Viennale 3: JOHN RYAN'S EXPRESS

Above: Larry Cohen on the set of It's Alive (1973).

Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing.
—Euripides

From Euripides to Larry Cohen may seem like a considerable jump, but the more one looks into the careers of the seminal Greek dramatist (480-406 BC), author of Andromache, The Trojan Women and The Bacchae, and the exploitation-savvy New York-born writer/director (b. 1941) responsible for Q - The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and Black Caesar, the more certain parallels start to insistently emerge.

Both men revitalised existing genre "tropes" via the use of audaciously sharp satire—often aimed at authority-figures and/or conventional society's idea of "heroes"—alongside unexpected psychological depth in terms of characterisation (for both male and female roles).

And, just as in his lifetime Euripides lagged in terms of awards and critical acclaim behind the other two main tragedians of classical Athens—Aeschylus and Sophocles—likewise Cohen has often been overlooked in favour of such peers as John Carpenter and John Landis (not to mention Joe Dante and George Romero).

Then again, in his seminal Nightmare Movies (1988), Kim Newman ranks Cohen among only four horror "auteurs" accorded special analysis, alongside David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma and Dario Argento. "One of the reasons Larry Cohen still hasn't received the critical attention he deserves is that he makes monster movies," wrote Newman. "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."
Adding weight to Newman's contention, this year's Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival—earlier dispatches here and here) presented a bountiful tribute to Cohen, who was present in person for the whole of the first week. Curated by Olaf Möller, the retrospective featured a stack of rarely-screened gems—including some early TV work—and the only notable omission was Cohen's most recent screenwriting credit, David R. Ellis's hyper-kinetically enjoyable b-picture Cellular (2004).

Of all the dozens of directors present at this year's Viennale—many of whom, as is the trend these days, looked barely out of their teens—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 at a late-night screening at the Gartenbaukino (at around 750 seats, Austria's largest cinema auditorium) 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, it was easy to see how he accumulated such a crowded filmography while operating just on the margins of "respectable" Hollywood.

The results were sometimes erratic, but at his uninhibited best, Cohen could 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 via Anchor Bay import—if you want to experience a sui generis satirical psychodrama that maintains a genuinely hilarious sense of off-kilter nightmare.

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.

But while Bone proved—for many—the major discovery not only of the Cohen retro but of the whole Viennale, the most apposite screening in this particular city proved to be a midnight showing of It's Alive (1974). Which brings us back to the Greeks, and one very direct link between Cohen and Euripides, in the intense, bug-eyed, commanding form of John Ryan (1936-2007). Though best known as a supporting player (The Right Stuff, Bound, Five Easy Pieces, Runaway Train, The Postman Always Rings Twice, etc), Ryan in 1973 went from playing Jason in Minos Volanakis' Broadway adaptation of Euripides' Medea—opposite Irene Papas' murderously vengeful title-character—to the Los Angeles locations of It's Alive, Cohen's gleefully commercial mash-up of The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby.

Both Medea and It's Alive are closely concerned with the deaths of young children—in Euripides, Medea kills the sons she has had with Jason after he leaves her for another women; in Cohen, a mutant baby born to Santa Monica couple Frank and Lenore Davis (Ryan, Sharon Farrell) goes on a murderous rampage and is hunted down by the forces of law and order—accompanied and helped by Frank.

But when the Davis's clawed, fanged son is cornered in a storm-drain under the utilitarian concrete walls of the perpetually cinegenic man-ruined trickle that is the Los Angeles River, Frank's paternal instincts belatedly kick in—and the picture, which had previously been a somewhat uneven, campy monster-movie, achieves a tragic dimension of which even Euripides would have been proud.

This is in no small part due to the astonishing, steamrollering performance by Ryan, whose Frank Davis starts off as a superficially genial but obnoxiously arrogant advertising-executive—a paragon of  blowhard, father-knows-best Nixon-era egotism, one could say—nervously awaiting the birth of his second child (some eleven years after the first, we're rather pointedly told).

Over the course of It's Alive's ninety-odd minutes the volcanically bad-tempered, solipsistic Frank goes on a journey into self-awareness and broken humility that's as unexpected as it is moving, only at the eleventh hour accepting his responsibility for bringing such a hazardous spawn into the world in a classic moment of what the Greeks called anagnorisis—a critical discovery, a (self-)recognition. As Euripides notes in Phrixus—"The gods visit the sins of the fathers upon the children."

Cohen has described It's Alive as the rare monster-movie where the audience sheds a tear for the monster at the finale—and he's correct. But the emotional element here isn’t so much the fate of the hapless—if murderous infant. The real "monster" is actually the uber-alphamale blowhard Frank, to whom the hydrocephalic "junior," when we finally get a good look at him, bears more than a passing resemblance—as Lenore remarks to Frank shortly after delivery, "I've always been afraid of you, especially those eyes."

And the Vienna connection? That final subterranean shootout surely owes at least a partial debt to Carol Reed's 1949 classic set and filmed in the war-ravaged city, The Third Man. And the Gartenbau itself is merely feet away from the Austrian capital's very own eponymous, utilitarian, concrete-walled trickle of a man-ruined waterway, the Vienna River—fed by who knows what stygian underground chambers and channels, some of them perhaps running right beneath the Gartenbau seats. Sometimes, despite what Euripides might counsel, it's actually better not to know...

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