Oh exploitation films, how you pain me sometimes. It’s Alive is a total product of the 1970s focused on abortion and the increasing fear of harsh chemicals and their tendency to produce birth defects. Heady subject matter for a B-level horror movie like this and in some instances it could open the door for a bigger conversation that never comes. The actors are good but the script cause them to abruptly change demeanor at the drop of a hat. I can see how It’s Alive has become a cult classic (and it’s far superior than the terrible 2008 remake) but expect to be frustrated throughout.
Frank and Lenore Davis (John P. Ryan and Sharon Farrell) are about to have their second child. Unfortunately, the baby is a deformed monster that kills out of fear. Frank is resolved to kill the child while Lenore tries to convince him not to.
It’s Alive is representative of the 1970s down to its foundations. Throughout the 70s you had various stories pop up about the dangers of drugs given to women throughout the 50s and 60s. The best example are the “children of Thalidomide” that Billy Joel once sang about (I never get to include a We Didn’t Start the Fire reference…give me a break). There was also issues surrounding DDT and other pesticides which is also mentioned here. Roe v. Wade had also passed the year before and that, more than anything, is focused on in It’s Alive. At one point the doctors mention that Lenore sought an abortion at one point and the way the pharmaceutical rep and cops want to murder Lenore’s baby makes the abortion allegory come into focus. The film never explains how the baby became a monster but throughout there’s small lines of dialogue that make the embedded social commentary stand out. A monstrous line is when one of the men hunting the baby says they’ll put it down “like an animal.” I won’t nitpick all the ways the hospital and crew would probably be sued but in this case the family, specifically Lenore, is the only one who sees the child as a person, obviously alluding to what determines a fetus as human. Again this is heady subject matter for a 1974 horror film but sometimes it’s the films that hide the political material in plain site that makes the strongest impact. Seriously though I wouldn’t be keeping anything discreet if hospital reps were threatening to murder my kid like a dog simply because it might have killed some people…and I don’t even like children!
There honestly isn’t much to this film short of a monster baby that kills and the parents having to come to terms with it. In the case of Lenore she goes mad with her desire to protect it and partially blames herself due to her reliance on birth control and fertility drugs in her life. Frank, on the other hand, believes he’s crafted a monster (that he compares to Frankenstein’s creature) and resolves to kill it. That’s about all the characterization given and in the case of Frank, you just hate the guy. The 2008 remake told the film from Lenore’s point of view, making it a typical “pregnancy is frightening” tale. Here you never truly understand Frank’s motivation for abruptly wanting to murder his own flesh and blood. He says it’s to protect his family and that he’s got one other son who came out normal but the logic just isn’t there. Not to mention he pairs up with a cop and a representative of a pharmaceutical company (I’m assuming because we never really understand who they are) and you just start to believe Frank lacks a heart. Sharon Farrell is really good, showing the slow descent into madness as she comes to terms with birthing a deformed child and ultimately being the only one who actually loves it. She’s shy without being a pushover and sweet without being overbearing. She genuinely wants this baby and I wish the story had developed her own guilt towards creating the child. Instead Frank appears to take sole credit for having the child (does someone need the talk on how babies are made) and feels guilt from having “created” the monster.
The main issue I had is why Frank becomes so determined to kill the baby. Even Lenore asks at one point why Frank is so anxious to be the one who murders the child? This is why I think the film would have worked best as Lenore’s story. She’s bonded with the child so let her struggle with what has been unleashed. Here Frank just seems cold and as he determination increases he treats his family like utter garbage; at one point slapping his wife and hanging up on his other son Chris (Daniel Holzman). In one scene Frank actually shoots the baby in front of Chris. The boy just witnessed his father shoot his infant brother, he’s going to be in therapy for life. Towards the end Frank sees the baby and tries to save it. I could believe this if we actually saw him love the baby for a moment. Sure he’s excited before it’s born and he tries to defend it against his coworkers but because his change into vigilante murderer is never explained it just feels like his change to loving father is a bipolar moment. I mean Frank still calls the child “it” till the end; not exactly a totally loving parent in my book. John P. Ryan is okay in the role and gets better towards the end but his character is so despicable I just despised him.
The baby is only seen a few times throughout the film’s 90 minute runtime and that’s a good thing! Despite the effects being helmed by the legendary Rick Baker its apparent the infant is a puppet. When it’s stationary and the camera focuses on its face the effect is achieved, but once it starts to “move” it’s obviously someone pulling it around. That’s probably why the shot of everyone in the sewers with the flashing lights so good, because it’s apparent the baby is spliced in and stationary. Once Frank confronts it at the end and it starts putting its clawed hands up to cover its eyes while crying (I’m not sure an infant only a few days old would do that) it becomes laughable and it’s time to retire the gag. The sound effects are also bizarre as they don’t sound like a child. Several times it sounds like a dying man.
One can’t ignore the beginning of the film which truly sets this up as a laughable B-movie experience. The film opens with Lenore waking up to tell Frank it’s time. She starts crying and the film jarringly cuts to her standing up and laughing. I’d say hormones but I don’t want to be insensitive. We know the baby is coming obviously yet that doesn’t stop Frank from talking to Chris for a few minutes about what’s going on, where he’ll be staying, mom having the baby. Um fellas there’ a pregnant woman about to give birth, you want to have a heart to heart another time? I shouldn’t complain though, Lenore isn’t, actually no one seems to care this baby is coming within the first ten minutes. The trio is all driving in the car and Lenore never mentions contractions and seems happy as a clam, like this is a trip to an ice cream parlor! Did Larry Cohen, director/screenwriter, actually talk to a pregnant woman before writing his script? When Lenore finally finds the proper reaction to birth and is laying in bed having contractions she asks Frank if having another baby will tie him down. Isn’t that a conversation you have before you get pregnant? And what do you expect to do if he says “Now that you mention it, I’m out?” No good can come from that question.
The birthing scene is the famous scene in the film and despite the red paint liberally splashed on everyone it’s funny to watch the doctors all lay in a heap as Lenore screams (still tied to the bed…don’t ask). It’s Alive is pure 1970s schlock that tries to present a timely message. Depending on how much you know about pregnancy you’ll probably be frustrated. You might also exhibit frustration at how abruptly all the characters change, especially Frank. I wouldn’t seek out the two sequels this inspired but I can understand why my mom says this film was hilarious.
Type of Horror: Monster, Babies
Fright Meter: 2
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.