Blood was everywhere.
Small puddles of it dotted the tile floor near my wife’s hospital bed, making your shoes squeak if you happened to step in one. Splatters of the stuff dampened the sheets she lay on. And as the doctor passed me a set of surgical scissors to sever the umbilical cord that still tethered our newly born son to Norah’s life-giving body, a single drop of it hung delicately from the tool’s handle. The physician, realizing that blood from her gloves had made it to the instrument, moved to wipe the thing clean, but before she could I snatched them from her hand. I’d been waiting nearly 30 years for this moment and no number of bodily fluids were going to keep me a second longer from seeing it through. And besides, cinematic gore and viscera had been my pastime of choice for just as many years, so a little blood didn’t make me squeamish in the least.
What did cause my knees to shake was the feeling that washed over me as Norah and I held our child Arlo for the first time. I had known in some abstract way that I would love him, grasping the logic of what your brain does to you chemically when first encountering your spawn, but I could never have understood how terrifyingly intoxicating it felt to see him in the flesh until he was there in my arms. Here he was, the physical embodiment of our hope and optimism for the future, gurgling as he looked with new, nearsighted eyes at the faces which hovered above his. To him, these blurry shapes were his whole world. To us, this roiling bundle of arms and legs was a miracle, and I felt stripped naked by my love for him.
A terrible sense of vulnerability takes hold of you after becoming a parent. In some ways, it can feel like your heart has phased through your ribcage and now resides on the outside of your body. You experience everything on a visceral level. When your child feels pain, you feel it too. You also share in their joys and triumphs, which is what makes that sense of emotional exposure easier to deal with. On top of all of that, your deep-seated love for them can sometimes cloud your judgment, causing you to see your kid as a perfect little angel rather than as an individual who is just as susceptible to the pitfalls of humanity as you are. So, you hope for the best while striving to raise the kind of person who will be a benefit to society rather than the inverse.
But there’s a fear of the worst-case scenario that’s always at the back of your mind like a reoccurring nightmare you can’t forget. What if, despite your best efforts, or due to some cosmic mishap, there was a darkness to your child that couldn’t be shed no matter how much you tried to help? What if they were capable of doing unspeakable things? What if they were a monster?
This question is examined in legendary writer/director Larry Cohen’s 1974 creature feature It’s Alive, a film that’s sometimes comical, oftentimes terrifying, and surprisingly affecting. It tells the story of Frank and Lenore Davis, an average middle-class American family attempting to come to terms with the fact that their bulbous-headed newborn has a penchant for using its far-too pointy teeth and razor-sharp claws to shred just about anyone it comes across. After the pint-sized beast escapes the hospital where it’s born and begins to wreak havoc on the citizens of Los Angeles, the Davises are left to deal with both the physical and psychological aftermath the child has left in its wake.
Their names are plastered across newspapers, as are the crimes of their little miracle, and the couple soon becomes the center of a media frenzy. A search for the murderous infant is mounted by the police while a major pharmaceutical company (it manufactures a contraceptive that’s responsible for the child’s bizarre mutation) demands that it be killed upon sight in an attempt to curb any more bad publicity. Meanwhile, Frank joins the police in their search for the tiny brute, hoping to regain his life once the bloodthirsty thing has been found. But the weary father cannot imagine what this journey has in store for him, or what it will feel like to finally come face-to-face with his son.
What’s remarkable about It’s Alive are the layers of complexity it gives to what could have been just your average cheesy monster movie. Larry Cohen treats the Davises like real people and, aside from showcasing some great work from then up-and-coming FX guru Rick Baker appears to be most interested in exploring the different ways in which Frank and Lenore express their parental vulnerability as their nightmare unfolds.
In the case of Lenore, the pain she feels is so excruciating that it appears to have driven her slightly mad. This is completely understandable: the bond between her and the monster would run just as deep as it would have if the baby weren’t a murderous beast. She gave life to the thing, grew it within herself, and undoubtedly had the hopeful expectations every parent has when waiting for their kid’s arrival. Now couple the physical trauma of giving birth with the horror of seeing what the creature did to the nurses and doctors attending to her in the delivery room and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a mental breakdown.
It’s also not surprising what comes next as we later find out that Lenore has been hiding the infant in the basement of her and Frank’s home. Monster or not, it’s still her baby. The instinct to protect and shelter it overrides any other concerns she might have, either for her own safety or the rest of her family’s. In some ways, it’s more frightening than the critter itself. Love for our children can fuel us, make us feel whole, but it can also blind us to reality or, under the worst of circumstances, nearly destroy us.
Frank isn’t in the delivery room when his child is born, so he doesn’t have the opportunity to lay eyes on it. Because of that, the baby is more of an abstract concept to him than reality. All he sees are the bodies piling up as a result of the beast’s actions, so his initial response to help the police hunt it down makes sense. He is far more burdened by guilt than nurturing feelings at first, which explains why he can come off as a bit heartless for so much of the film.
That is until the climax of It’s Alive, which features a moment that rings so true to life that you almost forget it involves a rubber monster-baby. After Frank and the police’s search leads them to the city’s sewers, he finally meets his son. He stumbles upon the pitiful creature, alone and frightened in the dank darkness of the filth-filled tunnels, and is suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. As he holds his child for the first time, he tearfully tries to calm it down, whispering “I know it hurts, look I know that, but everything’s going to be alright. See, I was…I was scared like you are.” His fears of what the bundle in his arms is capable of melt away as he sees it for what it really is: a frightened (albeit exceptionally dangerous) infant that only wants its mommy and daddy.
The ending that follows (I’ll leave it for you to see if you haven’t watched the movie yet) feels completely divorced from the emotions that we’ve just seen bubble up from Frank, but this single moment of instant paternal love and the way it completely strips the man of his defenses is some of Larry Cohen’s best writing. It, along with what we’ve seen Lenore go through, represents a private hell reserved only for those who’ve had the dual blessings and curses of parenthood visited upon them.
For better or worse, our hearts are tied to our children.
After some skin-to-skin contact with Arlo, a nurse took him away to perform a few tests. Norah asked me if I could go get her a drink of water, so I started to make my way towards the hall. Side-stepping a puddle of blood on the hospital room floor, I bumped into a surgical tray. Glancing down, I saw my baby’s placenta sitting in one of those metal kidney-shaped bowels looking like a piece of gore sucked straight out of a movie. It was then that I thought of the part in It’s Alive where Frank bursts into the delivery room and discovers the bloody carnage left behind by his child.
Maybe it was because I’d been up for almost 48 hours by that point and I felt loopier than a bag of cats, but the surrealism of that moment and how strangely similar it felt to the scene I was currently standing in made me laugh out loud. Our perfect little mutant (don’t all babies look like that when they’re first born?) was soon returned to us, and as Norah nursed him, I felt deliriously happy and overwhelmingly frightened in equal measure while thinking about what the future had in store for us. Joy, insanity, and possibly even heartbreak were on the horizon, but in that first wonderful hour of Arlo’s life, the present was all that mattered.
Doyle, Michael. (2016). Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters. BearManor Media.
Pat Brennan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Rue Morgue, Dread Central, Certified Forgotten, and Killer Horror Critic. He lives in New Brunswick with his wife, son, and very needy cat. Follow him on Twitter @PBrennan87.
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