It’s Alive

4 out of 5

Directed by: Larry Cohen

Plodding, moody, and brilliantly minimalist, It’s Alive is quite a perfect example of how Larry Cohen’s off-the-cuff direction and production has a mind motivating it, and isn’t just factory-line churn for a buck, something that his B-movie-er spectacles can sometimes belie.

This is while the flick keeps with so many Cohen hallmarks: of being sneakily edited together from (likely) few shots; of having a roving, stumbling point-of-view; of being summarizable within a sentence or two.  To whit: in It’s Alive, parents Frank (John P. Ryan) and Lenore (Sharon Farrell) give birth to a monstrous child.  The child attacks its attending doctors and escapes from the hospital, leading to a manhunt o’er the film’s remaining runtimes.  The ‘hunt’ is generous: one of Alive’s most fascinating constructional conceits is in how slowly it proceeds: from the initial get-to-the-hospital pre-birth opening, certainly one of the most laid back expectant mother sequences in cinema, to Frank’s reactions during the initial stages of the hunt – emotionally detached, with the film’s tone following that muted sensibility – to each scene after subsequent murders, in which calm chatter and Bernard Hermann’s awesomely somber score fill the screen and speakers with non-alarm.  I’d say this ratchets up the tension, but it’s not that: It’s Alive, to me, has never been a tension-filled film.  It does something deeper and subversively more effective, though: it normalizes things, leaving a lot of room for a viewer to decide how they feel; Frank’s internalizing of his feelings toward his child (a relation he denies through much of the movie) is wonderfully brought to the screen by actor Ryan – the same goes for Farrell, as his wife, also trying to constrain her emotions but clearly falling apart in doing so – but this is not awkwardly projected through dialogue or telling music stings.  We’re left alone, in the silence, to think and ponder.

Occasionally, this approach gets the better of Cohen: sequences of sneaking through a school and a house are extended way beyond need, as characters and the camera creep inches at a time, and keeping so much of Frank’s mindset unspoken leads to his turnaround in feeling at the outset – from caring for his wife and their missing child and maintaining its humanity to declaring it not of his blood – somewhat sudden.  (And, somewhat spoilery, perhaps also as a Cohen signature, I’m not quite clear on the throughline of Frank’s ultimate decision in ‘handling’ his kid, despite its poetic justice.)  But still, watching this for the umpteenth time after a long pause away from Cohen’s stuff, I’m truly pleased by how effective it is, and by how accomplished its camerawork and spartan its editing feels.

A recent (as of 2018) Scream Factory bluray release maintains the commentary from an earlier DVD release, which contains the same stories Cohen has told from previous interviews and specials (a new one of which is on the release, including some good interviews with other It’s Alive-ers); still, he’s an interesting guy to listen to due to his charming combination of pride and humbleness, always giving others their due while sticking up for his own craft.  Cohen mentions on the commentary his desire to keep the color palette as close to sepia-toned as possible, and the bluray ups that wonderful starkness, maintaining the flick’s needed 70s-era grain while upping the general fidelity.

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