70’s Memories: It’s Alive (1974) and It Lives Again (1978)

Written by Larry Cohen
Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon
US Release October 1974
RT 91 min.
Home Video Warner Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)


Of all the 70s movies I’ve re-watched recently, I think the one that maintains the best feel of the decade is It’s Alive.  Perhaps it’s the peace sign wallpaper in Chris Davis’s (Daniel Holzman) room, the wardrobe and cars of the characters, or because smoking is allowed inside a hospital…  As Frank Davis (John Ryan) lights up a cig in the waiting room while his wife is giving birth, he and other men talk about how they’re slowly poisoning themselves.  That’s one of the few attempts the movie makes to explain why his baby turns out to be a monster.

On the way to the hospital, Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell), who had her first child in 45 minutes, comments that this pregnancy feels different.  During childbirth, she cries that something’s wrong.  A doctor replies, “No, it’s just a really big baby.”  Yeah, and it’s deadly, too.  It kills most of the people in the delivery room before escaping the hospital.  This scene is extremely chilling.  It’s a great start to a movie with great intentions, even if they’re not always fully realized.

At the core of this crudely made, yet surprisingly effective, horror movie is a heartfelt debate over what to do with this creature, when it is found.  Frank believes, “It’s not an animal.  It’s human.”  But nearly everyone else disagrees, “It kills like an animal and when we find it, we have to kill it like one.”  Some are even less clear about what they think it is, “We’re not talking about a retarded kid (apparently not politically incorrect in the 70s), we’re talking about a monstrosity of some kind.”

My favorite scene in It’s Alive, although much better in my memory than when I recently re-watched it, is when the baby is on the loose and a milkman pulls up to a house to make a delivery (again, dated for the 70s).  He climbs into the back of his truck and there is an unseen struggle inside.  Glass breaks and milk starts running out the back of the truck and down the bumper, pooling on the street below.  Soon, the white milk runs red with blood.  Our imaginations are left to paint a picture of what happened.

It’s Alive was one of Rick Baker’s (seven-time Oscar winner for makeup) first theatrical movies.  We see the baby only in fleeting shots… a bulbous head here, a fanged mouth there.  It’s a shame we don’t get to see more of the creature he created.  But writer-producer-director Larry Cohen must have believed (as many do) that the less you see of a monster, the scarier it is.  If that’s the case, I just wish the editing were better.  Too many shots end abruptly or cut away too quickly to achieve the desired suspense.

It’s not a spoiler to tell the twist at the end of It’s Alive, considering I’m going to proceed to talk about the sequel.  No sooner is the baby issue resolved than Lt. Perkins (James Dixon) receives a phone call.  Another one has been born in Seattle.  It doesn’t really matter what caused the mutation… radiation, birth control pills, abortion attempts, or even smog.  What matters is that it could be happening nationwide.  And that’s where It Lives Again (aka It’s Alive 2) begins…

Written by Larry Cohen
Directed by Larry Cohen
Starring Frederic Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd, John P. Ryan, Andrew Duggan
US Release May 10, 1978
RT 91 min.
Home Video Warner Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)


John Ryan is back as Frank Davis, who infiltrates a baby shower in Tucson to warn expecting parents Eugene and Jody Scott (Frederic Forrest, Kathleen Lloyd) that their unborn baby fits the profile of other monster babies born around the country.  Not as grisly an opening as It’s Alive, it’s still creepy when he’s the last remaining guest at the party and the Scotts don’t know who he is.  Davis tells them that, “doctors all over the country are watching for abnormal babies so they can terminate the pregnancies.”

A Time magazine story has made Davis somewhat of a celebrity.  That’s probably why he carries any credibility at all with the Scotts.  Sticking to his guns that his baby was not a monster, he says, “He forgave me.  Is that an animal?  Is that a monster, that can forgive me?”  He now facilitates a covert operation that sends a mobile delivery unit that’s “going to save the lives of so many children.”  He claims, “It’s happening and it’ll continue to happen to thousands, perhaps millions, before the century is out.”

Since the parents know what to expect when Jody gives birth, there’s a different dynamic in It Lives Again than there is in It’s Alive.  First, there’s time for speculation about the cause of the mutation before the baby is born.  “Vitamins, supplements, vegetarian diet… I bet that’s what they’ll say caused this.”  Second, as she goes into labor at the hospital (no cell phones in the 70s, so there’s a communications snafu between Frank and the Scotts), she screams, “You have no right!  It’s my baby!”

Fast forward (although getting there is more laborious in the sequel than it is in the original) to a facility in Los Angeles where Frank and his crew are protecting and studying two other babies, Adam and Eve.  Yeah, they went there.  They’ve learned that the babies have a mental capacity of infants 21 months old and bear a “striking resemblance” to each other, “almost like brother and sister.”  Dr. Perry (Andrew Duggan) claims they’re “a new race of humanity that will finally eclipse our own.”

I found more humor in It Lives Again than in It’s Alive.  The compound in Los Angeles used to be a private academy, so innocent signs from back in the day now carry ominous meanings: on the front gate, “Drive Carefully, Children at Play” and at the pool, “Swim at Your Own Risk.”  The latter is particularly scary when Eugene takes a dip in the pool, a clawed hand breaks the outdoor light, and then there’s a plop into the water.  One of the babies then attacks him.

We see more of the babies in the sequel, which is overall a better-looking movie.  I’m guessing Cohen had a bigger budget after the success of It’s Alive.  Since many glimpses of attacks include full body shots of the babies, I think they’re puppets.  They’re certainly not animated enough to be more than that.  But if you think three times the number of babies equals three times the horror, you better think again.  Two are quickly destroyed, leaving the finale to a single monster, just like the original.

It Lives Again is much slower than It’s Alive.  At the same time, it covers a longer period of time.  In fact, the passing of time is unclear.  Jody is up and around pretty quickly after the baby tore itself from her womb.  Also, one minute Frank can’t go to the compound because he might be followed by the “bad guys”; however, the next minute he’s already there.  Ultimately, it all comes down to the same debate: what if the babies aren’t compatible with the human race?  Do they destroy them?

The difference in the sequel is that the father is not so sure the baby should survive.  In the finale, the baby makes his way to the house where the Scotts are staying, via a child’s birthday party (I love the claw mark in the cake), and it comes down to an emotional struggle between Eugene and Jody, who wants to protect it.  When put face to face with the mayhem it causes, though, will they relent?  No spoilers this time, though.  I’m not going to talk about the second sequel, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.

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