The Curmudgeon


Sunday, July 17, 2005

Larry Cohen

Several of Larry Cohen's cheap, cheerfully inventive films - Q, God Told Me To and the It's Alive trilogy - have recently been released on DVD. This is an unmitigatedly Good Thing, and I hope to see many more of them.

After an apprenticeship as a writer and producer for television, Cohen wrote, produced and directed his first feature film, the splendidly titled Dial Rat for Terror, in 1972. He came to prominence with It's Alive (1974), a horror film about an epidemic of fanged, predatory babies. Though cheap, it is notable for its satirical black humour (the hero's son slaughters the medical staff at birth) and for its exploration of the parents' dilemma. Frank Davis, having fathered one of the creatures (and lost his job for being "too controversial"), at first disowns the deadly infant but later tries to protect it, despite its obvious anti-social tendencies. It's Alive is also noted for being scored by Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the music for Hitchcock's Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo and others.

Cohen made two sequels, It Lives Again (1978) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). They are among the select number of film sequels which equal or improve on the original. One critic noted that It Lives Again must be the only horror film in which the tension derives as much from efforts to protect the monster as from those to destroy it. A young couple conceive one of the fanged mutants, and are torn between Frank Davis, who is part of a parents' underground movement trying to protect the things, and Mallory, a ruthless cop who wants to hunt them all down and exterminate them. Mallory, of course, has fathered one of the mutants himself.

Cohen's films are full of quotable dialogue. In Full Moon High (1981), a teenage werewolf puts off his girlfriend's advances with the excuse that it's his "time of the month". The Stuff (1985) concerns a parasitic goo from beneath the Earth's crust which manages to get itself marketed as a dessert; the film's industrial-spy hero (Michael Moriarty, a Cohen regular) announces proudly at the beginning: "Nobody could be as dumb as I appear," and later gets to deliver the maxim: "Everybody has to eat shaving cream now and then."

In Q (aka The Winged Serpent, 1982), the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is resurrected and flies about New York City snatching people off the skyscrapers. Cohen was able to employ the talents of David Carradine and Candy Clark as well as Moriarty, and the film is one of his most sophisticated, but it still manages to include such lines as "Maybe his head got loose and fell off".

Perhaps Cohen's most complex film, as well as his darkest, is God Told Me To (aka Demon, 1976), in which Peter Nicholas (Tony LoBianco), a troubled Catholic detective, is faced with an epidemic of murders carried out by apparently normal people who claim, with quiet satisfaction, that God told them to do it. "He's done so much for us," says a man who has just shot his wife and children; "I thought it was about time we did something for him." As with many Cohen films, God Told Me To is rather messily edited, working beautifully in the set pieces but often less than adequately in the plotting. Nevertheless, it combines religious satire, horror, science fiction and human drama in a way to which big-budget extravaganzas like The Exorcist and Stigmata barely aspire.

In 1987, Cohen made an unofficial sequel to Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot. With typical chutzpah, he threw out all of King's characters and kept only the basic premise of a small American town inhabited entirely by vampires. A Return to 'Salem's Lot starred Michael Moriarty as an anthropologist lumbered with his troubled teenage son ("Didn't they tell you? I'm fucked up") and Samuel Fuller as a Nazi-hunter turned vampire killer. As Moriarty finds his moral relativism crumbling somewhat before the all-American vampires, the film gets in some effective jabs at small-town snobbery and hypocrisy: a little old lady vampire refers coyly to her "drinking problem", while the evil king-vampire is shown to be, at bottom, little more than a rather nasty conservative politician.

Besides monster movies, Cohen has also made thrillers such as The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), which portrays the FBI chief as a sexually repressed, paranoid megalomaniac; Special Effects (1984) the twisted tale of a policeman, a murderous film director, and the woman whom he turns into the double of his leading lady; and The Ambulance (1990), a Hitchcock-style entertainment in which Eric Roberts investigates the sudden disappearance of a young woman, much to the disdain of gum-chomping cop James Earl Jones.

Because of their frequently hurried production and their bargain-basement budgets, Cohen's films are sometimes murkily shot or hurriedly assembled; but Cohen's freewheeling approach (and independence from studio interference) enables him to attack a number of satirical targets which often get off lightly in the mainstream: Christianity in God Told Me To, salt-of-the-earth small towns in A Return to 'Salem's Lot, family values in the Alive trilogy, addiction-manufacturing food companies in The Stuff. In the third film of the trilogy, Cohen even manages to work in some telling swipes against American demonisation of Cuba. Having made a wisecrack earlier in the film about using the deadly babies against Castro, Stephen Jarvis (Moriarty again) later finds himself being given medical treatment on the rogue island, then taken home and given a Russian pistol to protect himself against the monsters. "Perhaps you hadn't heard," one of his Cuban companions tells him, "but we're human beings as well."


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