. The mutant baby was designed and built by future multiple Oscar winner Rick Baker; it looks fake and barely moves, but it has a cool design, sort of a monster version of the star child from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cohen does his part by not showing it too much, limiting sightings to shots of claws, fangs, and the occasional shadow. Music is by Bernard Hermann of all people; it's not his finest score (cough, Psycho, cough), but it brings a touch of class to the proceedings.

The movie might be low-budget schlock, but it is packed with potent material. A number of different explanations are tossed around for the origin of the mutant baby. There's the aforementioned evolutionary idea, that this is the beginning of a new species of humanity, one evolved to survive the aggressive, polluted, irradiated world we have made for it. It's also possible the baby is the side effects of drugs; Frank and Lenore were on the pill when she got pregnant, and though they considered an abortion ("Doesn't everyone do that nowadays?" Frank asks at one point), they decided to have the baby, but who knows what kind of effect all those pills and other new medications of the modern age had on the developing fetus? Or maybe it's genetic; maybe there's just something wrong with Frank and Lenore's genes that produced this monstrosity.

It's that last point sticks the hardest with Frank. We see him try to re-establish some sense of normalcy after the events of the hospital, walking through the house, looking down at the empty crib (symbolic, no doubt, of his and Lenore's crushed dreams), and getting ready for bed. The next day, he returns to work at a PR firm, where co-workers whisper about him (the media has already picked up his and Lenore's names in the massacre), and his boss tells him to go home; his presence would be bad for business at this time. Later, in a revealing talk with police and scientists, Frank remembers how growing up, he thought "Frankenstein" was the monster; it wasn't until high school when he read Mary Shelley's book that he learned that "Frankenstein" was actually the monster's creator. "Somehow, the identities get all mixed up, don't they?" For all that's happened, he feels at least partly responsible, and society does seem to blame him.

Plenty of parents in real life give birth to babies with physical and mental problems. I'm not aware of any who delivered a mutant that immediately went on a killing spree, but if there are any, I'm willing to bet It's Alive is a close representation of what they went through. Lenore is an emotional wreck who doctors keep drugged up, and Frank, in an attempt to prove he's not responsible for his inhuman son, joins the effort to kill it. The Davises are hounded by the press (a reporter poses as a nurse to tape record a private conversation, and Frank does what I think anyone would do when he catches her and destroys the tape), and they become isolated, outsiders to a society they previously enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle being a part of. In the end, they really only have each other.

Cohen clearly has sympathy for the monster. It is, after all, only a baby, and its kills aren't so much as attacks by a vicious monster as they are panicked reactions by a scared, confused creature on its own with no one to protect it. Lenore and Chris unconditionally accept and love this child, despite Frank's assertion that "It's no relation to us." Even as police hunt it down, even as scientists request permission to collect its corpse to study it, they don't see it as a monster but as a family member who needs love and protection.

The poignancy of the film occurs when Frank comes around to their thinking. He shoots the poor creature, wounding it, and with the police, he pursues it to the sewers. But at the moment of truth, when he has it cornered, he can't bring himself to kill it; this is his child, and he decides to try to save it. What follows is a heartbreaking tragedy as we witness how society ultimately treats those who are different.

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