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Q: The Winged Serpent,
and six more by Larry Cohen

The Neverending
Film Festival
#65

If you'd said the name Larry Cohen a month ago, I would've said "Who?"

He was a moviemaker, most famous for It's Alive. I saw that one ages ago, and a few of his others, but his name sounds generic, I never mentally connected it with any of his movies, and nobody ever said to me, "This guy Cohen is terrific."

Then I saw Bone and The Ambulance and they're great so I wanted to see more, and for the past week I've been watching lots of Larry Cohen flicks. Most are remarkable, some aren't, but let's give the man his due: He has a better career batting average than John Carpenter, David Lynch, or Terrence Malick, so today it's seven movies by Larry Cohen:

♦ ♦ ♦ 

As Good as Dead (1995)

Ten minutes into this, I was bored and almost clicked it off. Sure glad I didn't. For a movie that started this dull, it rallies remarkably, and it kept me up past my bedtime.

Susan (Crystal Bernard) and Nicole (Traci Lords) are friends, and Nicole develops abdominal pains, goes to the emergency room, but doesn't have heath insurance. Susan does, so she gives Nicole her insurance card. In America's forever health care crisis, that's what friends are for, if you ask me.

Things get very complicated, though, when Nicole dies in the hospital from a wrong blood-type transfusion. The insurance card-switch could make Susan complicit in her death, even guilty of manslaughter. Complicating things further, Nicole died under Susan's name, so suddenly Susan's bank account is closed, her job is gone, her apartment is cleared and rented to someone else, and she has nowhere to live except Nicole's now-empty place, and for who knows how long?

And that's just the beginning. The twists keep coming, and rather surprisingly, the story keeps making sense. This isn't Hitchcock's North by Northwest, but it's one hell of a lot better than Hitchcock's Family Plot or Frenzy. It's a thriller that's thrilling, cleverly concocted and well put-together (after the first ten minutes).

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

God Told Me To (1975)

A police psychologist wants to understand why mass murderers and crazed killers do the horrors they do, so he makes it his mission to ask them. He keeps getting very similar answers — the killers say they killed because God told them to kill.

The poster promises "It will give you nightmares forever," which is just a teensy weensy bit hyperbolic. It's scary, but it didn't give me a nightmare even once. God Told Me To is sometimes disquieting to watch, and it's gruesome, demented, probably sacrilegious, and sometimes vaginal. It's also smart and just generally a blast, at least for this atheist sicko.

Can't think of any movie I've ever seen that goes where this movie goes, but I'd never heard of it before, which means it probably wasn't a big money-maker. And Cohen was no dummy, so even as he was writing, producing, and directing thus, he must've known there wasn't an eager market for it. If you ask me, that makes it all the more impressive — here's a very effective scary movie that was made to make a point, not to make a profit.

"You know, people who are too God damned religious make a lot of trouble for everybody."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Original Gangstas (1996)

Cohen wrote, directed, and produced most of his movies, but here he's only directing. It's written by Aubrey Rattan, and produced by Fred Williamson. Yes, that Fred Williamson.

Original Grangstas opens with a brief and angry lecture on the history of Gary, Indiana. Once a busy manufacturing town, Gary became a slummy heckhole with the highest murder rate in America, after US Steel closed its factory there.

We're introduced to a smiley and charismatic basketball hustler who wins some quick cash on the court, and promptly gets shot dead in a drive-by shooting. That dead man, turns out, was the son of Jim Brown and Pam Grier, so this flick becomes Blaxploitation II — Brown, Grier, and best buddy Williamson return to the ghetto, to take back control of the streets from the current generation of black gangsters.

I don't know anything about actual gangs, but the black movie toughs of the 1960s and '70s were so much cooler than the ghastly black movie thugs of the '90s and ever since. It's impossible not to root for the old-timers, especially when they're blaxploitation superstars Brown, Grier, and Williamson, and all the movie's young studs are such contemptible sneering sons of bitches.

It's a fantasy, of course. Old dudes probably can't beat the holy hell out of young dudes. Great fantasy, though, and you gotta love 'batting practice' with Pam Grier. Also present for roll call: Paul Winfield, Richard Roundtree, and Robert Forster.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

This is a nearly perfect monster movie, about a giant man-eating bird that's built its nest — and laid its egg — atop the Chrysler Building in New York City. The thrills start in the first scene and never let up.

Michael Moriarty stars, beyond marvelous as a barely-recovered junkie and small-time crook who stumbles onto the monsterbird's nest while he's trying to hide from a security guard after a botched robbery. Moriarty is a collection of quirks and cowardice and insecurities, who doesn't hesitate to trade his inside info on the monsterbird's whereabouts for a million dollars. He's almost monstrous himself, but he's the protagonist — and you'll be rooting for him.

The monsterbird isn't seen much, at least not in its entirety, but when we're given a glimpse it's an excellent piece of stop-motion work, some of the best I've seen. Also impressive is the shadowplay, as Cohen gives us aerial camerawork from high above the city, and sometimes the shadow of the monsterbird floats across the buildings or the ground.

If a giant bird was terrorizing my city, I'd hide, of course, but in any crisis my response is wisecracks, so I love that this dead-serious movie about a giant bird that snaps the heads off people is full of characters making jokes about what's going on. Better jokes than in most comedies, too, but it's absolutely not a comedy; it's a thriller with characters who have a sense of humor. 

Candy Clark has a smallish role, and she's terrific as always. John Carradine and Richard Roundtree play cops. Moriarty plays an odd scat number on a piano, and the credits say that he wrote the song, which cements my belief that he deserved all the awards he didn't get for this performance.

Also, watch out for a mime with a gun.

This film is Cohen's masterpiece. Everything about it is original, it breaks most of the genre rules, and yet it's fantastic. If you see only one monster movie this year, this is the monster movie you gotta see.

Verdict: BIG YES.

The tiniest quibble, and heck, maybe Cohen did it on purpose: From the top of a skyscraper, a dozen cops fire hundreds of rounds at the monster as it flies past, and I'm thinking, every bullet that doesn't sink into the flying monster's flesh is going to come raining down all over Manhattan, killing pedestrians and shattering windshields.

If there really was a monsterbird, though, cops would totally do something stupid like shooting hundreds of rounds into the air. Wear a hardhat, I'd advise, but one of the movie's victims was wearing a hardhat and it didn't help him.

♦ ♦ ♦

See China and Die (1981)

Esther Rolle playing a housemaid? Aw, man, she was so much better than that, but you know what? The movie is better than that, too.

Rolle plays Momma (everyone calls her Momma), who comes to work one morning, makes breakfast for her boss, but when she brings it in she finds him stabbed to death. She keeps her cool, and calls the police, or more specifically she calls her son, who's a homicide detective. Then, being the maid and all, she makes lovely hors d'oeuvres for the cops as they dust the place for prints.

Momma is smart, of course, and she goes full Miss Marple on the case, doing better detecting than her detective son. Turns out being a black woman in a maid's uniform gives her great access, unnoticed, to museums, offices, homes and nightclubs everywhere. All she has to say is, "I work here," and she's in. I've never yet been a black woman, but the premise seems believable.

"I had the unfortunate experience of finding an employer of mine with cutlery protruding out of him. I might have been traumatized by that experience."

This looks and feels like an unsold TV pilot — Murder, She Mopped or Columbo in an Apron. Hey, even Larry Cohen needs to work for a living, and by television standards this is good work. By the higher standards of genuine movies, maybe it's a little lightweight, but I had a good time, and loved the ending.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Stuff (1985)

Nobody's quite sure what's in The Stuff, but it's low in calorie, tastes great, you'll always want seconds, and it doesn't leave a stain when it's spilled. Gosh, it's the perfect snack food. There are commercials on TV, and The Stuff Inc has bought out Garrett Morris's chain of Chocolate Chip Charlie stores, converting them to The Stuff stores. Everybody loves The Stuff, and I wish I had a bowl of The Stuff right now.

It might not be good for you, though. There's one little kid who saw The Stuff crawling around inside the family's fridge, like it's alive or something. And Big Ice Cream doesn't like the competition, so they've hired Michael Moriarty for some industrial espionage to crack The Stuff's chemical makeup.

"When I was a little girl, I didn't think there was anything that I'd like better than ice cream. Now I'm a big girl, and I've decided there's something I like better, much better.  It's called The Stuff, and believe me, enough is never enough."

The Stuff is a bodaciously bonkers satire of capitalism, advertising, science fiction, and possibly Twinkies. It sorta peters out at the end, but still it's just a giant splatter of yummy goopy frothy fun, and you'll never know where it's going.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Wicked Stepmother (1989)

Larry Cohen made unusual movies, and this is extremely unusual. Bette Davis gets top billing, and this was her final film. The internet says she quit the production midway through — whether because of health issues or script issues, I'm not sure, but in the film she looks weeks from death. If it wasn't for her inimitable voice, you might not recognize her.

With Davis gone, Cohen clearly didn't get to make the movie he'd intended.

While she's there, Davis plays a woman who seduces, marries, and drains the bank accounts of her husbands, then kills them and looks for a new husband. Even on the brink of death, she's Bette Davis — excellent — but she's on-screen for perhaps fifteen minutes, and after that the movie limps onward without her.

The movie then reinvents Davis's character as a much younger woman played by a different actress, who has the bizarre ability to shrink people with very bad special effects, so they can live in a shoebox. Wha—? All the actors deliver their lines broadly, like it's a screwball comedy, but there aren't many laughs.

Gotta suspect that the story behind making this movie was more interesting than the movie.

Verdict: BIG NO.

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7/19/2022 
 
Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.  

2 comments:

  1. I saw "Q" years ago, completely forgotten it until this, but yes it was amazing. You make me want to see some of these others. The first one has Traci Lords the porn star?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, but she did become a legit actress, and here she's fully clothed and talking instead of boinking.

      Delete

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