In 1974, Warner Bros. released writer/director Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive. The film, which starred John Ryan (Five Easy Pieces, Futureworld) and Sharon Farrell (The Premonition, Sweet Sixteen), tells the tale of a couple who, after partaking in a new fertility treatment, give birth to a mutant baby that proceeds to kill all of the doctors present for its birth before escaping from the hospital and causing mayhem and havoc on the streets of Los Angeles. James Dixon (who also appeared in Cohen’s Black Caesar and God Told Me To) co-stars as the detective tasked with taking the killer infant down.
Produced for somewhere (reportedly) around half a million dollars, It’s Alive proved to be a monster (pun intended) success, spawning (another pun) a sequel four years later. (It’s Alive was later remade in 2009, but the less said about that film the better.) It’s Alive II: It Lives Again opens to find that even more of the mutant babies have been born to unsuspecting parents across America. John Ryan reprises his role as Frank Davis, the father of the first film’s baby, this time attempting to warn another couple (played by Frederic Forest, who would later appear in Apocalypse Now, and Kathleen Lloyd, fresh off of 1977’s The Car) about the government conspiracy to kill their unborn child, as well as all of the other mutant babies. Dixon also returns as Lt. Perkins, although his role is somewhat smaller this outing.
Although not as critically or commercially successful as the first film, It’s Alive II found its share of fans. With multiple airings on cable, as well as wide availability on home video in the 1980’s, both films developed something of a small “cult following”, which included my older sister (from whom I first heard of the series). So, it should have been of little surprise that a third film would surface some years later.
Sometime in the mid-1980’s, Cohen went to Warner Bros. to pitch the idea of a House of Wax remake. The studio declined the idea (too bad someone at the studio didn’t decline the 2005 remake), but instead requested that Cohen make a film for release by the studio’s home video division. This deal resulted in It’s Alive III, as well as Return to Salem’s Lot, both of which starred Michael Moriarty (Pale Rider, TV’s “Law & Order“). While I mean no disrespect, it may be fair to label both of these films as “cash-ins” as Cohen knew that both films would garner attention (and rentals) due solely to name recognition.
Subtitled “Island of the Alive“, It’s Alive III opens with a scene of a woman giving birth to one of the mutant babies in the backseat of a NYC taxi cab. The baby manages to kill everyone in the scene, only to be shot and killed off-screen before the beginning of the next scene. Honestly, the sequence plays little-to-no importance to the remainder of the film or its overall plot, and (per Cohen) exists only to give viewers a dose of horror and (albeit tame) gore early in the proceedings. All this said, the scene is worth mentioning as it would later be used in the 1988 “Dirty Harry” flick, The Dead Pool… where it was undoubtedly seen by more moviegoers than had seen It’s Alive III.
Early in its runtime, It’s Alive III informs the viewer that the babies are being born at a vastly decreased rate as the fertility drug that caused the whole epidemic has since been pulled from the market. That, however, does not prevent the film from focusing on yet another mutant baby. Actually, there are a few of them, but more about that later.
Moriarty stars as “Stephen Jarvis”, a former actor who fathered one of these children with his now estranged ex-wife, Ellen (Karen Black, who appeared with John Ryan in Five Easy Pieces). Although Jarvis fears the child (as do most people), he still considers it to be a human being, and deserving of basic human rights; namely, the right to life. When we first meet Jarvis, he is in a courtroom defending this right against a system that wants nothing more than to see these murderous infants exterminated. Gerrit Graham (Phantom of the Paradise, C.H.U.D II: Bud the Chud) appears as the attorney fighting to have the Jarvis child killed.
After convincing the judge (Macdonald Carey – “Days of Our Lives“, Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) that he is able to communicate with and pacify the monstrosity that stemmed from his loins, it is determined that the child, as well as the few other remaining mutant babies, will be sent to live out their lives on a deserted island located somewhere off the coast of Florida. What the babies are supposed to eat on this island is never mentioned, but the children have no trouble in soon finding a (albeit limited) source of food.
With his child shipped to the island, Stephen is left to piece together the fragments of now broken life. After watching his own lawyer profit off his misfortune by releasing a book based on his case and experiences, and becoming a pariah due to his connection to the much-maligned creatures, Jarvis struggles to find work, resorting to taking a dead-end job at a children’s shoe store.
This is soon followed by a sequence in which Stephen attempts to reconnect with Ellen, who has now relocated to the fictional town of Cape Vale, FL, where she has taken a job as a waitress in a small, beachside bar. Ellen is not thrilled with Stephen’s presence, wanting nothing more than to carry on with her life, hoping that no one will ever connect her with the monster that she gave birth to. After essentially being begged to leave, Stephen finds himself in the bed of a prostitute (Laurene Landon – Maniac Cop, Hundra) that he meets at a local carnival. This too is also quite unessential to the overall plot, but serves to not only show the general public’s reaction to the mutant babies (and their parents), but also as an allusion to the AIDS epidemic (which had started to fully rear its ugly head during the mid/late 1980s) and the reaction of a generally uniformed and fearful populace.
A few years pass, and Jarvis is requested to join a group of scientists who are travelling to the island in order to conduct further research on the children. Of course, this “research” will come at the expense of the babies’ lives (more like, the scientists’ lives). James Dixon reprises his role a third time, joining the expedition as a somewhat expert on the behavior of these monsters that he has been tracking down for years. As the party will soon discover, the children are no longer little babies.
FUN FACT: One of the scientists is played by director/screenwriter Neal Isreal, who was responsible for multiple classic films of the 1980s, such as Bachelor Party, Real Genius, and the Police Academy series. Okay… so not all of the films in that series are “classics”.
What’s most bizarre about It’s Alive III is that, for a movie with the subtitle of “Island of the Alive“, it takes almost an hour of the film’s runtime for our cast to even reach the island. Even then, they are only on the island for about 8 minutes, which is long enough for the mutants to slaughter multiple members of the expedition, and plan their return to the mainland. It’s also worth noting that the fate of one character in never fully revealed, but it is assumed that they survived… at least for a little while.
The extent of the children’s evolution is revealed, which provides the true reason for their return “home”, but not before the viewer is subjected to an overly extended (yet wonderfully shot) sequence of Moriarty floating adrift at sea before we get that explanation. Like many other examples that I have already provided, it too ultimately feels like “padding”.
Much like the first 2 films in the series, It’s Alive III takes a look at the bond between parent and child, especially children that differ from the “norm”. That said, the film is much more of a dark humored, but not particularly funny, indictment of society’s (especially those in the media) profiteering off of tragedy and the misfortune of others. It also provides a showcase of Moriarty’s propensity to go completely off the rails and ad-lib his way through a role, as director Cohen was apt to let him do in films such a Q – The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, and Return to Salem’s Lot. The trait is undeniably polarizing, as (presumably) just as many viewers will be turned off by this approach as will be entertained by it. Personally, I’m in the latter group.
While Island of the Alive is easily the weakest entry in the It’s Alive series, and full of moments that serve little-to-no purpose, that’s not to say that the film is uninteresting or “bad”. Sure, it may prove to be a disappointment to some fans of the first 2 films, or even to those looking for a straightforward horror affair, but it does provide some ghoulish entertainment.
Although not a film that I can recommend to all parties, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive is worth watching if only for how odd it is. Sure, it probably killed off any chance of a 4th entry in the series, but, honestly, the concept had probably worn out its welcome by this point, especially with slasher films dominating the horror box office, as well as the shelves of Mom & Pop video stores. Overall, the film is worth watching at least once, but probably won’t warrant repeat viewings for most.