Sometimes, it takes the demise of a great exploitation filmmaker to raise a dormant movie blog from the ashes.
After my last (repeat: LAST) Best/Worst List at the end of 2018, I had zero intention of film blogging for the first half of 2019. Possibly, the entirety of 2019. Between cross-country (and cross-city) moves, final edits on a second novel, and enough winter-spring release garbage at the multiplexes to choke an Equisapien, who has the time? But then, don't you just know it, one of my favorite old writer-director-raconteurs up and dies at the end of March, leaving me with a partial filmography to finish watching.
Since catching the very enjoyable director retrospective documentary King Cohen at Fantastic Fest in the fall of 2017, I've been slowly (very slowly) catching up on the wonderfully wild and woolly career of Larry Cohen. Prior to that doc, I'd only seen the very New Yawk creature feature Q: The Winged Serpent (reviewed here years ago on this blog), the Biblical assassin horror-thriller God Told Me To, and the delightfully creamy frozen yogurt horror-satire The Stuff. I'd enjoyed all three films and their loopy DIY trash aesthetics but had never gotten around to digging further into Larry's resume.
Between the end of 2017 and the end of 2018, I decided to fill in some of the gaps. There was Cohen's fantastic Yaphet Kotto-starring dark comedy debut, Bone. His back-to-back Fred Williamson blaxploitation classics, Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. All three It's Alive prosthetic mutant baby entries. A Stephen King adaptation (A Return To Salem's Lot) and an Eric Bogosian-Zoe Lund sex thriller thrown in for good measure (Special Effects). I had fun. I thought I was done. Until Larry kicked the bucket on March 23rd of this year, and I realized I owed the man who'd given me so much sleazy joy another 12 or so hours of my life.
And so, while every other person on the planet was forking over more $$$ to the Disney-Marvel monolith to watch countless superheroes in CGI spandex crack-wise and hurl glowing Infinity Turds at each other for three-plus hours, I was sitting at home, catching up with the last of Larry Cohen's "leftovers" for free on my laptop at about 90 minutes a pop. Who had more fun? I'll let you be the judge. Other than one very hard-to-find TV movie starring Esther Rolle from Good Times, my Larry Cohen feature-length filmography box ticking is now complete...
THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER (1977)
Cohen's first foray into the serious biopic racket is a swiftly moving and, perhaps, slightly too sympathetic portrait of one of history's most infamous federally mandated paranoiacs. Old Hollywood stalwart Broderick Crawford plays the famous FBI Director in question and, regrettably, is a bit too stiff for such a plum role. He almost had me pining for latex-and-spirit gum slathered DiCaprio in J. Edgar, or Bob Hoskins in Nixon at the very least. Luckily, there are a bunch of other great character actors around him to pick up the slack -- Rip Torn, Ronee Blakley, Jose Ferrer and, most notably, a career-best Michael Parks absolutely nailing Robert F. Kennedy. I'm not sure that I learned much new about Hoover, but I probably picked up a few extra Meisner techniques. In the King Cohen doc, film nerd royalty Marty Scorsese effuses greatly about this movie and its effect on him as a young filmmaker. Perhaps that's a touch too much collegial hyperbole, but, nonetheless, this interesting film deserves a proper Blu-ray release. The streaming copy that I watched had all the quality of a muffled 1960s wiretap recording.
FULL MOON HIGH (1981)
Though this droll early '80s high school werewolf comedy plays like the sad-sack Borscht Belt version of the more spirited Michael J. Fox starrer Teen Wolf a few years later, I am loath to cast aspersions on any film that provides me with not one but TWO Arkins! Adam Arkin plays a teen who gets bitten by a werewolf on a summer trip to Transylvania and, upon returning to high school, must habitually avoid sacking down with his girlfriend because it's "his time of the month." Never has a teenager in an '80s comedy gone to such lengths to avoid biting girls on the buttocks. Cohen keeps the lycanthropic laughs coming pretty regularly and pretty agreeably, but the movie kicks into higher gear when daddy Arkin (Alan) shows up toward the end as a doctor not all that concerned with his patient's predatory prognosis. Add to that a few spirited cameos from old TV pros Ed McMahon, Pat Morita and Jim J. Bullock, and you've got yourself a perfectly diverting 90+ minutes.
PERFECT STRANGERS (1984)
After three It's Alive movies, it's obvious Larry C has a knack for enlivening stale horror-thriller tropes by using babies (mutant or otherwise) in prominent roles. Perfect Strangers flips the script on his Alive trilogy by, this time, making an impressionable young tyke the prey instead of the predator. In fact, you could argue that Cohen has made ultimate "child in danger" movie here, and Perfect Strangers is often as gleefully tasteless and exploitative as that designation implies. When a cute two-year-old moppet witnesses a contract knifing in an alleyway, the mafia puts out a hit on the kid, or else the hit man who did the knifing will get whacked himself. Though reluctant to snuff out a toddler, the pretty boy hit man (Brad Rijn) must cozy up to his young mother (Anne Carlisle) to see just how much the kid understands about what he saw. Much highly diffused soft-core sex and kindertrauma ensues. While not quite as good as Special Effects the same year, Perfect Strangers does get a lot of mileage out of a surprisingly solid, believable young child actor. Plus, the always welcome Anne Magnuson shows up now and again as an early era "feminazi" who basically wants to snip off the pecker of every man she sees. Good times!
DEADLY ILLUSION (1987)
Am I more excited or less to see Billy Dee return as Lando Calrissian in the next Star Wars, now that I've seen him play a sleazy, trigger-happy private eye named Hamberger in a Larry Cohen film? Well, let's just say that I seriously doubt Williams will get as much tongue action from an older Nien Nunb as he does from Morgan Fairchild and Vanity here. Billy Dee is in top Colt 45 form (the beer, not the firearm) as a private dick hired to take out a millionaire's wife (Fairchild) but who ends up warning her off (after much deep French kissing) instead. Big mistake, because this is Larry Cohen with his foot rooted firmly in Film Noir Land. The wife winds up "dead," and Hamberger is fingered for the crime. With a little help (and a lot of snogging) from Vanity, he must untangle a very convoluted murder-blackmail-extortion-heroin distribution plot to clear his name and, SPOILER ALERT, not change it to "Haht Dogg." Although Deadly Illusion has the perfect straight-to-video title (the only copy I could find is ripped from VHS), it appears to have miraculously achieved some kind of theatrical release. It's not nearly as good as Billy Dee's Lethal Weapon style team-up with Robert Carradine the same year (Number One With A Bullet), but it's not a bad hour and change watching Billy Dee do Billy Dee either.
WICKED STEPMOTHER (1989)
A lot of foofaraw was made in the King Cohen doc about Larry saving this PG-13 spookfest from the wreckage of a difficult shoot and a very elderly leading lady (Bette Davis) who bowed out early in production reportedly due to "the way she was being photographed." Cohen claims it was because Davis was literally at death's door, and, admittedly, it's hard to make a chain-smoking skeleton in a red wig and heavy pancake makeup look like she did in Now, Voyager. That said, the resultant movie is a somewhat fascinating Franken-mess, wherein Davis' witchy presence is later substituted not only by a hot Nicaraguan supermodel but also by a Claymation black cat that puffs Pall Malls. You've got to give Cohen credit for his creativity, as well as some more wicked '80s TV-refugee casting. There's Max from Hart to Hart (Lionel Stander), Sledgehammer from Sledgehammer! (David Rasche), Bull from Night Court (Richard Moll), not to mention Colleen Camp and Seymour Cassel (R.I.P.) from many a great indie comedy. Although this film is a giant narrative clusterfuck, it does reach some near-Beetlejuice levels of inspiration in terms of wacky supernatural dark comedy. I didn't even mind that I had to watch it pulled from YouTube in eight separate parts.
THE AMBULANCE (1990)
Larry Cohen's laughable medical conspiracy thriller The Ambulance is the closest I came to seeing Avengers: Endgame this weekend, perhaps the closest I will ever come, and that is absolutely fine with me. In the film, Eric Roberts (sporting the mother of all mullets) plays a comic book artist at a pre-MCU Marvel Studios where he draws a character called "Doctor Strong." He likes to accost pretty, uninterested women in the streets of NYC and wow them with his lame jokes, eventually browbeating and mansplaining them into very reluctant first dates. Sounds like the perfect Marvel fanboy to me. There's even a Stan Lee cameo! When his latest Columbus Circle crush (Janine Turner) collapses and is a carted off by a very outdated old model ambulance, Roberts starts to smell a rat (or, at least, someone else's rattail) and stumbles onto a very preposterous conspiracy involving diabetics being pulled off the streets to be part of underground medical experiments. "Don't ask me, I just work here." The movie is patently ludicrous, but everybody seems to be having a lot of fun, from Roberts to Red Buttons to a gum-smacking police lieutenant played James Earl Jones.
AS GOOD AS DEAD (1995)
Cohen goes the made-for-TV route with this not-as-bad-as-you-might-think USA Network identity swap thriller starring Traci Lords, Judge Reinhold and-- hey!-- that southern chick from Wings (Crystal Bernard). The production values might be sorely lacking, but Larry brings out his old TV writing chops for a script that moves pretty briskly in ways you can't always guess from a mile away. It's even got one or two things to say about the sad state of the medical insurance industry lights years before Obamacare. Plus, Judge Reinhold as a bad guy! Keep your expectations as good as zero, and you may just be pleasantly surprised by this one.
ORIGINAL GANGSTAS (1996)
Unfortunately, I don't have too many glowing things to say about Larry Cohen's last feature-length film. And, somehow, I managed to see it twice in the span of a month, first haphazardly cruising around Starz on cable one night and, later, on 35mm as part of a five-film Pam Grier marathon at an Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers. Basically, it's an all-star game on film, the let's-get-the-gang-back-together of blaxploitation movies. Once the novelty of seeing all these '70s icons together in the same film 20 years later wears off, you're left with a kinda lackluster, post-Boyz N The Hood let's-clean-up-the-neighborhood message movie that also trafficks in a lot of cool for the sake of cool gunplay. Perhaps the most notable thing that can be said about the film is the fact that it beat out Jackie Brown by a year in putting Pam Grier and Robert Forster in the same movie. That said, it's nice to see Cohen working alongside his cigar-chomping "muse" Fred Williamson again. After as many years and as many films as those two guys cranked out in the exploitation game, they both certainly deserved the mantle of "O.G."
R.I.P. Larry C (Rest In Prosthetics)