The Ambulance

 

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The Ambulance

Release Date: March 31, 1990

Genre: Action, Comedy, Horror

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Megan Gallagher, Red Buttons, Janine Turner

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Sadly, we’ve reached the final movie review in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. I want to thank all you readers out there for the support and spending time reading these reviews. If you’re a Larry Cohen fan, I hope I reviewed some of your favorites. If you’re not familiar with his work, hopefully I’ve given you enough for you to find one of his movies and watch it. For the last movie, we are going to look at Larry’s first feature film of the 90s. It’s a Mystery and Suspense film that has you at the edge of your seat. It’s also a movie where a vehicle is treated like a full-fledged character. The last movie in our Larry Cohen Tribute Special is 1990’s ‘The Ambulance!’

‘The Ambulance’ stars Eric Roberts as Joshua Baker, a comic book artist who is currently working on a project for none other than Marvel Comics (featuring a cameo from the late great Stan Lee) who meets a young woman on a New York City street named Cheryl (Janine Turner). Suddenly, Cheryl collapses on the street and within a matter of minutes, an ambulance arrives to take Cheryl to the hospital. Josh heads to the nearest hospital to check up on her. When he arrives at the front desk to find out what room Cheryl is in, the staff tell him that she was not admitted to the hospital. He then goes to another local hospital where they state she was not admitted here. Josh passes a sketch of Cheryl to people walking the streets hoping someone would recognize her and find out what happened to her. Cheryl’s roommate notices the picture and speaks with Josh. She takes him to what she believed to be Cheryl’s last location only for the same ambulance to arrive and kidnap her. Now Josh is convinced there is something going on with the ambulance and the people who are associated with it. After asking for help from the local police department, specifically Lt. Frank Spencer (James Earl Jones) who is not convinced of his story, Josh continues his investigation hoping to find Cheryl before it’s too late.

Larry Cohen came up with this concept after his own personal experience involving an ambulance. He talked about some of the horrors he dealt with when he was being driven to the hospital, which he says in his documentary ‘King Cohen.’ The experience made him think about medical services. Ambulances are supposed to pick up someone and rush them to the hospital. It’s a service where it means life or death for people. What if an ambulance went rogue and didn’t take the person to the nearest hospital? It’s a scary thought that Cohen tries to capitalize in this movie.

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The first thing that I noticed right away when watching this movie was the cinematography. Compared to Cohen’s grainy looking pictures of the 80s, the picture is bright sharp looking and relative to how movies were starting to look as the 90s began. Once again the movie takes place in New York City as it has been in the majority of Cohen’s films. You have scenes all over the city from the busy downtown to the rough outskirts and the shady areas. You see many sides of the city.

‘The Ambulance’ is a mystery/thriller, with Cohen throwing in his macabre sense of humor to not make it too dark. Like all his films Cohen rounds up an experience cast with Eric Roberts taking the lead role. I’m not familiar with a lot of Eric Roberts’ work, but he is someone I never thought of being a protagonist. He plays Joshua Baker as an arrogant smooth talking character who’s not afraid of going up to random women, in this case Cheryl to introduce himself and perhaps get to know them on a personal level. When Cheryl disappears, Roberts goes into detective mode trying to figure out what happened to her and tries to be the hero despite the fact he is trying to save someone he doesn’t know at all. His illustration skills come in handy with the investigation when he draws both Cheryl and the ambulance and gives it to not only the police but regular passerby’s hoping someone would recognize her and have information. Along the way, Baker comes across some unique and over the top partners to aid in his quest. James Earl Jones’ Lt. Spencer is boisterous and unconvinced of Baker’s story and has his own suspicions about him thinking that he may have something to do with Cheryl’s disappearance. Megan Gallagher plays Sandra Malloy, a spunky police officer who believes Baker’s story and uses her position of authority to find leads. Finally comic legend Red Buttons plays Elias Zacharai, who (you guess it) provides the comic relief of the movie. He meets Baker during a scene in a hospital room. Buttons’ provides his traditional zingers and one liners to help ease the tension of the movie. Lastly you have the antagonist of the movie played by soap opera legend Eric Braden who is behind the kidnapping of Cheryl. He is cunning, sadistic and has a purpose for Cheryl which is revealed in the film.

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We can’t forget the character of the ambulance itself. It’s an old ambulance, painted in red with a glowing green inside. It gives it a ghostly feel to it. The ambulance reminds me of the Stephen King novel turned John Carpenter movie ‘Christine’. Although it’s not a car that comes to life, but it is alive from the look and the people who are driving it. Whenever the ambulance appears on screen, you know something is about to go down and not for good intentions.

The movie is fast paced and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The movie teases the audience every time Josh stumbles upon a place that Cheryl is last scene thinking that she is there only for The Doctor and the ambulance to be one step ahead of him. Scenes like this keep your heart racing and you may let out a pounding on the table moment in some cases.

The movie is without its flaws. First was the climax. In my best attempt to avoid any spoilers all I can say is that the climax does not give Josh redeeming quality. It makes him look selfish at the end when things don’t go the way he had hope for. You’ve been cheering this guy on throughout the movie and then all of a sudden there’s a one eighty. I don’t know what Cohen was thinking with that. The other flaw I found was there was no real character development with the antagonist. You don’t know if he’s a real doctor, a mad scientist, a crazy man pretending to be a doctor or a doctor who had his medical license revoked. You don’t know his true name, his background. Given Cohen’ reputation as creating memorable and colorful characters it seems like he didn’t put in the work to develop the bad guy.

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‘The Ambulance’ is a non-stop thriller that not only gets your heart pounding, but gives you a chuckle or two. While the kidnapping story is nothing new, but giving the twist of medical personnel who are not all that they claim to be gives it a unique style that only Larry Cohen could come up with.

We now have reached the conclusion of the ‘Larry Cohen Tribute Special’. Hopefully you enjoyed these five reviews that I’ve presented. It’s the most ambitious work I’ve done since I’ve started this blog. Larry Cohen has been an inspiration to me and re-watching his films have given me a new desire to write some scripts that are original and creative. If I can convert one person into a Larry Cohen fan, then I have done my job. Hopefully you, the reader are that person.

Thank you for taking the time this month to check out these movies, readers!

TRIVIA
– The ambulance used is a 1973 Cadillac commercial chassis with coach work by Miller Meteor. It is a Lifeliner model with 54 inches of rear headroom. The actual movie car is now owned by a collector in California.

– The role of the villain was originally played by Wesley Addy. However Cohen was unhappy with his performance and recast the role with Eric Braeden

– John Travolta was originally considered for the lead role before Eric Roberts was cast.

– A young Jim Carrey was also considered for the role of Josh.

– Jamie Lee Curtis was originally considered for the role of Officer Malloy.

– Donald Trump made a small cameo in a deleted scene.

– First movie role for Nick Chinlund, best known for playing Billy Bedlam in the 90s action packed thriller ‘Con Air’.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

I Need To Be Left Alone

I Like Mine Healthy

Like To Touch Skin Wearing A Surgical Glove

Vernoica From Archie

They Always Turn Up

All You See Is The Uniform

Why Do I Always Get The Strange Ones?

What Are You In For?

Out Screwing Some Intern

Saying Thanks Is Cheap

You Know What’s In That Ambulance?

Kill Myself

Everybody Likes Me

He Looks Exactly Like Jughead

I Need Help

First I Write, Then I Rest

So Die

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The Stuff

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The Stuff

Release Date: June 14, 1985

Genre: Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Scott Bloom

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

I’ve been waiting to post this review. Now is a perfect time. It’s movie #4 in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. This is perhaps the most popular film in Larry Cohen’s filmography. It is a movie that is still fresh and relatable almost thirty-five years since its release. The concept may be goofy, but you will enjoy the ride this movie provides once you push the Play button on your remote control. If you ask most movie fans to name one Larry Cohen movie off the top of their heads, the majority will say this title, ‘The Stuff!’. So, without further ado, here is the review to the 1985 horror cult classic ‘The Stuff!’

The movie starts with a railroad worker noticing a white bubbly substance coming from the snowy ground. He takes a taste of it to see what it is. To his delight it tastes very sweet with the texture of yogurt. Soon the substance is being marketed to consumers as “The Stuff” which becomes a phenomenon. “The Stuff” is marketed as being creamy, filling and with no calories. You can find “The Stuff” at supermarkets, small vendor carts and even a Dairy Queen style drive thru. While people are going crazy over “The Stuff” there are people highly suspicious of this addictive edible food. First there’s a young boy named Jason who wakes up in the middle of the night looking for a snack. He opens the refrigerator door to see a container of “The Stuff” moving. He tries to convince his family that there is something alive within it, but they are dismissive of his claims. Jason gets paranoid that he vandalizes a supermarket by destroying the massive amounts of “The Stuff” that is being sold. The other person who is skeptical of “The Stuff” is a former FBI agent turned industrial saboteur named David “Mo” Rutherford (who tells people that he got the nickname from whenever people gave him money, he always wanted mo!). He is hired by numerous corporate executives of the ice cream industry to find out what is in “The Stuff” and destroy it. He befriends the head marketer of “The Stuff” Nicole and they set out to investigate the contents. Mo’s efforts reveal that “The Stuff” is a living parasite that takes over people’s brains and then mutates the host into zombies. Mo encounters Jason and the three of them are determined to destroy “The Stuff” before it consumes more and more people.

As I’ve said in my opening statement, “The Stuff” is still my favorite movie in Larry Cohen’s filmography. It took me a long time to find interest in checking it out. When I first saw the cover art, it didn’t appeal to me. Mainly because I wasn’t familiar with Larry Cohen’s work nor was, I interested in low budget horror movies. After seeing the movie pop up on several streaming services, I decided to give it a chance and boy did I not regret it. I enjoyed every frame, scene, characters and effects. It made me wish I had seen this movie a lot sooner than I did.

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Michael Moriarty once again returns in a Larry Cohen picture. He follows up his astounding performance in ‘Q: The Winged Serpent” with another memorable performance. I loved his portrayal of Mo Rutherford. He has the smarts of a detective and the tongue of a salesman. He’s smooth talking, confident and keeps his eye on the ball. What starts as a simple job to expose “The Stuff” to his employers turns into a national crisis that he must find a way to put an end. The rest of the cast is convincing in their roles. Andrea Marcovicci plays Nicole, the attractive and smart marketer of “The Stuff” who joins Mo in his investigation and become lovers. Garrett Morris plays ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs, the junk food magnet that Mo befriends while visiting a town that has been desolated by relocation of jobs and the great Paul Sorvino as Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears who leads the operation into destroying “The Stuff” and warning the public about the dangers of consuming it. Sorvino chews up the scenery all throughout the climax of the movie.

Like most of Cohen’s films, “The Stuff” is not just a horror movie, but a social commentary. Cohen made this movie at a time in the eighties where people consumed everything. The eighties were the birth of many electronics such as video game consoles, Walkman’s, VCRs, etc. It wasn’t just electronics people were craving, it was the current fashion trends, fast food restaurants popping up at every street corner. With these new products came heavy advertising and marketing. This was during Reaganomics where the American economy was booming, and people were spending their hard-earned money of anything they can get their hands on. Cohen based “The Stuff” off the yogurt craze going on at the time. People were obsessed with yogurt because it was advertised as being healthy, filling and tasty. Add heavy advertising to that and you have people become hooked on it turning them into consumer zombies. They consume and consume while the companies that make it rake in the profits.

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The movie is a pure 80s movie in terms of look, music, effects and overall style. You have the bright neon lights of “The Stuff” logo along with its catchy music and commercials. There’s even an appearance from the old lady in the Wendy’s commercials where instead of screaming, “Where’s the beef?” she cries, “Where’s the Stuff?” The effects of The Stuff creature vary throughout the film. In some parts of the film, it looks like a mix between frozen yogurt and marshmallow. In scenes where it bursts through walls, it milky and watery. Cohen does a great job showing that the creature doesn’t take on a basic form, rather it can come in multiple forms and textures.

‘The Stuff’ is not without its flaws and there’s plenty of them. There’s no main antagonist to the movie only that the product itself and the corporate executives. I think there was a missed opportunity there. If they had a main antagonist who could perhaps be a rival saboteur to Mo or a person who wants to manipulate the infected people and make them servants of his, it would have made for a more interesting confrontation. The color of The Stuff is white. It’s not a scary color or a color that is associated with blobs or goo. If it were green or blue, I think it would’ve been a more organic look. Also, I did not enjoy the performance of the kid, Jason. If I had to create a list of the ‘Most Annoying Characters in Horror Movies’ he would be on that list. He is constantly whining about telling his family not to eat The Stuff. He also complains to Mo that he had to eat shaving cream to convince his parents that he is now under the power of The Stuff. I also didn’t like how he was portrayed at the end of the movie. It didn’t give him any redeeming quality or likeability. Finally, there could’ve been a lot more romantic development between Mo and Nicole. It’s like they meet and then all of a sudden Nicole is in love with him. My viewing experience of characters falling in love tends to build up from the beginning of the movie to the mid-way point and there was none of that here. You may notice these flaws as you watch it, but because there is so much going on in terms of the action and the horror of the movie that you will more than likely shrug it off.

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‘The Stuff’ is a rare find. It should’ve been a much more mainstream film considering the subject matter. This is a movie that still holds up after all this time. You can relate this movie to everything that is going on in our world today as consumerism and Capitalism hasn’t slowed down. It’s an iconic B-Movie that stacks right up there with many of the underrated greats. This is the most recognizable film of Larry Cohen’s work and the one movie that people associate Cohen with.

Next week we present the final review of the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. Make sure you check back next week. Same time, same place, same website.

 

TRIVIA

– According to audio commentary on the 2000 Anchor Bay DVD, the scene in the motel where the Stuff comes out of the mattress and pillows and attacks the man on the wall and ceiling was shot in a room that could turn upside down, allowing the Stuff to move up and down the wall. It was exactly the same room used in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) when Johnny Depp’s character Glen is sucked into his bed and his blood is regurgitated back out onto the ceiling.

– According to Larry Cohen himself, in some scenes in which the Stuff chases characters, a foam made of blended fish bones was used. It stank so much that, as soon as the shots were done, the actors ran to a river in order to bathe and get rid of the stench.

– Garrett Morris was asked about this film when he participated in AV Club’s “Random Roles” interview series. He said the production was “crazy,” and when the interviewer noted Larry Cohen’s history as “a character,” and asked Morris what he was like, Morris said that “I was taught growing up that if you don’t have something nice to say about someone, don’t say anything at all,” with no further comment about Cohen.

– Arsenio Hall was considered for the role of “Chocolate Chip” Charlie W. Hobbs.

– David ‘Mo’ Rutherford tells ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs to contact agent Frank Herbert from the FBI. Frank Herbert was an American science fiction writer best known for the novel Dune and its five sequels.

– Michael Moriarty (David ‘Mo’ Rutherford) and Paul Sorvino (Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears) went on to appear in 31 episodes of Law & Order (1990) together from 1991 to 1992 as Executive A.D.A. Ben Stone and Sergeant Phil Cerreta, respectively.

– The original cut of the film was said to be much longer and described by Director Larry Cohen as more “dense and sophisticated”. Feeling that the film was too long, it was cut to increase the pace of the film. There was a romantic scene between Moriarty and Marcovicci that took place in a hotel room in the original cut.

– The Executive’s Office at the End is strangely similar to Mr Burns’ Office from The Simpsons, particularly the Stuffed Polar Bear.

 

AUDIO CLIPS 

Tasty and Sweet

Enough Is Never Enough

Sweaty Palm

Mo Rutherford

No, Don’t Eat It

Can’t Wait In Line

The Stuff Commercial #1

You Feed The Dog

Chocolate Chip Charlie

Low Tech Solutions

I Could Always Kill You

They’re Good For Us

I Just Ate Shaving Cream

The Stuff Commercial #2

Pillow Tried To Kill Us

They’re All Stuffies

You’ll Probably Be A Casulty

We’ve Never Lost A War

Get That Shit Off My Station

Q: The Winged Serpent

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Q: The Winged Serpent

Release Date: October 29, 1982

Genre: Crime, Horror, Mystery

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: David Carradine, Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree,  James Dixon

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

We have reached the half way point in our Larry Cohen Tribute Month. Thank you to everyone who has been sticking with the special since the first movie. Still plenty more to come. For this week’s review, we are going to be looking at one of Larry Cohen’s most popular movies. It’s an homage to the early monster movies such as ‘King Kong.’ It takes place in New York City (like King Kong), but instead of seeing the monster on top of the Empire State Building, you’re going to be seeing a monster on top of another landmark building, the Chrysler Building. This week we’re going to be reviewing 1982’s ‘Q: The Winged Serpent!”

As the title suggests, ‘Q’ is a flying monster that has made its home on top of the Chrysler Building. It flies through the skies of New York City snatching up people for food.  No one knows where this creature came from or how it got here. As the monster roams the skies, two separate stories are going on. The first story you have is Police Detective Shepard (David Carradine) who is assigned the case of finding the monster and killing it. He believes the monster has something to do with a series of ritual killings he’s also been investigating. Along with his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree), they link the killings and the monster to a secret Neo Aztec cult. The second story involves Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a cheap two-timing crook who is an excellent piano player who is involved in a botched diamond heist. He makes his escape by hiding inside the Chrysler Building where he discovers the creature’s nest atop complete with a giant egg. Jimmy uses this knowledge of the creature’s location to lure his fellow mob pursuers to their deaths at the hands of the creature and to extort the city of money and immunity from prosecution in exchange for giving up the creature’s hideout.

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Larry Cohen wrote and shot this movie in a little over two weeks. He was working on a project called ‘I, The Jury’ until he was fired by the studio (he is credited for writing the script to the movie). Not wanting to leave his hotel room that was paid up, he assembled a small crew from the aforementioned project and started shooting all around the city. It took Cohen six days to write the script for ‘Q’. The cast was not aware of what they were making when they received a short telegram from Cohen to arrive in the city and be prepared to work.

When I first watched ‘Q’, I was thoroughly impressed with the look and style of the movie. It reminded me of the Godzilla movies that I used to watch as a kid on television. There was a look and feel to them that stuck in my brain and this movie did the same thing. It had me engaged from the first scene and I was on the edge of my seat to see how it was going to play out. I was familiar with Larry Cohen’s work at the time, but not enough to know how he shot films and how he edited them.

‘Q’ has an excellent cast filled with character actors and method actors. I’ve always been a fan of David Carradine and I was ecstatic when I found out he was in this film. He doesn’t disappoint. He plays Shepard as a traditional detective, trying to find all the clues and piece them together. When he comes up with his final report, it is rejected by his superiors. Carradine continues to believe what he has uncovered and is willing to do what it takes to stop the monster and save the city. His partner, played by Richard Roundtree is a little rougher around the edges. If interrogators were playing ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ with a suspect, Roundtree would easily be the ‘Bad Cop.’ There’s even a scene where he plays that on Jimmy Quinn. Speaking of Jimmy Quinn, he’s the surprising hero of the movie played brilliantly by Michael Moriarty. When he first appears on screen he is desperate to get back in the game of stealing. When the diamond heist goes bad he starts to get edgy and paranoid. As the movie progresses you see that Jimmy grows a brain and develops a plan to get rid of the people who are looking for him and a way to set himself up for the failed heist. Many critics and fans have hailed Moriarty’s performance as the best piece of method acting they’ve seen and I echo that sentiment. He pours emotions filled with anger, despair and cockiness. This was the first collaboration between Moriarty and Cohen and it wouldn’t be the last as they would work together on five more movies.

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Like all of his movies, Larry Cohen shot the film with no permits and used real life police officers, construction workers and window washers which gives the movie an authentic feel. The movie is shot in the streets of New York, over the skies of New York and of course the inside and outside of the Chrysler Building. When you watch the people of New York look above when they are getting splattered with blood falling from the sky or taking cover when bullet cases are raining down, those aren’t paid actors, those are real people who are quickly reacting to the situation that they are in. The only permission he received was from the owners of the Chrysler Building. At the cost of $15,000 Cohen was able to shoot inside the building all the way up to the top where no ordinary citizen has gone before. From there you will be amazed by what the top of the building looks like and becomes the set piece for the climatic showdown between the monster and the police which is this reviewer’s favorite scene in the whole picture.

Now let’s get to the character of the monster itself, Quetzalcoatl! The special effects for Q were done using stop-motion animation by Randall William Cook and David Allen. It is custom for stop motion sequences to be shot as they are happening. This was not the case (nothing is ever coherent in a Larry Cohen movie). When Cohen hired Cook and Allen to do the stop motion animation, he had already finished shooting the movie. His plan was to add the creature into shots already taken. This results in the monster looking like he was pasted onto an existing shot. It brings a sense of unevenness when watching the monster when it appears or has moments of action such as plucking the heads off people. The effects are no different from what you would see in a b movie involving a monster, but don’t let the cheapness distract you. You will easily bypass it as you continue to be engrossed in the movie and enjoy the effects for the sheer fun.

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There’s not much more I can say about ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’ without giving too much away. It’s one of the best B-Movies to come out within the last forty years. It continues to have an impact and has inspired other filmmakers to make their own monster movies using this concept. I rank this as my second favorite Larry Cohen movie only to the one movie which I will be reviewing next week. If you want to find out what movie I’m talking about then stay tuned next week! You may be surprised (or may not be surprised)!

 

 

 

TRIVIA

  • A young Bruce Willis wanted to star in David Carradine’s role but wasn’t a known name at the time that Larry Cohen could depend on to be bankable. Bruce later met Larry again when Moonlighting (1985) was a hit.
  • Pre-production for the movie lasted just one week. The film was conceived after Larry Cohen was fired from a big budget film shooting in New York. Cohen, determined not to waste the hotel room he had paid for, hired the actors and prepared a shooting script within six days.
  • In an interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air”, Michael Moriarty described the scene in which he auditions as a piano player. The music he played was a self-composed and unrehearsed improvisation, and the dog’s reaction was genuine.
  • The building in the opening scene of the movie is the Empire State Building. In this scene, a window cleaner loses his head to the monster. His name is William Pilch, and was the actual window cleaner for the Empire State Building at the time of the movie’s filming.
  • The French movie poster incorrectly shows the monster covered with feathers, a wavy dinosaur frill along its back, and with large white teeth. This is because it was illustrated and printed up before copies of the film were imported into France.
  • David Carradine agreed to play Shepard even though he didn’t receive a script to read prior to his first day of working on the film.
  • The jewel store that the bad guys rob in the early part of the film is called “Neil Diamonds” a pun on the name of Neil Diamond.
  • Cohen stated about the monsters death at the ending, “It’s the exact same scene as the end of the $150 million Godzilla picture. Gee, if I had that money I could have made 150 movies.”

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Back Again Creep

You’re Not The Only Action In Town

Jimmy Plays The Piano

Equal Share Equal Chance

I’ve Been Afraid Of Everything

Who’s Got My Lunch Pail?

Evil Dreams

The Feathered Flying Serpent

I Better Take My Birth Control Pill

Eat Him

Being Civilized

Drag Me Here So You Could Do Pushups

Becoming Quite A Bird Watcher

If You Know Something

Nixon Like Pardon

Get Rupert Down Here

Fry Up 500 lbs of Bacon

Stick It Up Your Small Brain

God Told Me To

 

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

God Told Me To

Release Date: October 22, 1976

Genre: Crime, Horror, Sci-Fi

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sam Levene, Mike Kellin, Richard Lynch

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

We’re now on to the second movie in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. For this review, we’re going to be looking at a social commentary quasi science fiction movie about religion. It looks at how religion can influence the minds of those who believe in the scriptures. It influences them so much that they go out and do horrible things. It’s a movie that was not a success when it first came out, but over the years grew into an important film tackling this kind of subject. This review we will be looking at 1976’s ‘God Told Me To!’

The movie begins with a man on top of a water tower who opens fire on people walking the street with a .22 caliber rifle. His actions result in the death of fifteen people. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) is called in to stop the sniper. He climbs the water tower and talks to the sniper about why he is doing what he is doing. The sniper responds by telling Peter, “God told me to!” before jumping off the water tower to his death. The incident would be the first of many random murders to come throughout the movie all with the suspects seemingly implying that they were told by God to kill. As Peter investigates these strange acts, his clues lead him to a man named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch) who is the leader of a religious cult who according to the members has psychic powers and is controlling the minds of people to commit murder. Peter pursues Phillips through various avenues where he will be shocked about what he has discovered not only about Phillips, but about himself.

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This is perhaps Larry Cohen’s most bizarre and controversial movie as it deals with religion and religious extremism. Cohen deals with the rationalization believers go to in order to follow “the word of God.” There is extremism in every religion. You have people killing each other in the name of religion. Everyone believes their religion is one true religion and that those who practice something else is a heathen, infidel, unbeliever, etc. The movie also deals with cultism as the antagonist is the leader of a cult who is controlling the minds of others to kill people to spread his message. It’s relatable to this day with all the numerous cults that are out today. You could compare this film today to the rhetoric of Scientology.

Cohen brings in a cast of well-respected veteran working actors to assist with his vision with Tony Lo Bianco playing the lead as Detective Peter Nicholas. Lo Bianco doesn’t look like a lead actor, but he is the meat and potatoes of the story. In addition to dealing with these crimes and looking at the religious aspect, he is also dealing with his own beliefs. Peter Nicholas is shown throughout the movie as a devout Catholic. You see shots of him in a Church praying, talking to his wife about going to confession and begins to question his faith as these random murders continue. He’s also conflicted in his ranks as he feels that he is on his own with the investigation, not receiving support from his fellow police officers. The supporting cast features Deborah Raffin as Casey Forster who is Peter’s mistress, Sandy Dennis as Peter’s wife Martha whom is on the verge of divorcing him, Sylvia Sidney as Elizabeth Mullin who becomes a central figure in the film and has a connection to Bernard Phillips and Mike Kellin of ‘Midnight Express and ‘Sleepaway Camp’ fame as the Deputy Commissioner who is desperately trying to get the situation under control. Finally, you have the antagonist Bernard Phillips in a chilling performance by Richard Lynch. He appears in all gold and glowing, kind of like Jesus (which is what Cohen based Phillips on). Everything he does in the movie is to get Nicholas to come to him for which he makes a shocking revelation to Nicholas and unveils his master plan.

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As is customary in a Larry Cohen movie, Cohen fills the scenes with stolen shots and unplanned sequences which gives the movie a realistic tone. Cameras are placed all over the city to get many intriguing shots of the city and the everyday people who walk and commute in it. The most iconic scene in the movie is Cohen shoots the St. Patrick’s Day Parade filled with thousands of New York City Police Officers and features a cameo from comedian Andy Kauffman dressed up as an officer. Again, they didn’t have permission to shoot the parade so there are many shots of the police overhead, the Mayor and city officials and of course Kauffman. It’s great to see the unscripted reactions of fellow officers when they recognize Kauffman. They though Kauffman was doing another one of his typical jokes.

While Cohen was unable to return legendary film composer Bernard Hermann to score this movie after previous scoring ‘It’s Alive’ due to his untimely death, Cohen brings in Frank Cordell to the music. Cordell provides booming biblical tones which adds another dimension to the movie. The music is placed appropriately through tension scenes and plot reveals.

The pacing of the movie starts out quick and gutsy. By the time the second and third act come around things start to slow down creating a feeling of unbalance. The events and situations seem to jump around. I think this is in part to the condensed schedule that Cohen had when making this film.

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‘God Told Me To’ was not well received when it first opened. Critics including Roger Ebert vivisected this film. However, as time went by, critics revisited this movie and like its premise, it’s become a cult film. Rolling Stone listed it as one of “20 Scariest Films You’ve Never Seen!” [1] If you’re a fan of movies with crazy and weird plots, this movie is for you. You could even joke with people that ‘God told me to watch this movie!’

That concludes the second movie in the Larry Cohen Tribute Special. Next week we continue the special with another film of his that has had widespread acclaim and legacy. Don’t miss out!

TRIVIA

  • Composer Bernard Herrmann, Larry Cohen’s first choice to score the film, died that night after seeing the film without music. The film is dedicated to Hermann in his honor.
  • Larry Cohen did not have a permit to film the scene at the St. Patrick’s Day parade, but he did it anyway.
  • According to Larry Cohen, during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade scene, he was organizing the crew, only to see Andy Kaufman, dressed in his policeman’s uniform, antagonizing and making faces at the crowd. Some of the crowd members then attempted to jump the barricades and beat Kaufman, and Cohen had to hold them back.
  • Tony Lo Bianco accidentally broke actor William Roerick’s rib performing CPR in the heart attack scene.
  • Many years after the film’s release, a 70-something year old Larry Cohen stated in an interview that a young French filmmaker had asked him if he could remake the film. He couldn’t remember who this guy was, but he had left some of his films for Cohen to see, and when he took them out, that young French filmmaker turned out to be no other than Gaspar Noé.
  • When Larry Cohen asked composer Miklós Rózsa to score this picture, Rozsa replied, “God told me not to.”
  • Tony Lo Bianco replaced Robert Forster.

AUDIO CLIPS

Police Debrief

God Told Me To

How Would You Like To Be Mugged By A Detective?

You Confess Everything To The Priest

The Irish Have Waited All Year For This Day

People Like That Got No Business

Say It

You Have No Pity

Come On That’s Crap

Discipline Through Fear

Religious Editor Is On The Second Floor

He Truly Believes

Fight Him

Women Claim That They Were Laid By The Almighty

He Can Make Us Know What He Wishes

All My Life I Felt So Close To God

You’ve Tested Yourself

The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover

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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

Release Date: December 1977

Genre: Biography, Drama

Director: Larry Cohen

Writer: Larry Cohen

Starring: Broderick Crawford, James Wainwright, Michael Parks, Dan Dailey, Jose Ferrer, Celese Holm

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

Recently, the film world lost an original and innovative auteur. Larry Cohen was known in the industry as a guerrilla filmmaker. He made his movies outside of Hollywood with no permits, no permission and no rules. His films tackled many issues from African Americans in society, to marketing and consumerism, from hidden agendas, to the effects chemicals and pollution have on human beings. He was a pioneer in the Independent film industry. You can easily tell a Larry Cohen movie by the style and substance. His movies have lived on to this day with legions of fans continuing to watch them.

For the month of May, ‘Guilty Pleasure Cinema Review’ will be looking at five of Larry Cohen’s movies. Some may be familiar to fans of certain genres. Others are overlooked gems that don’t get much attention in his filmography. Although Larry Cohen is most famous in the world of horror, I did my best to not make all five movies horror based. The first movie I will review is one that doesn’t get much attention in the discussion of Cohen movies. It’s a semi-biographical film about the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, J. Edgar Hoover and how he molded and shaped the United States Government’s biggest investigative agency that is effective yet controversial. The first film in the Larry Cohen Tribute Month is 1977’s ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.’

‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’ is a well-crafted semi-documentary style drama about the United States’ top chief law enforcement. For his nearly fifty-year career, Hoover was the top cop in Washington. He served under eight United States Presidents starting with Calvin Coolidge and ending with Richard Nixon.  He became the nation’s ‘Top Cop’ at the age of 29. The film shows him taking on mobsters, communists and people within his own government. His brash and unorthodox style of tackling crime earns him a reputation that is feared not only by criminals, but people within the government. Anyone that would dare test his power would be subjected to wiretaps and blackmail. With the power came suspicions and paranoia which is shown through several scenes throughout the movie, especially when he is a room alone with a woman.

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The title of the movie comes from the files that Hoover was known to have kept regarding his adversaries. He was known to have information on everyone from his subordinates to Presidents. Larry Cohen depicts how Hoover deciphered the information he had on people and used it to discredit them or ensure that his power remained unchecked. The best example of this is a scene involving Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by Raymond St. Jacques). Hoover is determined to unmask Dr. King as a fraud which creates a tension filled moment when the two confront each other in the offices of the FBI.

Academy Award Winner Broderick Crawford stars as the titular icon that is Hoover. Crawford is the spitting image of Hoover on screen. He is stoic, and stone faced throughout the movie as you follow along with him as he goes deep into his head thinking, planning and executing his strategies. Everything he does from his tone of dialogue to mannerisms are all associated with the real J. Edgar Hoover. Crawford nails Hoover’s slumped forward posture and authoritative voice. It’s an incredible work of method acting I haven’t seen since Peter Weller’s performance in ‘Robocop’ or Michael Moriarty’s portrayal of Jimmy Quinn in another Larry Cohen film, ‘Q: The Winged Serpent!’ James Wainwright plays Hoover in his early years in the department and he is as exceptionally good. Wainwright’s Hoover deals with taking on the mafia, mainly pursuing John Dillinger and engaging in a popularity struggle with Melvin Purvis, the man who would take Dillinger down.

In addition to Crawford, there are some great supporting performances most notably from Dan Dailey as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and most trusted confidant. They are joined at the hip and seem inseparable which sparks the rumors from the press about their relationship being more than professional. Jose Ferrer plays Lionel McCoy another trusted liaison in Hoover’s inner circle is the quiet one of the bunch, but carries out the rules and regulations of the department as Hoover demands and Celeste Holm has a small performance as Florence Hollister, the wife of an ambassador whom tries to seduce Hoover which backfires as Hoover will not do anything that could leak to the press nor destroy his reputation at the bureau.

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If you read my review of ‘Black Caesar’ (another great Larry Cohen film), I mentioned that on of the things that makes Cohen stand out from the rest of filmmakers is his ability to ‘steal shots’. Cohen shoots his movies on location and without permission. To avoid getting caught by authorities, he would place cameras out of plain sight and shoot what was there. When the movie first began production, Cohen shot in the streets of Washington. They wanted to shoot inside several government buildings including the FBI. They were easily rejected when the request to shoot came up. However, first lady Betty Ford intervened when she found out who was in the movie. Mrs. Ford was a former dancer and was a huge fan of actor Dan Dailey, who plays Hoover’s eventual successor Clyde Tolson in the movie and invited him and Broderick Crawford to the White House for lunch. At the luncheon Dailey and Crawford explained how they were here to make a movie. When they told her some of the places they would like to shoot, President Gerald Ford gave Cohen permission to shoot inside the FBI. With that permission, Cohen was able to shoot scenes inside the FBI (including Hoover’s office and offices of others) as well as the FBI Outdoor Training Grounds. What you saw in the movie was the real deal. No sets, no shooting in other locations, nothing.

The only thing that stood out to me in terms of the negatives of the movie is the casting. Most of the actors cast in the movie didn’t look or act like the character they were playing. Michael Parks plays Robert Kennedy who doesn’t look anything like him however he did give considerable effort getting that thick New England accent down. Howard Da Silva as FDR, William Jordan as JFK, Andrew Duggan as LBJ and Richard Dixon as Nixon (Funny right?). None of those men had the look or personality of the president they were portraying. If Jon Voight as FDR, Martin Sheen as JFK, Bryan Cranston as LBJ and Frank Langella as Nixon are considered the Coca-Cola of presidential portrayals, these guys in this movie would be the Diet Rite version.

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If you’re looking to start watching Larry Cohen movies, you may want to watch this after you’ve seen some of his more popular work. When you get to ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’, you may look at biopic films in a new light. I personally believe this is a better representation of Hoover than Clint Eastwood’s movie ‘J. Edgar’. Crawford’s performance keeps your attention focused at everything he does and how he became the most powerful person in government. With that power comes corruption and there’s plenty of things that show it in the film. It may change your opinion on Hoover depending on how you feel about him today.

With that the first review in the ‘Larry Cohen Tribute Special’ is now complete. I will be posting a new review each week until the end of the month. For updates on postings, please be sure to follow my page here on WordPress or you can follow me on Twitter @GPCRMovies. I’ll see you soon with the second review in our special.

 

TRIVIA

  • Director Larry Cohen wanted to film at various authentic locations but was repeatedly turned down for permission. However, when First Lady Betty Ford – a former dancer – found out that Dan Dailey was in Washington to make a film, she invited him and Broderick Crawford to the White House for lunch, as she had always liked Dailey’s films and work. Larry Cohen then started calling locations such as the FBI’s training facility in Quantico, Virginia, and said that he wanted to film there but couldn’t do so the next day because the cast was having lunch at the White House; likely supposing that the film had official backing, every location soon made themselves available.
  • Several people who were real-life acquaintances of J. Edgar Hoover are featured in the film, including the barber who regularly cut his hair and his regular waiter at the Mayflower Hotel.
  • This was Jack Cassidy’s final film, issued one year after his death at age 49.
  • The film cast includes three Oscar winners: Broderick Crawford’, Celeste Holm and José Ferrer; and three Oscar nominees: Rip Torn, John Marley and Ronee Blakley.
  • The film had a formal screening at the Kennedy Center, but members of both parties in the largely political audience were irritated by the film’s unflattering depiction of not only Republicans such as Richard Nixon, but also Democrats such as the Kennedys and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Going To Miss Having My Room Searched

Hoover’s Entry Into The FBI

The Boy Scout

Just A Clerk

Top Cop

There’s No Romance In A Dead Rat

I’ve Always Kinda Liked Post Toasties

You’re Always There

Why Don’t You Come In And Ask Her To Dance?

You’re His Boss

I Needed The Exercise

His Time Has Passed

Got A Lot Of Important People To Spy On

Now They Call Me A Senile Old Man

They Haven’t Got Us Out Yet

Couple Old Ferries

We’re Spying On Everyone

Larry Cohen Tribute Special

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to let you know starting Wednesday and all through the month of May I will be presenting 5 movie reviews dedicated to one of my all time favorite filmmakers, Larry Cohen. Larry was a pioneer and true guerrilla filmmaker. The only rules he lived by were his own. He’s made numerous movies from different genres that are unique and timeless.

Sadly, we lost Larry almost a month ago and I wanted to celebrate his life and career. Make sure you follow me so you get all the updates on when each review posts.

See you Wednesday!

*Illustration made by Alex Bastock

The Long Riders

 

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The Long Riders

Release Date: May 16, 1980

Genre: Biography, Crime, Western

Director: Walter Hill

Writers: Bill Bryden, Steven Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach

Starring: David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, James Keach, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid

 

WARNING: POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW

 

 Perhaps the most overlooked filmmaker that I can think of in recent memory would be Walter Hill. While he’s most known for being a writer and an executive producer most notably with the ‘Alien’ franchise, he has several well-known movies that he directed throughout the 70s and 80s. You may have seen a movie from these eras not realizing that it was done by Walter Hill. Does ‘The Warriors’ ring a bell? How about ‘Streets of Fire?’ I’m sure you have seen the Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy buddy comedy/crime film ‘48 Hours!’ Hill has created films from different genres that have a unique look and style that help tell the story of what he is trying to convey. One movie in his filmography that has always stood out to me is his 1980 Western Crime movie ‘The Long Riders!’

Featuring an ensemble cast of acting brothers, the movie depicts the James-Younger gang and their outlaw antics after the Civil War. Throughout the state of Missouri, they rob banks, trains and stagecoaches. The leaders of the gang are Jesse James and Cole Younger followed by their brothers. Their antics would lead to the Pinkerton agency, led by Mr. Rixley being hired to capture the outlaws. Some of the tactics they use to get information regarding the gang go haywire to the point that the gang seeks vengeance on the agents. As the gang prepares their biggest heist in Minnesota, tensions start to flare within the gang. Would they be able to overcome their objections and hostility towards each other to pull off their biggest score? Or will they crumble under the pressure of not only the law right behind their tails, but what impact their deeds have had on their families?

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‘The Long Riders’ was an ambitious project of actor James Keach. After he and his brother Stacy played The Wright Brothers in the television film of the same name, James came up with the idea of doing a movie about Jesse James and his gang with James playing Jesse and Stacy playing Frank James. After several years, James and Stacy ponied up much of the funding to get the film made. For the rest of the gang, they enlisted the Carradine brothers to play the Younger family. David Carradine played Cole Younger, Keith Carradine played Jim Younger and Robert Carradine played Bob Younger. For the Miller brothers, James enlisted the Quaids to fill out those roles with Randy Quaid play Clell Miller and Dennis Quaid playing Ed Miller.

The concept of having real life acting brothers play brotherly characters in a movie is ingenious. All the performances are not only different in personalities, but contemplative of each other and throughout the movie. James Keach and David Carradine as the leaders of the gang show off their leader mentality with James being the architect of their plans. While David Carradine’s Cole Younger is a man who likes to gamble, drink and have fun in between robberies, James Keach’s Jesse James is always serious and straight laced. All he thinks about is his family and his next score. Keith Carradine’s portrays Jim Younger as a handsome, charismatic gunslinger who is a genuine smooth talker. His issue in the film involves the woman he is in love with who ends up taking the hand of Ed Miller against his advice. Robert Carradine’s Jim Younger is the babyface of the group and Robert plays it with ambition and friendly. He’s so friendly he shakes the hand of the man whose stagecoach is being robbed by them. Randy Quaid trades his comedic chops for a brute intimidating portrayal as Clell Miller whose loyalty is only to the gang and not to his brother Ed, which you’ll see throughout the movie. Dennis Quaid has the less screen time out of all of them for reasons that are depicted early in the film. The screen time he does have involves a triangle he has between his wife and his gang.

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‘The Long Riders’ is the most historically accurate film of the James Younger gang I could think of in a long time. Hill’s real intention is to present us with a gang of three families of brothers and get us to accept them on their own terms. We see the gang not only as rough riding outlaws, but devoted family men which gives the characters a sense of heart.  The movie starts out at the height of their notoriety and ends with its untimely downfall. Not only is the timeline of events sequential, but Walter Hill manages to show the customs of life in post-Civil War times. There is a concentration on familiar rituals as funerals, family reunions and relationships between loved ones, but also on common Western rituals such as brothels, saloons, knife fight challenges and of course the robberies.

The music and cinematography only heightened the authenticity of the movie. The original score was written and performed by Ry Cooder. He is best known for his ‘roots’ music style with an emphasis of using slide guitar techniques. There’s plenty of guitar, harmonica and fiddles to fill your ears as you immerse yourself in each scene. The look of the film is rustic, yet beautiful. From the green pastures of Missouri to the tiny towns, to the rivers and forests, you’ll be amazed at the open landscape that is depicted throughout the film.

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And what is a Western without action? Nothing. ‘The Long Riders’ has plenty of action. You have vindictive shootouts between the gang and the Pinkertons. You have train robberies, bank robberies and stagecoach heists that are filled with tension and humor. And there is a knife fight between Carradine and the husband of a hooker he knows complete with both biting down on a belt as they try to slash each other. The action weaves into the story with fluidity. Some of the deaths are gory for a Western movie. There’s no skimping of blood or bullets in the scenes.

‘The Long Riders’ may not have a lasting impact among the mainstream Western movies, but this is one of the more memorable ones I could think of in a long time. There’s never a dull moment or a scene that drowns out long. It keeps your eyes forward at the screen as you watch the journey of the Cole Younger gang and its ultimate fall like the Corleone family in ‘The Godfather!’. Walter Hill delivers a sympathetic piece to one of the most notorious gangs in American history.  To Hill, good and bad aren’t on opposite sides of the coin; they share the edge.

 

TRIVIA

  • Dennis Quaid broke his nose during the making of this film as he did three years later on Tough Enough (1983).
  • The roles of Jesse James and his son, little Jesse, are played by father and son, James and Kalen Keach.
  • Originally Jeff Bridges and Beau Bridges were going to play the Ford brothers, but they could not fit it in their schedules.
  • Stuart Mossman, who played the “Engineer,” was a renowned guitar maker and friend of the three Carradine brothers, who all owned Mossman guitars.
  • In order to make the movie, David Carradine forfeited his customary profit participation and the Keach brothers gave up their profit percentages as executive producer in order that the Carradine brothers got the same amount of profits. When the film went over its $7.5 million budget, the Keaches forfeited their executive producer fees.
  • The film features an uncredited appearance by Ever Carradine, daughter of Robert Carradine and niece to David Carradine and Keith Carradine.

 

AUDIO CLIPS

Standing Guard

You Got Nice Hands

Women

When You’re Old Enough To Call Yourself A Lady

Shelby Weren’t At Cole Harbor

Jesse James Rides With The Youngers

How Come I Wasn’t Invited?

Fire Away And Fall Back

Amazingly Stupid Question

What’s To Know About Robbing A Bank?

On Your Way To Hell

Pinkerton Man

Tell You Something About Texas

Any Visitors While I Was Gone

Family Man

Take The Damn Bank