Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/10/2003.
No sign of any more Larry Cohen DVD re-releases on the horizon. Meanwhile, bugger me, he's involved in a new remake of It's Alive.
I hadn't thought about Larry Cohen, the undisputed god of American exploitation cinema, for years: and then three things happened within a few months to remind me of him. First, he turned up at last year's London Film Festival as one of the interviewees in BaadAsssss Cinema, Isaac Julien's documentary about blaxploitation movies. Cohen was the white director of Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem and the 1990's reunion picture Original Gangstas, and he talked entertainingly about his films and those of his colleagues in the genre. ("They made a lot of bad movies under the guise of blaxploitation pictures - just like most movies are bad, but I think they abused the privilege...") It made me wonder what he was up to these days.
Shortly afterwards I found out, as Phone Booth hit the movie houses. Based on a Cohen script, it had all the characteristics of one of his own-directed movies - a simple premise economically played out in a New York location. It was severely harmed by massive overproduction (courtesy of Evil Dog RapistTM Joel Schumacher) and massive overacting (courtesy of nobhead du jour Colin Farrell), but the wit and invention of the original script still shone through regardless. And now, thanks to the good people at the Blue Underground DVD label, we can compare Phone Booth against three of Larry Cohen's earlier films, with nifty features including commentaries by the man himself. Plus, they're all region coding free for your international convenience.
Bone was Cohen's first feature film as writer and director, made in 1972 after a period of success in television (he'd created series such as The Invaders and Branded) and writing scripts for stage and screen. It's had a chequered history: a production that was shut down after a few days once Cohen realised his original crew and leading lady didn't work, and a series of title changes and bad marketing campaigns that meant very few people actually saw the finished product. In certain American states it was sold as a sexploiter called Housewife: in England it was given the useless title of Dial Rat For Terror. Given the basic theme - a white LA couple being terrorised by a black man who's suddenly entered their home - it was obviously a difficult film to market. And only now is its creator prepared to go on record and admit what should have been obvious all along: it's a comedy, albeit one of the darkest hue. Cohen's lefty sensibilities have always been visible in his work, and the queasy racial angle doesn't develop in quite the way you'd expect from the opening scenes.
The subject matter and approach may be very different from his later work, but certain elements of the Cohen modus operandi were obviously established from the word go. Primarily, it's shot with massive economy - all the films on review here were made in three six-day weeks. An interesting feature on the Bone DVD is the footage from that early aborted shoot: three days worth of filming which cuts together into about half an hour of completed scenes, an extraordinary shooting rate by most Hollywood standards. The subsequent switch from 16mm black and white to 35mm colour was a smart decision on Cohen's part: it's got the bright, crisp feel of a film by Russ Meyer, another maverick American auteur who realised that if you look good enough, you can get away with murder.
Thirty-one years later, the race and class themes of Bone are still powder-keg stuff. Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten are fine as the tormented couple whose secrets are brought to light, and Jeannie Berlin is agreeably kooky as The Girl (a role that could have been an early highlight of Susan Sarandon's career if it hadn't been for Cohen's dog attacking her, though that's another story). But it's Yaphet Kotto in the title role who steals the show. His key scene in the movie is still jaw-dropping today, a speech in which he bemoans the death of 'the nigger mystique' - basically, he's complaining that a decent black rapist like himself just can't terrify white chicks like he used to. The ending is splendidly ambiguous, though in the commentary Cohen complains that a key element of it was ripped off for Last Tango In Paris (get used to accusations of plagarism, you're going to see a lot of them here). The whole thing feels like a Joe Orton play shot with nouvelle vague style, which is a combination that was doomed to failure at the drive-ins: but it did lead to producer Sam Arkoff giving Cohen his big break on the blaxploitation flicks, with the explanation "you really know how to direct those black actors".
As you'll see, it'd be difficult to describe anything as a typical Larry Cohen film: but Bone is definitely out on its own in his oeuvre, and 1976's God Told Me To is closer to what you'd expect from him. This was the film I was most looking forward to revisiting in this collection, as I don't believe it ever got a proper release in the UK: in the pre-Bright Bill days, it got a short outing on video under its alternate title Demon!, but close on 20 years must have elapsed since then.
Like the best of Cohen's work, it's a full-on New York movie - he's up there with Woody Allen and Spike Lee as a filmmaker who uses the whole city as his backlot. In this movie, the Big Apple is in a state of panic, as law and order seem to be on the brink of collapse. All over the city, people are going crazy: a sniper is shooting up the place from a water tower, a cop freaks out in the middle of the St Patrick's Day parade, a father butchers his entire family. And they always give the same reason for doing it: "God told me to". The police are struggling to cope with what looks like an outbreak of mass hysteria, while a recovering Catholic cop (Tony Lo Bianco) is the only one to realise that everyone might actually be telling the truth... The result is a wild fantasy story filmed like a gritty cop thriller, a style that Cohen insists was subsequently stolen for The X-Files. (I'm not saying I agree with all his accusations of plagiarism, you know.)
Again, this was an 18 day shoot with a troubled start. Legendary composer Bernard Herrmann was supposed to score the film, but died the night after seeing the rough cut. Less dramatically, Robert Forster played the lead for the first two days, before Cohen sacked him for his irritating gum-chewing habit. Tony Lo Bianco was an old chum of Cohen's from some previous stage work, and stepped into the breach splendidly. The cast is very good throughout: Cohen has a splendid rep company of gnarly old NY character actors who regularly appear in his films, and he uses them well. (A useful tip from Cohen for low-budget filmmakers - have a couple of cops with acting talent on your payroll. They can perform unofficial security tasks on the production, and when it comes to their scenes they've already got their own costume.)
The biggest surprise for a modern audience is the debut appearance of Andy Kaufman, who plays the nutso cop in the St Patrick's Day parade sequence. That scene's become emblematic of Cohen's work, because it was done entirely without the co-operation of the New York authorities. In a stunning act of one-chance-only bravado, he snuck Kaufman into the actual parade (in the middle of five thousand real cops), and had three film crews running around him filming as much of a shootout as they could without anyone noticing (barring a couple of reshoots in LA for the scenes involving actual bullet hits). It makes for a glorious set of stories for the commentary track - Cohen himself stood behind the real-life NY mayor and fell over at a key moment, dubbing in the gunshot later - but the sheer energy and ambition makes it electrifying to watch, too.
It's also a surprise that what you'd imagine to be the major plot twist - the one implied by the title - is somewhat squandered in the opening half hour. Rather than it being the subject of a big reveal, it simply becomes accepted by everyone as the main reason for the mayhem. That's because Cohen has even bigger and more ludicrous surprises up his sleeve - this isn't just about blasphemy, it takes in a couple of other key obsessions of the seventies and combines them all into one glorious gumbo of a plot. "Who were Christ and Moses really?" asks one character at the climax: and you'll have to see the film to find out the answer to that one. Cohen, always on the lookout for an opportunity, insists to this day that he may eventually make God Told Me To 2, for the title if nothing else.
By the time you get to the commentary for 1982's Q: The Winged Serpent, the format has become somewhat predictable - 18 day shoot, early catastrophe, near-miss casting of someone who became famous later, accusation of theft on the part of a more recent movie. In this case, the catastrophe happened on an entirely different film. Cohen had written a script based on Mickey Spillane's I, The Jury, and was all set to direct it for a major studio. At the last minute he was sacked, and replaced by another director. Cohen realised he needed to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible. Within seven days of being kicked off I, The Jury, he'd started filming Q: he'd called in favours from a couple of actor pals, and was shooting on the fly all over New York, trying to work around the minor problem of starting a monster movie without any clear idea of what the monster looked like. Q and I, The Jury opened in New York on the same day, and predictably Cohen has the numbers to hand for the commentary: Q cost an eighth of the Spillane remake and made four times as much money.
"Just your good old-fashioned monster," says David Carradine at the end of the film: and at first glance, Q: The Winged Serpent is just your good old-fashioned monster movie. Sadly, it's the monster itself that's the weakest part of the film today. Quetzalcoatl is realised using a combination of animated model work, cartoon shadows over the skyline and a giant robot claw: it's not seen for very long, and isn't terribly convincing when it appears. But the great thing is, it doesn't matter: because the film is more about the reactions of its key characters to the threat than the actual threat itself.
Q eventually boils down to a two-way scene-stealing contest between its leads. In the red corner, we have David Carradine's cop, who scores early on with a scene where he's baffled by the decapitation of a window cleaner on the Empire State Building: "Well, maybe his head just got loose and fell off..." But shortly after that we're introduced to Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), former junkie turned failed jewel thief, who accidentally locates Quetzalcoatl's lair on the top of the Chrysler Building, and spends the rest of the film incompetently trying to use this information to his financial advantage. His high point comes when he's listing a series of demands from the city in exchange for the location of the monster: "Immunity for the job you got me on now, and for anything else that may crop up on me... didn't Ford pardon Nixon for anything and everything? I'm just asking for a Nixon-like pardon." (And according to Cohen, but for accidents in casting it could have been Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy respectively in these two roles.)
By not making the believability of the monster the raison d'etre of the film, Cohen has made sure that Q still holds up to this day. The structure is the same as any other monster movie before or since (it's disingenuous for Cohen to claim the final shot of Godzilla rips off his own, like nobody's ever done the 'it-was-a-girl-monster!' ending before), but it has some distinctive verbal and visual touches. In particular, some excellent helicopter camerawork provides a series of magnificent monster-point-of-view shots of New York, which Cohen sadly admits simply could never be done again post September 11th. The quirky characters, unexpected wit and sheer devil-may-care attitude make it all work.
Bill Lustig, host of the commentary tracks on these DVDs, suggests at one point that it's Cohen's supremely pragmatic approach to the problems of filmmaking that's kept him successful over the years. And he's still a heavily active presence in the film industry. After hearing all these accusations of plagarism on the DVDs, it was bizarre to discover just as I started writing this piece that Cohen's sueing Fox over their movie of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He's claiming that it's based on a 1993 script of his own called Cast Of Characters, and accusing Alan Moore of being hired to write the comic book as a smokescreen to keep him off the project. This uncharacteristic display of arseholeism apart, he's got a couple more scripts being made into movies off the back of Phone Booth, including the Kim Basinger thriller Cellular. Hopefully, this continuing wave of interest will result in other old Larry Cohen films getting the re-release treatment. The blaxploitation flicks, perhaps, or maybe the It's Alive trilogy. I always think a DVD collection can never have too many killer mutant baby movies in it. Being a monkey, and all.
Blue Underground is the video label responsible for releasing Bone, God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent in these swanky new DVD editions. Check out the other horror and trash movies in their catalogue while you're there, including lots of QuickTime trailers.
The Two Boots Pioneer Theater in New York has been running a regular season of Monday night movies [dead link] to promote Blue Underground's catalogue: and at the time of writing they'd held a couple of events to promote the Larry Cohen DVDs, with appearances from the man himself. Don't know if he's doing any more of them, but you could always find out.
FrightFest is London's annual festival of horror and fantasy cinema, held every August Bank Holiday weekend. It gets a namecheck here because I picked up these three discs at their excellent merchandise stall.