The proudly independent Larry Cohen finally struck it rich in the mainstream with this unnerving tale of a monstrous baby that puts a novel twist on the concept of being brought into the world kicking and screaming. As the marketing campaign for the film declared, the only thing wrong with Frank and Lenore Davies’s second child is that it’s alive, and, after being received with horror by the rest of the world, it does not hesitate to defend that life to the utmost. One part allegory on familial tensions and one part commentary on environmental and biological poisoning, It’s Alive is a multi-layered work that is at the same time starkly clear and chillingly precise in its observations. Cohen’s reference to James Whale’s Frankenstein in titling his film is not only a cheeky in-joke but a realization of the fundamental theme underlying both works, the primeval gore of birth anxiety coupled with the notion of culpability in creating, or of evidencing some compromising relationship with, abnormality. Ultimately, however, the disquieting aspects of It’s Alive are to be found in Cohen’s very blurring of the lines between what is normal and what is not and what it is to love a child unconditionally. By turns frightening and heartbreaking, an aspect particularly reflected in John P. Ryan’s tormented performance as the baby’s father, the film is not only perhaps one of Cohen’s best films but one of the finest American horror films of the last 30 years.
For those used to watching Cohen's meticulous compositions and his subdued yet slightly left of natural color palettes, a stylistic feature that he shares with another often neglected American director, George A. Romero, on the poor VHS copies previously circulating in video stores, this DVD is a godsend. Not only is it letterboxed and crystal clear but Bernard Herrmann's score sounds pitch perfect.
Cohen's commentary is charmingly matter of fact, with the director discussing his relationship with famed composer Bernard Herrmann and the twists and turns of the film's distribution by a skeptical Warner Bros. and its eventual box office success. As a fierce proponent of the one man band approach to filmmaking, it is by turns inspiring and frustrating to listen to Cohen wax nostalgic, frustrating if only because it seems that his kind of cinema production is so remote a possibility in today's film industry, even in the independent market. One also gets the feeling that Cohen is comfortable enough writing his scripts, feeling no great need to engage an industry that has changed so drastically that "CGI effects people really make the movies today, not directors." Bless you Mr. Cohen.
If not as packed with extras as one may have hoped, this It's Alive DVD is a much-welcomed event.