Bringing Back Baby
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Filmmaker Larry Cohen has never been considered a real auteur, but he has earned a great deal of respect among cinema aficionados for his sheer volume of work and his staying power. Since the early 1960s, he has written and/or directed more than 60 movies and TV shows; some of them you might have even heard of.
Last year Cohen earned a little bit of mainstream recognition when Joel Schumacher and Colin Farrell made his screenplay Phone Booth into a hit film. This year his follow-up script Cellular was mangled by other filmmakers, but it at least opened in most multiplexes.
It's debatable which of Cohen's films ranks as his finest work. Some fans might choose God Told Me To (1976), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) or The Ambulance (1990). But the film that Cohen will be remembered for is It's Alive (1974), which was one of his biggest hits and even spawned two sequels.
It's Alive, which Cohen both wrote and directed, begins with a simple idea. A mutated baby is born and wreaks havoc, leaving a trail of dead bodies before the authorities can capture it. But in Cohen's hands, the film becomes something more. He works in many different themes at many different levels, from a brief discussion of abortion to the mortal fear of childbirth that Roman Polanski also played with in Rosemary's Baby (1968).
Indeed, the greatest conflict in the film comes not from the baby, but from the baby's father, brilliantly played by John Ryan. The father goes through an entire emotional field, first feeling anger over the loss of his son and then detaching himself completely. But when he comes face to face with the little beast in a storm drain, his fatherly instinct kicks in and he chooses to protect the child at any cost.
Cohen further works in a bit of social commentary about pollution and radiation and rampant drug use, which may or may not have caused the mutation. He includes a quick scene with the head of a drug company who issues the order that the child is to be destroyed completely without bothering to study it.
It's to Cohen's credit that he can get away with all this soapbox grandstanding and still make an entertaining film. Certainly the viewers that paid to see a scary movie were not disappointed. Cohen follows the Val Lewton school of filmmaking, barely showing the creature except in shadow or in brief flashes. The best murder scene takes place on a milk truck, out of view. But we hear crashing bottles and see a stream of white milk running out onto the street. After a few tense moments, the milk mingles with spilled blood and turns pink.
Cohen wraps up the film with a couple of brilliant set-pieces, leading the chase first through Los Angeles's aqueduct (later used in films like Grease, Repo Man, Buckaroo Banzai and Terminator 2), and then into the sewers (a nod to The Third Man), using crafty lighting techniques the whole way.
Especially notable is Cohen's brutally effective homemade title sequence, which simply consists of flashlights waving around in the dark.
Cohen really hit paydirt when he hired the great Bernard Herrmann to compose the film's intense score. Herrmann had worked on Citizen Kane, contributed the spooky Theremin score to The Day the Earth Stood Still and had recently finished with a slate of Alfred Hitchcock pictures. Herrmann passed away in 1975, and his final four scores were for It's Alive, Brian De Palma's Sisters and Obsession and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver. According to Cohen, he and Herrmann were close friends and Herrmann composed the It's Alive score without leaving London or even seeing the film. The music and the images basically matched up, as if by magic. Cohen re-worked the same music for the It's Alive sequels, even though they were made after Herrmann's death.
It's Alive took a long time making its way from a second feature in New York grindhouses to becoming a first-run feature in the rest of the country, and it made a fortune relative to its cost. Clearly Cohen struck a nerve with his very simple idea. Whatever the secret formula was, it continues to work today.
Warner Home Video's new DVD comes with an excellent commentary track by Cohen, as well as trailers for all three It's Alive films.
It's Alive has been released as part of a package of horror films including a double-bill of the sequels It Lives Again and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive, Tom Hanks' film debut He Knows You're Alone, the abrasive sequel Returnof the Living Dead Part II,Roman Polanski's goofy The Fearless Vampire Killers and Tony Scott's erotic vampire relic The Hunger.