It’s Alive (1974) [Fantasia International Film Festival 2017]

A family expecting their second born is surprised to have a mutant child as it arrives in this world and kills all in its path when scared.  As a baby, being scared is something that happens quite a bit, creating a mounting body count for this tiny tot.

Written and directed by Larry Cohen, It’s Alive is a tale inspired by pollution and environmental effects on humans’ reproductive systems, eventually leading to a damaged progeny trying to survive when it’s scared and ready to kill for survival.  The film takes this and turns it into an easy to watch horror film about a newborn mutant monster that can easily be taken as just that, a monster film, but is much more once one delves into the environmental message.  Here Cohen creates a tale that is deeper than it seems and works with monster film tropes to pass along its message and entertain at the same time.

The cast here feels very much mid-1970s in their looks and how they act, but it works for the film overall as it is clearly set in the here and now from when the film was shot.  The sensibilities may have changed in some ways since then, with new looks, new ways of approaching issues, but the emotions of a woman giving birth to a monster still resonate.  The way actress Sharon Farrell plays Lenore Davies, the mom, shows emotions ranging from excitement to fear, worry to relief as she has this child she does not know what to do with, how to love it, or how to proceed in terms of protecting the world against her offspring.  Playing Frank Davies, the father, is actor John P. Ryan who feels a lot more detached, something that can be both attributed to how he plays his part but also to how fathers were expected to be in the 1970s.  He feels less likable or relatable.  While the mom comes off as disconnected from reality, he comes off as disconnected from modern audiences.  The rest of the performances vary between odd-feeling for modern times and disconnected which may be due to the film being over 40 years old and sensibilities having changed.

The thing that stands out the most in It’s Alive is the use of practical effects for the baby who looks truly like a mutant or a monster while retaining some aspects of a real human infant, making it a newborn that is both one that people want to save and destroy all at once.  This baby was created by Rick Baker and used in the film sparsely, something that creates an even better fear effect as the imagination is much worse than what just about any movie can put on the screen.  That being said, the baby is a good rendition of a mutant and the fact that it’s a puppet-like being helps sell the story and the fear.  It’s use in a a less is more approach works great and when it’s finally fully reveal, it’s still a bit shocking and it creates a good effect on the viewer.

The film’s overall effect is enhanced by cinematography by Fenton Hamilton, framing the shots in ways to keep as much mystery as possible until it’s time for the reveal.  These images pair well with the music by Bernard Herrmann which feels right but also feels like old school horror, moody and emotional.

It’s Alive is a classic in its own right, having created a new monster, one created by mankind’s willingness to ignore its environment and its own lives, something that was way ahead of its time in 1974 and still feels fitting in 2017.

Fantasia International Film Festival ran from July 13th to August 2nd.