Larry Cohen is not known for style, nor gruesome effects, or even good horror. Most of his films can be easily overlooked and have been. He's not likely to acquire a lifetime achievement award or any accolades for horror. He has made a better name for himself in the last decade as a screenwriter of a few mainstream hits such as Phone Booth and Cellular, and while these films make him more money than anything he directed they don't have the power of his horror fare. His directed films speak volumes about society. Comparisons can be drawn between Cohen and Romero in this regard, but Cohen is often a bit more subtle.
Cohen began his filmmaking career interestingly enough working within the blacksploitation sub-genre. His first feature film was Bone made in 1972, then Black Caesar in 1973. As all the films within the sub-genre they featured a dominate black male figure. Bone is a thug who breaks into a white couple's home and hyjinks ensue, all the while commenting on white racism and male dominance. Black Caesar is the rags to riches tale of Toby Gibbs (Fred Williamson) stealing significantly from Little Caesar and the original Scarface with a little Godfather thrown in. Its gritty illegal realism makes Caesar top notch exploitation and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem offers even more.
Cohen switched genres during the filming of Hell Up In Harlem. He spent Monday through Friday working on It's Alive leaving the weekends open to shoot Harlem. His quick low budget filmmaking kept him working during the 70's and most of the 80's. It's amazing to think that a few decades ago all one had to do was stay under budget and deliver early. If you kept to those simple rules you could continue creating.
He's made many films since It's Alive, like God Told Me To, two sequels to It's Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, Special Effects, The Stuff, and A Return To Salem's Lot. As we mentioned before he's also kept working through writing with Captivity and Maniac Cop (also the others mentioned above), but it his first trip into horror that still receives the highest praise.
It's Alive begins with a pregnancy and ends in pandemonium. The Davis family seems to have it all. Frank (John P. Ryan) has a well paying public relations position, Lenore (Sharon Farrell) is a stay at home mom content with keeping up their suburban home, and then there is their son Chris who is a normal pre-adolescent boy. Why wouldn't they want to bring another bundle of joy into this world? Our film begins with Lenore going into labor and Frank carting her off to the hospital. Once she's in the delivery room something terrible happens and the next time we see her all of the doctors are dead and she's screaming, "let me see my baby!" When the police canvass the scene they find only a small opening in the ceiling where the 'killer' escaped. They are a bit too quick to assume it was a mutant baby who killed everyone, but commentary films are never too worried about subtle plot devices. Quickly there is a chase for the demon newborn. We are able to see a few of the infant's kills through blurry POV. It becomes evident that the baby is trying to make its way home. While everyone is pursuing the baby, Frank is fired, Lenore goes crazy, and doctors persuade the family to sign over the body once the child is killed. Sub plots abound that give us our commentary. Pharmaceutical companies want the child completely destroyed so they may not be held responsible for the mutation, while the doctors want to cut it up to see what pollutants may have caused the abnormality. After a number of kills the baby finds his family, the mother protects him and at first the father wants to be the one to kill him (for ruining his life) but in the last moments of the film finds the patriarchal connection and wants the baby to live. Of course the police, doctors, and companies cannot let the thing live so they shoot on site. Never fear though, since this baby represents environmental fears the last thing we hear is that another one has been born.
This is classic 70's horror filled with the fears of the times and the paradigm shift of what constitutes a normal family. Cohen's craft as we've indicated is not overt but within his low budget and quick pace he was able to churn out a film that dealt with more than just a mutant baby on a killing spree in suburban America.