Continuing with the theme of “Obscure Horror Auteurs”, this week we tackle Larry Cohen. As B-Movie filmmakers go, he’s pretty successful and some of his films have become well known. He made his name with some blaxploitation flicks like Black Caesar, but pretty quickly transitioned over to more traditional genre fare like the films we’re looking at today. There are a bunch of other Cohen movies worth watching that I won’t cover, like The Stuff or Q: The Winged Serpent. In general, Cohen likes to mix his sleazy premises with social commentary and while it’s not often subtle, his pet concerns do give his films a veneer of relevance that, um, keep them relevant today. Let’s get started:
- Pet Sematary (trailer)
- The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror V: Time and Punishment
- It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (trailer)
- It’s Alive – I don’t have kids, but I’m beginning to suspect that pop culture has given me a false expectation as to how births normally go. I mean, yeah, I assume 25% of births occur in cabs on the way to the hospital, another 25% happen at the workplace, and the remaining 50% are just regular frantic rushes to the hospital during rush hour, but there’s got to be more variety than that, right? On the other hand, It’s Alive goes in the complete opposite direction. I’ve never seen a more leisurely trip than the one portrayed at the beginning of this movie. We open on the mother waking her husband to let him know it’s time. They smile and share a tender moment before he yawns and walks into the closet to pick out his ensemble. What does one wear in the waiting room? I mean, all the stuff they do are sorta natural consequences of a trip to the hospital, but the lack of urgency here is notable. Anywho, once at the hospital, the father hangs out in the waiting room with a bunch of other guys as they BS on environmental catastrophes and pesticides and poison-resistant cockroaches and whatnot (no social commentary here, move it along) while the mother begins to experience… difficulties. We don’t see the actual birth, but we do see the aftermath wherein it appears our intrepid heroes’ baby has murdered all the doctors and nurses in the room and escaped the confines of the hospital. From here, we settle into a bout of angsty hand-wringing as the cops begin their manhunt (er, babyhunt). It appears the father has taken a hard stance on his son, namely that he’s an abomination that should be destroyed at the first opportunity. Things pick up again in the third act, where our father has a sudden, Grinch-like transformation into a good father (but not before, you know, shooting his son). It’s not exactly great storytelling, but it’s got just enough trashy elements to be fun. If memory serves, the sequels cash in a little more on the sleaze factor (I have a distinct memory from the third movie which, come to think of it, starts with a birth in a cab, and what I remember is someone saying something like “Oh no, it’s one of them!” while pulling out a gun and blasting away.) A modest effort, but maybe worth checking out for students of the genre. **
- M. Night Shyamalan’s The Twist (Robot Chicken)
- The Fourth Kind (trailer)
- The Exorcist (amazing unreleased trailer)
- God Told Me To – If you thought killer mutant babies were weird, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This movie starts with a sniper gunning down random pedestrians in NYC (super pleasant way to start a movie, though in all seriousness, some notion of relevance here). When asked why, the gunman simply states “God told me to…” After a spate of other, similar incidents where the perpetrator simply states that God told them to do it, our intrepid detective hero begins to put some pieces together. And then it gets really weird. Not completely batshit, but I also don’t really want to ruin it. What initially seems like it could be an exploration of faith and religion goes in a completely different direction, turning towards science fiction and conspiracy thriller territory.
Some plot machinations are tough to swallow, but look at what we’re watching here. Good central performance from Tony Lo Bianco (most famous for The French Connection), and some nice visual elements too. It’s got all the makings of a cult classic and I can see why it has a following even to this day. Great B movie flare, and the new Blu-Ray transfer is actually a dramatic improvement over the previous DVD that I saw many moons ago. Hey, look, I mentioned this in the 6WH from 2008, though I was not quite as impressed then as I was this time around. Upgrade to: ***
- The Stuff (trailer)
- Night of the Creeps (trailer)
- White Zombies (Key and Peele)
- Maniac Cop – It turns out that I’ve never actually seen this one before. Maybe parts of it, but what I remember most is stuff from Maniac Cop II or III (which, to be fair, I probably never saw from start to finish either). What we have here is the Face versus the Chin. Yes, this movie stars a veritable plethora of B-movie icons, including Robert Z’Dar (aka The Face), Bruce Campbell (aka The Chin), horror icon Tom Atkins, even folks like Richard Roundtree and Sheree North pitching in.
This was only written by Larry Cohen, and it sorta represents his take on the vaunted slasher film. Most of the elements are there, except that our Maniac Cop sometimes uses a gun. Directed by William Lustig, who, come to think of it also directed a quasi-slasher movie called Maniac where the killer also uses a gun. Must be his thing. Anyway, Maniac Cop is actually a guy named Matt Cordell, an old school cop framed by corrupt police chief and mayor and sent to prison, where his admiring public gets the chance for revenge (in the shower, naturally). Declared legally dead, his body nevertheless disappeared or something (don’t kid yourself, it’s not that important) and now he’s out to avenge his wrongful prosecution. And also, apparently, anyone who runs across his path, including innocent pedestrians and other cops. Speaking of which, Maniac Cop somehow manages to almost inadvertently frame another cop for his spree. This guy is played by Bruce Campbell, who goes about trying to clear his name and uncover Cordell’s tragic origins. Robert Z’Dar is absolutely perfect in this movie, mostly because of his physicality. Lustig keeps his face pretty well hidden in shadows for most of the movie, but you know, with a face like that, all you need to see is the silhouette in order to identify him (plus, he’s a big dude to start with).
Atkins and Campbell are fine, but don’t really have anything to do that is as good as the roles that made them famous (except, I guess, for that scene where Atkins smiles. That’s awesome.) You know what else also works for me? The theme is actually really nice. I mean, it’s not going to win awards or anything, but it perfectly captures the enduring glory that is Maniac Cop. I’m only being slightly facetious, I swears! It’s all in good fun, and strikes a particularly relevant chord given all the police abuse showing up in the news these days. I had a lot of fun with this, even if it isn’t doing anything particularly noteworthy. **1/2
- Maniac Cop III: Badge of Silence (trailer)
- Honest Zombie (Robot Chicken)
- Hell No (fake trailer)
- Maniac Cop 2 – Bonus! Since a lot of what I remember about Maniac Cop comes from the sequels, I figured I should check at least one of them out, and this did not disappoint. Generally more of the same, only a little sleazier. Campbell, whose character has just officially been exonerated from the tragedy of the first film, is dispatched fairly quickly. His female partner in non-chrime has a better go of it, including a wonderful setup where she takes on Maniac Cop with a fucking chainsaw.
Alas, it doesn’t work out quite as awesome as that sounds, and she is thus dispatched pretty quickly. In their stead, we’ve got two new characters; one played by Robert Davi, who I must admit, does a much better job as a brooding badass than Campbell or Atkins did in the first movie, and the other played by Claudia Christian playing a psychologist (you nerds probably remember her from Babylon 5). And this time around, Maniac Cop makes a friend! A serial killer who stalks strippers and talks way too much gives Cordell a place to stay for a while, and for some reason Maniac Cop breaks him out of prison when he finally gets caught. Or something. The plot makes no real sense, and once Davi and Christian suss out the commissioner’s corruption and force him to confess in public, Cordell can rest in peace. Or something. This is getting ridiculous and the whole thing makes no sense, but like the first movie, it’s a whole lot of trashy fun. **
Another common theme that emerges out of all these movies? Cohen loves a good media leak. Whether it’s initiated by our heroes (both Maniac Cop movies and God Told Me To) or whether our hero is simply suffering from the consequences of a leak (It’s Alive), it’s always there. And the consequences of the leak are always ambiguous. In Maniac Cop, no one trusts the police and we even see one random pedestrian shoot a cop in a panic. Heck, media leaks even play a role in The Stuff. Larry Cohen clearly has some thoughts on news media influence. I think I might just have to rent Maniac Cop III tonight to see if the pattern holds. Anywho, stay tuned for more obscure horror auteurs next week!