Posts Tagged ‘Larry Cohen’

At one point during the recent trip to New York, Significant Other and I found ourselves enjoying the truly spectacular views available to visitors to Roosevelt Island, looking south and east towards Manhattan and the bay. I was particularly impressed by the fact that so many iconic buildings were in such close proximity to each other, and – feeling, as ever, that knowledge is best shared – thought I would pass on a few pertinent facts about their history.

‘There’s the UN building, which was demolished by Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. Just behind it you can see the Empire State Building, which was vandalised by King Kong in 1931. And there’s the Chrysler Building, which was decapitated by the army while fighting Godzilla again in 1998, and also where Q the Winged Serpent was roosting in 1982…’

That tell-tale glazed quality which people so often develop when talking to me about not-entirely-mainstream movies had crept into Significant Other’s eyes, and it occurred to me that while nearly everyone knows what’s what if you mention Godzilla or King Kong, when it comes to a movie like Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent), you have kind of gone down the rabbit hole a bit. If the movie has attracted a bit more attention recently, it is for the lamentable reason that its creator, Larry Cohen, recently passed away.

Cohen was the kind of film-maker who never really achieved anything more than a kind of cult status, even though his name was frequently on films and TV shows that most people have heard of: he created and wrote the first episode of The Invaders, but moved on when the producers decided to focus more on sci-fi action adventure than the paranoid thriller he had envisaged; he also wrote episodes of Columbo, The Fugitive and NYPD Blue, and a lot of exploitation movies, such as It’s Alive – possibly the greatest killer mutant baby film ever made – Phone Booth, and Captivity. Cohen’s favourite of his own movies was apparently Q, though, and it is easy to see why:  put together in under a week after Cohen was fired from another film but left with a pre-booked hotel room in New York, the film has a kind of mad energy about it which is very engaging.

Q opens with a cheerful scene of a man cleaning the windows of the Empire State Building, forty floors up: apparently this role was played by the building’s actual window cleaner, presumably because no-one else would go out in the harness. Anyway, the man’s attempts to flirt with an office worker run into trouble when something swoops down on him. His decapitated corpse slumps against the window, gorily. Hard-bitten cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are soon on the case, but find themselves baffled by the absence of the key body part. ‘I don’t know! Maybe his head got loose and came off by itself!’ cries Shepard.

Meanwhile, small-time crook, would-be jazz pianist and all-around craven coward Jimmy Quinn finds himself pressured into participating in a diamond robbery by his underworld associates (the target of the heist is a company named ‘Neil Diamonds’), but things go awry and he finds himself on the run from both the police and his former colleagues. While attempting to visit his lawyer, whose offices are in the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, he finds himself up in the building’s iconic art-deco spire – but he is not alone there, as he discovers a number of bloody skeletons and a large nest containing an even bigger egg…

People are continuing to vanish from the tops of high buildings – we are treated to various scenes of people in the street reacting unconvincingly to fake blood and viscera raining down on them from the sky – and Shepard’s investigation has linked up with another case: that of various people turning up mutilated (skin flayed off, heart cut out, and so on). He comes to the conclusion that an Aztec death cult is operating in New York and has summoned an avatar of the god Quetzalcoatl into existence – it is this dragon-bird-god which is chewing its way through the city’s high-altitude populace. But can he persuade his superiors of this? And just what is it going to take to persuade Jimmy to give up his information about the location of the monster’s lair? (A heap of money, the copyright on all the photos of the creature, and having his picture taken with Rupert Murdoch, apparently.)

A movie like Q should, obviously, be a disaster: the story sounds like a rejected Kolchak script written by someone who’s eaten too much cheese, while the film’s central conceit – an enormous monster flying around present-day New York without anyone noticing, snatching people off rooftops and devouring them – is clearly far beyond the scope of a budget of only $1 million. However, the monster itself, while used very sparingly on screen, is a pretty good one – if there are problems, they arise more from the iffy back projection than the stop-motion special effects themselves.

More important to the film’s success is the way that it is clearly meant to be a tongue-in-cheek, deadpan comedy as much as a serious film. I don’t think anyone, himself included, would ever have described David Carradine as one of the world’s greatest actors, but his chilled-out demeanour and laconic line-readings are exactly right for some of the dialogue he has to deliver – he goes from the stock arguing-with-his-pen-pushing-boss scenes to discussions about deeply unorthodox theology and somehow his performance is pitched just right for both. Carradine is superficially taking it seriously while really not taking it seriously at all, which is basically this film in a nutshell: the script does just the barest minimum possible to explain why millions of people haven’t noticed a dragon flying around New York (apparently the monster makes sure people are blinded by the sun when they look in its direction: hmmm), but you buy into it because you don’t really have any other choice.

On the other hand, the extraordinary thing about Q is that Michael Moriarty seems to be taking the whole thing so seriously it almost becomes ridiculous in an entirely different way. This is, as noted, a tongue-in-cheek horror movie about window cleaners and high steel workers being snatched by a huge flying monster, and yet Moriarty turns in the kind of performance that – in a different genre – could well have attracted awards nominations. He seems to think he’s in a John Cassavetes movie or something like that, obviously giving his absolute all to make Quinn a plausible character. The clash of acting styles between him and Carradine should be very ugly, but again somehow it works.

Now, there are some elements of Q which are great because they work so well, and there are some elements of it which are great because they’re so knowingly cheesy, but this does not quite result in an entirely great movie. The two main plot threads, about the monster’s reign of terror and Quinn’s various travails, are both fine, but there’s an additional storyline about an Aztec cult carrying out human sacrifices which never quite feels fully fleshed out; the way this plot line is resolved also feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is fairly small potatoes compared to the sheer entertainment value the rest of the film provides. It is gory, sometimes crude, and unashamedly an exploitation movie, but also enormously fun. This isn’t really a message movie, but the plot is obviously tied up with the power of prayer – and it really does seem to me that the existence of the film, especially given its sheer quality, is some kind of miracle.

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Well, after four or five months spent following the travails of a lone protagonist travelling from place to place as he grapples with a terrible secret, living in fear of the authorities all the time, I thought I would make my new excursion into DVD Land something completely different. So I plumped for the complete box set of the late 60s show The Invaders, in which a lone protagonist travels from place to place as he grapples with a terrible truth, living in a state of paranoia all the time. Hey, it may not look like the biggest of departures on paper, but The Invaders still comes across as a very different show to The Incredible Hulk.

The Invaders is a paranoid fantasy from the age before sat-nav: not just series opener Beachhead, but the preamble to every episode kicks off with main character David Vincent (Roy Thinnes) getting lost on a short cut in the wee small hours of the morning and stopping in the Californian equivalent of a lay-by, only to find a flying saucer wants to park in the same space.

Vincent is straight off down the local police department to report what he’s seen, and refuses to dismiss that the ship was the stuff of a bad dream. But upon dragging the cops and his partner (James Daly) back to the scene of his close encounter, he finds there is – of course – no sign of it, only a honeymooning couple who say they didn’t see anything all night. But Vincent can’t help noticing the man has something decidedly odd going on with the way his hands work…


So he goes back to the scene yet again and discovers that the honeymooners are indeed alien beings in human form, though something very inhuman seems to be on the verge of happening to the man: he starts glowing and his eyes go all silvery. The aliens get away and Vincent is carted off to a private hospital, though not before the aliens have blown an attempt to actually kill him – something they do with baffling infrequency in the series itself.

They even have another go when they burn down his apartment with him inside, which only motivates him to investigate further. The trail of the honeymooning aliens leads him to an almost deserted town being bought up by a mysterious investment group. Is there something going on here? Well, the episode still has half its running time left to go, so you decide…

Actually, Beachhead is available in two forms, the 45-minute version which actually aired and a 60-minute cut which has only been released on DVD (apparently this itself is a cut down edit of the original 75-minute pilot). I have to say that the 60-minute version is considerably more thoughtful and subtle, with greater emphasis placed on characterisation and the odd touch of irony. But they both do a good job of setting up the format of the series.

The Invaders is the product of the slightly-awkward coming together of two very different sensibilities. On the one (deformed) hand, the format of the show was dreamt up by Larry Cohen, a guy who’s become a bit of a cult figure when it comes to uncompromisingly strange or high-concept genre entertainment: this is the guy who wrote and directed Q: the Winged Serpent, for instance. On the other, it’s the product of the Quinn Martin TV factory, makers of a seemingly-endless stream of highly formulaic cop and detective TV shows (also The Fugitive, which The Invaders sometimes tries to copy as if its existence depended on it – the guest star in Beachhead, Diane Baker, was fresh off the series finale of The Fugitive). Often the two approaches seem to be genuinely at cross-purposes – the atmosphere built up by the genuinely moody and creepy introduction to the series’ format is almost instantly dispelled by the blaring ‘Tonight’s guest stars…!‘ voice-over immediately following it – but on the other hand the plotting is usually fairly solid, and The Invaders does at least take itself very seriously. This is probably the least campy and most downbeat of all the classic 60s SF shows: Beachhead has the feel of an unfolding tragedy or nightmare, with Vincent winning a pyrrhic victory at best by the story’s end: he’s forced a strategic withdrawal by the aliens, but they are still very much out there.


Or could they be much closer? One of the ways in which the episode sets up the premise of the series is in the way it establishes that anyone at all could be an alien, successfully pulling off the shock-revelation-that-someone’s-one-of-them trick more than once. The atmosphere of paranoia is finely evoked, helped by some clever direction and Dominic Frontiere’s music: there’s a particular motif of such queasy, ominous suggestiveness that gets deployed whenever alien activity is afoot that it practically embodies the entire essence of the series. The script also tries to pre-emptively tackle the ‘why don’t the aliens just kill David Vincent?’ question, something which constantly undermined the series’ credibility: although the answer (that his death might cause people in authority to take his claims seriously) isn’t much more than a vague handwave.

On the other hand, the show clearly hasn’t worked out all the details yet, for one of the aliens Vincent encounters seems almost sympathetic to his plight, apparently trying to talk him out of his efforts to stymie their plans: a far cry from the generally impassive beings the show would feature later. And you do have to roll your eyes a bit when the first alien installation Vincent discovers is unlocked, unmanned, and not even equipped with CCTV cameras.

Hey ho. This is still a strong opener with some genuinely great moments, especially in the 60-minute version – Vincent encounters a fellow believer during his hospital visit, only to realise they’re nuts, while an alien laments that ‘He looked so normal… just goes to show you never can tell,’ while Vincent is being hauled away by the police at the conclusion of the story. I strongly suspect this is an above-average instalment of the series, but I’m still looking forward to revisiting the rest of them.


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