Film Review: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

Release Date: September 11th, 1987
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen, James Dixon
Based on: Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Music by: Michael Minard
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Andrew Duggan, Samuel Fuller, Evelyn Keyes, June Havoc, Ronee Blakley, Tara Reid

Larco Productions, Warner Bros., 101 Minutes

Review:

“I’m not a Nazi hunter. I’m a Nazi killer!” – Van Meer

This is really just Salem’s Lot in name only. Technically it’s not officially listed as being based off of Stephen King’s novel and that’s probably for good reason.

I like some of Larry Cohen’s movies. He’s a guy that makes schlock but some of his schlock has become iconic over the years, such as The Stuff, Black Caesar and It’s Alive. This is not Grade A Cohen schlock, however.

In fact, I’m not sure Cohen even watched the first Salem’s Lot movie or even read the book.

The story features Cohen regular Michael Moriarty, as he and his dimwitted, douchebag son travel to the town of Salem’s Lot to fix up his childhood home. However, the town and its residents are vastly different than the previous film.

Actually, the vampires are different too, as this doesn’t feature the Nosferatu-like Kurt Barlow or any vampire resembling him. These vampires are just senior citizens with plastic Halloween fangs. Also, the whole town is pretty much all vampires, except for the few human familiars that keep a few shops and the gas station running, in order to keep up appearances to outsiders passing through.

We also get an old Nazi hunter that is now a vampire hunter and there are all these strange parallels between the Nazis and vampires and it all ends with the boss vampire getting impaled by an American flag instead of a stake. I don’t know how a pissy twelve year-old could ram an entire flagpole through a vampire’s back but this film is so heavy handed that maybe it gave the kid an off screen shove.

This movie is mind-numbingly bad. It’s incompetent on every level, it isn’t remotely scary and in fact, it set vampires back fifty years in cinema.

Rating: 3.5/10
Pairs well with: bottom of the barrel ’80s horror.

Film Review: Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

Also known as: Q (original title), Serpent, The Winged Serpent (working titles), American Monster (Germany)
Release Date: September 8th, 1982 (France)
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Robert O. Ragland
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree

United Film Distribution, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Stick it in your brain. Your tiny little brain!” – Jimmy Quinn

This was originally added to the lineup for the first season of Joe Bob Briggs’ The Last Drive-In on Shudder. However, it was bumped up in the lineup after the passing of Larry Cohen, the man behind this film, as well as so many other great pictures from a multitude of genres but mostly all fitting under the exploitation, grindhouse or horror umbrellas.

Larry Cohen was one of those guys that video store junkies fell in love with. Me, being a video store junkie, saw most of his films multiple times. But strangely, this is one picture that had eluded me until now. Which is made even stranger due to my love of giant monster movies.

What’s unique about this film is that it was filmed on location in the real Chrysler Building. Cohen went into areas of the building he wasn’t supposed to go but he shot this almost guerilla style while the building’s security weren’t paying enough attention. He went into attics, had actors hanging out of holes in the top and even had them firing off rounds, as shotgun shells rained all over pedestrians on the street 77 stories below.

Unfortunately, the story of this film being made is more exciting than the movie itself. I still like the picture but it’s very slow moving and pretty dry. It’s real saving grace is Michael Moriarty, who Cohen also used in his cult classic The Stuff. Moriarty gives such a powerful, over the top and charismatic performance that I don’t know how the heat he brought to the set didn’t melt the damn celluloid. And that’s not an overstatement. He brought the fire and man, he owns absolutely every scene that he’s in.

The film also stars two greats: David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. But even their natural charisma pales in comparison to Moriarty’s.

I liked the monster part of the story but I think that the monster really just comes off as a very generic winged serpent. I felt like Cohen could have come up with something more creative in the creature’s overall design. But really, it still works and this was a film on a scant budget, which was Cohen’s modus operandi.

In the end, this is an entertaining picture if you are familiar with Cohen’s work and have become a fan of it. Plus, if you love giant monster movies, here’s one more to add to your kaiju spank bank.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: Godzilla 1985, The Stuff and It’s Alive.

Film Review: Hell Up In Harlem (1973)

Also known as: Black Caesar Part II, Black Caesar’s Sweet Revenge (working titles)
Release Date: December 16th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Edwin Starr
Cast: Fred Williamson, Margaret Avery, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 94 Minutes

Review:

Hell Up In Harlem is the sequel to Black Caesar. In fact, it came out in the same calendar year, as they wasted no time pumping it out. Unfortunately, it suffers from being rushed. Although it isn’t a bad picture, it just doesn’t measure up to its predecessor.

The film picks up at the end of the first movie. It keeps the plot going, as the shot and injured Tommy Gibbs is wobbling around the streets carrying the ledgers from the first picture. Due to his injury and need to recover, Gibbs puts his father in charge of the gang. While he and his father have had their issues, Gibbs trusts him with the ledgers and his entire life. Tommy Gibbs and Papa Gibbs have a falling out when Tommy is told that the elder had his ex-wife murdered. Tommy, having fallen in love with Margaret, leaves Harlem in his father’s hands and moves to Los Angeles. It is discovered that Zach, the gang member that tipped Tommy off about his ex-wife’s murder was trying to undermine Papa Gibbs rule and take control of the gang away from him. Then, all hell breaks loose.

While Larry Cohen does a decent job of keeping the vibe and tone consistent with his first picture, the lack of James Brown’s music sticks out like a sore thumb. Musically, this film isn’t bad but it doesn’t have the iconic tunes of Black Caesar and the less dynamic score hurts the film. Brown sort of legitimized the first film and not having him do the second one, has the opposite effect. But this was probably a product of the movie being rushed.

Fred Williamson is still great as Tommy Gibbs and the rest of the returning cast hold down their parts as well. It was nice seeing Julius Harris’ role expand and go in an unforeseen direction. The film does have a lot of surprises and isn’t just a retread of the first one.

In the end though, Hell Up In Harlem is not the film that Black Caesar is. Had they taken their time with it, it could have been something as exceptional as the first one. It had some things that showed promise but it just doesn’t deliver in the right way.

Rating: 5.25/10

Film Review: The Stuff (1985)

Also known as: Larry Cohen’s The Stuff
Release Date: June 14th, 1985
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: Anthony Guefen, Richard Seaman (jingles)
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris, Paul Sorvino, Danny Aiello, Rutanya Alda, Scott Bloom, Brian Bloom, Patrick Dempsey (uncredited), Mira Sorvino (uncredited)

New World Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“The name’s Mo Rutherford. They call me that ’cause when people give me money, I always want mo’.” – David ‘Mo’ Rutherford

The Stuff was a film that flew under the radar when it came out in 1985. Its theatrical release was very limited. Also, when it was released in New York City, a hurricane hit on that day and newspapers weren’t able to be delivered. Apparently, as the director Larry Cohen claims, the film had good reviews that never made it into the audience’s hands. In 2017, the film does hold a 70 percent critics’ rating at Rotten Tomatoes.

There was also probably some genre confusion about the film. While it appears to be a horror film in all its marketing material, which it is, the film is also a satirical comedy that pokes fun at the health fads of the 1980s, which saw a huge influx of “diet”-branded foods hit the market that people jumped on like hotcakes covered in crack cocaine.

I never even heard of this film until the early 1990s and I was a kid that spent a great deal of time in video stores, wherever I went. I think that most people discovered this later, as it has since developed a pretty large cult following.

One thing this film has, is pretty brilliant special effects. Different substances were used throughout the movie to represent “The Stuff”, as it moved and attacked people. The scene with a lake of “The Stuff” was done by superimposing imagery and using animation techniques. It came off great for a film from this era with a very small budget. Also, the rotating bedroom set used in two scenes of the original A Nightmare On Elm Street is used in The Stuff to recreate the same effect but instead of blood crawling up the walls, we get homicidal marshmallow goo.

The effects that were especially cool where when people’s bodies started to rip apart and ooze out “The Stuff”. The scene, at the end, where Garrett Morris’ head starts to tear apart is a fantastic practical effect and still pretty horrifying.

Now the acting is far from commendable but this picture does feature the always great Garrett Morris as well as Danny Aiello and Paul Sorvino. Also, Michael Moriarty’s “Mo” is an entertaining character.

The Stuff is a fun movie and it is hokey in all the right ways. I’d almost like to see a sequel that is sort of the reverse of this that pokes fun at all the anti-GMO hysteria and the religiously pro-organic people.

Rating: 7/10

Film Review: Black Caesar (1973)

Also known as: Godfather of Harlem (UK)
Release Date: February 7th, 1973
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Written by: Larry Cohen
Music by: James Brown
Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, D’Urville Martin, Julius Harris

American International Pictures, 87 Minutes

Review:

“Pray for him, Rufus… you were always a good boy, pray for him.” – Mama Gibbs

Fred Williamson is one of the coolest actors of all-time. Black Caesar is also one of the coolest films of all-time, even if Williamson plays an incredibly deplorable character within the picture.

Teaming up with director Larry Cohen was a perfect fit for Williamson, as well as his co-stars Gloria Hendry and D’Urville Martin. These three actors would go on to have a presence in blaxploitation pictures for a couple years while leaving their respectable marks on the genre. Cohen would go on to direct and write for decades, making other explitation films as well as some memorable monster and sci-fi movies.

Black Caesar is a remake of the 1931 gangster film Little Caesar. Except this version switches out the main character of an Italian mobster with an African-American who grew up in Harlem, a victim of an evil cop, that wanted to exact revenge while rising to power in his neighborhood despite the odds against him.

The film also features an amazing score created by James Brown. His famous songs Down and Out in New York CityThe Boss and Mama’s Dead were created for this film.

Oddly, the film was originally developed to star Sammy Davis Jr. He wanted a project to make him more than a lackey behind Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and wanted to provide all the original music. Davis ran into trouble with the IRS and couldn’t pay what was his share of the production costs. Ultimately, the film was given to Fred Williamson and James Brown and we probably got a better film due to the alteration. I can’t imagine a Sammy Davis Jr. version would have been as gritty or his character, as menacing and intimidating as Williamson’s Tommy Gibbs.

The film is action packed, violent and has a certain amount of gravitas that puts it above a lot of the other blaxploitation films of the time. Williamson is just a guy that owns the screen and commands respect. Even as an unlikable murderous rapist in Black Caesar, it is hard not to have a sense of admiration for how he handles his shit: defying the man, the system and the seemingly powerful mobsters that rule New York City.

Gloria Hendry, who I have always enjoyed, has never been better. She played her darkest and most serious role out of the blaxploitation films she was in and she did a fine job. You really felt for her character and wanted her to be okay, as she was continually bullied, abused and raped by Williamson’s Gibbs. And when she found love, you wanted it to work out for her.

D’Urville Martin is typical D’Urville Martin, except he is a crooked preacher in this, which just makes him more hilarious and entertaining.

Overall, Black Caesar is one of the best blaxploitation films ever made. It also spawned a sequel that reunited the cast and director. That one is called Hell Up In Harlem, which I will have to re-watch and review in the very near future.

Rating: 7.75/10