It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (Larry Cohen, 1987)

by Douglas Buck July 9, 2018 8 minutes (1791 words) DVD

It’s a number of years (both within the narrative and without, as the previous film hit theaters almost a full decade before) after the trials and tribulations of the mutant babies (and their parents) from the first two instalments. With the creature-creating pharmaceutical fertility drug no longer on the market, mutant baby births are down… and the courts decide, in lieu of executing the few remaining babies, to ‘humanely’ sentence them to a remote island… however, when Stephen Jarvis (a barely-in-control Michael Moriarity), this film’s latest societal outcast monster daddy, heads out on a scientific expedition (that includes James Dixon’s Lieutenant Perkins, returning for the third time in the series, for reasons that, like a lot of the film, don’t really add up) to the island only to discover the nefarious reasons why the government decided to place them there… as well as the real intention of the expedition.

The monster babies are back, only they grow up about halfway through this one. Five years passes during the film and, with their apparent exhilarated aging rate, they go from those familiar, though this time mostly stop motion rather than rubber (which is cool in one way, in that I not only am nostalgically partial towards the painstakingly created Ray Harryhausen-style optical magic of stop-motion, but that it also finally allows full views of the little sharp-tooth and clawed buggers, without the need for Cohen to work so hard to try and obfuscate the obvious lack of organic movement from the original Rick Baker creations… and yet the use of it, with the baby bending open bars from its cage like it’s like some infant Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth feels like a bit of a misstep from the original’s conception) human evolutions (or so some worshipful doctors believed, at least in the last entry _It Lives Again_… an interesting idea that just gets unceremoniously dropped this go around) to just as awkwardly captured — and definitively less iconic — rubber-suited monster men (that, again, Cohen, in his practical wisdom, avoids giving much more than shadowy glimpses of).

Not surprisingly for the filmmaker, he continues to conjure up some interesting and challenging concepts, such as having the humanoids mating and procreating within five years (an idea introduced in the previous episode, which, I forgot to mention in my post on that film, unfortunately had the first smattering of clueless hipsters I’ve ever had to endure at the Nitehawk Cinema monthly Deuce series whose low-brow goal is to cackle incessantly like drooling hyenas derisively at everything they see and hear – with, if they aren’t put a stop to quickly enough, the sheep around them inevitably joining in — rather than come to terms with, or perhaps without having any of the developed mental ability or insight to recognize, the sharp intelligence, wonderful eccentricity or inspired creativity of any of it – I really hope this isn’t the start of a new audience movement there, as it’ll just mean another step for me towards an on-going disassociation from the modern world and its self-assured, yet completely clueless arrogance and mindless conformity).

A few developments in the creatures are a bit less welcome though… for instance, making them almost entirely misunderstood, only ever attacking humans when feeling threatened (or when trying to help someone, such as when they rip apart some gang members for trying to rape a teenage girl), rather than keeping them as savagely unpredictable wild creatures makes the moral issue of whether they should be killed or not much less complex and textured. The representation of the monsters as the clear ‘good guys’ and humans in general as bad, chaotic and destructive (other than the even-tempered equally misunderstood Cubans, who save Stephen late in the film, in highly improbably fashion) may lean in the right direction (hey, I’m right there with him — humans are pretty awful) — but it’s all a bit too disappointingly obvious from a filmmaker who usually can’t help but go for complexity (for instance, even with monster babies roaming about, there weren’t even bad or good guys in those first two entries).

As simplified (and less compelling) as this one is, he still isn’t anywhere near interested in just providing mindlessly marauding fang-toothed, wild eyed baby creatures that our human heroes have to fend off for 90 minutes (which I’m not saying couldn’t be fun in the right hands… it’s just with Cohen, unlike his fellow celebrated horror peers of the time, the more sensationalistic exploitable aspects, as sellable as they are and likely to excite investors, rarely seemed to play an important part, or be a focus, of his cinema), but rather he’s still admirably trying to explore more thoughtful thematic concerns. The monsters remain a jumping off point (closely aligning him with another of the legends, the late George Romero – though Romero’s team was clearly much more determined in getting the viscera right).

Unfortunately, however, the widely broad strokes and odd humor (something Cohen went with pretty strong in the 80’s, not always to the best result), as well as Moriarity’s plunge into bonkers territory in the last 2/3’s of the movie, create a frustrating experience of not really always knowing quite how we’re supposed to be reacting to what we’re seeing. While his continued (and deeply understandable) concerns over the shady doings of big business operating under pure commerce and self-interest as it exploits an easily duped populace, as well as that of a shady and untrustworthy government (which carts off the mutant babies to an island that was once an old nuclear testing ground to see the effects on them, mirroring what in fact was done for real, with the difference being humans were the guinea pigs), are admirable explorations, the carry-through is spotty (and as accomplished as Laurie Johnson was in guiding the music, man, did I miss that Bernard Herrmann score).

Starting right away in the opening ‘birth’ scene in a city taxicab and the ensuing violent deaths (getting the single ‘horror’ set-piece of the film out of the way right there) in which the arguing uncaring driver and angry cop play their self-interest deliberately way over-the-top, and on into the unlikely ‘jury’ scene deliberating whether Stephen’s caged wild child, and apparently all the babies, should be put to death or not (why is a jury deciding on this? What exactly is the case and who is on trial?) with Gerrit Graham, a wonderfully eccentric performer in his own right, playing the right-wing, (metaphorically) xenophobic zealot prosecutor (though what exact crime he’s prosecuting I couldn’t tell you) and Stephen delivering an impassioned speech about saving his monstrous son, the approach never comes across sure enough in either direction – emotional or parodic – to work (even with Moriarity going to that signature – at least in the Cohen films — near-hysterical gravitas pitch in his voice that’s always capable of creating something real in his performance).

Cohen favorite Michael Moriarity

The early, almost throwaway scenes of some pharmaceutical bigwigs showing up to the island (where the babies are exiled) to hunt and kill them, in an effort to eliminate any final link between their fertility drug and the creation of the mutants, especially as they want to re-market the drug and put it back out for sale (I mean, I certainly like the idea but… how exactly would killing these babies destroy the evidence? Wasn’t this all kinda clear already? And the authorities had more than enough dead babies to autopsy from those first films, no?) are — similar to the cops-chasing-the-mutants-in-the-Hollywood-Hills last 1/3 of It’s Alive Again — rather dull, with Cohen not able to generate much excitement, either in terms of suspense, action or gore gags.

The always welcome genre- and just-cinema-in-general-fave Karen Black puts in some adequate screen time as Stephen’s ex-wife and mommy to his monster baby. As with the original, Cohen spends time detailing how the shunned parents struggle to cope with an ignorant society that thinks of them as much of freaks as their offspring themselves, only it’s growing a bit tired, as we’ve seen it before (even with these two entirely engaging performers). Well… actually Moriarity is engaging early on, as he grows more and more disheartened by a society that first shuns him, then wants him to greedily make money off his experiences by writing a book, but then just goes entirely off-the-hook into an over-theatrical form of non-acting (that he seems to be having a hell of a lot of fun at, for whatever that’s worth).

As they head to the island, Moriarity’s Stephen (I guess, dramatically, as a means of coping with the insanity of his situation, as well as his growing disillusionment with an uncaring system set up to equally condemn and monetarily exploit his chid) begins engaging the other characters in song (and they amazingly sing the whole thing, completely off-key, just belting along like a couple of drunken friends as we watch… and wait for the movie to continue…), endlessly sexually harasses the single female scientist on the ship (and island, when they get there), with it feeling a bit too uncomfortably ad-libbed and real, and just acts, well… the fool. The results are… well, not good… but not entirely uninteresting, at least when considering the decision-making behind it (I can imagine Cohen either ripping his hair out… or pushing Moriarity to go further… just for the hell of it).

It’s unfortunate that Cohen ended the trilogy with this least compelling effort, but, as is usual with him, he’s got all sorts of ideas percolating. Unfortunately, the monsters’ ultimate demise by human hands (both through being infected by diseases from the island and shot by the panicking police) generates nowhere near the pathos that the first two films mustered up.

The first “Alive” entry was the best, anchored by the inspired creation of the monster baby (and all the themes, ideas and social critiques that sprang from it for Cohen) as well as a career-best and deeply emotional turn by John Ryan as the father who learns to cast away society’s demands and love his rejected mutant child. The next two brought increasingly lessening, yet still interesting, returns.

The final image, however, of re-united mother and father driving away as a new family with the last of the surviving mutant creatures (the baby offspring of two of the new dead creatures) hidden in their backseat, a hopeful (and possibly evolutionary) future before them was a fitting way to wrap it up (even if, of course, it deliberately left an opening for a sequel that never came).

_It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive_ (Larry Cohen, 1987)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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