Horror films explore not just the dark recesses of our collective psyche, but also wrestle with contemporary mores and values. Lots of people avoid them because of the gore, the jump frights or the sheer weirdness of the worst entries in the genre, but there are other horror films that offer a remarkably different perspective when watched 10, 20 or more years later.
When I flipped on the 1974 shlock horror film It’s Alive, about a mutant baby who goes on a murderous rampage, famously including the birth room at the hospital, I didn’t have very high expectations, but as it proceeded, I realized just how engaging the movie was as a remarkably cynical statement on the obstacles families face with a “different” baby.
In the film Lenore (Sharon Farrell) and Frank (John P. Ryan) are expecting their second child when she has a painful birth that produces, well, a monster, a horrible clawed beast that proceeds to slaughter everyone in the room except mom, then vanish out a skylight. Fortunately all of this happens off-camera (a remake would add all the missing gore and completely change the tone of the film) and when Frank finds out, he’s furious that the hospital is at fault and that they’ve stolen his baby.
From that point on, the film zooms through one cynical, manipulative group to another, whether it’s the research scientists who are willing to pay to get the little baby’s corpse for research, the journalists banging on the door for the story — and notably the nurse who surreptitiously tries to interview Lenore about her reaction to the monster baby, an extraordinarily blunt critique of the then-popular investigative journalism, and the hospital directors who are willing to pay for the baby to be completely destroyed so that there’s nothing for the researchers.
The most interesting character in the movie, however, is Frank, the father. His journey, while predictable, is a peek into the challenges that every parent faces deciding whether to abandon, ignore or love their child, regardless of whether they’re normal or very different, even terrifying. He begins as the loving husband and father, warmly joking with their son about the upcoming birth, but as soon as he learns of the monstrosity he feels a primal urge to be the one to kill it that’s overwhelming to him, even as Lenore, the mother, remains loving and eager to hold her baby, whatever its flaws.
To be fair, this is a B Movie, no question. The monster baby when we do finally see more than the most fleeting of glimpses is a poorly done rubber model, and not one of the actors turns in a performance worthy of note. Writer/director Larry Cohen has definitely done better movies (including Cellular and Phone Booth).
But It’s Alive is a horror film that seems initially to be about a monster baby, a medical side-effect gone horribly wrong but reveals a lot more about the mid 1970’s and its love/hate relationship with science and media. And that makes it worth a watch.