Archive for Larry Cohen

Wham! Embalm! Thank you, ma’am.

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2020 by dcairns

I had to eventually see the 2017 MUMMY, not so much because two modern genre filmmakers I quite like, Christopher McQuarrie and David Koepp, helped write it, but because it’s not every film that can lay claim to destroying an entire cinematic universe.

Universal’s plans for an interconnected, MCU-type set of horror-action franchises involving various of the creatures/characters from their ’30s, ’40s and ’50s back catalogue didn’t strike me as very well-conceived to begin with, and THE MUMMY’S returns at the box office were ultimately insufficient to justify embarking on such a costly venture. Or put it this way, if you’ve found a way to make a Tom Cruise action movie that’s not financially successful, it’s unlikely a major studio is going to hand you the keys to their intellectual property.

(In fact, director/co-writer/co-producer Alex Kurtzman continues to exert control over Star Trek and its spin-offs.)

Hey, remember the trailer with the missing sound? Did any Universal employees turn up mysteriously murdered after that came out?

The reason for my lack of enthusiasm may have been my dissatisfaction with the 1999 MUMMY. To me, THE MUMMY will always be Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney and Tom Tyler and Christopher Lee, and he will be a monster movie character, not an action movie villain. The contortion that made that Stephen Sommers movie possible was that the INDIANA JONES movies were an action series with supernatural and icky moments and an archaeological framework. Sommers stole all that and called it THE MUMMY and made a fortune and some increasingly awful sequels.

With its plagues of bugs and sandstorms with faces, the Kurzman MUMMY explicitly references those earlier films, but sets the action in the here and now. For me, that’s enough to break the logical connection from the Karl Freund original (set in the then-contemporary 30s world) to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK to the Sommers MUMMY. Without RAIDERS being evoked at the back of our minds, there doesn’t seem any excuse for a MUMMY movie to be an action adventure.

But that might not be the reason for the film’s lack of B.O. oomph. Maybe the audience rebelled against the idea of a female mummy — horror films are popular with girls but action films skew more to boys — the idea of Tom Cruise fighting a girl may not have seemed like a good premise, and indeed at the film’s climax it does seem unpleasant. Or maybe the fact that Crusie plays an asshole is the problem?

It’s an interesting and bold choice, I’ll grant that. When the Cruiser gets his pal Jake Johnson into a life-threatening situ at the film’s outset, I thought, “OK, he’s a jerk, but so long as he doesn’t get his pal killed he’s redeemable.”

SPOILERS:

But then he DOES get his pal killed, and is by extension responsible for ALL the deaths in the film (mostly nameless cops, paramedics and assorted redshirts). True, in the film’s coda he brings his buddy back to life, but that’s a little late for me to stop resenting his relentless ass-hattery, and has he reanimated everyone else slain as a secondary consequence of said ass-hattery, too? I take leave to doubt it.

Steals: QUATERMASS AND THE PIT: subway extension uncovers ancient menace; LIFEFORCE: sexy monster sucks life from and zombifies supporting players; AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: hero’s slain pal returns from dead for expository purposes — leading to the secret assignation in a public toilet which seems to be an unofficial Tom Cruise movie trope (see also VALKYRIE and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT).

The film is quite poorly designed in places. Even in the high-octane chase/race/fight structure, there are some effectively creepy zombie scenes, but once Sophia Boutella has to start being sinister and sexy at the same time, everyone seems confused about what look they’re going for. Supernatural eyes, decay, KWAIDAN-style pictograms, crumbling gauzy coating — there’s too much going on for an effective creature design (Lon Chaney Sr. would reportedly subtract something whenever he thought he was finished with a makeup) and the little crinkly bit on the bridge of her nose is a fucking disgrace. The missing cheek is just there so they can spend money on CGI, because every monster has to have some CGI now.

(Maybe the worst thing about the Sommers film, apart from the jaw-dropping racism [Sommers, from his own audio commentaries, seems like a jerk], was the CGI beetles-under-the-skin effect. A visual that’s really creepy when done with bladder effects in SHIVERS and ALTERED STATES becomes pure garbage when handed over to the pixel-pushers.)

The main element of Dark Universe world-building is the inclusion of Russell Crowe as Henry Jekyll, head of an organisation assigned to fight supernatural evil. There’s one obvious reason why he might not be the ideal chairperson, can you guess what it is? Though I enjoyed the silliness of Crowe’s alter-ego talking with a cockney accent, I think Alan Moore might have a legal case (although, as a result of the terrible LEAGUE OF EXTRORDINARY GENTLEMEN movie, Moore was himself sued by Larry Cohen, who’d written something comparable called CAST OF CHARACTERS. I’d rather the Cohen film had been made that LOEG or this MUMMY, needless to say). Also, the fact that Hyde looks just like Jekyll is a pathetic shortchanging of the audience. I guess Crowe, like Jack Nicholson in WOLF and maybe Malkovich in MARY REILLY, didn’t want to be covered in prosthetics. Screw those guys! Don’t hire them to play monsters! What the hell, people?

Still, I sort of enjoyed this inept bunkum, but it really doesn’t work. At the end, Cruise is seen galloping off towards the pyramids as music pounds. TO DO WHAT? We are given absolutely no expectations. He’s just galloping for no reason.

“Why don’t we just trot?” his pal might have suggested. “I mean, since we have no particular goal, it can’t really be urgent, can it?”

I can see why they didn’t have him make that objection. Still, if a character CAN raise such a point at the end of your movie, you’re probably not launching a successful franchise.

Sudden Unexpected Baby Syndrome

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

vlcsnap-2014-11-11-16h59m23s139

…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.

vlcsnap-2014-11-11-16h56m23s135

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

***

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 ~

vlcsnap-2014-11-11-16h13m00s220

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.

vlcsnap-2014-11-11-16h14m49s32

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.

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.

lost-world-bronto

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]