Today’s feature is Larry Cohen’s paramedic terror: 1990’s “The Ambulance.”
“The Ambulance” was both written and directed by Larry Cohen, marking his 17th theatrical directorial feature. However, it is also one of only two feature films he directed throughout the 1990s.
The cinematographer for “The Ambulance” was Jacques Haitkin, who also famously shot such films as “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Wishmaster,” “Shocker,” and “Maniac Cop 3.”
The musical score was provided by Jay Chattaway, who additionally worked on the William Lustig flicks “Maniac Cop,” “Maniac Cop 2,” and “Maniac.”
“The Ambulance” ultimately featured two editors: Armond Lebowitz, a frequent Larry Cohen collaborator who cut “Special Effects,” “Q,” “The Stuff,” and “Full Moon High,” and Claudia Finkle, who did the editing for “Howling IV” and “Howling V.”
The effects team for “The Ambulance” included Theo Mayes (“Boogie Nights,” “Maniac Cop 2”), Jennifer Aspinall (“The Toxic Avenger”), Larry Arpin (“The Dentist,” “Highlander II,” “Maniac Cop,” “Leprechaun”), Rob Benevides (“Strangers With Candy”), Kevin McCarthy (“Hobgoblins,” “Demonic Toys”), and Ron Petruccione (“Serenity,” “Con Air,” “Dante’s Peak”).
The producers for “The Ambulance” were Barbara Zitwer (“It’s Alive III,” “Vampire’s Kiss”), Robert Katz (“It’s Alive”), and Moctesuma Esparza (“Gettysburg,” “Selena”), the latter two of which have worked together extensively for Maya Entertainment and Esparza/Katz Productions.
The cast of “The Ambulance” includes Eric Roberts (“Inherent Vice,” “Miss Castaway,” “Wolves of Wall Street,” “Best of the Best”), James Earl Jones (“Field of Dreams,” “Exorcist II,” “Conan the Barbarian”), Eric Braeden (“Titanic,” “The Rat Patrol”), Red Buttons (“The Poseidon Adventure,” “The Longest Day”), Megan Gallagher (“Hill Street Blues,” “The Larry Sanders Show”), Janine Turner (“Northern Exposure,” “Cliffhanger”), Nick Chinlund (“Con Air,” “Lethal Weapon 3”), Laurene Landon (“Maniac Cop,” “Maniac Cop 2,” “Pick Me Up”), and Jill Gatsby (“Class of 1999,” “Maniac Cop,” “Vampire’s Kiss”).
The story of “The Ambulance” follows an amateur investigation into a series of mysterious disappearances after the victims were taken away by what appeared to be an ambulance crew. As the comic artist turned vigilante digs deeper, he begins to uncover a conspiracy, putting his life and sanity in danger.
A while back, I attended the premiere of horror flick called “Old 37,” which features a number of similarities to “The Ambulance.” The Kane Hodder vehicle also centers around killers utilizing an ambulance to kidnap people, though it lacks a lot of the more interesting story aspects of “The Ambulance.” That said, it isn’t all too bad, particularly for a film directed by “Alan Smithee.”
The legendary superhero creator Stan Lee has a quick cameo in “The Ambulance,” which is something he has become famous for with the recent boom of Marvel superhero films over the last decade and a half.
Larry Cohen’s entry into the television series “Masters of Horror,” titled “Pick Me Up,” features an homage to “The Ambulance” with it’s twist ending, featuring two killers who have commandeered an ambulance for nefarious purposes.
I wasn’t able to dig up any budget or gross information on “The Ambulance,” but it is fair to say that it was a low-budget affair. The reception to the film was mixed: it currently has a 5.8 rating on IMDb, and Rotten Tomatoes scores of 75% (critics) and 55% (audience). For the most part, the film has been forgotten outside of die hard horror circles, though the film has certainly influenced a handful of other works.
I found James Earl Jones to be a bit too cartoon-y with his portrayal of the obsessive, bubble gum chewing, eccentric detective here. Eric Roberts, on the other hand, is surprisingly solid in the lead role. I always associate him with lower-tier roles, which is where he usually seems to thrive, but he manages to pull his weight here with the spotlight. However, his hair is every kind of ridiculous in this movie, which is at least mildly distracting.
Eric Roberts’s character, however, is written like an absolute creep. The entire instigation for the film is because he was essentially harassing a woman on the street, and refused to leave her alone. It was clearly supposed to come off as charming and eccentric, but the whole exchange is skin-crawling. The woman does her damnedest to get him to go away, and has a couple of solid lines over the course of the interaction, the highlight of which is this:
“I have met creepier guys than you, but I don’t recall when”
“The Ambulance” curiously plays more like a conspiracy movie than I expected, and is less of a horror film than it is a thriller, and has some action and comedy elements as well. It sits on the boundary between a lot of different genres, but doesn’t balance it as well as some other films do.
The plot is interesting, and ties into people’s anxieties about the monolithic medical industry and the cruelty of product testing. There is also certainly a fear associated with the prone state of being in an ambulance on a stretcher, as well as being helpless in the face of corporate bureaucracy. On the surface “The Ambulance” isn’t much, but there is more to it than there appears to be at first glance.
The soundtrack to “The Ambulance” notably has an awful lot of synthesizer and saxophone, which is a mixture that I am always on board for in these 1980s / 1990s flicks.
Eric Roberts’s job as a Marvel comics artist allows for a quick Stan Lee, but apart from that, it isn’t particularly important to the story. He winds up spending the entire film investigating and chasing down leads, so why not just make him a private investigator or a journalist? I can understand not making him a cop because of the progression of the story, but the skills he winds up using don’t make much sense for a comics illustrator.
Last but not least, Eric Braeden’s evil Doctor is chillingly creepy as the villain, and is the highlight of the whole flick. However, the parlor scene he has early on explains a little too much too quickly in my opinion. It also doesn’t make much sense for him to divulge the information he does to the forced patient, apart from to inform the audience of what is actually happening. I’m a little curious if this sequence was added in at some point, or if it was initially placed somewhere else in the script.
Overall, “The Ambulance” is in the lower tier of Larry Cohen’s filmography, but had the potential to be much better. It feels like it wasn’t given time to percolate properly, and the result is something rushed and of lower quality than it should be. I love the premise and the story, but the details are really lackluster, and the pacing isn’t great. Also, some of the performances are pretty weak, like Red Buttons, who seems totally out of place here. For Larry Cohen fans, it is worth checking out. However, it really could have been much better given the originality of the concept.
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