Based on Characters Created by, Written, Executive Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen
Considering the fact that I regard the original It’s Alive as one of my favorite films of all time, it would be very easy for me to hate It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. Even viewers who do not care about the first two films in the franchise could be forgiven for finding the film to be, at best, a silly mess. Upon first viewing, I did hate the film. It felt as though Cohen was mocking the serious tone of the first two films. Given the personal connection I feel to the first film in particular, Island of the Alive felt like a personal affront.
But the distance afforded by the twenty-year time gap between when I first watched Island of the Alive and now has allowed me to take the film on its own merits. Aside from the presence of the mutant babies and a returning character in the morally conflicted police Lieutenant Perkins (James Dixon), there is very little to link it to the previous two films. This allows Cohen to take the film in a more comedic direction and take advantage of the nine year gap between It’s Alive 2 and this film to explore a very specific hot-button issue relevant to the late ‘80s.
Like the first two films in the franchise, Island of the Alive focuses on a father dealing with the confusion and shame of having a mutant child. This time around, it is Stephen Jarvis (Michael Moriarty in an unconvincing toupee), a semi-successful actor who has made a career out of acting in commercials. Since the events surrounding the Davis baby from the first film, the world has grown so accustomed to the mutant children being born that the official legal response is for them to be executed on sight. Despite the obvious moral and legal problems with this policy, very few people seem to care. Stephen is one of those few people.
As the spokesman for a group of parents who are suing the government to stop the killing of the children, he is front and center in the courtroom. When a sleazy government lawyer (Gerrit Graham) tries to prove Stephen is afraid of his own child by wheeling it into court in a cage, things nearly go very bad.
Stephen talks to his child and boldly places his hands in the cage, prompting panic from everyone present. During the chaos that follows, Stephen’s son escapes from his cage. When Stephen is able to talk his child down and show the Judge (Macdonald Carey) and the reporters present that not only is his son intelligent, but also afraid when he turns to Stephen for comfort, the tide turns. The Judge orders that Stephen’s son and four other children in custody shall be placed on an uninhabited island where they cannot hurt anyone.
In the aftermath of the trial, Stephen has become the celebrity he always wanted to be, but for all the wrong reasons. He is seen as the father of a monster and is unable to get any acting work. Even worse, the commercials he acted in have all been pulled from the air, meaning royalty checks have dried up. If he had his way, he would just blend into the crowd. But when the bill comes due from his attorney, to avoid bankruptcy, he is forced into writing his account of what happened from the birth of his son through the trial.
The publication of Stephen’s book comes as a shock to Ellen (Karen Black), his ex-wife. Having disappeared from the public eye—and Stephen’s life—long before the trial ever started, she is living in anonymity in a Florida beach town. Stephen tracks her down in an effort to reconcile now that the trial has ended and their child has been safely removed from civilization. But Ellen is still in deep self-loathing over giving birth to a mutant child. She cuts down Stephen with the implication that he probably loves the attention since he finally gets to “play the lead role.” Dejected at losing his family, Stephen tries to disappear into the same sort of anonymity that Ellen has found.
Four years later, Stephen has been reduced to working as a salesman in a children’s shoe store. The phenomenon of the mutant babies has passed, with none having been born in the intervening years. A group of scientists want to form an expedition to the island to see what has become of the five children. At first, Stephen is resistant to the idea of joining the expedition, but is persuaded by Perkins to join since they would be the only two people involved who care about the children and understand how dangerous they can be.
Given the intelligence and advanced growth rate of the children, it is no surprise when the expedition quickly goes haywire, despite Stephen’s attempts to keep both the children and the expedition members safe. To say any more would give away some truly loopy plot developments as Cohen indulges in the kitchen sink style of storytelling that only he seems able to pull off.
A big reason that the film works as well as it does is Moriarty’s innate understanding of how to act in a Larry Cohen film (for other examples of this peculiar magic, see Q and The Stuff). Of their collaborations, Island of the Alive is easily the shakiest, but Moriarty’s smirking, sarcastic, bitter take on Stephen gives the film an emotional center. While Stephen is often unlikable, Moriarty makes it clear that Stephen’s sarcasm is merely a survival technique. Seen as a freak by the rest of the world, Stephen responds by giving strangers what they expect in exaggerated form: he hands out business cards that read “Stephen Jarvis, Father of the Monster,” responds to a scientist’s assertion that being shot with a tranquilizer dart is painless by shooting said scientist with a tranquilizer dart—that definitely is painful, and intentionally annoys the other members of the expedition by singing sea shanties on the boat trip to the island. He is a man who goes out of his way to be annoying just so people will leave him alone. There is something poetic (in a very rough way) about a man who wants so badly to disappear that he has to ignore the instinct to connect with people and pretend to be as misanthropic as possible.
Cohen is no dummy and he puts Moriarty front-and-center for most of the movie, using his performance to gloss over the extremely weak story and special effects. It is no coincidence that any scene that does not involve Stephen brings the film to a screeching halt.
There is no better example of the black hole created by Moriarty’s absence than an unnecessary subplot about Ellen being blackmailed by a former lover when he discovers her secret. This subplot leads to an ugly scene that hinges on threatened sexual violence and Black turning her performance up to an ear-splitting shriek. The whole sequence goes nowhere, merely providing a repellant character to add to the body count and acting as padding for the thin story.
Aside from some nifty stop-motion animation in certain sequences, the effects work is awkward and amateurish. Cohen does his best to hide the (now) fully-grown mutant babies for most of the film, showing them in brief glimpses in shadows and through foliage. But when the film goes for a closure to the mutant baby storyline that reaches back to the first film’s stunning ending and inverting it, Cohen is forced to show the mutants in all their crude, cheaply-constructed glory. What should be a bittersweet moment with the weight of three film’s worth of emotional material for fans of the series is robbed of its impact by the unintentional comedy of the mutant’s appearance.
Always interested in injecting some social commentary into his genre films, Cohen uses Stephen’s reputation as a freak to comment on the fear of sexually transmitted diseases. He specifically addresses the paranoia surrounding the AIDS epidemic in the mid to late ’80s through a series of well-constructed scenes involving Stephen and a prostitute (Laurene Landon). Their rapport starts out fun and smart as Cohen nicely avoids the seediness and judgmental attitude that so many films employ when exploring the transaction between two people in their situation. There is mutual respect between the characters when they meet and get to know each other. Moriarty and Landon nicely play this exchange, injecting one of the film’s few honest moments of warmth into their performances. That warmth and humor makes it all the more humiliating and hurtful to Stephen when she recognizes him as the “father of the monster” and panics, hurling insults about “infecting” her and confirming his suspicions about how the rest of the world sees him.
Moriarty is entertaining and keeps the film watchable through the numerous rough patches, but even he is unable to ultimately save the film from its threadbare feel and nonsensical moments (Exactly why does that helicopter explode?). There is entertainment value to be found in It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, but as the end point of a story started by a masterpiece like It’s Alive, it is impossible to look at it as anything other than a failure, even if I don’t hate it like I once did.
James Dixon Sighting: As detailed in the review, he reprises his role as Lieutenant Perkins.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, read all the extraneous crap that goes through my head by following me on Twitter, and keep up with all of my viewing habits by following me on Letterboxd.