It takes a certain something to make a movie about killer babies. It can either work, or it can be ridiculous. Larry Cohen, the B-movie master who gave us The Stuff, Black Caesar, and Original Gangstas, manages it with his signature trashy panache. While it may no longer be terrifying, the first movie has a feeling of confusion and dread like many of the best movies of the 70’s, like The Parallax View. The sequels take the familiar nosedive, but have their own chomping charms.
I loved It’s Alive! as a kid in the 70’s. It’s not really a scary movie, but it creates a great disturbing mood of the uncertainty of childbirth during the age of pollution and Thalidomide babies, distrust in the government and corporations covering things up. The movies live and die on John P. Ryan’s performance, which is very sympathetic. In fact, poring over his IMDb profile, these movies seem to be his best remembered work. The series begins with Frank Davis and his pregnant wife going to the hospital. Everything seems fine until she is whisked away to the delivery room, where back then men were not permitted to tread. Playing on fears of the unknown and primal sexual fears like the vagina dentata, she gives birth to a monstrous abomination that kills everyone in the room before escaping.
Then the questions begin- what did you do to have such a monstrous baby? The horror plot follows traditional exploitation lines; the baby kills a milkman, a woman attracted to its cries, and finally a cop, which of course really motivates the authorities. A drug company that made the birth control pill Mrs. Davis was on prior to the pregnancy believes it caused the “birth defects” and wants the baby destroyed at all costs, and for much of the movie Mr. Davis agrees.
Then, in the third act, the baby comes home to roost; it finds its terrified family, but doesn’t kill them; it recognizes them, and seems to only attack when its afraid. So it’s sort of like a tiny Cloverfield monster. I always loved the design, a fanged Bat Boy baby with enormous talons. I misremembered it being scaly, but it looks just like a bugeyed baby with nasty claws and fangs. And a taste for meat. It emptied the meat locker in one sitting.
Cohen does give us some laughs, but Ryan’s straight performance and the utter seriousness of the story keep it from being ridiculous. There’s a great scene when cops are chasing it, and hear a baby giggling, and surround a little infant on a blanket with drawn revolvers. In a crappy movie, we’d have heard gunshots offscreen and someone would’ve cynically commented that we’re not even safe from our own babies.
They track the baby to the sewers, and Dad goes along, rifle in hand to exterminate his progeny. Now that they know it will approach him, he’s the bait. The sewer scenes are surreal, in flashes of red from the prowler’s strobe lights. When Davis finally sees his son crying in the sewer, he has a change of heart.
It works on a primal, archetypal level, and the father eventually accepts his beastly child. I’m being a bit generous with my rating, because of the social commentary on pollution and medicines causing birth defects, without trying to be an alarmist thriller. It’s a very personal film in that manner; what would you do? Of course nowadays we’d see the sonogram and abort it, if the fetus didn’t claw its way out and eat the doctor. The script plays a lot with society’s primitive insistence on blaming the parents for the child, and on that level, the film is great. If it had a better effects budget, it might have been a real classic instead of a cult classic. Bernard Herrmann’s excellent score helps the film greatly. The ending is handled exceptional well and is quite chilling.
Someone has uploaded the movie onto youtube, if you follow the first part you can see the rest in ten minute segments.
It Lives Again! is a lackluster sequel that works only because John P. Ryan returned, and the plot now involves the drug company staking out pregnant women whose blood tests reveal they are carrying monster babies. They want to kill the babies so no one knows about the drug’s side effects. Mr. Davis now leads a resistance of scientists who want to save and study the babies in isolation. The new family with the monster fetus are boring, and the father, played by Frederic Forrest, was somehow in the classic Francis Ford Coppola movie The Conversation. Not sure how that happened. He was also in Futz!, a movie about a pigfucker, which makes more sense. He’s pretty horrible here, but works as that kind of jerk alongside a pregnant wife who seems to have zero empathy or love for his unborn child, even before it gnaws through the umbilical cord and claws the face off the ob-gyn.
The first two acts are pretty compelling, as they spirit away three babies to a secret location for study. They hint that the children are advanced and may be able to communicate, and react violently mostly out of fear. But they also seem to hate being caged up. It would have been better if they were a little more obvious with why the babies escape and go on a killing spree; maybe some psycho-babble about the “wire mother,” since they were raised in cages for months without affection.
It’s not there, and I don’t want to attribute too much subtlety to this sequel. It’s not bad, but by the third act it’s just a baby hunt. The baby monster costume is the same, but we get to see a lot more of it, but at the end it just isn’t as gripping, and the family doesn’t want to defend their monster baby until the last few minutes. You can understand that, but we get cockteased with a kid’s birthday party that the baby doesn’t even show up at, despite the trailer having a claw slash a cake. And it’s never clear whether the babies are malicious or only attack when scared. The monsters have better sound effects now, too- instead of just baby cries, they also make an animal grunt like a pug choking on a squirrel.
By that point, the cops have a Waco-like siege going on the safe house, pumping gas in through the chimney while the evil doctor sneaks in to exterminate the last monster. I wish they’d cut some of the silly scenes where a scientist uncages one for no good reason, and the birthday party, for more surreal scenes with the parents raising the monster baby- there’s a quick funny scene where they put a plate of raw meat in front of it, but from there it’s a rush to the ending. And with Davis gone, good acting is effectively banished from the series. The very end isn’t as chilling as the first, but Cohen knows better than to just fade to black, he gives us some closure.
It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive probably should never have been made. It follows the same formula, but starts with a great courtroom scene where another father, played by Michael Moriarty (Troll) convinces a judge to let the monster babies live in isolation. He’s terrified of his child, but has an epiphany when the prosecutor asks him to identify it in a cage. He bonds with it, and the courtroom freaks out when he puts his hands in the cage to hold it. Of course the bailiffs tear him away, and scare the baby, which tears its way out of the bars and flies right at the judge. Dad manages to calm Junior down, and the premise is born.
The movie is very 80’s, and isn’t very original from here on in. 5 years later, the drug company wants to exterminate the island, and scientists want to study them. Moriarty follows along, seemingly in a daze of madness after his wife, played by Karen Black (Trilogy of Terror) in make-up scarier than any of the babies, leaves him. He can’t even bed a hooker because she’s worried about his monster sperm.
They take a boat to the island, and actually sing a sea shanty on it, which was the final insult. The babies are now 5 years old, and look like monster pygmies. They have their own plans, and while Dad seems to be constantly torn between sabotaging the scientists and turning against “the Alive,” which the title stupidly calls the babies. The men who go to slaughter the island babies are as unprepared as the hunter in Jurassic Park. A few hunting rifles and some bug repellent are not enough gun for killer babies! In my favorite scene, a baby kills their helicopter pilot, and the craft explodes for no good reason.
In the end, they get off the island to go see momma, and get to kill some punks, as in any other 80’s slasher flick. There is a painful interlude in Cuba. Then they die of the measles, in a nod back to H.G. Wells, and a reminder to get your kids vaccinated, you libertarian wacko. But Moriarty and the always bizarre Karen Black (She was in Nashville, somehow) manage to sneak away with their monster grandson.
Thankfully Larry Cohen has been penning screenplays like Phone Booth and Cellular instead of contemplating another sequel. Although, apparently a remake is in the works. How will it work? With ultrasound and such, childbirth is hardly the mystery it was in the 70’s. Maybe they’ll play up an abortion angle. I expect it’ll be a gore flick or a jump-cut fest and lose all of the charm of the original. Once you lose the archetypal fears, it’s as scary as the zombie baby in Dead Alive.