Monday, June 28, 2010

Final Girl Film Club: 'It's Alive' (1974)

There is a nightmare, fairly common to those who have the care of an infant: that if they close their eyes for a second they will hear it walking about. It makes the blood run cold.
- Alice Thomas Ellis,
"Fairy Tale"

My husband asked politely, "May I help you with breakfast?"
"No indeed," I said. I stopped to catch my breath and smiled reassuringly. "I feel so well," I said.
"Would you be offended," he asked, still very politely, "if I took this egg out of my glass?"
"Certainly not," I said. "I'm sorry; I can't think how it got there."
"It's nothing at all," my husband said. "I was just thirsty."
They were all staring at me oddly, and I kept giving them my reassuring smile.


"I'm not yelling," I said. "I don't like this any more. I've changed my mind, I don't want any baby, I want to go home and forget the whole thing."
"I know just how you feel," he said.
My only answer was a word which certainly I knew that I knew, although I had never honestly expected to hear it spoken in my own ladylike voice.
"Stop yelling," my husband said urgently. "Please stop saying that."
-- Shirley Jackson, "Raising Demons"

This month for the Final Girl Film Club, a movie I'd never seen and never had any particular interest in seeing. I don't really want to see a monster-baby movie any more than I want to see, say, a monster-kitten movie (although -- please, God, somebody make one). Scary children are one thing, but scary babies just seems sort of un-cricket. Like Pussy Galore, I have maternal instincts. Still, I did love "The Brood," and the whole Pill-era fear of reproduction is sort of interesting. So I gave it a shot.

The first half-hour of this movie is just about perfect. It opens with the very pregnant Lenore (Sharon Farrell) waking up in the night feeling certain pangs and rousing her husband, Frank (John Ryan): "It's time!" I love the late-night eeriness of this intro, how this domestic scene already feels a little like a horror show -- it's just weird to wake up in the night and have to go to the hospital. The couple is excited but a little scared. Lenore & Frank's son, Chris, is a little freaked out too.

The scenes in the hospital are also pitch-perfect, as Lenore tries to talk to her patronizing doctor (who reminded me of Shirley Jackson's reminiscences about labor, quoted above) and Frank hangs out with other nervous dads in the waiting room. I love the tension of this segment: this is stuff that happens to thousands of people, every day, and yet the sense of certain doom is just inescapable.

And then Lenore's baby is born, and kills everyone in the delivery room. See, you were right to be scared!

From here the movie gets pretty bizarre, as Lenore and Frank's monster baby rampages through West L.A., mostly unseen until it leaps on someone's throat with its fangs out. It seems to be pretty much your basic baby, except with claws and fangs and massive jumping/climbing abilities: it's bald and it crawls, and although it kills people, it doesn't seem to eat them or anything. Its motives are unclear. Rick Baker did the makeup effects, but they're hard to see.

Lenore and Frank, meanwhile, argue about their new baby and its place in their home, in a bunch of sequences that I guess are supposed to indicate anxieties about modern medicine and the modern family. It's implied that the monster was caused by fertility drugs -- or maybe Lenore's oral contraceptives -- or maybe just all the smog in the air. Lenore and Frank turn out to have been considering abortion at one point, just to add one more social-issue layer to things. I appreciate the allegory here, but after a while all this gets boring.

But the killer-baby scenes aren't all that satisfying either. I mean, come on, it's got fangs, but it's just a baby! There's a high-camp sequence where it goes after a milk-truck driver (did they really still have milk trucks in 1974?), in a scene that reminded me of the truck scene in "Night of the Lepus." It ends with milk and blood pouring down the street. I guess it's funny? Sort of?

Another bit, used more than once, involves a character standing in a dark room full of baby toys. Everything looks so sinister! Wait -- did that plastic car just move? Is something else here? You get the sense that director Larry Cohen is immensely pleased with these scenes. At one point, multiple characters enter a dark nursery in turn, alone, just so Cohen can push that button again.

And they do resonate, unpleasantly; it's true that there's something otherworldly and alien about babies, sure, and you never really know what's going on inside their heads, and we project all kinds of anxieties onto them, both about our private lives and about society.

But still -- it's just a dang baby! I don't know about it, people. I'm going to hold out for the killer-kitten movie.


a.e. said...

Great review, AE! I really like your Shirley Jackson references--that was very sharp. I also agree with your assessment on the movie--it is kind of boring, and the baby toy stuff is ultra creepy. I forgot to mention the hints about pharmaceutical malfeasance--good call. I'l be watching your blog!

AE said...

Thanks, a.e.! I'll be watching your blog too.