After enjoying surprise success with a theatrical reissue of It’s Alive and cranking out a quick, somewhat unfocused sequel, it seemed that Larry let his killer baby franchise fade out… but the series was resurrected when the direct-to-video market opened up a new opportunity for the veteran writer/director. Nearly a decade after It Lives Again, Cohen revivedd his mutant babies via a two film straight to video deal with Warner Brothers (the other film was the technically slapdash but amusing A Return To Salem’s Lot). The result is a fun series closer that shows how much Cohen’s filmmaking skill grew between the ‘70s and the ‘80s.
This time, the protagonist is Richard Jarvis (Michael Moriarty), a smalltime actor who unwittingly becomes a focus for the pro-mutant baby struggle when he comes to the defense of his mutated child in a court case. His actions allow the babies to be spared and shipped off to a distant tropical isle where they can live in peace and isolation.
Of course, this is a horror film so no one can leave well enough alone. Five years later, doctors want to check on the progress of the mutant children. Jarvis’s life has become a mess – including an ex (Karen Black) who wants nothing to do with him – so he signs on when the doctors ask him to join up. Terror ensues when the group hits the island: the monsters have grown to adult age thanks to their mutated cells and they’ve got an agenda all their own. Revealing more would spoil the fun of the third act but viewers can count on a family reunion of the most unusual variety.
It’s Alive III is a very different experience from the first two films. Cohen became more comfortable with overt satirical humor in his 1980’s work and this satirical bent replaces the atmospheric, creepy tone of the first two films. This approach is aided and abetted by Michael Moriarty, an actor whose eccentric sense of humor and knack for improvisation perfectly matches Cohen’s working style. Critics and genre fans alike often fault It’s Alive III for its humorous tone but this reviewer finds it a breath of fresh air. By this point, the franchise had played out its horrific potential so this approach keeps Cohen from repeating himself and allows him to take on the familiar concept with new vigor.
Cohen was also more comfortable directing bigger projects by this time so he handles its larger scope with greater confidence and care. It’s Alive III is well-paced and has the requisite Cohen social themes: this time, AIDS and U.S. relations with Cuba are cleverly woven into the story. On the technical side, Cohen is aided greatly by Daniel Pearl’s polished cinematography – one might have never expected to see Steadicam and Louma crane shots in a Cohen film but they are here and they look nice.
Effects are still a weak link for Cohen– Steve Neill’s makeup is rubbery-looking and awkward in design – but Cohen wisely limits lengthy looks at them (effects side note: old-school genre fans will be pleased by some brief bits of cool stop-motion animation in the early scenes).
The final piece of the puzzle is Moriarty. He method-acts up a storm here, improvising wildly and running away with scenes while the other actors try to keep up. Some might find this slash-and-burn acting approach annoying but Moriarty, like Cohen, is something of an acquired taste. If you like the Cohen/Moriarty teaming there is plenty to enjoy here – the two are a perfect fit and the fun they have with this wild premise is contagious. Karen Black turns in one of her better latter-day performances in a smaller role as the ex-wife and James Dixon – the only actor to pop up in all three It’s Alive films — makes a great foil for Moriarty.
Simply put, It’s Alive III is a worthwhile, likeably quirky little coda for this singular series. No one but Cohen could get this much mileage and thematic variety out of the “killer baby” concept.