Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Larry Cohen’s filmography speaks for itself as evidence that he’s responsible for many, many hours of filmgoing fun, and the It’s Alive films are just a one (three?) example of the genre joy he creates. The first in the trilogy is best remembered and most discussed, for understandable reasons, but for my money the trilogy’s best entry is its third. The babies have grown, the dark comedy is turned to eleven, and the eternally brilliant Michael Moriarty takes the lead role.
Scream Factory has just released a box set of the It’s Alive Trilogy, and in addition to a handful of other extras each film features a commentary from Cohen — so of course I gave part three a spin. I went into this listen fully convinced that Moriarty never even read the script and instead ad-libbed his way through the entire movie, and I was hoping Cohen would confirm as much.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)
Commentator: Larry Cohen (director/writer/producer)
1. Unlike with the previous two films, Cohen decided for the third entry “to move on to comedic black humor to counterpoint the horror.”
2. He felt he became known for his “bizarre humor” after the release of Q the Winged Serpent, “a different kind of Larry Cohen movie.”
3. The opening cab sequence was used in Clint Eastwood’s The Dead Pool as footage from a murdered director’s filmography to show the kind of movies he was making. “More people probably saw this sequence as part of Dirty Harry than saw it as part of It’s Alive III.”
4. James Dixon, who plays Lt. Perkins, is the only actor to appear in all three films “if that’s a trivia question you might want answered.”
5. This film was shot “virtually back to back” with A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987) as part of a deal with Warner Home Video.
6. He made four films with Michael Moriarty — Q the Winged Serpent, The Stuff, Island of the Alive, A Return to Salem’s Lot — and he showers the actor with praise saying “his wonderful improvisational style melded completely with my way of working.”
7. He wants to make sure you know that the stop-motion animated baby is not CG and that it is instead stop-motion.
8. Moriarty would sometimes have Cohen remove the other actors while he performed close-ups, and he would instead react to what he said were imagined versions of them.
9. Cohen falls asleep fourteen minutes into his commentary just as Karen Black makes her first appearance as Stephen’s ex-wife Ellen. He wakes up seven and a half minutes later.
10. The scene where Sally (Laurene Landon) sleeps with Stephen (Moriarty) and then discovers he fathered one of the mutant babies made some people think it was a reference to HIV. “It was fully intended.” He thinks horror movies are ideal for adding serious commentary while still maintaining the entertainment value.
11. Turns out Kauai is the Island of the Alive.
12. He had approached WB in an attempt to secure the rights to a House of Wax remake, but he walked away with sequels to It’s Alive and Salem’s Lot instead.
13. They had a close call while filming the waterfall sequence that starts at 27:55 after a logjam upstream broke loose sending raging torrents of built-up water down the previously idyllic falls.”Water was everywhere, guys were fleeing with the cameras running up the hillsides, trying to get out of the path of the water.” Equipment and crew members were rolling down the hall into the water. “It was something to see.” You can see the difference at 37:09 as this is showing the raging waters.
14. He wanted to show more of the monsters as both previous films are fairly shy about giving the babies too much screen time. “I was probably wrong.” He does think they look pretty good (and they do), but he feels monster movies are more effective when you don’t see the monster as much.
15. The party at 31:35 was filmed in Cohen’s home. “I try to shoot at least one scene there for every movie I’ve made.”
16. The woman asking for Stephen’s autograph is played by Elizabeth Sanders aka Mrs. Bob Kane aka wife to the creator of Batman.
17. The bespectacled man talking to Stephen at 35:00 is played by Neal Israel who wrote Police Academy, Real Genous, and Bachelor Party.
18. I joked earlier about Cohen’s earlier seven-minute absence from the commentary, but the truth comes out later when he mentions Black around the 35:50 mark. “Although her earlier scene has been removed I think we’re about to see her appear now in the film.” So this commentary track was originally recorded for a cut version of the film?
19. The cast and crew would prank him during production by hiding a rubber chicken where they were filming, and when Cohen realized it each time he’d “have to go back and shoot it again.” He missed it one time, though, and the shot ended up in the movie at 53:19. Two characters are holding SCUBA gear, and the chicken’s legs are visible in the props.
20. A wild boar crashed the set during the scene where Stephen calls out to the babies, “panicking everybody and having them run in all directions.” Cohen meanwhile was yelling at his cameraman to film the boar. He missed it.
21. The scene where Dr. Brewster (Israel) is bathing went awry on the first try as the performer in the monster costume ran into trouble. He was supposed to crouch under the water for ten seconds and then rise, but ten seconds went by and he failed to show. They waited and waited before eventually realizing the guy’s creature suit had filled with water and he was unable to lift himself above the water.
22. The performers playing the monsters were “little bodybuilders.”
23. Dr. Swenson (Art Lund) is seen dead in a tree at 55:10, and this is the scene they were filming when the log dam broke and the area flooded. Everyone rushed away, but Lund was strapped into the tree. Rather than express concern, though, he yelled over that he was fine and had a great view. “He was up there for about an hour and a half.”
24. The currents around Kauai moved so fast that when Moriarty climbed aboard the “raft” he floated away in a matter of seconds. They had to retrieve him with a support boat.
25. The shark fin footage is borrowed from The Old Man and the Sea (1958), and a shot of a ship in the distance is liberated The Sea Chase (1955). “I’m a master at culling stock footage and including it in my picture.”
26. Black was in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot, and Cohen would tease her with a Hitchcock impression saying she led him to retirement and heavy drinking.
27. He’s never gone over budget on a film, and one of the reasons why is his preference for shooting scenes out of order so they never have to return to a location a second time.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“This is not fake Hollywood rain. This is the real McCoy.”
“This is probably the roughest scene of any of them in the picture.”
“This baby is blessed.”
“The other actors won’t know what the hell is going on, but Moriarty is in complete control.”
“It wasn’t exactly a vacation to make the picture.”
“I thought nothing could be as demeaning as working as a salesman in a children’s shoe store.”
“This kid is just a pain in the ass.”
“In using my usual improvisational methods I had Moriarty sing a song on the boat in his lunatic fashion.”
“She used to take acting seriously which is something I never permit.”
“Hey we were saying a few nice things about the Cubans here.”
“I’ve been asked if I stick to the script that I write, and the answer of course is no.”
Buy It’s Alive Trilogy on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.
Larry Cohen is one of a small handful of filmmakers whose commentaries and interviews are every bit as fascinating and entertaining as his films. The guy knows his shit and has opinions about all of it. This track is a solid listen and recommended for fans of the man or his films.
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