Calling producer/writer/director Larry Cohen an original seems like selling the man short. Larry Cohen is the kind of filmmaker that you introduce to friends. Cohen’s body of work is just so singular. Few directors understood the power of genre for social commentary like Cohen did. Even fewer embraced the absurd in genre filmmaking like Larry Cohen. Maybe because that could sell a film or because Cohen thought it was good entertainment. It could have been both. Only Cohen though could embrace social commentary and genre absurdity to make a legitimately interesting film.
It’s Alive does all of that. In the hands of any other filmmaker, it might become gory B-Movie craziness or worse, something sensible. Cohen though wrings everything he can, the good, the bad, and the downright bizarre, he puts into his script. What is this film about? This is a film about a mutant killer baby.
Our film opens with the Davis family preparing for the birth of the second child. Husband Frank and wife Lenore head to hospital where she gets whisked to the delivery room. John P. Ryan’s Frank sits in a waiting room with expectant fathers jawing about pollution and the environment. However, Frank hears a commotion, runs to the delivery room, and comes upon a scene of bloody carnage. Lenore can only ask about the baby.
Right from the start, Cohen shows an interest in all the weird thorny issues of a world with mutant killer babies. What causes them? Possibly the pollution discussed in the opening or birth control pills discussed later. One doctor asks about exposure to radiation. There’s a lot of things in the world that could mutate an unborn child.
Speaking of the pill, Cohen shot It’s Alive in 1973, the year the Supreme Court decided Roe V. Wade. Abortion sits in the background of this film. Frank early on mentions he and Lenore discussed it as an option. He comes off as someone who wishes they did it even if the baby wasn’t a killer mutant. He also seems like a man who doesn’t want more kids but won’t get a vasectomy. A lot of men spend the film deciding what to do with this child. No one consults Lenore on her thoughts about the baby.
Cohen though never lets the proceedings get too serious. He fully embraces how weird this premise is. The cops after witnessing the carnage in the delivery room fully accept there’s a killer baby on the loose. Armed to the teeth later in the movie they almost open fire on a perfectly normal baby. In fact, the man power they use to hunt down the mutant baby only gets more ridiculous. There’s no greater threat to public safety than murderous infant.
Still only Larry Cohen could put this all together in a deeply compelling film. Cohen knows how to direct a film. There’s so much intention behind every choice. Take all of the point of view shots with the killer baby. They’re weird, ridiculous, and a cost cutting measure. You don’t really see the baby in It’s Alive but you understand its intentions more than the characters in the film. The film spends most of its time as a domestic drama by way of Frankenstein. Frank rejects this child as his own, going so far to sell off its body for science. Yet after he shoots it, he accepts this child as his own in a chase sequence reminiscent of The Third Man’s finale. Cohen knew his genre and film history.
No one made films like Larry Cohen. His films are weirdo B-movie material in the hands of a student of film. It’s Alive is a perfect showcase for that. This is a domestic drama that’s also a manhunt film for a mutant killer baby. It knows it’s an insane idea and just totally embraces it.