Archive for Larry Cohen

Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2014 by dcairns

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…or S.U.B.S. for short. Fiona coined this phrase to describe the way the killer babies kept popping up in Larry Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE II: IT LIVES AGAIN and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. We had rented the first film in the series on VHS from the late lamented Alphabet Video in Bruntsfield, years and years ago, and been impressed by (1) leading man John P. Ryan, who brings far more commitment and credibility than the monster baby movie would seem to deserve, and (2) Bernard Herrmann’s score, which seems to come from a different, better era/film.

Cohen has a tendency to cast well and then not give his actors time to get it right, but at least he does pick out good people. Ryan returns in the second film, where Frederic Forrest and Kathleen Lloyd take over the leading parts — talented actors, as you’d know if you saw them elsewhere, but struggling with the material and tending to over-hype the emotions — too many scenes feel like promising rehearsals.

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Une Etrange Aventure de…

We also get, improbably, Eddie Constantine as a porridge-faced obstetrician, Cohen fave James Dixon, the only actor in all three films, as a cop with Donald Trump hair, and veteran John Marley, who is completely authoritative and nails every moment he’s given — thereby making everything else seem even more unbelievable.

The mutant rugrat is no better in film two than it was in film one — Rick Baker famously complained that Cohen sprang the project on him with no prep time, promised to not show the creature (an immobile sculpture) except for “flashes,” and then kept inventing new shots to showcase it. He also apparently suggested making a baby costume for his cat, which Baker balked at, so Cohen suggested using a chicken. “But chickens have two legs. Babies crawl on all fours.” “OK, two chickens! And maybe they’d fight!” (This story may have grown in the telling.)

***

Sidenote — on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, they apparently experimented with putting an orangutan on rollerskates to simulate an alien visitor. It didn’t come off. Undeterred, George Lucas attempted to cast a monkey as Yoda, but couldn’t quite get the effect he wanted and settled for a shit muppet. Only the makers of the original Battlestar Galactica seem to have gone all the way and put a chimp in a weird Honey Monster/bondage costume to impersonate some cyborg space pet.

At this stage, I would be unsurprised to learn that E.T. was planned as a marmot on stilts, or that Orangey the cat from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s was set to be the original Chewbacca. But I have no definite information as to these theories which I have just made up.

Star Wars Yoda monkey

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In the end, there’s the sculpture, plus a mask and glove for closeups, and the keeping-the-monster-unseen strategy, stretched as far as it can go, comes off as cheap rather than Lewtonesque.

The second film attempts to “surpass” the first by throwing in a couple more killer sprogs, but the original is still dead so the title should really be SOME MORE ITS ARE ALIVE or IT DIES AGAIN or something. Cohen’s other saving grace is his politics, which sadly don’t get that much of an airing here. The third film goes a little further but flounders in a welter of bad effects work and bad story ideas ~

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The casting coups this time are Karen Black (not in it that much) and Michael Moriarty, who seems curiously miscast in the role of an actor. As a no-hope lounge singer in Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, I thought he was great value. I reminded Fiona that his piano-bar noodlings formed a major part of the soundtrack of that flying lizard police procedural, and she was startled at the memory. It was such a bold choice. “I wonder if he’ll sing this time?” And moments later, aboard a yacht bound for the ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, he launches into a rousing rendition of The Skye Boat Song, in Scots brogue, no less, which goes on for an uncomfortably long time and is very, very funny.

Elsewhere, things are dreadful: a bunch of the babies grow into adult-sized monsters within five years, but still have giant baby heads because I guess a redesign was going to be too expensive. Karen Black narrowly escapes gang rape by punk rockers (a very real social problem in Florida in 1987, I’m sure). Moriarty has a run in with the Cuban secret service. A bizarre post-nuclear family happy ending is contrived that makes no sense — we are supposed to feel hopeful as our heroes, who are international celebrities, flee the authorities with a mutant baby in a hot car.

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The biggest problem, for me, is that Cohen is really terrible at filming stuff — his coverage is erratic and often actually incomplete, missing shots he can’t do without to achieve coherent continuity. At other times he uses more shots than he needs, and they’re almost never the RIGHT shots. Even the few stop motion shots in the third film are oddly selected, very brief and usually showing the baby from behind, so we can admire its muscular latex buttocks but get little sense of threat, unless we’re meant to be scared it’ll do a toxic poo. Which is something a serious mutant baby movie would have to tackle, come to think of it.

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Kane Caught in Love Nest with “Dinosaur”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2013 by dcairns

league1Panels from Nemo: Heart of Ice, the latest installment of the adventures of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Ignore the terrible movie with which Sean Connery ended his career, the comic is quite good.

In The League’s universe, all the characters from sensational fiction inhabit the same world and interact, thus there’s a superhero team (though Moore denies they’re that) composed of Captain Nemo, Allan Quartermain, Mina Murray, the Invisible Man and Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. The movie throws in Dorian Gray too, which was enough to get them sued by none other than Larry Cohen, who had written a screenplay called CAST OF CHARACTERS which brought Gray together with several of the above characters. Moore, who hates the film business (can’t blame him after FROM HELL) was not pleased at being dragged into a movie lawsuit.

The creators somehow evade copyright law and drag in all sorts of famous fictional figures — the newspaper magnate here is clearly Charles Foster Kane, and his Everglades retreat is decorated with a pic of a nude woman on a sled, referencing both versions of the origin of “Rosebud” (an innocent snow vehicle, or William Randolph Hearst’s nickname for Marion Davies’ genitals), the Maltese Falcon, and a stuffed pterodactyl head mounted on the wall.

The latter strikes me as a singularly witty trope. It refers chiefly to the supposed flying lizards in the scene discussed here, which are in fact cel-animated flamingos, we think, and not off-cuts from KING KONG or SON OF KONG as is all too often claimed. Since the Moore comic is set in 1925, the dino also fits neatly with the first movie of THE LOST WORLD released that year, and one remembers that in the Conan Doyle novel, Professor Challenger and his team bring back from the remote South American plateau an egg, which hatches and provokes consternation.

I always felt this was the inspiration for Max Klinger’s print.

However, in the movie of THE LOST WORLD, Willis O’Brien animates a brontosaurus rampaging through London — how the team brought THAT home is as unexplained as Kong’s trip to New York eight years later. So the Moore reference doesn’t make absolute cross-textual sense, but it ties together a number of disparate things in a pleasing if irrational way. Which is just the kind of thing I like.

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Moore & O’Neill’s series is enjoyable for this kind of attention to background detail — every image has some in-joke or reference, which is why one likes to have the Annotations to hand when perusing.

Nemo: Heart of Ice

The Lost World [1925] [DVD]

Citizen Kane [Blu-ray] [1941]

Another fine messiah

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by dcairns

GOD TOLD ME TO — a great title, and a film that actually stands behind that title! Which I hadn’t expected, to be honest, since it’s a Larry Cohen picture, and experience has taught me that Cohen’s films generally fall down on craft, even as they struggle to put over interesting story ideas. THE STUFF is such a nice high-concept, political sci-fi horror movie in principle, that it’s a shock to see how badly made it is. THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER is so ahead of its time in the way it portrays its subject, you can almost overlook the fact that they’ve got sixty-six-year-old Broderick Crawford playing Hoover in his twenties. But still, I don’t suppose he’s any less convincing than Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover in his sixties.

Cohen works cheap, and shoots on location without permits — this kind of guerrilla film-making has aesthetic consequences, which is fine. A certain necessary roughness in some way suits Cohen’s authorial personality. But he’s never worked out a way to create a consistent feel out of the practical constraints he operates under. So he shoots with a tripod when he can, then goes handheld when circumstances dictate it, resulting in a patchy look, where a wholly vérité style might have worked.

BUT — Cohen has great taste in subjects (who else would plant a Mexican winged serpent god in Manhattan, swooping down to decapitate window cleaners?) and in actors — here he scoops Sylvia Sidney, waiting in a nursing home from whence she would eventually defeat the invading Martians in MARS ATTACKS! His leading man, Tony LoBianco (from THE HONEYMOON KILLERS) makes a convincing cop, which I guess is why he plays one so often, he also gets one of the most chilling final looks I’ve ever seen.

And this is a very scary room.

Cohen still has his camera placement set on random, so visually things are a bit frustrating at times, but the few effects shots are satisfactory, the location shooting (with accompanying sound problems) does add grit, and the searing orange glow in certain key scenes anticipates CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Gaspar Noe wants to remake this… I sort of doubt he could improve it.

So, people are going on killing sprees, announcing “God told me to,” with their dying breaths. Andy Kaufman plays a cop at the St Patrick Day’s Parade who starts plugging bystanders with his revolver. This is not only startling to see, it also seems like the kind of thing Andy might do, if pressed. He could always claim afterwards he was extending the bounds of comedy.

Just like in JAWS, the hero tries to stop the disaster, but is told he can’t interfere with the celebrations: “The Irish have been looking forward to this all year!” Because that’s all they have to do, seemingly.

This intriguing set-up is exactly the kind of ball I’d expect Cohen to drop, but instead he passes it — the killers are connected to some hippy messiah kid, who may have been a virgin birth, may have been born intersex, and may be the child of an alien abductee — Cohen gets into the kind of alien abduction scenario, complete with tractor beams, lost time, and intrusive medical procedures, that have been widely reported but hadn’t made it into movies yet (did the movie cause a spike in UFO reports?). And it keeps getting weirder — there are enough crazy plot twists for three conventional films. And it doesn’t wrap up into a neat little bundle, it sprawls out, spreading tendrils all over the place. Don’t get any on you!

Richard Lynch plays the space messiah. “I know who that is!” said Fiona. “It’s that guy! He’s in lots of stuff!” Don’t you just hate that? But then she was able to be more specific: “He’s that guy with the I’ve-been-in-a-fire face.”

He is!

The other strange thing about this film (well, one of them) is the space Jesus’s vagina. We first see this, in big latex close-up, during Sylvia Sidney’s alien encounter flashback (a younger actress plays the naked twenty-something Sylvia, which seems inconsistent with the sensibility that gave us Broderick Crawford as a boy detective, but let’s not carp). He just cuts to it. It’s impossible to tell where it is or why Cohen is showing it to us at this point. It’s a bit like the closeups of Marilyn Chambers’ armpit penis in RABID (which this predates) — no context, just an ECU of a rubbery thing quietly doing stuff.

“It’s a c- It’s a FANNY!” declared Fiona, strangely impressed.

In another scene, space Jesus lifts his robe and shows off the mangina, so we know it’s his. But we don’t know where it is. I thought maybe it was on his side, like Christ’s spear-wound. “That makes sense,” said Fiona, tolerantly. But maybe I was just resisting the idea that it was exactly what it appeared to be. How did Cohen get this image into a commercial release? By arguing that, since it’s an alien genital, it can’t be obscene? It’s like Rin Tin Tin’s penis. And nobody would dream of censoring that. On the other hand, nobody would ever think of shooting a giant ECU of it, either.

No one but Larry Cohen.