Horror Film Review: Special Effects (dir by Larry Cohen)


In this rather odd horror film from 1984, dumb-as-mud Keefe Wateran (Brad Rijn) travels from Dallas to New York City, hoping to bring his wife back home.  Andrea (Zoe Tamerlis, the star of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45) abandoned both Keefe and their son because she wants to be a star.  When the film opens, she’s posing topless in a replica of the Oval Office.  Keefe is not too happy when he discovers that his wife is apparently appearing in politically-themed nude photo shoots.

And the thing is, you feel like you should feel sorry for Keefe, seeing as how his wife abandoned not only him but also their child.  But Keefe is just such a self-righteous know-it-all that you really can’t blame Andrea for leaving him.  As soon he starts going on and on about how she’s abandoned her family just to be a tramp in New York, you’re pretty much automatically on Andrea’s side.

Unfortunately, when Andrea turns up dead at Coney Island, the police automatically suspect that Keefe’s responsible.  When they show up to arrest Keefe for the murder, he’s only wearing his boxer shorts.  One of the detectives comments that, if he was going to commit murder, he would at least wear interesting underwear.  And, again, you may want to sympathize with Keefe but the detective has a point.  You need to dress for the job you want, not the one you have.  I have an entire drawer full of murder thongs, just in case I ever decide to go for a career change.

Keefe is bailed out of jail and provided a high-priced attorney by Christopher Neville (Eric Bogosian).  Neville is a big-time Hollywood director …. or, at least, he was until he directed a huge flop.  (Apparently, the film had over $30,000 worth of special effects, which I guess was a lot back in 1984.)  Neville, whom Andrea was supposed to have a meeting with on the night that she died, says that he’s fascinated by Keefe and Andrea’s story.  In fact, he wants to turn it into a movie and he wants to hire Keefe as a special consultant.

However, what we know (but what Keefe doesn’t know, though he’d be able to figure it out if he wasn’t such a total and complete freaking moron), is that Neville murdered Andrea!  He strangled her when she objected to him filming them while they were having sex.  Now, Neville wants to make a movie about the murder.  He even hires Elaine Bernstein (Zoe Tamerlis, again) to play Andrea in the film, despite the fact that Elaine has no acting experience.  What’s important is that Elaine looks like Andrea.  Neville also manages to manipulate the rather stupid Keefe into playing himself in the film.  Soon, Neville is suggesting that perhaps they need to film a scene of Keefe and Andrea having rough sex and maybe Keefe should choke her during the scene….

And it just gets stranger from there.  Special Effects is Hitchcock-style thriller from director Larry Cohen, one that’s got a bit more on its mind than just murder and a few heavy-handed jokes about the film industry.  Neville may be smooth and manipulative while Keefe may be loud and a bit on the dumb side but, ultimately, they’re both obsessed with turning Elaine into Andrea.  Neville wants to transform Elaine into the Andrea that he victimized while Keefe wants to turn Elaine into his idealized version of Andrea, the version that never wanted anything more than to be his wife and the mother of his children.  In the end, they’re both creeps.  (Admittedly, only one of them is murderer.)

Adding to the film’s strange tone are the three memorably eccentric lead performances.  All three of the actors do unexpected things with their characters.  Bogosian is wonderfully smug and smoothly manipulative as Neville while Brad Rijin goes all out in making Keefe one of the stupidest characters ever to appear in a leading role in a motion picture.  (He’s like Bruce Campbell, without the comedic timing.)  And finally, Zoe Tamerlis does a great job playing four different characters — Andrea, Neville’s version of Andrea, Keefe’s version of Andrea, and finally Esther.

Special Effects is an intriguing mix of thrills, horror, and satire with an undercurrent of anger.  One gets the feeling that Neville is a stand-in for many of the soulless directors who had the type of career that Cohen felt he deserved.  Track it down and check it out.

18 Days of Paranoia #12: Best Seller (dir by John Flynn)


The 1987 film, Best Seller, tells the story of two men, both equally capable of violence but with two very different moral codes.

Dennis Meechum (Brian Dennehy) is a cop who also writes true crime.  In the early 70s, he was the one of several cops who were attacked by a group of gunmen who were all wearing Richard Nixon masks.  Though he was shot, Meechum survived and he even managed to stab one his assailants.  15 years later, Meechum is still haunted by the incident.  Meechum is a brawler who doesn’t have much time for nonsense but he also has a strong moral code (or so he thinks).

Cleve (James Woods) talks fast and always seems like he’s a little bit nervous.  He has a quick smile and a joke for almost every occasion.  He’s also a professional assassin, a sociopath who is very interested in Dennis.  Cleve has spent the majority of his life working for a powerful businessman named David Madlock (Paul Shenar) but he’s recently been laid off.  Cleve wants revenge and he thinks that Dennis can help him get it.

Together …. THEY FIGHT CRIME!

Well, actually, they kind of do.  Madlock’s done a lot of illegal stuff and Cleve and Dennis are exposing him, his crooked corporation, and all of his powerful connections.  However, what Cleve really wants is for Dennis to write a best seller about his life.  Cleve wants Dennis to write his story and most importantly, he wants Dennis to make him the hero.  Dennis is still a cop and says that once all this is over, he’s going to have to arrest Cleve.  Of course, eventually, he discovers that Cleve was the man who shot him 15 years earlier.  At that point, Dennis says that he’s going to have to kill Cleve once all of this is over.

As a crime thriller, Best Seller hits all of the expected beats.  As soon as we find out that Dennis is a widower and that he has a teenage daughter, we know that she’s eventually going to be taken prisoner by the bad guys.  For that matter, we can also guess that there will be a few scenes where Cleve insists that Dennis is just like him.  When Cleve starts telling people that Dennis is his brother, it’s a fun scene because it’s well-acted by both Woods and Dennehy but it’s not exactly surprising.

But no matter!  Though the the overall plot may be predictable, there’s enough clever little twists and details that the film holds your interest.  For instance, there’s an extended sequence where Dennis insists that Cleve introduce him to his family.  For the next few minutes, the film stops being an action thriller and instead becomes a bit of a domestic comedy as Dennis meets Cleve’s friendly family, none of whom are aware that Cleve is a ruthless killer.  The stuff with Cleve’s family doesn’t move the plot forward but your happy it’s there because 1) James Woods gives a great performance in those scenes and 2) it suggests that the film (which was written by Larry Cohen and directed by John Flynn, who was previously responsible for the brilliant Rolling Thunder) has more on its mind than just shooting people.

The main reason why Best Seller works so well is because the two leads are perfectly cast.  Brian Dennehy was born to play tough cops while James Woods gives one of his best performances as the unstable but likable Cleve.  I’ve actually had people get made at me for saying that James Woods is a good actor, simply because they disagree with his politics.  But, when it comes to art and talent, I don’t care about anyone’s politics.  (I mean, if I only watched movies starring people whose politics where approved by Film Twitter, I would end up spending the entire pandemic watching romantic comedies starring Alec Baldwin and Rosie O’Donnell and why should I suffer like that?)  James Woods is a good actor and he’s great in Best Seller.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed

18 Days of Paranoia #3: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (dir by Larry Cohen)


The 1977 film, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, opens in 1972.

J. Edgar Hoover, the much-feared and long-serving director of the FBI, has just been found dead at his home and it seems like the entire city of Washington, D.C. is scrambling.  Not only are people jockeying for Hoover’s job but they’re also wondering what might be found in his secret files.  As quickly becomes apparent, Hoover had a file on everyone.  While Presidents lauded him and the press portrayed him as hero, Hoover spent nearly 50 years building up a surveillance state.  Hoover said it was to fight criminals and subversives but mostly, it was just to hold onto his own power.  Even President Nixon is heard, in the Oval Office, ordering his men to get those files.

Hoover may have known everyone’s secrets but, the film suggests, very few people knew his.  The film is narrated by a former FBI agent named Dwight Webb (Rip Torn).  Dwight talks about how he was kicked out of the FBI because it was discovered that he not only smoked but that he was having an adulterous affair with a secretary.  “You know how Hoover was about that sex stuff,” he says, his tone suggesting that there’s more to the story than just Hoover being a bit of a puritan.

We flash back to the 1920s.  We see a young Hoover (James Wainwright) as a part of the infamous Palmer Raids, an early effort by the Justice Department to track down and deport communist subversives.  Though Hoover disagrees with the legality of the Palmer Raids, he still plays his part and that loyalty is enough to eventually get him appointed, at the age of 29, to be the head of the agency that would eventually become the FBI.  Hoover may start out as a relatively idealistic man but it doesn’t take long for the fame and the power to go to his head.

Hoover (now played by Broderick Crawford) serves a number of Presidents, each one worse the one who proceeded him.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) is an avuncular despot while the Kennedy brothers (William Jordan as John and Michael Parks as Bobby) are two rich brats who think that they can control Hoover but who soon discover that Hoover is far more clever than they realize.  Hoover finds himself a man out-of-place in the 60s and the 70s,  Suddenly, he’s no longer everyone’s hero and people are starting to view the FBI as being not a force for law enforcement but instead an instrument of oppression.

Through it all, Hoover remains an enigma.  He demands a lot of from his agents but he resents them if they’re too successful.  Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks) might find fame for leading the manhunt that took down Dillinger but he’s driven to suicide by Hoover’s cruel treatment.  Unlike Clint Eastwood’s film about Hoover, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover suggests that Hoover was not gay but that instead, that he was so repressed that he was essentially asexual.  When one woman throws herself at him, he accuses her of being a subversive and demands to know how anyone could find him attractive.  He’s closest to his mother and when she dies, he shuts off his emotions.  His own power, for better and worse, becomes the one thing that he loves.  He’s married to the FBI and he often behaves like an abusive spouse.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is an interesting film.  It’s an attempt to do a huge American epic on a less than epic budget.  At the start of the film, the low budget is undeniably distracting.  The 1920s are essentially represented by a back lot and two old cars.  The scenes of the FBI dealing with gangsters like Dillinger and Creepy Karpis feel awkward and slapdash.  But, as the film’s timeline gets closer to what was then the modern era, the film’s story tightens up and so does Larry Cohen’s direction.  (One get the feeling that Cohen was, perhaps understandably, more interested in the Hoover of the 60s and the 70s than the Hoover of the 20s and 30s.  There’s a sharpness to the second half of the movie that is just missing from the first half.)  Broderick Crawford gives a chilling performance as a man who is determined to hold onto his power, just for the sake of having it.  The scenes were Hoover and Bobby Kennedy snap at each other have a charge that’s missing from the first half of the film.  Michael Parks does a great job portraying RFK as basically being a spoiled jerk while Crawford seems to relish the chance to play up the resentful, bitter old man aspects of Hoover’s personality.  The film ultimately suggests that whether the audience previously admired RFK or whether they previously admired Hoover, they were all essentially duped.

Though the film never quite overcomes the limits of its low budget, it works well as a secret history of the United States.  In 1977, it undoubtedly took guts to make a film that portrayed Roosevelt and Kennedy as being as bad as Nixon and Johnson.  (It would probably even take guts today.  One need only rewatch something like The Butler or Hyde Park on Hudson to see the ludicrous lengths Hollywood will go to idealize presidents like Kennedy and dictators like FDR.)  While this film certainly doesn’t defend J. Edgar Hoover’s excesses, it often suggests that the president he served under were just as bad, if not even worse.  In the end, it becomes a portrait of not only how power corrupts but also why things don’t change, regardless of who is nominally in charge.  In the end the film’s villain is not J. Edgar Hoover.  Instead, the film’s villain is the system that created and then enabled him.  The man may be dead but the system remains.

Previous entries in the 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau

 

Original Gangstas (1996, directed by Larry Cohen)


Original Gangstas opens with shots of the deserted streets and burned-out store fronts of Gary, Indiana and narration telling us how a once great American city came to be in such disrepair.  The steel plant closed and put much of the city out of work.  While the politicians and the police looked the other way, violent street gangs rose up and took over entire neighborhoods.  Now, Gary is a shell of its former self.  Even the local movie theater has closed down.  The narrators tells us that the last movie to play at the theater was Star Wars.

Led by Spyro (Christoper B. Duncan) and Damien (Eddie Bo Smith, Jr.), the Rebels are the most feared and powerful gang in Gary.  They rule through violence and intimidation.  Talk to the police and your business is liable to get torched and you’re likely to get shot.  However, Spyro and Damien have finally gone too far and now, two men who previously escaped from Gary are returning to town to dish out some justice.

John Bookman (Fred Williamson) is a former football player who wants to avenge the shooting of his father.  Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) is a boxer who once killed a man in the ring and who wants revenge for the death of his son.  When they were young men, John and Jake were the original Rebels and now they’re getting the old gang back together again.  With the help of Laurie (Pam Grier), Rev. Dorsey (Paul Winfield), Bubba (Ron O’Neal), and Slick (Richard Roundtree), the original gangstas are going to take back the streets of Gary.

Original Gangstas was released at a time when, largely thanks to the influence of Quentin Tarantino, people were just starting to feel nostalgic for the old blaxploitation movies.  The main appeal of the film, not surprisingly, is that it brings together so many of the great blaxploitation stars and sets them loose in what was then the modern era.  (Jim Kelly is missed.)  When John and Jake talk about how they’re responsible for the Rebels, they could just as easily be talking about how they’re responsible for both all of the independent crime films that came out in the wake of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.

Original Gangstas is a tribute to both the Blaxploitation genre and the oversized personalities that made that era so memorable.  Neither Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, nor Richard Roundtree were particularly good actors but they all had so much screen presence and such an innate sense of cool that it didn’t matter whether they could convincingly show emotion or not.  (Original Gangstas gives all of the big dramatic scenes to Pam Grier, who was not only naturally cool but a damn good actress to boot.)  The minute Fred Williamson lights his cigar, he control the entire movie.  He and Jim Brown make a good team and Original Gangstas is an entertaining and violent trip down memory lane.

4 Shots From 4 Films: Carrie, God Told Me To, The House With Laughing Windows, The Omen


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

This October, we’re using 4 Shots From 4 Films to look at some of the best years that horror has to offer!

4 Shots From 4 1976 Horror Films

Carrie (1976, dir by Brian De Palma)

God Told Me To (1976, dir by Larry Cohen)

The House With Laughing Windows (1976, directed by Pupi Avati)

The Omen (1976, dir by Richard Donner)

RIP Larry Cohen: Maniacal Movie Maverick


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While everyone on TV and social media are babbling about The Mueller Report, I came across some bigger news: Larry Cohen has passed away at age 77. You can debate politics all you want, but you can’t debate the fact that Cohen was a true artist, despite working within Exploitation genres and dealing with budgetary limitations throughout most of his career. Cohen’s unique vision was his own, and he made some truly great films – some turkeys too, granted, but his overall batting average was high indeed.

I’ve written extensively on this blog about Cohen’s film and television work because I love his style. Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, he frequently turned straw into gold. Born in Manhattan in 1941, Larry Cohen was obsessed with B-movies and hard-boiled fiction, and after graduating from CCNY with a degree in film studies, he got a job as a page at NBC. Cohen worked…

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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.