It started with a poster. Amidst a field of black stands a Victorian basinet, its quaint domesticity rudely marred by a fleshy, twisted claw hanging ominously over the side. I stared at this disturbing image for weeks as it occupied the “coming attractions” window of the St. Croix Mall Theater, a cinder block “two-plex” in a Minnesota suburb. In the bygone America of a Ray Bradbury story, impressionable youngsters would be drawn to similar posters announcing the imminent arrival of a travelling fair or circus. In American suburbs of the 1970s, we had low-budget, grainy horror movies, which I believe were every bit as magical and transformative as the wonder-shows of old.
The advertising campaign for Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) was accompanied by two irresistible tag lines. The first spoke directly to the poster image: “There’s just one thing wrong with the Davis baby . . . It’s Alive!” The second warned menacingly that this was “The one film you should NOT see alone,” a warning that ran counter to the MPAA’s peculiarly lenient PG rating. At eight years old I was certainly unprepared for the horrors I was to encounter in the smaller and seedier of the St. Croix Mall’s two theaters, and the excesses I was exposed to would shape me in ways I could not have anticipated. If my standing decision not to become a father was a result of this film, I owe Larry Cohen my undying gratitude; but I suspect its actual influence was more complicated.
Expecting more of the gothic imagery and mutated appendages advertised in the poster, what I encountered instead in the film’s first fifteen minutes was one of the most horrific birth scenes in the history of cinema. Anticipating another take on the monster movie formulas I’d grown accustomed to on late night television, what I got was an immersion in the fetid waters of repressed Freudian psychodrama. From the moment the doctors began strapping the nice Davis lady into her obstetric harness to the point where the last dying intern staggered from the operating room, I experienced something closer to Alex’s therapy in A Clockwork Orange than the cozy thrills of Saturday night’s Creature Feature. I remember little else of the film from that first traumatic screening, but I know that I slept next to my parents' bed for a week, having regressed to an emotional age I thought I’d left behind.
In many ways, the warning of the film’s second tag-line is something of a mockery: when we encounter that rare thing, a genuinely disturbing film, it is inevitably alone that we face the horrors it shows us and those it awakens from the dark places in ourselves. It is tempting to follow Bruno Bettelheim and argue that, like the classic fairy tale, the modern horror film, by confronting viewers with what they fear most, enables them to work through their fears imaginatively and healthily, thus preparing us for the challenges we meet in every day life. In some cases this is undoubtedly so, but, as horror film enthusiasts know, once in a while we see a film that confronts us with something we simply cannot process, and which leaves its aberrant mark, perhaps forever. In this respect, horror is the quintessential genre of excess, presenting us with images and situations that we didn’t ask for and can’t dispose of.
Seeing It’s Alive as an adult, it becomes clear that this problem of excess is precisely what the film is about: the Davises did not want their baby, and yet they can’t simply dispose of it. A clear response to the tragic side-effects of the sedative Thalidomide, widely prescribed to pregnant women in the late-fifties and early-sixties before its harmful effects were known, the film brings together a host of contemporary environmental fears, as numerous explanations are offered for the Davis’ mutant child. The baby becomes the embodiment of every environmental and biological excess perpetrated by pharmaceutical, agricultural, and power companies since the Second World War. One of the expectant fathers sharing a waiting room with Frank Davis observes: “We're slowly but surely poisoning ourselves, you know that?,” to which Frank replies, “Fine world to bring a kid into, fellas.” Larry Cohen is one of the great satirists of horror, a skill particularly evident in the decision to make the child’s father a PR man, the very person who would be responsible for crafting plausible narratives that would enable polluting companies to sweep their excesses under the media's rug.
Yet unlike Cohen’s more outrageous satires (Q, The Stuff), It’s Alive treats its protagonists with a tremendous sense of compassion, as they come to bear the burden of all their society has come to fear and resent. John P. Ryan brings an astonishing emotional range to his performance as Frank Davis, as we see him gradually come to terms with being the father of the child no one wants. Ryan’s heavy-browed, brooding features shift surprisingly to expressions of wry amusement and tender affection, as when he responds to his wife anxiously asking if he’s afraid of her after giving birth to a monster with the reply, “I’ve always been afraid of you, especially those eyes.”
Subtle character touches like these make the Davises’ struggles vividly plausible, and desperately tragic. After renouncing his child and wounding it with gunfire, Frank Davis gradually comes to accept this strange being as his own. Finding the baby lying helpless in the sewer during the film’s climactic chase scene, he tearfully embraces it and apologizes: “I know it hurts. I know that, but everything's going to be all right. See, I was . . . I was scared, like you are.” Fear becomes the basis for understanding and compassion. Cohen’s film, like all great horror films, does not argue that what doesn’t kill us makes stronger, but rather that what terrifies us makes us weaker, and out of that weakness may emerge genuine compassion and forgiveness.
It’s Alive presents a dialectic of horror in which monstrous excess is first repudiated and rejected, then returns in the form of self-loathing and social stigmatization, and is finally painfully accepted as an essential part of ourselves. In this it resembles popular film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from which it may also take its title, those famous two words announcing the creature’s birth in James Whale’s great 1931 version. This connection isn't lost on Cohen’s protagonist, when in conversation with a pair of biologists who want to use the baby in laboratory experiments: “When I was a kid, I always thought the monster was Frankenstein. Karloff walking around in these big shoes, grunting. I thought he was Frankenstein. Then I went to high school and read the book and I realized that Frankenstein was the doctor who created him. Somehow, the identities . . . get all mixed up, don't they?”
The police chief’s sardonic reply to this astute meta-interpretation of the film might serve as another misleading tag-line: “One must not allow oneself to be impressed by escapist fiction.”
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.