for this week’s TRIBUNE : Viennale report (part 1 of 2)

Larry Cohen: Gartenbau, Vienna; October 2010

Asked by an Austrian newspaper to nominate my favourite single “moment” of the 48th Vienna International Film Festival (‘Viennale’ for short, ran Oct 21 – Nov 3) my first thought wasn’t to go for a feature or even a short. In terms of sheer entertainment and atmosphere, nothing matched veteran American writer/director Larry Cohen’s introduction to a late-night screening of his 1974 smash, It’s Alive, at the 736-seat Gartenbaukino.
   Partly it was the setting: the single-screen Gartenbau is the country’s largest cinema auditorium, and a genuine palace of cinema which, dating back to 1960, is as old as the Viennale itself (the festival skipped a couple of years early on). By that point Cohen, though still only a teenager, had already established the makings of a viable showbusiness career, writing “teleplays” for live broadcasts featuring the likes of Peter Falk.Half a century later, Cohen arrived as guest-of-honour in Vienna for a lavish retrospective, making the most of his status as a bone fide cult favourite.
   As a director, his output tended towards the horror/thriller end of the spectrum, most notably Black Caesar (1972), God Told Me To a.k.a. Demon (1976), Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) and The Stuff (1985), nearly always delivered with a bitingly satirical edge.
   The directing jobs dried up after 1990 – his sole credit since then is 1996’s Original Gangstas – but Cohen came back to Hollywood’s attention when his gimmicky, long-gestating script Phone Booth was a hit for director Joel Schumacher and star Colin Farrell in 2002.
   Two years later, his story formed the basis of a lower-profile (but far superior) telecommunications-based thriller Cellular – which enjoyed only a brief run in UK cinemas, but which has proved a gratifyingly enduring success on DVD.
   While Cohen is a major name among cineastes, film-nerds and action-geeks, his wider profile remains much lower than, say, George Romero, John Carpenter or Joe Dante. Writing in his seminal Nightmare Movies (1988) – in which Cohen is listed as one of four horror ‘auteurs‘ alongside David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma and Dario Argento – British critic Kim Newman reckoned that “one of the reasons Larry Cohen still hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves is that he makes monster movies… Cohen’s movies are lively, packed with off-beat and unusual ideas, well acted and laced with quotable dialogue. In an age when his more immediately successful contemporaries are being turned into sub-Spielbergs, Cohen’s movies can still not be mistaken for anyone else’s.”
   And nor, all these years later, can his “intros.” Of all the dozens of directors present at this year’s Viennale, which showcases fresh newer movies alongside carefully-curated retrospectives and tributes, none had the energy, chutzpah and superb timing that the 69-year-old Cohen displayed whenever he appeared to introduce a screening. As San Francisco cultural commentator Charlie Cockey recalls, “I’ve always thought he could have been a great beat-style standup comic, sort of a cross of Lenny Bruce and a really sad-sack Woody Allen.”
   Watching him shamelessly milk and then whip up audience applause to a frenetic pitch, then fire off rat-a-tat reminiscences from his long and exceedingly colourful career (he was an acolyte of Alfred Hitchcock’s in the sixties, and the master expressed repeated interest in the Phone Booth concept), it was easy to see how he accumulated such a crowded filmography while operating just on the margins of “respectable” Hollywood.
   Cohen’s quality-control has been occasionally erratic – mass-consumption/fast-food lampoon The Stuff is a near-incoherent mess, and God Told Me To never lives up to the gleefully blasphemous audacity of its central conceit (as Newman puts it, the film concerns “a Christ-like hermaphrodite alien, strongly suggesting that his disciples become mass murderers.”)
   But at his uninhibited best, Cohen can be dynamite – most notably in his 1972 debut Bone (full title: Bone – A Bad Day in Beverly Hills, and released as Dial Rat For Terror in the UK). Check out the DVD – available over here via Anchor Bay import – if you want to experience a sui generis satirical psychodrama that maintains a genuinely hilarious sense of off-kilter nightmare.
   The boiled-down-to-basics story sees a “respectable” Los Angeles couple (Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten) have their bourgeois territory invaded one sunny afternoon by a swaggering, leering African-American known as ‘Bone’ (Yaphet Kotto). Demanding cash, Bone dispatches the husband – an ageing, corrupt used-car dealer to the nearest bank, soon making lecherous advances towards the wife.
   But what Bone doesn’t know is that this pair’s marriage is in serious trouble, and so hubby isn’t in any hurry at all to get back and “save” his missus – indeed, he embarks on a decidedly leisurely tour of Beverly Hills’ well-heeled environs, bedding a ditzy weirdo young enough to be his daughter (Jeannie Berlin), and knocking back the booze in a delightfully stygian bar – one of numerous jaw-dropping sequences which showcase the young Cohen’s flair for psychologically insightful, socially acute, laugh-out-loud-funny dialogue.
    A minor, inexplicably neglected masterpiece of Nixon-era paranoia, Bone can perhaps only really be compared with Peter Bogdanovich’s better-known Targets (1969): both are shoestring-budgeted, Los Angeles-set affairs which give a topical twist to genre material, both are irresistibly confident debuts that announced the arrival of bold new writing-directing talent. Bogdanovich went the Hollywood route, Cohen steered his own path – a journey which was ultimately to lead him all the way to Vienna, and the adulation of the Gartenbau crowd.
   It’s Alive managed – just about – to live up to its 10-minute, fascinatingly discursive intro (much of which related to how such a low-rent shocker, in which a mutant baby goes on the rampage in Santa Monica, obtained the classy services of Alfred Hitchcock’s preferred composer Bernard Herrmann). Still perhaps Cohen’s best-known picture – and, more crucially for him, his most profitable – it’s perhaps inevitably somewhat dated in parts and can be surprisingly slow going in between the baby’s homicidal onslaughts.
   But the film, shamelessly combining elements of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist for maximum box-office appeal, is much more than the recipient of what must rank among the most brilliant poster taglines for any picture (“there’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby … It’s Alive!”). As Cohen himself noted at the Gartenbau, this is one of the few “monster movies” – King Kong being the most obvious predecessor – where viewers shed a tear at the finale.
   But the emotional element here isn’t so much the fate of the hapless – if murderous infant. Rather it’s the development of the lad’s father – played with phenomenal force by bullish, bug-eyed character-actor and army-veteran John Ryan (1936-2007), who gradually transitions from sneeringly obnoxious, self-regarding blowhard, through to a state of tearful, perplexed and conflicted vulnerability.
   Torn between the paternal impulse to protect his child and the knowledge that said child is a serial-killing monster who represents a clear and present danger to society, Ryan’s Frank Davis emerges as a tragic, flawed hero worthy of the most histrionic Greek drama. And that’s perhaps not such an unlikely comparison, considering Ryan’s previous gig was as Jason in a Broadway 1973 revival of Euripides’ Medea.

Neil Young
2nd November, 2010
written for the 11th November edition of Tribune magazine

aka Bone aka Dial Rat For Terror (among other alternative titles) : USA 1972 : Larry COHEN : 92m : seen 30/Oct/10 at Stadtkino, Vienna (complimentary — Viennale film-festival) : 24/28

: [7/10]
USA 1973 : Larry COHEN : 91m : seen 29/Oct/10 at Gartenbaukino, Vienna (complimentary — Viennale film-festival) : 19/28

Jigsaw Lounge 2010 Viennale index-page