Tuesday, June 8, 2010

IT'S ALIVE (1974) - my monster baby can beat up your honor student

if children are our future, I wanna stay living in the past

Life sure is funny sometimes. Your career is thriving, your lovely wife is expecting her second child, and your beautiful son is ecstatic that he’ll finally have someone to belittle and occasionally punch in the face. You’ve got a spring in your step and a song in your heart until, one day, life hands you a bowl of lemons, in the form of a retard monster that falls out of your wife’s crotch.

The baby makes its presence felt immediately (as opposed to many of us who are well into their twenties and still haven't made their mark), making quick off screen work of all of the doctors and nurses in the delivery room. The father (John Ryan) hears a ruckus while in the waiting room and rushes over, horrified by the aftermath of this birthing temper tantrum; an orgy of ripped throats and disheveled scrubs.

The scene begins with a shaky low angle tracking shot as John runs down the hallway in a panic, and the carnage of the delivery room is filmed in wide angles and chaotic cross cutting, conveying how shocking and difficult to comprehend the whole scene is. This approach proves extremely effective, as it stylistically contrasts with what came before, and goes to show how contrasts in editing and technique are more effective than just maintaining a similar pattern throughout. If a film is edited with quick cuts throughout dialogue scenes, and an action scene is edited the same way, it is not as effective if the preceding dialogue scenes are shot and edited with a slow, quiet rhythm.

So, the baby beast runs around town killing people, but is barely glimpsed throughout, like the shark from Jaws (but way smaller and uglier). This makes everyone nervous, including the pork officers on the lookout. Amusingly, a group of them hear a baby’s cries and, terrified, they all rush over with their guns drawn, but find a cute, non-mongoloidal baby. The precious tyke initially seems a bit confused as to why there are six .44 magnums within inches of his skull…then he remembers stealing those cookies. Uh oh.

More importantly, this ugly, murderous hellspawn has an extremely adverse effect on the family unit. The mother tries to block out the horror and remain cheerful, and her maternal instincts pulls her toward her mutant baby, trying to protect it. The father, on the other hand, tries to distant himself from this monstrosity while wearing the anguish on his sleeve; two different failing approaches to coping. This also drives a wedge between the parents and their son (the non-retarded one). They send him away to stay at their friend (?) Charley’s house during the pregnancy, and there he stays while the killer baby does his business. John is so ashamed that he tries to keep the entire affair secret from his son, weaving a web of deceit to avoid getting into a discussion about the baby.

If that wasn’t enough, even John’s professional life is falling apart. He has a couple of big accounts he’s working on, but his boss forces him to take his vacation, as the retard baby is bad P.R. for their P.R. firm. John unwillingly agrees, and when he leaves the room, his boss tells his secretary that “John won’t be coming back”. What a spineless piece of shit. Not only that, he heads a public relations firm. To quote the immortal Bill Hicks , “if you’re in advertising or marketing…kill yourself. Seriously. No joke. I don’t care how you do it…just kill yourself.”

This little dig on advertising is one of several bits of social critique in the film, courtesy of director Larry Cohen, who consistently combines NY method improv with monster fueled social commentary. A cop explains at one point that “this is no world to bring a child into” and, later on, when the cops are searching for the killer baby, the camera holds on the back of an ice cream truck with a sign saying “stop the children”. We can read this as a commentary of over population, that the family should be happy with their single child, and not try to fill their empty lives by pushing out another rugrat.

The more substantial bit of commentary involves a little subplot about a drug company that thinks that one of their products led to the disfigured mongoloid. If word got out, their bottom line would take a big hit, what with the lawsuits and bad publicity. So, they bribe a detective to find the baby, shoot first, and ask questions later (though I doubt the baby understands English anyway). It seems the police have competing interests with several scientists from the local university, who want to take the baby alive (or at least not blown to shit) so they can study it. John signs away his rights to these scientists, as this further distances him from the child. Either way, each group is angling the retard baby for their own gain; a golden opportunity with a giant, hydrocephalic head. This further amps up the couple’s anxiety, as they can no longer trust anyone. This is well illustrated when the mother finds that a nurse has been tape recording her conversations, as the nurse occasionally writes columns on the side. Looks like the media has to cash in too.

The film ends in a showdown involving the entire family (including the baby), along with all of the cops and the detectives. These conflicting agendas, whether based in money or science, or the conflict the parents have in whether or not to kill their own flesh and blood, come to a head in a sort of Mexican standoff, albeit more layered than the usual banditos arguing about who drank all the tequila.

At the heart of the film are the excellent performances of the parents, namely John Ryan in the lead role. While normally a character actor, here John relishes his opportunity to star. He brings a boat load of pathos to the role, and wears his inner turmoil and conflict on his face. The title of the film is a reference to the line in Frankenstein, and John mentions at one point that he used to think that “Frankenstein” was the name of the monster, but figured out later that it was actually the name of the doctor. Their identities had melded. The doctor, no matter who he was before the birth of the monster, would always be known as the creator of this beast, just as the father will always be linked to the monstrous child, despite his attempts to brush the whole thing under the rug.

p.s. written at the indirect behest of Stacie Ponder and her Final Girl blog "film club". I guess I'm supposed to link to this:
It's Alive Film Club review - Final Girl


  1. I enjoyed your review and I thought you nailed a lot of the film's social commentary.

    Still, did you have to refer to the baby as a "retard" and "mongoloid"? Not only are both of these words ableist and offensive, but it's also inaccurate; the killer baby doesn't show any signs of mental deficiency - and unusually for a newborn, it can survive on its own and seek out its family.

    Other than that, a right-on and very entertaining review!

    (For more information: http://disabledfeminists.com/2009/10/28/ableist-word-profile-mongoloid/ )

  2. Thanks! Yes, I'm aware of the offensiveness of those terms, which is why I don't use them to refer to real people, but instead, I'm joking about a rubber monster in a movie. I wouldn't take it too seriously :)