Monday, March 19, 2018

Retro Review: THE AMBULANCE (1993)

(US - 1993)

Written and directed by Larry Cohen. Cast: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Megan Gallagher, Red Buttons, Eric Braeden, Richard Bright, Janine Turner, James Dixon, Nick Chinlund, Laurene Landon, Stan Lee, Jill Gatsby, Matt Norklum, Rudy Jones, Susan Blommaert, Beatrice Winde. (R, 96 mins)

Though he's not well-known these days outside of cult movie circles, Larry Cohen has had one of the more eclectic careers in Hollywood history. Born in 1941, Cohen got his start writing for TV shows like THE DEFENDERS and THE FUGITIVE in the 1960s. He was just 24 when he created the Chuck Connors western series BRANDED and a few years later, was the driving force behind the Roy Thinnes sci-fi series THE INVADERS before graduating to big-screen writing gigs with 1966's RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, 1969's DADDY'S GONE-A-HUNTING and the 1970 Jim Brown western EL CONDOR. He made his directing debut with the 1972 blaxploitation/home invasion indie BONE, headlined by a young Yaphet Kotto, before moving on to his breakout 1973 Fred Williamson blaxploitation hits BLACK CAESAR and its immediate sequel HELL UP IN HARLEM. Though he's dabbled in a little of everything from political biopics (1977's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER) to film noir (writing 1982's I, THE JURY) to cop movies (1987's DEADLY ILLUSION) to high-concept nailbiters (he wrote the 2002 Colin Farrell-trapped-in-a-phone-booth thriller PHONE BOOTH), Cohen is most closely associated with the horror genre thanks to the 1974 mutant baby cult classic IT'S ALIVE. IT'S ALIVE flopped on its initial release but became a surprise hit when Warner Bros. relaunched it in 1977, eventually spawning two sequels (1978's IT LIVES AGAIN and 1987's IT'S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE) and cementing Cohen's place in horror history. 1976's GOD TOLD ME TO also has a strong following, and 1982's Q, with a giant Aztec winged serpent taking up residence at the top of the Chrysler Building in NYC, is one of the strangest cult hits of its decade.

Cohen trucked on through the '80s, with the health-food fad horror satire THE STUFF hitting theaters in 1985 and the sequel A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT going straight to video in 1987, but his best film from that era is THE AMBULANCE, a gem of a thriller that fell through the cracks and, with its connection to Marvel Comics, is poised to finally get the recognition it deserves thanks to Scream Factory's recent Blu-ray release. Shot in the summer of 1989, THE AMBULANCE was released in Japan in 1990 but was unseen in the US until it went straight-to-video in 1993, likely due to money issues going on with Epic Productions, the company run by cash-strapped former Trans-World Entertainment execs Eduard Sarlui and Moshe Diamant. Sony's Triumph Releasing took over the Epic slate and while some less-deserving films made it into theaters (SKI PATROL, COURAGE MOUNTAIN, GHOSTS CAN'T DO IT), THE AMBULANCE sat on the shelf for four years. That's a shame, because it's got a strange, goofy charm to it that could've made it a legitimate sleeper hit if anyone saw it. In one of his loosest and most uncharacteristically appealing and likable performances, an extremely mulleted (the major sign that it was shot in 1989) Eric Roberts is Josh Baker, a Marvel artist who's introduced flirting with Cheryl (Janine Turner, just before she landed NORTHERN EXPOSURE) when she collapses on a busy Manhattan street. She tells Josh she's diabetic and an ambulance whisks her away before he can get her last name. When Cheryl isn't at the hospital where she was supposed to be taken, smitten Josh begins a citywide search for his dream girl, which intensifies after he happens to run into Cheryl's roommate Jerilyn (Jill Gatsby), who's also a diabetic who gets abducted by the same ambulance, all at the behest of a mad doctor (Eric Braeden) who's using NYC diabetics as human test subjects for his diabolical experiments involving pig pancreases, eventually harvesting and selling their organs when they inevitably die.

Along the way, Josh irritates a lot of people, from irate Lt. Spencer (James Earl Jones, chewing gum by the fistful) to various doctors and nurses, and especially his boss Stan (Stan Lee), who tells him to look for his missing mystery girl on his own time. He does get some support from sarcastic but sympathetic officer Malloy (Megan Gallagher) and aging Elias Zachariah (Red Buttons), a doddering old man who claims to be a reporter and becomes Josh's partner in crime as they break out of a hospital where Josh has been dumped to keep quiet. It's a really a shame the world was deprived of more Eric Roberts/Red Buttons buddy movies because they're quite a team here, whether they're busting each others' chops, sneaking out of the hospital in clothes that are two sizes too big, or just listening to Buttons bitch and complain and drop F-bombs. It's easy to forget what a promising career Roberts had at one point. When THE AMBULANCE went into production in 1989, he hadn't really fully capitalized on his RUNAWAY TRAIN Oscar nomination four years earlier for a variety of reasons (including a drug possession arrest in 1987), but was still regularly headlining movies that would get wide theatrical releases, including 1989's stoner comedy RUDE AWAKENING and the same year's BEST OF THE BEST, a BLOODSPORT knockoff that also featured Jones. With few exceptions (the 1996 AIDS drama IT'S MY PARTY, for example), Roberts would soon fall into the world of straight-to-video and as time went on, for every supporting role he'd get in an A-list blockbuster like THE DARK KNIGHT, there'd be 20 HUMAN CENTIPEDE 3s or A TALKING CAT!?s.

But one thing Cohen always did well was zero in on the strengths of oddball character actors and give them a chance to run with it in a leading role, whether it was John P. Ryan's convincing performance in IT'S ALIVE, Frederic Forrest in IT LIVES AGAIN, or frequent Cohen star Michael Moriarty's bizarre, free-jazz riffing as a junkie petty thief in Q. Cohen allows Roberts to use his peculiar idiosyncrasies to give THE AMBULANCE some seriously offbeat cred that clearly inspired the actor in ways that paycheck gigs like BEST OF THE  BEST and BY THE SWORD wouldn't. Going forward, it wouldn't be often that Roberts would be able to conjure some of that quirky and unpredictable energy ("I mean, fuuuuuuck him!") that helped establish him in STAR 80, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and RUNAWAY TRAIN, but the early '80s Roberts is there throughout THE AMBULANCE, and it's one of his best performances. THE AMBULANCE is a terrific little B-movie that would make a great "First Responder From Hell" double feature with William Lustig's Cohen-scripted 1990 cult classic MANIAC COP 2 (both indulge in some really insane Spiro Razatos stunt work) and effectively demonstrates the versatility of Cohen in the way it balances action, suspense, horror, and comedy, even throwing a bone to Stan Lee and the comic book crowd and including a running gag about one pissed-off cop (Cohen regular James Dixon) looking like Jughead from Archie. Cohen was credited with a few largely rewritten screenplays in the '00s (including Roland Joffe's embarrassing 2007 torture porn fiasco CAPTIVITY) and helmed one episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR in 2006, but he hasn't directed a film since 1996's blaxploitation throwback ORIGINAL GANGSTAS. In recent years, he's opted to go the emeritus route on the convention and Q&A circuit while cashing checks when one of his films is remade (the less said about the dismal 2009 remake of IT'S ALIVE, the better). Cohen's last essential film to date, THE AMBULANCE is a blast that deserves much more recognition than it's ever received.

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