Posts Tagged ‘larry cohen’

Sooner or later it always seems to come back to Larry Cohen around here, doesn’t it?

And hell, why not? For well over tow decades (closer to three, really), he’s been at the forefront of two of the more venerable B-movie categories that fall frequently under our purview, namely horror and blaxploitation. And while his undisputed best piece of work in any field is the Fred “The Hammer” Williamson starring vehicle Black Caesar, his finest foray into the horror field (in my own humble opinion, at any rate) is 1974’s retelling of the Frankenstein myth (only this time with a baby), It’s Alive.

The set-up is as simple as you’d probably expect — ready-to-pop Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) heads to the hospital with her husband, well-to-do advertising executive Frank (John P. Ryan, listed here simply as John Ryan) to give birth, but when the baby comes out it turns out to be a hideous, hugely-fanged mutant with an insatiable appetite for blood that first kills everyone in the delivery room (except mommy) and then escapes into the night. When an unscrupulous TV news reporter actually has the gall to broadcast the names of the parents of this freak of nature, things get even worse for Frank as he finds himself out of work due to the bad publicity the manhunt (or should that be kidhunt) for his offspring brings to his Madison Avenue firm.

Things, obviously, aren’t all that they seem (and they seem pretty strange to say the least), for while It’s Alive preys deliciously on then-contemporary fears of genetic mutation as a result of pollution and what have you, there’s obviously more to the whole thing than just accidental enviro-poisoning going on here, since the Davis family’s eldest child, 11-year-old Christopher, is perfectly normal.

Truth be told, though, while there’s a dark (of sorts) secret at the heart of this film, and the gore effects are pretty darn good for their time (and still hold up pretty well against some of today’s lower-budget efforts), it’s really the tow lead performances that carry this film, with Farrell’s Lenore going through the stages of slow-burn total breakdown, while Ryan’s Frank becomes a mask of steely resolve as he comes, and then sticks, to the conclusion that his own flesh and blood must be destroyed for the good of both society at large as well as, frankly, himself and his family.

It’s Alive is available on DVD from Warner Brothers in a 3-pack set that also includes its two somewhat-less-than-stellar sequels (it was also remade for the straight-to-video market in 2008, but the less about that particular fiasco the better). The remastered widescreen picture and stereo soundtrack are both great, and it includes the trailer and a pretty solid commentary track from writer-director Cohen. Given that the whole set is usually available at bargain-basement prices, it’s definitely a worthwhile purchase.

I’m not going to tell you that It’s Alive is a classic, or even anything of the sort, but like all Cohen films, it has modest aspirations and exceeds them at every turn. From a solid plot to genuinely terrific lead performances to effectively atmospheric cinematography and lighting to a fair dose of intrigue to a non-heavy-handed exploration of contemporary sociopolitical issues to a nicely- inflated body count to extremely-competently-executed effects, it delivers a lot more than it promises and ends up being a hell of a lot more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be.

I don’t know about you, but for me, that all adds up to a very enjoyable evening in front of the TV, particularly at this time of year.

Let’s get one thing straight about writer-director Larry Cohen(who we always seem to come back to every few months around here)’s 1973 mini-opus Black Caesar : this is most assuredly not a blaxploitation film in any traditional sense.

Oh, sure, it was marketed to the African American audience. And yes, a formerly-trod-upon black guy getting his revenge on “The Man” is a central theme here. And yeah, it’s got a kick-ass soul music soundtrack (in this case supplied by the one and only James Brown himself). And okay, it stars none other than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, and features D’Urville Martin in a supporting role as a crooked preacher.

So fair enough, it’s got all the trappings of your classic blaxploitation flick. But right there, bubbling away just underneath the surface, hiding in plain sight, there’s an unstoppable rhythm that grinds away more ferociously than the vocal stylings of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. An undeniable trajectory that guides the plot along like a force of nature. We know it’ll all end either in tears or in a bittersweet “victory” that stings more than it soars, yet we can’t turn away despite the fact that the fate of the film’s central protagonist, one Tommy Gibbs (Williamson, in the role that made him a household name), is written in the stars. Yes, friends, this is classic Shakespearean tragedy as its finest — albeit in truncated form and set in Harlem.

When we join the story, our guy Tommy is a hard-working shoeshine kid in the 1950s who helps out the local hoods by setting a guy up to get whacked and running a payoff over to a local crooked cop. When the payoff envelope he delivers turns up a little light, the aforementioned morally compromised police officer, one Captain McKinney (the great Art Lund) takes it out on Tommy and busts his leg with his nightstick. And that right there is his biggest mistake, because Tommy Gibbs never forgets, and he never lets a grudge go.

As he lays in bed with leg in a cast, he begins to hatch his master plan, his rise to the top — he learned all he needed to know about the world when McKinney’s billy club whacked him, and he knows without a doubt that the name of the game is power. First he’s gonna get McKinney and every other white asshole just like him to bow down before him, and then he’s gonna bring ’em all down at the precise moment he’s got them eating out of his hand.

Next thing we know it’s 20 years later and Tommy’s making his mark as a hit man for the mob who’ll take on the jobs nobody else wants. the Italian “family” bosses don’t trust him, of course, but when he’s given a block of his own in Harlem that none of them want, he makes it work, and soon he’s expanding his territory — and taking over theirs. Tommy Gibbs soon becomes known as the “Black Godfather,” and as his influence grows, the same guys who first gave him a chance begin to view him as a threat. It’s only a matter of time before Tommy gets too big for his britches and is brought down hard.

Along the way, though, he becomes the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Harlem crime world — but not without paying a price. Oh, sure, he gets McKinney, and every other bent lawman and politician, right where he wants them, and soon the guys who used to give him his marching orders are all taking the same from him. But the first person to see Tommy for the monster he’s become is none other than his own mother. When Tommy offers her everything she ever wanted and then some, she turns him down flat. When his estranged father re-enters the picture later, the results are no different. And his single-minded determination to “make it” manages to alienate his wife (there’s a particularly gritty scene that marks one of the few times I’ve actually seen a film portray spousal rape  as the horrendous violation ) and drive her into the waiting arms of his best friend.

Needless to say, by the time our Mr. Gibbs finally has everything he wants — or more precisely everything he thought he wanted — he’s alone and finds he’s really got nothing. There’s been one thing driving him on all these years, though, one thing that he can still take care of before the curtain drops on his classically-structured tragedy — he can finally get even with McKinney, personally. Tommy’s a very sharp guy and senses that he’s on the way out, but before he goes, he’s going to take the symbol of all his former oppression and victimization down with him, goddamnit!

Okay, so this isn’t a particularly original set-up in and of itself (“be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” and all that) — but the the oldest stories are still the best. As I stated at the outset, Black Caesar is genuinely Shakespearean in its structure (and Shakespeare got it from the Greeks — remember Oedipus, the very first tragedy?), but Cohen does a terrific job of serving us up a story we’ve seen a thousand times before in a way that’s fresh, exciting, and for its time, frankly even a little bit revolutionary. the characters here, even down to the smallest supporting parts, are interesting and involving, even if they’re only there to serve as convenient plot devices. The dialogue is uniformly smart and realistic throughout, the actual Harlem filming locations are well-portrayed, Williamson is flat-out superb in the title role (equal parts compelling, repulsive, sympathetic, and alienating — we can always relate to his portrayal of Tommy even when we can no longer condone any of his actions), and at no point do you feel like there’s no way this could happen. This is a thinking person’s exploitation flick, and folks with a background in classical literature are going to feel more intrigued than insulted or pandered to by it. There’s nothing wrong with telling the same old story very well, after all, and that’s exactly what Black Caesar does. Sure, at the end of the day you could make the argument that it’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version (right about 90 minutes) of The Bard transposed into an urban ghetto environment, but that’s actually a pretty cool thing, especially when done with  professionalism and passion — both of which are on display here in ample quantities throughout. Frankly, while Larry Cohen can usually be counted on to crank out a competent piece of work, this is as close as I’ve ever seen him come to genuinely inspired moviemaking.

Black Caesar is available on DVD from MGM as part of its Soul Cinema line (of course). It’s (again, of course) essentially a bare-bones release that offers nothing by way of extras apart from the original theatrical trailer, but the anamorphic widescreen transfer looks great, especially considering its age, and the 2.0 stereo sound does the admittedly killer soundtrack pretty solid justice. It’s also playing for free all month on Impact Action On Demand on most cable and satellite systems.  So do yourself a favor and check it out — I’ve got a feeling that no less an authority than William Shakespeare himself would be more flattered than insulted by it.

"Original Gangstas" Movie Poster

Hey, what the hell, you know?

In the late 90s and around the turn of the millennium, blaxploitation cinema started to earn a long-overdue critical reappraisal, due in large part to the success of films like Jackie Brown and the “updated” (and lame) Shaft — suddenly the opinion-dictators out there, who had written off the entire genre as racist, contemptible crap realized a lot of those old flicks were pretty damn good. And after being wrong for about twenty years, said self-appointed trendsetters were finally right about this terrific, much-maligned genre. And since a lot of the folks who starred in those great old 70s action yarns were looking for work, it was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a “greatest hits” reunion came to pass.

Enter director Larry Cohen, the ultimate B-movie survivor (he helmed blaxploitationers like Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem in addition to tons of awesome B-grade horrors), who in the year 1996  reassembled all the blaxploitation heavy hitters (well, okay, almost all), sprinkled in a few more awesome cult stars, got ahold of a semi-decent script that gave ’em all something to do, and the result its Original Gangstas.

Okay, he might be like 60, but I still wouldn't fuck with Fred Williamson

Just look at this cast, people — Fred Williamson. Pam Grier. Jim Brown. Ron O’Neal. Richard Roundtree. Paul Winfield. Isabel Sanford. Robert Forster. Wings Hauser. Charles Napier. Paul Winfield. There’s just no way any flick with that cast, and Cohen behind the camera, is going to suck too badly.

Is Original Gangstas predictable? Dear God yes. Fred “The Hammer” plays an ex-football player who comes home to Gary, Indiana when his father is brutally attacked in the shop he owns by members of a street gang known as The Rebels, and from the minute his private plane (probably rented for all of ten minutes by the production crew) touches down, you know everything’s gonna work out okay. Any supposed “twists and turns” the plot takes along the way cam be seen from a mile off — at least.

But so what? You’re not in this for anything new. You’re here for the comforts of the familiar, to see the old pros show the young punks how it’s done.

For the most part, the fight scenes are well-enough staged, and you believe the likes of Williamson, Brown, Grier, and Roundtree can still kick a little ass — and that they’ll feel it in the morning. The aura of invincibility around all of them has been brought down a couple notches, and they’re portrayed not as super-heroes, but as people who can hold their own in a fight despite their advanced years. Yeah, it might be a totally unrealistic premise, but at least it’s presented —- uhhhhmmm — semi-realistically.

"Eat lead, muthafuckas!!!!!!!!!!"

It’s essentially the soul music generation vs. the hip-hop generation here, and there’s never any doubt about who’s gonna come out on top in the end. Contemporary elements like drive-by shootings, automatic weapons, ultraviolent gangbangers, and a “gangsta rap” soundtrack all combine to produce an atmosphere where it’s pretty clear the old-timers are, sure, a little out of their element, but they work hard and know how to adjust on the fly. They’re survivors, after all, and they’ll make it out of this scrape okay.

Sure, it gets a little preachy in spots — what’s happening to our neighborhoods?, what’s happening to our youth?, why are the cops so incompetent?, what’s happened to economic opportunities in the black community?, yadda yadda yadda etc. etc. etc.

So what? There was an element of preachiness in all the 70s blaxploitation flicks, usually about these exact same subjects. Give Original Gangstas a break — it’s pretty clear from the outset that the only “original” thing in the movie is the first word in the title.

Real love never dies, baby

It’s all here — the gangland slaying of their son rekindles an old romance between Brown and Grier, hard-working flatfoot detective Forster tries but can’t get anywhere, Napier as the Mayor and Hauser as his assistant don’t actually give a shit, Williamson’s gotta get the old gang back together (he and Brown and Roundtree and O’Neal actually founded The Rebels), and the little kid who everybody loves gets killed. Again, don’t expect anything new under the soggy Gary skies here, just enjoy the ride.

And if you can do that, then goddamnit, Original Gangstas is a  lot of fun. Way more than any flick with a geriatric cast going after one last crack at glory should be. Cohen moves things along at a steady little pace and with consummate professionalism, and not one of the stars seems to be mailing it in, even though all of them could. I won’t recommend it without reservation, but if you know exactly what you’re getting into here — and it’s never any secret — then there’s no reason you can’t just kick back and dig it for what it is — one last shot at the big-time for a bunch of actors who certainly deserve it.

"Original Gangstas" DVD from MGM

Original Gangstas is available as a bare-bones DVD release from MGM, and it’s also playing all month on Impact Action-on-Demand, in HD, on most major cable systems. It’s well worth a look, and even if one viewing will probably do it for you, it’ll be one enjoyable viewing.

The advertising tagline for Original Gangstas is “It’s Time for Some Respect.” The film itself earns just that.

"The Stuff" Movie Poster

B-movie veteran Larry Cohen (God Tole Me To, It’s Alive) could always pull a project together, it seems. The guy was just plain never out of work for long — and still isn’t, although he seems confined primarily to scriptwriting duties these days with projects such as Phone Booth and Captivity. In 1985 he was still a genuine low-budget auteur, though, writing as well as directing projects for the smallest-scale indie distributors, mid-size outfits like New World (who handled the financing for the subject of our — ahem! — “analysis” today), and occasionally even the big Hollywood studios. Working primarily out of New York, Cohen was usually able to put together a pretty decent cast to handle his uniformly well-written and well-executed, if a bit “old-school” horror in terms of their occasional less-than-complete originality, flicks.

Simply put, you generally knew what you’d be getting from a Larry Cohen film — nothing groundbreakingly awesome, but always better-done-than-it-felt-like-they-probably-should-be, some decent budget effects work, a fe laughs, and generally a pretty solid little story. And so it is with The Stuff, in many ways probably the quintessential Cohen flick.

It’s probably a bit ironic that ol’ Larry became best known for his horror (more precisely his horror-comedy hybrid) work, given that he got his start with blaxploitationers like Bone and the truly classic Black Caesar, but if there’s one thing Cohen has proven over the years it’s that he’s a movie industry survivor — when times and tastes change, he’s smart enough to change with them and go with the new flow enough to keep getting work. When blaxploitation started to slow down, it’s only natural that a guy with his keen survival instincts would gravitate toward horror, but one thing he didn’t lose along the way was his nose for making his stories stick with an audience by injecting just enough contemporary social commentary to give his films relevance. It’s never an overpowering element of his M.O., so to speak, but it’s always in there somewhere. Sometimes that makes his projects feel pretty dated, as the issues he’s addressing are no longer of front-burner importance in today’s world. At other times, though, it makes him look downright prescient, as the issues he’s tackling actually grow in importance from the time of the movie’s initial release.

That’s certainly the case with The Stuff, a movie about gelatinous goo oozing out of the center of the Earth and packaged as an ice cream-type dessert that eventually takes over and expels itself from the “host bodies” who are consuming it.

Just can't get enough of The Stuff!

Okay, so the parallels to the horror classic The Blob are pretty painfully obvious here, but like I said, sparkling originality has never been a Larry Cohen signature. What’s remarkable is that the issues he’s tackling in this story — fake foodstuffs, slick marketing (the fake TV commercials for the The Stuff, with their scarily-catchy “Just can’t get enough of The Stuff” jingle are one of this movie’s highlights), and environmental disaster oozing from the ground are more pressing than ever in in 2010, when our grocery store shelves are full of genetically-modified “frankenfoods,” our airwaves (and the internet) are bombarded with with ever-more-aggressive ad campaigns for shit we don’t need, and oil is spilling out of an underwater hole into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 200,oo0 barrels (or something) a day with no end in sight.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Larry Cohen film without a plethora of fairly-well-realized characters. Our main protagonist is a corporate espionage specialist named David “Mo” Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) , who;s been hired by a consortium of ice cream manufacturers to find out the secret of The Stuff and why it’s eating up their market share (and, quite literally, their customers). In his quest to find out what The Stuff is, where it comes from, and why people just can’t resist its appeal, he teams up with a wide variety of crackpots, independent sleuths, and various hangers-on, including PR-exec-turned-gal Friday (and sorta-love interest) Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), down-on-his-luck cookie magnate (and obvious Famous Amos stand-in) “Chocolate Chip” Charlie (SNL alum Garrett Morris, who meets and awesomely spectacular stuff-induced demise that you have to see to believe), and right-wing militia commander Colonel Malcolm Grommett Spears (Paul Sorvino), who basically functions as a cross between Rush Limbaugh and Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay (needless to say, he’s convinced The Stuff is a commie plot to destroy America and he’s determined to wipe every trace of it from the face of our fair land).

If all this sounds like a weird amalgamation of The Blob, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Soylent Green, well — that’s because it is. But goddamn if it doesn’t all work.

Here comes The Stuff!

The effects, as mentioned, are terrific fun. The huge masses of stop-motion Stuff are well-realized and frankly look a hell of a lot better than most of today’s CGI garbage, and for smaller-quantity servings, they just used gobs of yogurt and soft-serve ice cream. Again, damned if it doesn’t work just fine. There are several impressive death-by-Stuff scenes, the just-mentioned one with Morris being the best, but truth be told they all look good, and I’ve watched plenty of flicks with ten, a hundred, or even a thousand times the budget of this one not pull off their supposedly “shocking” death sequences with anywhere near this much effectiveness and aplomb. All told, it’s a genuine visual delight.

And finally, on the trivia front, be on the lookout for appearances from Danny Aiello, the Brothers Bloom, Eric Bogosian, and a very young Mira Sorvino.

"The Stuff" DVD from Anchor Bay

The Stuff is available on DVD from Anchor Bay. It features a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that’s been digitally remastered and looks great, the sound likewise has been remastered and is presented in a crisp, clear 5.1 mix, and as far as the extras go, while the overall selection is pretty light, there’s a feature-length commentary track from Larry Cohen himself that’s flat-out awesome to listen to.

Is The Stuff a classic? Nah. But it’s plenty good, about 50 times better than your first impression of it would lead you to believe, and a downright professional piece of work. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s incisive, it’s smart, and it’s well-acted, well-directed, and amazingly well-realized visually. It’s one of those movies that, if you own it, you find yourself watching it again three or four times a year just because — well, it’s so damn solidly done.

And with that, I’m off to the Dairy Queen for a heaping pile of soft-serve Stu —- errr, ice cream.

"God Told Me To" Movie Poster

Larry Cohen films have a vibe all their own. Even his more “standard” horror fare like “It’s Alive,” or his blaxploitation ventures like “Black Caesar” have that certain off-kilter aspect of — well, Cohen-ness, for lack of a better term, to them. A signature element of personality that manifests itself in some sort of major quirk, or series of quirks, throughout. Today Cohen is pretty much confined to screenwriting, churning out rather standard-issue “thriller” screenplays for flicks like “Captivity” and “Phone Booth,” but back when he was given more free reign, he definitely came up with some movies that were straight out of bizarro world, the most notable of which were probably “Bone,” “Q : The Winged Serpent,” and my personal favorite, 1976’s “God Told Me To.”

This movie takes so many unexpected and almost completely incongruous twists and turns that you just have to sit back, go with the flow, and enjoy the ride. If you’re not willing to completely suspend all disbelief and just trust that Cohen is going to get us to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, no matter how bizarre what’s going on may seem at the time, then you’re going to feel hopelessly frustrated and probably throw in the towel somewhere around the halfway point of the proceedings. But if you are, indeed, able to hold out hope for a satisfying and dare I even say sensible conclusion, even in the face of staggering absurdity, then you’re in for a heck of a good time.

Tony Lo Bianco is searching for God --- so he can charge him with murder

New York police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco — there’s a name you haven’t heard in awhile) is working one bitch of a case. First, he just happens to be on the scene when a young man named Harold Gorman, perched atop a water tower, kills 15 random pedestrians with a .22-caliber rifle. Nicholas tries to talk him down, but Gorman, after confessing his “motive,” opts to take his own life instead.  Next, an apparently happily married man kills his wife and children completely out of the blue, and calmly offers the same bizarre “motive” that Gorman did, prompting Nichoals to get involved in that case, as well. After that, a beat cop (played by Andy Kaufman — yes, that Andy Kaufman) opens fire on his fellow police officers marching in New York’s famous St. Patrick’s Day parade (an event Cohen would return to in his script for “Maniac Cop”). He also offers the exact same “motive” as te other two recent mass-murderers.

As for what that “motive” is, I’m sure you’ve already guessed — “God told me to” (hence the name, of course, although this flick was also released under the rather dull title of “Demon,” as well).

The man on the moon joins the bullies in blue --- Andy Kaufman in "God Told Me To"

Nicholas has some qualms about being in charge of this investigation due to his own highly devout, albeit rather secret, Catholicism.  Abandoned as an infant, he was raised by nuns for several years in Catholic orphanage. His personal life is a mess, and even though he’s been seprated from his wife (played by Sandy Dennis) and spends most of his time with his girlfriend (portrayed by Deborah Raffin), his strict religious views preclude any possibility of his getting a divorce, which is probably why he keeps his mistress in the dark about the seriousness with which he practices his faith.

Following the leads in this case is going to cause him to question that faith in ways he never imagined, though — that’s because every single clue leads him toward a man named Bernard Phillips (cult favorite Richard Lynch), who apparently was the product of a virgin birth, possesses miraculous abilities, and seems to have a direct line to the almighty himself. No matter how hard he wants to believe otherwise, Nicholas starts to accept the seemingly impossible — there really is a God living in New York, and he really is ordering his followers to kill. But as astonishing as those revelations are, it’s nothing compared to what our erstwhile hero is about to learn about his own past —

Richard Lynch as either God himself, the son of God, both, or neither

This is the point at which summarizing the plot any further is just going to give too damn much away. Like I mentioned previously, be prepared for some seriously goofy shit that will sorely tempt you to groan and shut the thing off. But stick it out and I promise you won’t be sorry. Everything comes full circle and the ending is absolutely perfect. I don’t believe in God myself, but I do believe in Larry Cohen’s ability to tell a damn solid story, and that faith is certainly rewarded come time for this flick to wrap up.

"God Told Me To" DVD from Blue Underground

“God Told Me To” is available on DVD from Blue Underground. The digitally remastered anamorphic  transfer looks sharp and crisp, the sound quality, also remastered, is especially clear and well-done, and what few extras there are really are good, including the trailer (of course), and a fantastic commentary from Chonen, whose recollections of the film are crystal clear and whose anecdotes about production always entertaining and involving. A highly recommended rental or even purchase if you’re any kind of fan of low-budget independent exploitation fare or just mind-fuck films in general, since “Gold Told Me To” will definitely leave you scratching your head at just where the hell this whole thing is headed throughout, but feeling exceptionally satisfied by the time it’s over.