Director and screenwriter Larry Cohen (1941-2019) died on March 23 of undisclosed causes. He left a small trove of low-budget B-grade material.
Notable are the It’s Alive trilogy (1074, 1978 and 1987) about mutant babies. Those movies play on any expecting parent’s fears as, in the original movie It’s Alive (1974), a mother uses unsafe fertility drugs only to give birth to something murderous. This film contains one of the last scores by Psycho (1960 b/w) maestro Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975 heart attack). Cohen had dinner with Herrmann discussing working on his film God Told Me To (1976) the night Herrmann died in his sleep. The original It’s Alive was remade in 2009 but Cohen called the results “beyond awful”.
Cohen, who started in television in the sixties, began directing movies in the early 70s doing blaxploitation films such as Black Caesar (1973) and the hot-on-the-heels sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973). Black Caesar was a remake of the early crime drama Little Caesar (1931) which stars Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973 bladder cancer). “Blaxploitation” movies are a 70s sub-genre of the exploitation film (cheap films exploiting trends for box office) which feature black lead characters and are usually set in the black community. Cohen’s films star cult favorite ex-football All-Star Fred “Hammer” Williamson (1938-).
Other Cohen-directed films worth mentioning are A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987) and The Ambulance (1990) starring Eric Roberts (1956-), brother of Julia (1967-) and father of Emma (1991-) who was in television’s Scream Queens (2015-16) and American Horror Story. I like her especially in the rather sweet Nancy Drew (2007) as a fan of the late 1930s series of four films (1938-39) featuring Bonita Granville (1923-88 lung cancer).
More recently Cohen wrote screenplays on hit movies such as Phone Booth (2003) with Colin Farrell (1976-) and Cellular (2004). He also co-wrote the “torture porn” flop Captivity (2007). Producers added violence and gore to Cohen’s script.
A more interesting script which Cohen wrote is Uncle Sam (1996), which is a kind of zombie-revenge-slasher B-movie salad with a cast of old pros doing bit parts such as William Smith (1933-), Bo Hopkins (1942-), Isaac Hayes (1942-2008 stroke), Timothy Bottoms (1951-) and Jackie Brown’s (1997) Robert Forster (1941-) before his comeback Academy Award nomination. Uncle Sam is quite good and rather restrained for a slasher, with a child as a main character, who learns a life lesson.
Cult-wise Cohen was also responsible for “Q” The Winged Serpent (1982), about a giant Aztec flying serpent who builds a nest atop the Chrysler Building in New York City. It has gritty on-location work, especially within the Chrysler’s needle facade, and an interesting cast which includes David Carradine (1936-2009 fatal autoerotic strangulation, brother Keith says murder) and Candy Clark (1947-) from the mythic David Bowie (1947-2016 liver cancer) film by Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018 natural causes) The Man who Fell to Earth (1976).
“Q”, as it is best known, features stop-motion effects by low budget legend David W. Allen (1944-1999 cancer), whose work features in such B-movies as the long-gestated but memorable Equinox (1970), the revenge fantasy Laserblast (1978), and Stuart Gordon’s very pleasing Dolls (1987) by Charles Band’s (1951-) production company, whose work with Allen’s production company led to a long association for effects on The Puppet Master franchise (1989-2018).
Cohen also wrote and directed the very 1980s movie The Stuff (1985).
It’s probably one of his most interesting films, a movie overflowing with ideas and clever dialogue. In particular, the importance of a balance of gut bacteria and the evils of junk food and corporations. At the same time, it winks at conspiracy theorists. Its ideas are even more potent today.
Its narrative begins with two parallel stories which soon link. The first involves a young boy named Jason, played by Scott Bloom (1971-), who discovers upon opening the fridge in search of a midnight snack, that a dessert named The Stuff is moving around inside, apparently alive. So, he won’t eat that – ever! And he is left slightly disturbed when no-one believes him.
The other story concerns corporate espionage and the questions raised among the business community, when the company which produces The Stuff, has seemingly unchecked success in sales and grows exponentially. I mean it could be bad for the ice-cream business! The Stuff is suspected to be concocted from a secret formula like Coca-Cola and Big Mac secret sauce. “Mo”, played by Cohen regular Michael Moriarty (1941-), is hired to investigate but it’s obvious he is somewhat of a loose cannon.
But the audience knows already from the opening scene that The Stuff simply oozes from the ground! And as the person who discovers it finds… boy, does it taste good!!
Meanwhile Jason’s family is already addicted to The Stuff, turning them into bullying monsters, who won’t let him be a part of the family until, he too, is addicted. This drives the boy to distraction and he goes on a juvenile crime spree through a supermarket destroying tons of The Stuff on display in fridges.
It would already appear that much of the United States is hopelessly addicted. Stores are overflowing with product, advertising adorns the sides of buildings and radio and television are saturated with ads which proclaim: “Enough is never enough” of The Stuff.
The Stuff is junk food and nearly everyone is addicted to the stuff. Not just because it’s plain addictive but you can eat it all day long and still lose weight! It’s a fashion or fad which is here to stay. It’s an ingenious premise and one which hasn’t really changed since America, and much of the world, still loves junk, always.
The Stuff, like junk food, as studies show, has a side effect, and that is if you eat enough of the stuff, it will affect your mind, and some people are more susceptible than others. Depression has been linked to diet. The Stuff takes this a step further and links an imbalance in the gut to psychotic behavior.
The Stuff is a living thing, like gut bacteria, seeping from the ground like oil, and there seems to be a never-ending supply. Yet somehow the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed it as fit for human consumption. Did you ever see a photo taken of a McDonalds cheeseburger and then another of the same cheeseburger ten years later? They look exactly the same due to preservatives and trans-fats!
Here’s a conspiracy. Or one for Ripley. A friend on the internet found reports an oil well thought to have run dry began producing oil again. Could crude fossil fuel be an intelligent organism which reproduces itself underground? Just like The Stuff?
A malevolent and intelligent form of crude oil was used for the excellent sci-fi horror Phantoms (1998) starring Peter O’Toole (1932-2013 cancer).
Is that why there may seem to be a never-ending supply of petroleum for the world despite the amount already consumed? The world is only so big. Is there a higher intelligence at work underground creating an inexhaustible fortune for big business? Are they linked?
Meanwhile, Donald Trump serves Big Macs by the million at occasional White House functions, which illustrates junk food is still a preferred big business and that Donald Trump is more unhealthy than unhealthily dishonest. Big Macs have an addictive secret sauce though… No, I don’t believe it either. It’s half-baked conspiracy at best and not a very healthy one. Hope I’m not knocked off like in 3 Days of the Condor (1975).
The Stuff pegs these conspiracies together by another conspiracy. “Mo” mentions to an army colonel played by Paul Sorvino (1939-,) who is committed to exposing the movie’s conspiracy, that the FBI is in the practise of using deep cover agents infiltrating and running conglomerates… “Mo’s” voice trails off to a whisper as he explains. Big business and Macs a million at the White House again!
Meanwhile the price of fuel vacillates by “supply and demand” and there is no real concerted government effort to limit the disastrous health effects of cheap junk food on the public. Ditto alcohol. It is literally killing people. But enough in the conspiracy cul-de-sac.
When the two narratives in the movie merge and the conspiracy is revealed we are “treated” to what is a homage to The Blob, as The Stuff generally leaps and creeps and slides around while growing to enormous proportions leaving a trail of destruction while consuming people.
There is a line: “Are you eating it, or is it eating you?” Another: “Don’t touch it!”
The lesson of the movie is to probably try not to get a taste for The Stuff/junk food and that balance in the stomach is best for mental health especially. I wish I had learned that lesson in 1985! Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten fat and depressed there for a while.
At the end of the movie, The Stuff is banned, only to be remarketed with a lower dose of secret ingredient, while the real thing sells, like illegal drugs, in seedy neighborhoods!
As for the White House conspiracy, it’s on the table and being served cold… or maybe lukewarm.
Apparently, the movie was so dense with ideas that New World Pictures didn’t like it and ordered reshoots to which Cohen agreed. It was marketed as a horror but it really isn’t as it’s almost as easygoing and likeable as its main character “Mo”. It flopped badly upon a limited release, popping up on video cassette, where some may originally remember it from.
The ideas are probably finer than the quality of the movie but the tongue-in-cheek script together with its low budget and Cohen’s genius to meld the two, captures something which could never be made on a bigger scale in Hollywood, either then or now.
Vale Larry Cohen!