Review Date: October 24, 2004
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 10/5/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
Larry Cohen is the king of concept. The premises of his films are so simple – each can be pitched with no more than a few words, from “killer yogurt” for The Stuff
to “killer baby” for It's Alive
. His last two titles, Phone Booth
, are basically pitches themselves. But despite the simplicity of his concept subjects, he always mines each concept of all its worth. Cellular
makes sure to play with problems like low batteries, crossing signals, low reception and even the recent trend of picture cell phones. It's Alive
is similar in dealing with subjects like pollution, abortion, and pesticides as a cause for childhood mutation. Released in 1974 but not a success until years later, It's Alive
has become a cult classic spawning a series three titles long. Warner Brothers has finally released the much requested title on DVD, so take out the surgical gloves and let’s be thorough.
A killer baby wreaks havoc on the family and town that birthed him. That is the concept in a nutshell, but for the sake of longevity let’s elaborate. The Davis family, Frank (John Ryan
), Lenore (Sharon Farrell
) and Chris (Daniel Holzman
), is the typical American family. They live in a nice urban household with flowered wallpaper, trimmed hedges and a newly decorated baby room. That’s right, they are expecting another child, even though it is learned later that it was an accident they considered aborting. Lenore wakes up and tells her husband she is in labor, and minutes later she is in the delivery room. All is not well however, as it is discovered the baby is overgrown and not coming out of the womb. It eventually does come out, only to kill all of the nurses and doctors within proximity. Frank breaks into the room but the baby is gone. A child could not have done this though, could it?
Eventually the police get on the case and investigate. The baby escaped through the grates in the ceiling, and is now lurking within the city. Knowledge of this hits the press, and Frank is forced to deal with the prejudices that come with celebrity, as he is fired from his job and met with discerning eyes. The burden of having this baby has been to much for Frank to bear, and he vows to kill it once and for all. The climax has him finding the baby in the sewers, but will he kill it for the monster it is or love it for the baby it child it should be?
is a film much more profound than its high concept would indicate. Although it is a film about a killer baby with effects by the legendary Rick Baker, the monster effects are surprisingly sparse. In actuality, the baby is hardly ever seen in the film. What Cohen instead opts for, is an exploration of how the family deals with such a travesty, and how society made possible such a birth defect. Cohen has always been a socially concerned filmmaker, with The Stuff
deconstructing the power of advertising, Uncle Sam
exploring the breakdown of an American value system and his various blaxploitation pictures touching on racial prejudice. In It's Alive
he addresses a changing America of the 70’s and his prophecy is unsparingly apocalyptic.
Cohen touches on a number of reasons why the baby could become such a mutant. There is a clever dialogue exchange between males in the hospital waiting room, where each give an anecdote on the dangers of contemporary society. One cites the smog and pollution as a major cause for concern, while another cites pesticides and lead spills as another major anxiety. With oil becoming an endearing socioeconomic focus in the 70s (between the two OPEC crises and various coastal spills enraging a new sect of environmentalists), Cohen was timely to suggest our paranoia over advanced industrialization and the pollutants it has emitted. More than just a parable on environmentalism though, It's Alive
also touches on society’s supposed advancements and benefits as cause for problem. Lenore questions whether it was all the pills (normally seen as beneficial for headaches and anxieties) that may have altered her child in the whom. People consume so many medicated products these days without question, and Cohen suggests that perhaps these medical enhancements will only lead to an evolutionary digression. A digression that may turn us all into victims.
Ultimately though, Cohen’s biggest monster comes from within the home itself. It is the family that has born this burden, and it is they who must ultimately deal with it. The monster baby may be Cohen’s way of attacking the Davis family for even considering abortion, but it also makes a metaphor of the growing generation gap of the flower power era. With hippies and all their sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, many parents of the sixties and seventies found it tough to identify with their children. Cohen takes it a step further in his commentary by saying that indeed parents did not even recognize their own children anymore, they had become monsters to them. The film’s best moment is a monologue on the ethos of Frankenstein. Frank, telling the police, observes that the monster in Frankenstein is not the actual creature itself, but instead the doctor that birthed it. Applied to modern times, It's Alive
is very much a rendering of the Frankenstein legend, where the parents instead are the creators of their monster, the flower children.
To heighten emotion, Cohen makes sure to focus on the family and how they come to terms with the monster they have created. In so doing however, Cohen often bypasses suspense. Instead of making “your skin crawl!” as the press materials boast, it instead often comes to a crawl. The film runs a very slow 91 minutes, with the middle act particularly drawn out. Without any gore and little suspense, it is often tough to keep things exciting. Bernard Herrmann lends a classy score and John Ryan an equally accomplished lead performance, but the film still seems a little less satisfying than it ought to. Cohen’s script leaves you with enough to contemplate on the way home from the theatre, but it often fails in delivering the thrills within the theatre.
While the film may not be the pinnacle of excitement, and while its 30 year age may not vow well for it, It's Alive
is still an important little film. It is one of the seminal seventies films to transplant the classical monster of the past (be it Dracula, Frankenstein or The Wolf Man) into a contemporary setting. Like The Last House on the Left
or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
, the monster was not otherworldly, but instead a product of society. Those looking for a window into the changing monster of the seventies should look no further than this little Cohen cult classic. It’s real, it’s provocative…It's Alive
Warner Brothers presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and overall the print is good. While there are still blemishes that pop up every so often, it is not nearly as intrusive as He Knows You’re Alone
. The print is for the most part clean. Flesh tones are a little pink and colors a little more muted than they should be, but the transfer still looks good. There are a few focusing issues, but that is due to the production of the film itself, rather than the DVD transferring. Grain is present throughout, although like the blemishes it is hardly distracting. For a film of 30 years of age, the print has held up considerably well, and this transfer should please those who grew up with the baby on VHS.
English and French mono are all that is given, and it is just fine. Herrmann’s soundtrack comes across very nicely, and almost benefits from a monaural sound mix. His score, with all its vast orchestral accompaniment, sounds suited for an older picture from the thirties than it would today. A 5.1 remix would seriously interfere with the classy effect the mono mix gives the film, and because of such this is the most suitable presentation.
Like the rest of Warner’s Halloween releases, this is outfitted with a commentary and trailers. The commentary comes complements of Larry Cohen, who is no stranger to commentaries, given the work he has done on his Blue Underground discs. This arguably Cohen’s best commentary, as he speaks very fondly of what he calls one of his favorite films. His anecdote on the struggle he had to endure to finally make this film the cult film it has become today is quite remarkable. It barely turned a profit during its initial release, and it took two more release attempts and three years later to finally turn the film into an international phenomenon. It is a great story, and Cohen has plenty more, whether it be regarding his relationship with Bernard Herrmann, his meeting with Robert De Niro or his advice on low budget filmmaking. There are a few gaps of three minutes or so in between stories, but it is worth the wait. A very solid commentary. The only other extras are trailers for the three It's Alive
is a much slower and more cerebral film than its concept would indicate, and as a result it is not for all audiences. Those interested in seventies film should definitely check the film out though, since it offers a great demonstration of the changing monster of the seventies. The audio and video are perfectly acceptable, but it is Cohen’s insightful commentary that makes this DVD all the more recommended. Warner has finally birthed this fine film on DVD, and seventies fans should try parenting this title in their collection.
Movie - B
Image Quality - B
Sound - B
Supplements - B+
- Running Time - 1 hour 31 minutes
- Rated PG
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- French mono
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Commentary by Director Larry Cohen
- Theatrical trailers for the three It's Alive films