Category Archives: Larry Cohen Collection

Spotlight on the works of legendary b-movie writer, director, and producer Larry Cohen.

Larry Cohen Collection: “Uncle Sam”

Uncle Sam

For this July 4th, I’m going to celebrate by taking a look at the horror film Uncle Sam, from the writer/director team behind the Maniac Cop trilogy.

The plot of Uncle Sam is summarized on IMDb as follows:

Desert Storm vet who was killed in combat rises from the grave on July Fourth, to kill the unpatriotic citizens of his hometown, after some teens burn an American flag over his burial site.

The screenplay for Uncle Sam was, of course, written by Larry Cohen, the visionary horror writer/director behind The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, It’s Alive, and God Told Me To. This was one of four of his screenplays that hit the screen in 1996, along with Mark L. Lester’s The Ex, Anthony Hickox’s Invasion of Privacy, and the television movie Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct: Ice.

Uncle Sam was directed by William Lustig, who had previously collaborated with Larry Cohen on Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2, and Maniac Cop 3: The Badge of Silence. Lustig is best known for his gritty, b-level flicks like Maniac and Vigilante, which have built a significant cult following over the years.

The cast of Uncle Sam includes the likes of William Smith (Maniac Cop, Any Which Way You Can, Hell Comes To Frogtown), David ‘Shark’ Fralick (Inferno, The Young and The Restless, Soultaker), Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch, From Dusk Till Dawn 2, Tentacles), Isaac Hayes (Escape From New York, South Park), Timothy Bottoms (Top Dog, The Last Picture Show, That’s My Bush), Robert Forster (Lucky Number Slevin, Jackie Brown, Avalanche, Alligator, Vigilante, Maniac Cop 3), and P.J. Soles (Halloween, Stripes, Carrie).

The cinematographer for Uncle Sam was James A. Lebovitz, who shot a number of films for Troma Entertainment in the 1980s, including The Toxic Avenger, The Toxic Avenger Part II, The Toxic Avenger Part III, and Troma’s War.

The editor for the film was Bob Murawski, who eventually won an Academy Award for cutting The Hurt Locker. His other credits include such titles as Gone With The Pope, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man 3, Drag Me To Hell, Army of Darkness, Hard Target, Night of the Scarecrow, and From Dusk Till Dawn 2.

The musical score for Uncle Sam was provided by Mark Governor, who also composed music for Pet Sematary II and the Bruce Campbell flick Mindwarp.

Reportedly, the production team for Uncle Sam failed to disclose to authorities that they would be firing a cannon late at night for the film’s finale, which led to a number of noise complaints from local citizens.

Uncle Sam is dedicated to Lucio Fulci, an immensely influential Italian horror, western, and exploitation filmmaker who died just prior to the film’s release in 1996.

A blu-ray of Uncle Sam was released in June 2010 by Blue Underground, featuring commentary tracks by Larry Cohen, William Lustig, and Isaac Hayes, among others. Blue Underground, which was founded by Lustig, specializes in releasing cult, exploitation, and foreign horror movies on DVD and blu-ray.

In July of 2016, John Campopiano of Dread Central interviewed David “Shark” Fralick, who portrayed the patriotic killer in Uncle Sam. In regards to the movie and the role, he said:

I loved the original idea — that he was this patriotic killer. I loved the concept. Then there was all of the makeup sessions. (I didn’t do the burn, but I did all the rest of the stunt work.) It was four and a half hours in makeup and four and a half hours out of it. It really just tore my skin up. What they do is they use alcohol on skin to get the oils off so that everything they needed to put on you would adhere. It was pretty amazing. In fact, I still have the last mask I wore in the film!

From what I can gather, Uncle Sam did not receive a theatrical release domestically, and was distributed primarily on home video. I found an unsubstantiated budget estimate of $2 million, though that accuracy is certainly questionable. It is hard to say whether this flick ultimately turned a profit, but I imagine it probably broke even: I’m sure it was intentionally kept cheap for that very reason.

Critically, Uncle Sam isn’t exactly beloved. Its 2010 blu-ray release brought it back into the public consciousness for re-assessment, to mixed results. Steve Barton wrote for Dread Central that “the way underrated slasher flick Uncle Sam does a fine job of bringing the pain while we celebrate our independence,” while Nathan Rabin of The A/V Club argues that it is “incoherent as social satire and perfunctory and routine as a horror film.”

Honestly, I think Rabin and Barton are both right about Uncle Sam. The satire and social commentary isn’t quite fully cooked: there’s just a kernel of an idea in regards to military worship and conditioning children to violence, but it isn’t much built upon. Likewise, it is a pretty run-of-the-mill horror flick, in the tradition of the various lesser holiday slashers. At the same time, if you go into the movie with low expectations, and just want a formulaic slasher with some fun effects and kills, this is exactly what you want.

As far as the cast goes, it is always damn cool seeing Isaac Hayes pop up in movies. I absolutely loved him in Escape From New York, and I’m a little surprised he didn’t pop up in more over the years. This movie in particular could have used more of him: his relationship with Sam is only somewhat touched upon, and isn’t dug into too deeply. Another sequence or two with him maybe could have helped tie some themes together. Interestingly, one of his biggest emotional moments in the movie uses dialogue copied straight out of the Maniac Cop 2 screenplay: he tells a brief anecdote about being covered under dead bodies during war, remembering specifically how cold they were, and then recalls that the killer had a similar chill.

Speaking of the Maniac Cop franchise, the makeup effects on Sam reminded me specifically of Maniac Cop 2 and Maniac Cop 3. There is a lot of emphasis on his mutilated hands in the first act, which was also specifically done with Cordell in the Maniac Cop movies. Likewise, the makeup effects have a distinctly burned and partially decomposed appearance, not unlike the more deteriorated and decomposed facial work from the later Maniac Cop flicks. When they are shown, the effects look pretty decent, though they are kept concealed under a mask most of the time. Notably, Lustig managed to use shadows and blocking to conceal Cordell’s face in Maniac Cop, and I think that made a big difference in how intimidating the character came off, particularly when compared to the masked Uncle Sam, who never seems nearly as imposing or frightening here.

One of the biggest problems with Uncle Sam is the terrible lead child actor. Any time a movie has to lean on a child actor, it is a big risk: children who can act are rare, and ones who can carry a leading role are even rarer. In this case,  a lot of the movie rides on the character of Jody, who is played by a very young Christopher Ogden. There are times where Ogden is totally serviceable, but they are few and far between. For the most part, his line deliveries are just off, and he puts in a physical performance like he’s robot.

At the end of the film, there is supposed to be some ambiguity as to whether Jody is good or evil: this is supposed to be shown through a close up on his face, where his expression is intended to instill the audience with a sense of doubt. Unfortunately, Ogden just can’t do it: his eyes are expressionless, his mouth is unmoving, and his body language is neutral. If it weren’t for the music cue and a “shattering” effect to end the shot, I wouldn’t have realized that there was a potentially sinister undertone.

Personally, I think one of the biggest problems with this movie is the screenplay: it is a bit too busy, particularly in regards to the characters. For instance, Uncle Sam has both a sister and a wife, who live together and serve almost identical purposes. Likewise, there are two child characters with “unique” connections to Uncle Sam: one is a random kid with a psychic link, and the other is his nephew, who he is trying to recruit. To me, it seemed like both the psychic link kid and the wife were completely unnecessary: their key traits could have been taken on by his sister and nephew, respectively. It actually would make more sense for Jody to have a psychic connection to Sam, and the coalescing of the wife and sister would play more into the incestuous themes that are mentioned in the story.

Overall, as I previously mentioned, Uncle Sam has some value as a shallow, formulaic slasher movie. It was definitely a bit late to the game, though: this would have fit in great in the 1980s, but seems dated for the mid-1990s. It does provide a 4th of July themed horror movie, though, if that is what you are looking for. While this is definitely not one of Cohen’s better screenplays (nor one of Lustig’s better movies), there is definitely a kernel of an interesting idea here, even though nothing much comes of it.

Larry Cohen Collection: “Perfect Strangers”

Perfect Strangers

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Today, I am continuing my spotlight on the career of notable b-movie writer/director Larry Cohen, who I interviewed earlier this year. Next up is 1984’s Perfect Strangers.

The plot of Perfect Strangers is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A hit-man tries to seduce the mother of a child who witnessed his most recent kill.

Perfect Strangers was both written and directed by Larry Cohen, and was released in the same year as another of his films, Special Effects. Perfect Strangers was Cohen’s follow-up directorial feature after the 1982 cult classic monster movie Q: The Winged Serpent.

The cast of Perfect Strangers includes Brad Rijn (Special Effects, A Return To Salem’s Lot), Anne Carlisle (Liquid Sky, Desperately Seeking Susan), Stephen Lack (Scanners, Dead Ringers), and Ann Magnuson (Small Soldiers, Glitter, Panic Room).

The cinematographer for the film was Paul Glickman, a frequent Larry Cohen collaborator who also shot The Stuff, Special Effects, God Told Me To, and See China And Die.

Perfect Strangers was edited by Armond Lebowitz, who also cut Larry Cohen’s films The Ambulance, Full Moon High, A Return To Salem’s Lot, Special Effects, The Stuff, and Q: The Winged Serpent.

Currently, Perfect Strangers has a 5.3/10 user rating on IMDb, from just over 230 submitted user reviews.

When I first heard about Perfect Strangers, I thought that the concept sounded pretty promising. The idea of a hitman needing to take out a child witness, and doing so by initiating a relationship with the mothers, creates an interesting atmosphere for tension. Unfortunately, this movie never really goes anywhere with that idea, and never feels much like a thriller or a romance.

The biggest issue with the movie is, surprisingly, the writing. Cohen has written some interesting and thoughtful screenplays, but this definitely isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if this was just rushed, but the characters don’t have any depth to them, and their dialogue and interactions all feel and look incredibly forced and unbelievable. Worse yet, there are a number of subplots that range from being uninteresting to being mind-warpingly ridiculous, like the presented local feminist action group members in that story who all behave like one-dimensional, man-hating caricatures written to life from the darker corners of the internet.

It doesn’t help that Cohen just doesn’t seem to have anything to say with this movie. His stronger stories have typically had roots in satirizing elements of culture, or understanding popular anxieties. Perfect Strangers comes off like the entire film was an excuse to rail against modern feminists and new-age mothering techniques, which he had mysterious personal vendettas against. The result is a straw man dressed up like a romantic thriller, and it shows.

perfectstrangers2Another huge problem with Perfect Strangers is the cinematography. The entire movie was filmed in pretty extreme soft focus, like it entirely takes place in a sitcom flashback or a shitty sex scene. I actually thought that something was wrong with the transfer, but apparently the movie was intended to be filmed in blur-o-vision. It is not only distracting, but it makes the entire movie look less rich and detailed, and almost supernatural. For a movie that should be grounded in a grim and gritty reality, the technique just doesn’t fit at all.

Last but not least, and I can’t emphasize this enough, Perfect Strangers has some of the most obnoxious, shitty child acting I have ever seen, which is particularly impressive because the child character is essentially a mute. I can’t totally blame this on the child, though: I’m pretty sure this was an inevitable outcome for casting a two year old. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Cohen didn’t write the kid as just a little bit older, so that they might have been able to find a child actor capable of pulling it off. The child could just be a mute or something, and the story could have worked almost exactly the same.

I’m pretty sure that Perfect Strangers is the worst Larry Cohen feature I have seen so far, but I still have a few left to get through before I’ve gotten through his primary filmography. I certainly can’t recommend it to anyone: this was a career misstep on Cohen’s part for sure if you ask me.

 

Larry Cohen Collection: “Bone”

Bone

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Today’s entry into the Larry Cohen Collection is Bone, his controversial directorial debut.

Bone is a tense and darkly humorous home invasion thriller that presents the story of a robbery that goes rapidly awry, and circuitously winds up unraveling the lives of all of the parties involved.

Bone was written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen as his first feature film, after a notable career as a television writer. It laid the foundations for a long tenure in front of the camera that bounced between genres, and garnered Cohen a significant cult following.

The movie was co-edited and shot by George Folsey, Jr. (Hostel, Black Caesar, The Blues Brothers), with Michael Corey (God Told Me To) acting as his co-editor.

Aside from Larry Cohen, the producers for Bone included his then-wife Janelle Webb (A Return To Salem’s Lot, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover) and Peter Sabiston (It’s Alive, Hell Up In Harlem, Black Caesar).

The score to Bone was composed by Gil Melle, who also provided the music for movies like The Andromeda Strain and Killdozer.

A number of the effects in the movie were provided by eventual Academy Award winner and master of the field Rick Baker, who worked on a number of Cohen’s films early in his career.

The relatively small cast of Bone includes a young Yaphet Kotto (Alien, Live And Let Die, The Running Man), Andrew Duggan (A Return To Salem’s Lot), Jeannie Berlin (Inherent Vice, The Heartbreak Kid), and Joyce Van Patten (Grown Ups, Marley & Me, The Bad News Bears).

Bone proved to be a difficult movie to market, thanks to a combination of controversial themes and pitch-black humor. As a result, it received a handful of alternate titles, though the most ofen seen one is Housewife.

Bone was shot almost entirely in Larry Cohen’s own house and property, and even features his dog.

While Bone certainly has a positive cult reputation, its reviews on the whole are mixed. It currently holds a user rating of 6.8 on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 67% from critics and 75% from audiences.

Personally, I see Bone as a bold work of a young director with an interesting vision. It is certainly unpolished and the product of a developing talent, but there are some flashes of really fantastic film-making here, particularly whenever a scene calls for a building of tension. Not only do the shots help build a simultaneous sense of uncomfortable distance and dangerously close proximity between the characters, but Cohen was able to get some really outstandingly emotional and creepy performances out of all four of the primary characters.

Oddly, the writing is really the weakest aspect of the movie. At first, the film has a clear clock on it to build the tension, but then it is dismissed outright. Honestly, I was a bit confused as to how much time was passing between scenes, and eventually the screenplay just drops the point altogether. Once that happens, the pacing of the movie gets kind of strange, and the last act makes for an odd sort of chase and rapid resolution. Looking back on it, I think this was a screenplay that Cohen wasn’t quite sure how to end, and it shows.

As far as a recommendation goes, Bone was definitely made for another time, which plays out as a positive and a negative. The movie provides a visual snapshot of Los Angeles at the time that is pretty cool to look at, but the political and social context behind this movie isn’t nearly as potent now. The humor is also sporadic and uneven, and it isn’t always clear what the message of the movie is. Regardless, as a exercise in building tension, there are some big positives to Bone. On top of that, one scene in particular features some of the earliest makeup work by Rick Baker, which adds a cool trivia bonus to the flick. Cohen fans at the least should check this one out, if you happen to be able to find a copy.

Interview with Larry Cohen

Welcome to a special feature here at the Misan[trope]y Movie Blog!
Recently, I had a chat with one of the best known cult movie writer/directors: Larry Cohen.

Cohen has had a career that has included hit television shows, blaxsploitation classics, and blockbuster screenplays, but he carved his unique place in film history by writing and directing memorable b-movies like The Stuff, It’s Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent.

For more on his career, check out the Larry Cohen Collection here at Misantropey, where I have been working through his entire filmography.

Now, enjoy this interview with the one and only Larry Cohen.

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Larry Cohen Collection: “The Ambulance”

The Ambulance

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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.”

ambulance2“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”).

ambulance5The 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.

ambulance6Larry 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.

ambulance4I 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.

ambulance3The 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.

Larry Cohen Collection: “Best Seller”

Best Seller

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Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is 1987’s “Best Seller,” starring James Woods and Brian Dennehy.

“Best Seller” was directed by John Flynn, who also made “Brainscan,” “Out for Justice,” “Lock Up,” and”Rolling Thunder.” His primary style has always been crime-based action-dramas, which fits well with Larry Cohen’s flair for police procedural.

The original screenplay for “Best Seller” was, of course, written by Larry Cohen. However, John Flynn may have considerably modified himself it before filming, but wasn’t ultimately given a writing credit. He also apparently came up with the title, which was originally “Hard Cover” (which I think sounds way cooler).

The cinematographer for “Best Seller” was Fred Murphy, who also shot “Secret Window,” “October Sky,” “Hoosiers,” and Larry Cohen’s own “Q: The Winged Serpent.”

“Best Seller” was edited by David Rosenbloon, who also cut such features as “Deep Impact,” “Primal Fear,” “Fracture,” “Frequency,” and “Blue Chips.”

The musical score for “Best Seller” was provided by Jay Ferguson, who also scored flicks like “Double Dragon” and “Tremors II.”

The producers for “Best Seller” included John Daly (“Vampire’s Kiss,” “Hoosiers,” “Platoon”), Derek Gibson (“The Return of The Living Dead”), and Larry Cohen collaborator Carter DeHaven (“Special Effects,” “Perfect Strangers”).

bestseller3The effects team on “Best Seller” was composed of Ken Speed (“2 Fast 2 Furious,” “God’s Not Dead,” “Cobra,” “The Doors”), Robert L. Olmstead (“Cellular,” “Predator 2,” “Iron Man”), Peter Kunz (“Precious,” “Changing Lanes,” “Exterminator 2,” “The Hurricane”), Pamela Peitzman (“The Last Airbender,” “Alien From L.A.,” “The Hitcher”), and Deborah Figuly (“True Believer,” “Never Too Young To Die,” “Less Than Zero”).

“Best Seller” was distributed by Orion Pictures, which was behind a handful of well-regarded flicks throughout the 1980s and early 1990s before falling into bankruptcy. Such features included “RoboCop,” “Amadeus,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Dances With Wolves,” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” but also turkeys like “RoboCop 3,” and “Car 54, Where Are You?.” Former head and co-founder of Orion, Mike Medavoy, has a pretty great book out there called “You’re Only As Good As Your Next One” about his experiences in the industry (which included stints with United Artists and TriStar as well as Orion) that I highly recommend picking up for movie trivia junkies.

The cast for “Best Seller” is headlined by James Woods (“Videodrome,” “Cat’s Eye,” “Casino,” “True Believer”) and Brian Dennehy (“First Blood,” “Cocoon”), with other roles filled out by Victoria Tennant (“L.A. Story,” “Flowers in the Attic”), Paul Shenar (“Raw Deal,” “Scarface”), and George Coe (“The Omega Code,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Archer”).

bestseller2The story of “Best Seller” follows a cop-turned-author who is pulled into a massive conspiracy by a former hitman looking to tell the story of his career working for a corrupt politician.

The reception to “Best Seller” was pretty mixed: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 67% (critics) and 54% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 6.5.

I couldn’t dig up any budget numbers for “Best Seller,” but it ultimately grossed just under 4.3 million in its domestic theatrical release. That is hardly Earth-shattering (or best-selling), but if the budget was low enough, it may have been profitable.

Personally, I wasn’t sold on Brian Dennehy as the lead here. There are plenty of cop-style character actors out there that I think would have fit better, like Robert Davi or Tom Atkins. However, he is definitely physical intimidating at times, which I assume was the reason for his casting. James Woods, on the other hand, is thoroughly awesome here. He blends his peculiar charm with a sense of menace to create a likable yet dangerous character who is clearly capable of snapping into violence at a moment’s notice. The chemistry between the two actors is pretty good, but the rest of the cast comes up a bit short. The antagonists just aren’t intimidating or large enough to feel like the massive threat that they are supposed to be.  Also, the daughter character comes off as having no depth or practical intelligence with her minimal screen time, and winds up inexplicably running into the arms of a guy who just shot her father for no clear reason, other than to create a hostage situation. She also accepts rides in cars from mysterious figures, like she is the lead in a stranger danger PSA.

The story pacing to “Best Seller” isn’t great: the tension is built pretty well, but it is never quite clear how much time has elapsed, how close the book is to being finished, or how near the story is to a climax or resolution. It feels more like a simmer than the tension of a burning wick, with no clear ending ever in sight. The lack of a clear finish line (book publication? how many drafts is that going to take?) really hurts the plot, but it is still a pretty good thriller regardless.

Roger Ebert brings up another issue with the movie in his perhaps excessively scathing review of the film:

If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie about a character who is slow to catch on. When I’m watching a movie and something is perfectly obvious and the hero persists in not understanding it, my frustration grows and I want to shout advice at the screen. “Best Seller” has a character like that, played by Brian Dennehy, an intelligent actor who usually plays characters who are fairly swift. Not this time.

Ebert certainly has a point, and it is something that I noticed while watching the movie. However, I assumed most of his reticence about the conspiracy was more because of his suspicions and unease with James Woods rather than him not catching on with the clues, though he has one or two lines (“corporations don’t kill people” / “I don’t believe that someone could destroy police evidence”) that either reveal an immense naivete or a flaw in the character writing.

The ending credits song for “Best Seller,” called “Perfect Ending,” is absolutely ridiculous, and sounds like an honest buddy cop love theme. Everything from the melodramatic lyrics to the guitar riffs to the synthesizer background work is just off the charts wacky in the best possible way. It seems like the sort of song that would have fit into something like “Dead Heat” or “Samurai Cop.”

Overall, “Best Seller” is a flawed but entertaining flick. There are some things to like about it, and some things that don’t click. It doesn’t belong in an elite category for the genre, but it is worth giving a shot for James Woods, who gets to show off a bit here. Also, that ending song gave me a solid belly laugh.

Larry Cohen Collection: “Pick Me Up”

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up

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Today, I’m going to be taking another stroll through the career of writer/director Larry Cohen with the “Masters of Horror” feature, “Pick Me Up.”

“Pick Me Up” was directed by Larry Cohen for the television show “Masters of Horror,” which showcased original work by some of the most famed figures in horror film history. I have already covered two episodes of the series directed by Stuart Gordon: “The Black Cat” and “Dreams In The Witch House.”

“Pick Me Up” was written by David J. Schow, who penned such horror flicks as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre III,” “Critters 3,” “Critters 4,” and “The Crow.”

“Pick Me Up” was edited by Marshall Harvey, a veteran horror editor and frequent Joe Dante collaborator who also cut “Lake Placid,” “Small Soldiers,” and “Matinee” (among many others).

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The cinematographer on “Pick Me Up” was Brian Pearson, who also shot the more recent horror flicks “American Mary,” “The Butterfly Effect 2,” and “Into the Storm.”

The makeup effects team for “Pick Me Up” included Mike Fields (“Dreams In The Witch House,” “The Black Cat”), Sarah Graham (“The Cabin In The Woods,” “Supernatural”), Margaret Solomon (“Timecop,” “The Black Cat”), and Amanda McGowan (“Sucker Punch,” “Final Destination 5”).

The “Pick Me Up” special effects were done by the KNB EFX group, which has worked on “The Walking Dead,” “Maniac Cop 3,” “Army of Darkness,” “The Faculty,” and “Sin City” under the lead of Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. The rest of the team included Scott Patton (“The Mangler”), Frank Rydberg (“Devil’s Advocate,” “Drag Me To Hell”), Andy Schoneberg (“Dead Heat”), Shannon Shea (“Leviathan”), Wayne Szybunka (“Lake Placid,” “Marmaduke”), Lindsay Vivian (“Sin City”), Grady Holder (“Lake Placid,” “Small Soldiers”), Robert Freitas (“Men In Black,” “Species”), and Michael Deak (“From Beyond,” “The Dentist”).

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The visual effects for “Pick Me Up” were done by a team that included Sebastien Bergeron (“Tucker & Dale vs. Evil”), Mladen Miholjcic (“Andromeda”), Lee Wilson (“The Fly,” “Videodrome”), and Stephen Paschke (“Watchmen”).

The music for “Pick Me Up” was composed by Jay Chattaway, who also did the scores for the Larry Cohen films “Maniac Cop,” “Maniac Cop 2,” and “The Ambulance.”

The cast for “Pick Me Up” features frequent Larry Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty (“It’s Alive III,” “A Return to Salem’s Lot,” “Q,” “The Stuff”), along with Fairuza Balk (“Almost Famous,” “The Waterboy”), Warren Kole (“The Following”), Laurene Landon (“Maniac Cop,” “Maniac Cop 2”), Malcolm Kennard (“The Matrix Reloaded”), Crystal Lowe (“Insomnia”), and Paul Anthony (“Blade: Trinity”).

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Michael Moriarty does some improvised piano work during a sequence in “Pick Me Up,” much like he did in his audition scene in “Q: The Winged Serpent.”

The two dueling serial killers in “Pick Me Up” are named Walker and Wheeler, obviously coined after their modes of transportation: hitch-hiking and an 18-wheeler truck, respectively.

As far as highlights go, there is at least one highly memorable murder committed by Walker, in which he strangles a man with a dead snake. Apart from that, deaths are interestingly not emphasized, and a number happen off-screen. More attention is paid to suspense and the serial killers themselves rather than their actions, which I found pretty interesting.

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“Pick Me Up” features a number of tongue-in-cheek direct references to classic horror movies, including “Psycho” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The flick also adopts major elements from both of those movies for the plot: the setting of a creepy, remote hotel (“Psycho”), and the presence of a killer hitch-hiker (“The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”).

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My biggest issue with “Pick Me Up” is surprisingly Michael Moriarty, who seemed more than a bit spaced out to me, like he might have been excessively drunk during the shoot. That might have just been part of the character, but I got the feeling from watching him that that wasn’t the case. Regardless, he is still a scene stealer and has his same quirky charm, but he isn’t on the top of his game.

Overall, “Pick Me Up” works with an interesting premise, and both the writing and directing is done with a clear affection for the genre. There are a couple of solid sequences, but I can’t help but feel that it could have been pulled off better. Compared to Stuart Gordon’s “Masters of Horror” episodes, Larry Cohen’s contribution here is a bit lacking. For fans of horror, it is worth checking out, but it is probably skippable for anyone else.

Larry Cohen Collection: “Hell Up In Harlem”

Hell Up In Harlem

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Today, I’ll be wrapping up the first two-week stretch of the Larry Cohen Collection with the 1973 sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”

“Hell Up In Harlem” was once again written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen as a direct follow up to his first hit, “Black Caesar.”

Outside of Larry Cohen, the producers for “Hell Up In Harlem” were b-movie legend Samuel Arkoff (“Q”) and a trio returning producers from “Black Caesar”: James Dixon, Janelle Webb, and Peter Sabiston.

The cinematographer for “Hell Up In Harlem” was once again Fenton Hamilton, who also acted as director of photography on “It’s Alive” simultaneously.

The effects work on “Hell Up In Harlem” is credited to Marvin Kerner, who has worked on sound effects for films such as “Black Caesar,” “Gymkata,” and “China O’Brien.”

The editors on “Hell Up In Harlem” were Peter Honess (“Troy,” “Highlander,” “It’s Alive”) and Franco Guerri, who previously worked as a camera operator on the Larry Cohen film “Bone” and as an assistant editor on “Black Caesar.”

hellupinharlem3The music for “Hell Up In Harlem” was performed by soul icon Edwin Starr, who took over the job from James Brown (who did the work for “Black Caesar”). The score was composed by Fonce Mizell and Freddie Perren, who wrote numerous hits for The Jackson 5 over their careers and were top-tier music producers as part of “The Corporation”. The score also had input from Barry De Vorzon, who composed the theme song for “S.W.A.T.” and provided music for the film “The Warriors.”

The cast for “Hell Up In Harlem” is once again headlined by Fred Williamson, and features other returning players from “Black Caesar” in D’Urville Martin (“Dolemite”), James Dixon (“The Stuff,” “Q”), Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), and Julius Harris (“Super Fly”). The biggest new addition is Margaret Avery as the new love interest for Gibbs, who is best known from “The Color Purple.”

The story of “Hell Up In Harlem” picks up following a slightly altered recap of the conclusion to “Black Caesar,” and shows Gibbs recover and expand his criminal empire across the United States. Inevitably, he is betrayed once again, leading to one last bout of heated revenge.

The reception for “Hell Up In Harlem” wasn’t nearly as warm as it was for “Black Caesar”: it currently holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 13% (critics) and 52% (audience), along with an IMDb rating of 6.1.

hellupinharlem2“Hell Up In Harlem” was intriguingly filmed on weekends during the making of “It’s Alive,” because that was the only time when both Larry Cohen and Fred Williamson were available to make the film. Both men were working on different movies for different studios at the time, and most of the team had to pull numerous 7 day work weeks to get the film completed.

The fact that “Hell Up In Harlem” was a rushed production completed on weekends doesn’t at all surprise me, because the entire film feels rushed, strained, and exhausted. There clearly wasn’t as much passion thrown into the creation of the film as there was for “Black Caesar,” and the result is that the film feels a bit passive and routine, lacking a certain necessary energy from top to bottom.

One of my biggest issues with “Hell Up In Harlem” is that it negates the fantastic ending of “Black Caesar.” Also, the film really shouldn’t exist, as the story is effectively wrapped up in “Black Caesar.” The film was clearly solely made because of the profit potential for a sequel, and it ironically feels soulless because of it.

hellupinharlem5The score for “Hell Up In Harlem” isn’t quite as memorable or catchy as the one for “Black Caesar.” As good as Edwin Starr is, he is a downgrade from the power of James Brown. That said, both the theme song and “Big Papa” are pretty fantastic.

“Hell Up In Harlem” is entertaining as segments, but it doesn’t feel like a coherent work on the whole. I think this is mostly because of the way the film was thrown together in a rush, and the fact that the story had to be somewhat manifested out of thin air in the wake of “Black Caesar.”

People seem to like “Hell Up In Harlem” better in retrospect, surprisingly. I think that this is partially because it is a little more over the top than “Black Caesar,” which gives it some more campy value. However, fans of “Black Caesar” seem to be particularly harsh of the sequel for not living up to the quality of the original work, whereas most of the critics of “Black Caesar” were detractors from the world of mainstream cinema.

Some credit has to be given to “Hell Up In Harlem” for having a much cooler title than “Black Caesar,” but it also doesn’t immediately ring a bell as a sequel. I’m not sure whether that was intentional or not, or if it is necessarily an advantage or a hindrance to the film as a whole. I would be curious to get someone’s opinion of “Hell Up In Harlem” if they had never seen “Black Caesar,” and if that would make them more or less generous to it from a critical point of view.

Another thing that I do like in “Hell Up In Harlem” is the character development allowed for Helen, Revered Rufus, and Papa Gibbs. One of the weaknesses of “Black Caesar” is that there isn’t much detail in the accessory cast, and it is squarely focused solely on Gibbs throughout the run time. “Hell Up In Harlem” at least gives these three accessory characters time and room to grow and develop, which makes the film better for it.

hellupinharlem4The conclusion of “Hell Up In Harlem” tries to recapture some of the emotion and shock from “Black Caesar,” but lightning doesn’t strike twice, and it ultimately feels contrived and plays like a clear imitation.

Overall, “Hell Up In Harlem” is not awful, but it also isn’t particularly good. In comparison to “Black Caesar,” it doesn’t even hold a candle. The fact that it was created due to the financial success of the previous film rather than based on necessity or sense started it off with a bit of a handicap, and the rushed production didn’t do it any favors. It is still worth checking out if this is a genre that is up your alley, but it isn’t as essential of a watch as “Black Caesar.”

Larry Cohen Collection: “Black Caesar”

Black Caesar

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Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is the blaxploitation classic “Black Caesar,” starring Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.

“Black Caesar” was written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. It was his second directorial feature after “Bone,” and his first taste of real financial success in the film industry.

The cinematography on “Black Caesar” was provided by frequent Larry Cohen contributor Fenton Hamilton, who also worked on “It’s Alive,” “It Lives Again,” and the sequel to “Black Caesar”: “Hell Up In Harlem.”

The effects and makeup on “Black Caesar” were provided by Rick Baker, who has now won significant accolades as a special effects guru for films like “An American Werewolf in London,” “Men In Black,” “It’s Alive,” and “Ed Wood.”

blackcaesar4The producers on “Black Caesar” outside of Larry Cohen included the actor James Dixon (“God Told Me To,” “Q,” “The Stuff”), Peter Sabiston (“It’s Alive,” “Bone”), and Janelle Webb (“A Return To Salem’s Lot”).

The music for “Black Caesar” was provided by the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, and is arguably one of the best blaxploitation soundtracks of all time.

The editor on “Black Caesar” was George Folsey, Jr., who also cut such movies as “The Kentucky Fried Movie,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Coming To America,” and Larry Cohen’s first film, “Bone.”

The cast for “Black Caesar” is headlined by blaxploitation legend and former NFL star Fred Williamson (“From Dusk Til Dawn,” “MASH”), with an accessory cast filled out by Gloria Hendry (“Live And Let Die”), Art Lund (“It’s Alive III”), Val Avery (“Papillon,” “The Magnificent Seven”), and D’urville Martin (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Dolemite”).

The story of “Black Caesar” follows the meteoric rise and fall of a black hitman who works himself into organized crime by working contracts for the mob and blackmailing members of the NYPD.

blackcaesar2Famed singer Sammy Davis, Jr. reportedly turned down the lead role in “Black Caesar,” which opened the door for Fred Williamson to become one of the most iconic figures of the genre.

The story of “Black Caesar” is based on the acclaimed film “Little Caesar” from 1931 (not to be confused with the pizza chain), which was directed by Mervyn Leroy and starred Edward G. Robinson.

2009’s well-regarded blaxploitation parody “Black Dynamite” takes a few shots at “Black Caesar,” particularly in the content of the story and the soundtrack. For instance, the similarities between the tracks “Mama’s Dead” from “Black Caesar” and “Jimmy’s Dead” from “Black Dynamite” are, to say the least, a bit notable.

“Black Caesar” ultimately spawned a successful sequel, “Hell Up In Harlem,” which was also written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. Williamson reprised his role despite his character’s death in “Black Caesar,” and the fact that he was under contract with another studio during the filming of the sequel. Cohen and co. ultimately filmed on the weekends while making “It’s Alive,” because it was the only time that Williamson was available.

I couldn’t dig up any financial information or a solid number on the production budget for “Black Caesar,” but it was definitely constructed on the cheap side and made a significant profit on it. The film currently holds a 6.1 score on IMDb, along with Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 55% (critics) and 65% (audience), making for a mixed reception. Regardless, it is considered a classic of the blaxploitation genre.

“Black Caesar” has a few pacing flaws, in that it feels like it skips forward rather quickly in parts rather than building up the rise of Gibbs through the criminal world. It still gets the point across, but it feels like there is a lot more detail and focus on the back end of the movie than the rise to power, which is kind of the opposite of most crime stories.

blackcaesar6I noticed that a lot of criticisms of the film at the time were focused on it being too violent or crass, which seem more like complaints leveled against the genre as a whole rather than this film. Within the crime and blaxploitation genres, “Black Caesar” is top of the line if you ask me, and is incredibly well crafted by most standards.

Fred Williamson’s at times charming and emotional performance arguably makes the movie what it is. He does a pretty fantastic of building a character who is violent, sinister, and criminal while also keeping the audience pulling for him throughout the story, which is no easy task for a murderous, megalomaniacal rapist like Tommy Gibbs.

blackcaesar5Audiences apparently hated the ending of “Black Caesar,” which concludes with Gibbs dying penniless in a gutter after being mobbed by a black gang. Personally, I thought it was a perfect conclusion.  It places Gibbs where he started the story, and allows the community which he scorned to take its revenge on him. Throughout the film, Gibbs has a crusading mentality that he is fighting for his community by forcing his way up the criminal ladder. However, this conclusion, which shows his old neighborhood in shambles, proves that this simply wasn’t at all the case, and that Gibbs  was just a selfish and grandiose jackass who abandoned his home the minute that he found success. Of course, this ending was partially erased in order for “Hell Up in Harlem” to exist, and Cohen even tried to change it for the wide release of “Black Caesar” before it went out.

blackcaesar3Last but not least, the climax of “Black Caesar” is at once memorable, shocking, fulfilling, and perfectly suited for the film. Gibbs takes his ultimate revenge on the racist police officer who assaulted him as a child (while working as a shoe shiner) by covering his face in shoe polish, forcing him to sing, and slowly beating him to death.

There are a fair number of similarities between “Black Caesar” and Brian De Palma’s take on “Scarface” from 1983. Both films depict an outsider going through a rise and fall in the criminal world, cursed by their own ambitions and greed. Personally, I like “Black Caesar” a little better than “Scarface,” if only on the strength of the leads. I’ve never been a fan of Pacino in “Scarface,” but Williamson in “Black Caesar” is top notch, and handles the complexities of his character well.

blackcaesar7Overall, “Black Caesar” is more than deserving on the praise that it has acclaimed over the years, and is a justified classic of the blaxploitation genre (and crime movies in general). I highly recommend it for fans of crime movies, blaxploitation flicks, or Larry Cohen in general. It provides an interesting window to see where Cohen’s experience as a filmmaker came from, and how it influenced his later films in the thriller and horror genres.