Confessions of a TV Addict #11: The Small Screen Adventures of Larry Cohen!


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I was a Larry Cohen fan before I even knew there was a Larry Cohen! Before IT’S ALIVE! , before  BLACK CAESAR , I was watching the following Cohen Creations on my parents big, bulky TV console:

BRANDED (ABC 1965) – Cohen’s first series as creator debuted as a midseason replacement for Bill Dana’s failed sitcom. THE RIFLEMAN’s Chuck Connors  returned to TV as Jason McCord, a disgraced Cavalry officer court martialed and drummed out of the service after being falsely accused of cowardice. McCord then wanders the West getting involved in a new adventure every week while trying to clear his name. Viewers welcomed Connors back to the small screen, and the half-hour black and white Western was renewed for a full season – this time “in living color”! The show featured a memorable opening theme song by Dominic Frontiere and Alan Arch…

… unfortunately, Jason McCord never did…

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The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Q (dir by Larry Cohen)


This 1982 film from Larry Cohen is a strange one.

Q stands for Quetzalcoatl, a winged-serpent that was once worshiped by the Aztecs.  In New York someone has been performing ritual sacrifices, flaying victims of their skin.  As a result, Q has flown all the way to New York City and has taken residence in the Chrysler Building.  She’s also laid an egg, from which a baby Q will soon emerge.

Now, I’ve always heard that it’s next to impossible to surprise a New Yorker.  Apparently, living in New York City means that you’ve seen it all.  And that certainly seems to be the case with this film because no one in New York seems to notice that there’s a winged serpent flying over the city.  Somehow, Q manages to snatch up all sorts of people without anyone noticing.  When Q beheads a window washer, Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) aren’t particularly concerned by the fact that they can’t find the man’s head.  Shepard just shrugs and says the head will turn up eventually.

Q is really two films in one.  One of the films deals with a winged serpent flying over New York and killing people.  This film is a throwback to the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s, complete with some charmingly cheesy stop motion animation.  The film is silly but undeniably fun.  Director Cohen is both paying homage to and poking fun at the classic monster movies of the past and both Carradine and Roundtree gamely go through the motions as the two cops determined to take down a flying monster.

But then there’s also an entirely different film going on, a film that feels like it belongs in a totally different universe from the stop-motion monster and David Carradine.  This second film stars Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn, a cowardly but charming criminal who would rather be a jazz pianist.  Quinn may be a habitual lawbreaker but he always makes the point that he’s never carried a gun.  He does what he has to do to survive but he’s never intentionally hurt anyone.  In Quinn’s eyes, he’s a victim of a society that has no room for a free-thinker like him.

However, when Quinn stumbles across Q’s nest, he suddenly has an opportunity to make his mark.  As he explains it to the police, he’ll tell them where to find the serpent and her eggs.  But they’re going to have to pay him first….

In the role of Quinn, Michael Moriarty is a jittery marvel.  Whenever Moriarty is on screen, he literally grabs the film away from not only his co-stars but even his director and makes it his own.  Suddenly, Q is no longer a film about a monster flying over New York City.  Instead, Q becomes a portrait of an outsider determined to make the world acknowledge not only his existence but also his importance.  After spending his entire life on the fringes, Jimmy Quinn is suddenly the most important man in New York and he’s not going to let the moment pass without getting what he wants.  Thanks to Moriarty’s bravura, method-tinged performance, Jimmy Quinn becomes a fascinating character and Q becomes far more than just another monster movie.

It makes for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience but the film still works.  With its charmingly dated special effects and it’s surprisingly great central performance, Q is definitely a film that deserves to be better-known.

That’s Blaxploitation! 13: BLACK CAESAR (AIP 1973)


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1972’s blockbuster smash THE GODFATHER began an onslaught of gangster movies released to your neighborhood theaters and drive-ins trying to capitalize on that film’s success. American-International Pictures was right in the thick of it, and since Blaxploitation was all the rage at the time, why not combine the two hottest genres? Producer/director/genius Larry Cohen already had a script written for Sammy Davis Jr., but when Sammy backed out, AIP Boss of Bosses Samuel Z. Arkoff signed Fred “The Hammer” Williamson to star as the Godfather of Harlem, BLACK CAESAR.

BLACK CAESAR is a semi-remake of the 1932 classic LITTLE CAESAR starring Edward G. Robinson, updated for the Blaxploitation/Grindhouse crowd and spun around on it’s head by Larry Cohen. You already know how much I enjoy Cohen’s work, and the auteur doesn’t fail to deliver the goods with this one. Casting the charismatic former NFL star Williamson was a bonus, and…

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A Movie A Day #279: The Ambulance (1990, directed by Larry Cohen)


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.

 

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)


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I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that…

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Halloween Havoc!: GOD TOLD ME TO (New World 1976)


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God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

Last year during “Halloween Havoc!”, I took a look at writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’s cult classic IT’S ALIVE . This time around, it’s GOD TOLD ME TO, a  creepily twisted tale tackling mass murder, aliens, Catholicism, and the nature of God himself that could’ve only been made in the paranoiac 70’s, and may be Cohen’s best film.

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There’s a sniper on a rampage in New York City perched atop a water tower. Fourteen people are dead, and police have the scene surrounded. Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas, a devout Catholic who was orphaned as a child and goes to confession daily,  climbs the ladder in hopes of engaging the shooter before he kills again. When Nicholas asks the killer why he’s caused all this carnage, the man simply replies, “God told me to”, then jumps off the tower, plunging to his doom.

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This stage the stage for more bizarre mayhem, starting with a…

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44 Days of Paranoia #15: God Told Me To (dir by Larry Cohen)


For today’s entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, I want to take a look at the underrated horror/sci-fi/paranoia film, God Told Me To.

This film was first released in 1976. At the time of that initial theatrical run, the film was called God Told Me To Kill. That title proved to be rather controversial and the film was promptly pulled from circulation and then re-released under the new title of Demon. However, since Demon was such a painfully generic title, the name change didn’t do much to help the movie at the box office and, again, it was yanked from circulation and the title was changed for a third time.  Under the name God Told Me To, the film was once again re-released.

Not surprisingly, given this chaotic release history, God Told Me To never quite got the attention that it deserved. Over the years, the film has developed a cult following among those (like me) who have discovered the film on DVD or Blu-ray.  But God Told Me To still remains something of an unknown film.

In God Told Me To, Tony LoBianco gives an excellent performance as Peter Nicholas, a tough New York police detective and devout Catholic.  As the film starts, Nicolas is burned out on his job. He’s separated from his mentally unstable wife (played by Sandy Dennis) but can’t bring himself to divorce her and marry his girlfriend (Deborah Raffin) because it would go against his religious beliefs.

Nicholas finds himself investigating a serious of seemingly random murders that all have two things in common.  First, the murderers are all “average” people, the types who would you never expect to commit such terrible crimes.  Secondly, when captured, each murderer dismisses his crimes by explaining, “God told me to.”  As Nicholas investigates, he discovers that every murderer can be linked with a mysterious figure named Bernard Phillips (played the late, great Richard Lynch).

Nicholas’ investigation leads him to discover that Phillips was the product of a virgin birth, causing Nicholas to both question his own religious faith and to wonder wither or not Phillips is just another crazy cult leader or if he might be God himself…

And that’s about all I can tell you without running the risk of totally spoiling the film.  Let’s just say that God Told Me To is one of those films where nothing is quite as it seems.  Since the film establishes early on that literally anyone could be a potential killer, the viewer is forced to watch every character who wanders through the scene, looking for any hint that he or she is about to snap.  This is a film that keeps you off-balance and, unlike a lot of horror films, it  features a twist that’s both plausible and unexpected.

God Told Me To was directed by Larry Cohen, an exploitation veteran who has been responsible for some of the most thought-provoking B-movies in cinematic history. Like many of Cohen’s films, God Told Me To is something of a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.  Both Peter Nicholas and Bernard Phillips prove to be fascinating characters and, during the film’s final third, Cohen takes both of them in unexpected directions.

God Told Me To is one of those films that every fan of horror and cult cinema should see at least once. If you haven’t seen it, now is the perfect time for you to discover it for yourself.

Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind