Prior to seeing It’s Alive, my only experience with a Larry Cohen production was watching Full Moon High on The Movie Channel. That movie has drifted into unfortunate obscurity, but let me say this: It’s one of the funniest horror-comedies I’ve ever seen. So it probably won’t surprise you that I expected It’s Alive to have a similar comedic tone — after all, it’s about a killer baby, of all things. In a million years, I could not have imagined it would have contained such suspense and such a thoughtful metaphor about parents giving birth to monsters.

To quote McBain: It’s not a comedy. It contains Cohen’s wit and penchant for the absurd, but he plays It’s Alive as a straight horror film. Centered on Frank Davis (John Ryan), a mild-mannered publicist whose wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell), is expecting her second child. In a gut-wrenching sequence, the birth goes horribly awry. The baby is born hideously deformed, with monstrous claws and fangs. One of the doctors attempts a mercy killing, which prompts the baby to not-so-mercifully kill everyone in the delivery room — except Lenore.

As the baby wanders around, killing people, Frank and Lenore return home to deal with the emotional ramifications of what they’ve brought into the world: A murderous monster that police will undoubtedly kill on sight if they can catch it. Neither of them expect that the infant is traveling across town to get home. Lenore discovers the baby and, as any parent would, puts aside its flaws and hides it in the basement. She doesn’t even tell Frank, because he wouldn’t understand — and it’s true, he doesn’t. He wants it dead, just like the police do. But soon enough, Frank will see his child and have the same reaction Lenore does.

That reaction is what makes It’s Alive more than a campy horror flick. Cohen roots the story firmly in the most primitive instincts of any parent, unconditional love of a child and the desire to do anything possible to protect it. That foundation allows for his metaphoric exploration of persecution and protection, and the moral gray area of a parent protecting a beast they know is a killer. The Davis’s struggle remains emotionally resonant throughout.

Much of this has to do with John Ryan’s terrific performance. Although he worked steadily, Ryan never had the career he deserved. Let’s face it: Anyone who took supporting roles in more than one Cannon film deserves better, but it’s especially disappointing to see an actor give such a committed, heartbreaking performance in one early role, knowing he never got the chance to top it.

It’s Alive is a great horror film, much less campy or silly than the DVD box art would have you believe. It also introduced Cohen’s offbeat sensibility to moviegoers. Obscured in his ’60s television work and early ’70s blaxploitation films (though it’s present in spades in 1972’s Bone), Cohen has the sort of unique cinematic voice many filmmakers could only dream of having. It’s Alive remains a great introduction to his work, as it’s arguably his most accessible film. It’s a must-see for any horror fan.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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