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!

I Remember


I Remember

Griff Blane and Rick Baker prepare to roast some S'mores.

(2008) Drama (Self-Distributed) Griff Blane, Rick Baker, Cassie Raye, Daniel McKinney, Randy G. Scott, Buddy Metz, Craig Hanley, Whittaker Garick, Charlie Wiggins. Directed by Ray Gaillard

When we see the homeless, we tend to view them as failures at life. They are scary in a way, as despair and desperation can drive people to do terrible things – and we sure don’t want to be around when they do.

Buck (Blane) is an eight-year-old boy who’s been through much more than any eight-year-old boy should have to. Both his parents were killed in a car accident and he and his little sister Molly (Raye) have been separated and sent to different foster homes. Whereas Molly is in a loving middle-class home, Buck has been left in the tender care of George (Wiggins), a brutish man who never tires of telling Buck that he’ll never amount to anything, or pointing out he’s been kicked out of every foster home he’s been sent to.

Driven past the breaking point, he escapes George’s clutches, leaving him with a present he’ll remember for a good long time. He decides to go out looking for his sister, but hasn’t a clue how to find her. Living on the streets and eating out of garbage bins, he finally attracts the notice of Joe (Baker), a kindly man who is also homeless.

Joe takes Buck to a camp outside of town where other homeless people are living as best they can. Joe teaches Buck the ropes and imparts the wisdom of how to survive on his own. Still, Buck is focused on finding his little sister and despite Joe’s warnings to the contrary, goes out after her. The attempt will lead Buck into a life and death situation, one in which he must make a decision that will color the direction his life takes from then on.

First-time filmmaker Gaillard filmed the movie in and around Columbia, South Carolina using friends and family as actors and crew members. Taking into account the nature of the production, it has to be said that this is definitely unpolished; the acting is uneven, as such productions usually are. However, this doesn’t feel like an amateur film. The cinematography is gorgeous, utilizing its locations nicely, and the script rarely descends into cliché.

Blane is a credible young actor; he takes the less-is-more route, rarely overplaying his hand. The result is that he comes off as a boy who is in a bit of a shell, but capable of violence when cornered. Simply put, Buck is not a kid to mess with. Blane gets that across, but manages to retain the inner core of a child. Many better known child actors wouldn’t have been able to pull that off. If he chooses to pursue acting as a career, he has a bright future in it.

Baker (not the special effects make-up guy) is the wise old Yoda to Blane’s Luke Skywalker. He plays a very complex character that is homeless by choice, rejecting the money-centric society that America has evolved into. Baker even resembles a Jedi with his snow-white hair and ponytail. In any case, he is the film’s heart in many ways and carries that aspect off solidly.

Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised with the movie that depicts how the homeless are perceived by society in a very realistic manner. There are a couple of rednecks in the movie (Hanley and Garick) who precipitate a good deal of violence. Some of the violence is sudden and brutal in the manner that violence often is. Sensitive souls should note that while the movie isn’t gore-drenched, it doesn’t shy away from it either and the violence that exists in that stratum of society is dealt with in a matter-of-fact manner.

The movie is a slice of life of lives that are often marginalized; that it depicts these people as human and worthwhile is a unique feature all of its own and should be applauded. It is a bit of an eye-opener as a matter of fact, and these are the kinds of movies that should be appreciated and savored. While it is exceedingly difficult to find the movie in local theaters, I would highly recommend ordering the movie from the website below. Talent such as Gaillard’s and his cast and crew should be nurtured and encouraged; I suspect that Gaillard has plenty of additional stories to tell and I for one look forward to seeing them.

REASONS TO GO: While very raw, the movie depicts the life of the homeless and how they are regarded by society in a very realistic manner. The movie is well-filmed, utilizing its locations very nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: The violence can be off-putting to those who are sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a smattering of foul language. While the lead character is a young boy, it would be advisable to watch the movie with your children to answer questions about the situations and the ensuing violence, some of which is directed at the boy, others committed by him.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Before making this movie, Gaillard had no movie-making experience and knew very little about the process. He read several books on the subject at his local library and checked out information on the Internet before purchasing a camera and putting together the funds to film the movie, mostly with friends and family.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is on the festival circuit and your best bet is to see it at one; if you can’t find it, the movie is available on DVD at its website www.iremembermovie.com.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: The Princess and the Frog