Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) is an extroverted artist for Marvel Comics who meets Cheryl (Janine Turner) while walking around New York City. Josh and Cheryl hit it off but when Cheryl suddenly collapses, she is picked up by a mysterious ambulance. When Josh goes to the hospital to check on her, he is told that Cheryl was never brought in. Soon, Josh discovers that people all over New York have been put into back of the ambulance and have never been seen again. Unfortunately, nobody believes Josh. Not the veteran NYPD detective (James Earl Jones) who Josh approaches with his suspicions. Not the staff of the hospital. Not even Stan Lee! The only people willing to support Josh are an elderly investigative reporter (Red Buttons) and an inexperienced detective (Megan Gallagher).
Yes, Stan Lee does play himself. While he had made a few cameo appearances on television and had previously narrated a French film, The Ambulance was Stan Lee’s first real film role. Josh works at an idealized version of Marvel Comics, where the artists are well-paid, no one is pressured into producing substandard work, and Lee is an avuncular father figure. It is the Marvel Comics that I used to imagine working at when I was growing up, before I found out about what actually happened to artists like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, and Steve Ditko.
Idealized though it may be, the Marvel connection is appropriate because The Ambulance is essentially a comic book adventure. It does not matter how many times Josh gets hit by a car or falls out of a window, he always recovers in time for the next scene. When Josh does discover who is behind the ambulance, it turns out to be a villain who would not be out-of-place in a Ditko-era Spider-Man story.
The Ambulance is another one of Larry Cohen’s New York horror stories. Like most of Cohen’s films, it is pulpy, cheap, and entertaining. Eric Roberts is as crazy as ever and the movie is full of good character actors like James Earl Jones, Red Buttons, Richard Bright, and Eric Braeden. The Ambulance may be dumb but it is always entertaining.