King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen


Who loves ya, baby?!?

(2017) Documentary (Dark Star) Larry Cohen, Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Yaphet Kotto, Leonard Maltin, J.J. Abrams, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, Joe Dante, Rick Baker, Cynthia Costas-Cohen, Mick Garris, Barbara Carrera, F.X. Feeney, Laurene Landon, Daniel Pearl, Eric Bogosian, Janelle Webb, David J. Schow, Megan Gallagher. Directed by Steve Mitchell

Back in the 1970s, B movies in many ways reached their nadir. Guys like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and Melvin van Peebles were cranking out low-budget (or no-budget) horror flicks, exploitation movies of all manner and of course the Blaxploitation films that changed cinema as we know it. Among the icons of that era was Larry Cohen.

Cohen remains active today in films, a career spanning now six decades (he sold his first screenplay at 17 and will turn 77 this summer). He is credited with creating the Blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar (1973) and wrote and directed three of horror’s most revered films: Q (1982), It’s Alive (1974) and The Stuff (1985).

This clips-and-interview documentary has made the rounds of genre film festivals around the world (and other festivals, including our own Florida Film Festival this past April) and is shortly going to get a brief theatrical run before hitting VOD in August. The list of those giving testimony to Cohen’s lasting influence on moviemaking include such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Jon Landis, Mick Garris and Dante; actors he worked with including Yaphet Kotto, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Traci Lords, Fred Williams, Robert Forster, Barbara Carrera,  Eric Bogosian, Laurene Landon and his close friend Michael Moriarty (who appeared in several of Cohen’s films) also appear.

The best part of the movie is Cohen himself. He’s a natural storyteller and his writing process is often unique. Around his house he has bits and pieces of ideas that he is busy turning into screenplays. H is a prolific writer, starting his career in television as one and working for live TV back in the 50s. He also created such shows as Branded and The Invaders. However, despite being the creator of these shows, the producers and studios generally wielded creative control of his own creations. This frustrated him to the point where he determined to make his own films his own way. Without millions of dollars to back him, he made films guerrilla-style, often shooting without permits in the streets of New York, staging certain stunts and then whisking his cast and crew away before the cops could arrive.

He is generally regarded with much affection even among those who are part of the studio system these days; Scorsese praises him as “the last of the maverick generation.” Cohen wasn’t (and isn’t) afraid to step beyond cultural mores and look closely at the darker side of life. While his films often had female nudity and much gore, his female characters were often much more than the standard victim or damsel in distress that most women in genre films were at the time.

One gets some glimpses of the inner Larry. He talks reverently about the great composer Bernard Herrmann (of the iconic Psycho score) and how they became close until his passing. One can see that his death hit the director hard. Those are the moments that elevate a documentary.

If I have any faults with the documentary it’s that it feels a bit hagiographic. In other words, this is more of a puff piece than a hard-hitting documentary but I suppose it doesn’t really have to be. If Cohen is presented without warts, who am I to complain? The man certainly seems nice enough. There may be those, like myself, who are not overly fond of talking head interviews and there are  a whole lot of them here. I grant you that this movie is really aimed primarily at those who are aware of his filmography and have seen many of these movies already. If you’re not that familiar with his work I’d recommend going to see some of his movies before watching this documentary. I think that would be much more edifying.

REASONS TO GO: A fascinating look at grindhouse cinema and one of its greatest auteurs.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie fawns over its subject a little bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity in the various film clips from Cohen’s career.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cohen grew up in the Bronx and majored in film at City College of New York, graduating in 1963.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Borg/McEnroe

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An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon


Shenanigans in a bygone era.

Shenanigans in a bygone era.

(2015) Documentary (4th Row) Henry Beard, Matty Simmons, Bruce McCall, P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Anne Beatts, Christopher Buckley, Ellis Weiner, Al Jean, Chevy Chase, Sean Kelly, Ivan Reitman, Judd Apatow, Jon Landis, Michael Gross, Judith Jacklin Belushi, Chris MIller, Danny Abelson, Mike Reiss, Beverly D’Angelo, Jerry Taylor, Brian McConnachie, Meatloaf, Kevin Bacon, Billy Bob Thornton. Directed by Doug Tirola

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the interest of transparency, I was a Mad magazine kid growing up and the National Lampoon, while on my radar, was a bit more sophisticated than my young mind could grasp. However, there’s no denying that for the last 40 years, the Lampoon has been essentially the wellspring of American humor, From its pages, films, radio and stage shows have come some of the most important writing and performing talents in comedy. It has directly or indirectly inspired the comedy of Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and the comedies of John Hughes, Jon Landis and Judd Apatow. Even for those who weren’t directly involved with either writing it or reading it, its influence has shaped them whether they’ve known it or not.

The Lampoon began with the Harvard Lampoon, one of the country’s oldest humor magazines. Two Harvard grads who’d worked on the magazine (and also co-wrote the now-classic parody novel Bored of the Rings) named Douglas Kenney and Henry Beard. After creating some parody magazines for such publications as Mademoiselle, they got together with Matty Simmons to create the National Lampoon.

The nascent magazine was able to attract such talent as writers Michael O’Donoghue, P.J. O’Rourke and Anne Beatts, as well as artists like Rick Meyerowitz and Michael Gross. Their heyday, during the heady days of Watergate and Vietnam, reflected the country’s angst, anger and frustrations but also pushed the boundaries of humor beyond what had been acceptable what to then. The Lampoon printed what most people were already thinking, only funnier.

The magazine was as rock and roll as comedy ever gets and as most students of rock know, that’s a double edged sword. Sure the magazine was innovative and ahead of its time in many ways, but the creative forces that powered it were prone to drug addiction, burn-out and attrition. While the 70s waned and the 80s waxed, the magazine which had by then branched out into films with Animal House and National Lampoon’s Vacation series, had lost most of those who were it’s creative soul – Kenney died under mysterious circumstances in 1980 and the company really never recovered.

But oh, what a legacy it has left behind. The filmmakers sift through hundreds of hours of archival footage including their stage shows, audio of their radio show and page after page after page of their magazine. Those who were readers of the magazine will get a nice sense of nostalgia while those who weren’t will get a wonderful opportunity for discovery. Nearly the entire original cast of Saturday Night Live worked on the Lampoon stage show, and director John Hughes was on the writing staff during the later years of the magazine, as were Simpsons show runners Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

There are a ton of interviews with the surviving staff of the magazine’s golden era, with Simmons and Beard getting the lion share of face time, while much attention is paid to the writers, artists, performers and celebrity fans of the magazine and its spinoffs. While this isn’t groundbreaking style here, because the material is just so freaking funny (I was breathless with laughter when the film finally spun its final credits) that I’m willing to overlook the lack of innovation, which is a bit ironic since the magazine was known for innovation.

Be that as it may, this is one of the funniest films you’ll see all year and likely for a lot of years to come. Even though some of the material is dated, a lot of it is timeless as well and is as funny now as it was then. Whether you’r of the generation that made the magazine what it was or a Johnny-come-lately, this is a don’t-miss documentary that you should be absolutely certain to catch when it hits the festival circuit near you, or hopefully when it gets a richly deserved distribution deal and shows up either theatrically or on VOD. Whatever the case may be, see it. Or I’ll shoot this dog.

REASONS TO GO: Excepts from Lampoon radio broadcasts and live shows hysterical. The source for humor in its era.
REASONS TO STAY: Definitely a product of its era. Lots and lots of talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Nudity, crude and sexual humor, plenty of foul language and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s poster was drawn by Rick Meyerowitz who also drew the poster for National Lampoon’s Animal House and is modeled on its design.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Live From New York!
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Welcome to Leith