Sunday 10 March 2013

It's Alive [1974]

IT'S ALIVE is an American horror film that was written, produced and directed by Larry Cohen and originally released in the US in October 1974.  It stars John Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon, William Wellman Jr and Daniel Holzman.  From the lurid-sounding premise of a mutant baby running amok in suburban Los Angeles, Larry Cohen managed to create one of the most moving and, in its own way, profound horror movies of the 1970s.  It also boasts one of the greatest performances in a horror film, from any period, by the wonderful American character actor John Ryan who - getting star billing for perhaps the only time in his career - pulled out all the stops and delivered the finest hour-and-a-half of his career.

Ryan plays happily married PR executive Frank Davis, whose wife Lenore (Sharon Farrell) is expecting their second child.  When Lenore goes into labour late one night, Frank packs son Chris (Daniel Holzman) off to friend Charley's (William Wellman Jr) and rushes her to the hospital.

Killing time in the waiting room with three other expectant fathers, the naturally upbeat and positive Frank finds his companions talk of pollution and pest control tedious and makes his way back up nearer the maternity ward.  To his horror, a doctor staggers through the door clutching a gaping wound at his throat.  Rushing into the delivery room, Frank sees all of the hospital staff dead, his wife lying delirious on the table, and his newborn child nowhere to be seen.

The thing I love about Larry Cohen's movies, and about good genre movies in general, is that they can take ideas or situation that would simply be too daft, distasteful or otherwise untouchable, and turn them into cinematic gold.  Like George A. Romero, Cohen just doesn't accept that merely because he happens to be making a horror film he is unable to deal with serious themes, real human emotion and believable characters. If you look back through Cohen's body of work, at first glance all you see is some attention-grabbing titles, in the best tradition of exploitation cinema: BLACK CAESAR [1973], GOD TOLD ME TO [1976], Q - THE WINGED SERPENT [1982] and THE STUFF [1985].  But actually when you come to see these films and others by Cohen you realise there is a fierce intelligence behind them as well as real compassion for his characters who are invariably ordinary characters facing circumstances beyond endurance.

IT'S ALIVE is a case in point.  Frank Davis is a moderately successful family man who adores his wife and son and can't wait for another addition to his family.  What he has to face up to, however, is not only the tragedy of seeing that dream die but also of seeing it turn into any parent's worst nightmare.  The life that he and his wife have created is a monstrous perversion of humanity, one that reacts to human contact with lethal violence.  Although Cohen still delivers the requisite shocks and scares for the die-hard horror crowd, he seems just as interested, if not more so, in the side effects of the birth on Frank's personal life.  The case of the killer baby is soon all over the media and Frank finds that the revulsion it provokes among the general public is reflected back on to himself.  He's effectively fired from his job because his boss can't afford to keep such a notorious figure on the staff of a PR company.  He even begins to question what it is within him that produced such a monstrosity.

The luckless Frank gets the poke from his boss who asks him to leave by the back door
As the film unfolds, Frank feelings towards the baby slowly start to change and, just at the point at which most horror movies have their hero realising the creature / monster / devil (or whatever it happens to be) is thoroughly evil and has to be destroyed, he finds himself beginning to understand that the child isn't simply evil incarnate but merely a product of forces beyond its control.  His desire as a father to protect his own flesh and blood comes into conflict with his desire as a human being to put an end to all the killing.  The climax, when it comes, in the subterranean tunnels of the LA river, it seems to me intentionally recalls the personal moral dilemma facing Holly Martins in Carol Reed's peerless THE THIRD MAN [1949]: how do you resolve a situation whereby someone you love so dearly has to be killed to protect mankind?

Larry Cohen's films aren't particularly adventurous visually but what they do have is a terrific immediacy.  There's no wasted time in his pictures and, putting it bluntly, no bullshit.  They set up the characters and situation so quickly and effectively that before you know where you are you're right in the thick of things.  That sense of being personally caught up in events is central to Cohen's films and he achieves this chiefly through an almost unparalleled skill at location shooting.  If you watch any of his films listed above, but particularly the first three, you'll get a truly vivid sense of location, of being there; I'd say that the only person who has photographed New York City as well as Larry Cohen is Woody Allen.

John Ryan was a terrific character actor who usually featured some way down the cast list but nevertheless created memorable supporting characters.  He had a wonderfully odd face that usually wore a smile but a scornful, somehow threatening smile; a good example of what I mean can be found in his performance in Bob Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES [1970].  But given the chance to play a leading role, and what's more a sympathetic character, he really went for it and in so doing elevated the film into greatness.

Edited (18/06/13) to add:  One glaring omission from my original review of IT'S ALIVE was mention of the wonderfully ominous score by Bernard Herrmann.  In my view it's right up there with his very best work.

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