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The Ambulance – film review

February 27, 2016


Fast-paced and entertaining thriller.

the ambulance larry cohen 1990

Written and directed by Larry Cohen. Starring: Eric Roberts, Megan Gallagher, James Earl Jones and Red Buttons. Year of release: 1990. Running time: 91 mins

Something of a cult genre fave, Larry Cohen is a mostly New York City-centric filmmaker best known for such low-budget fantasy fare as It’s Alive, Q The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. Whilst his camera direction could never be considered kinetic or showy, his true strengths as a filmmaker lie in his writing, particularly with his eccentric characters; Michael Moriarty’s piano playing ex-con from Q, Paul Sorvino’s commie-obsessed general from The Stuff. Then there’s his penchant for treating a seemingly goofy premise with a shameless degree of seriousness and respect while still maintaining a sense of fun: a homicidal mutant baby runs amok in the sewers     of LA; a mythical feathered serpent nests in New York City’s Chrysler building; a sentient and highly adictive confectionary consumes consumers from within. At first glance, and considering the vintage of the titular vehicle, one could be forgiven into thinking this is a possessed car movie such as Christine, The Hearse and the like. When, in actuality, it is more like a Hitchcockian conspiracy thriller.

According to an article in the April 1991 issue of Cinefantastique Magazine, Cohen was inspired to make The Ambulance based on an experience he had following an attack of indigestion, “What a terrifying experience it was to be taken and put in one of those things. You’re never more helpless than when you’re strapped down in one     of those stretchers. You don’t know what they’re sticking into your arm or what they’re doing to you. You sign that piece of paper when you go in hospital and then your life isn’t your own anymore, you’re under the control of somebody else. This is the ultimate in vulnerability.”

Josh Baker (Eric Roberts), a successful New York comic book artist is so enamored with a pretty girl in the city lunch crowd he sees every day he begins subconsciously incorporating her likeness into his illustrations. When he finally acts upon an opportunity to chat her up in person, she collapses in the street; only to be whisked away by an ambulance before he can get her name. When he finds no evidence of her being admitted to any of the city’s hospitals, he files a missing persons report with the police. Frustratingly considered nothing more than a fantasist and a nuisance by the cops, Josh joins with a sympathetic patrol officer (Megan Gallagher) and an old-school newsman (Red Buttons) in tracking down the mysterious ambulance.       As the trio draw closer to the truth, they soon find themselves targeted by the perpetrator.

ambulance eric roberts megan gallagher

Known primarily for extremely serious roles, it’s nice to see Eric Roberts given the opportunity to play a character who is lighter in tone (and dare I say it – even perhaps a romantic lead). Here sporting an impressive mullet, he displays his usual manic intensity; an intensity which earned him an Oscar nomination for Runaway Train five years earlier, and something which was first seen in his remarkable breakthrough performance as Paul Snider in Bob Fosse’s Star 80. But there is also a lightness     of tone here to his fast-talking hustler and confident ladies man which very much makes him an endearing and likeable character (quite different from the vast majority of his roles).

Larry Cohen’s New York is once again peopled with his usual stable of wise-cracking characters. Iconic actor James Earl Jones is clearly enjoying himself as the somewhat nutty, gum-chewing Police Detective whom Josh attempts to coerce into investigating the fate of the missing girl. The amount of gum he consumes during     the time he’s on screen is clearly meant to draw attention to itself. While veteran Hollywood actor Red Buttons has a memorable supporting role as the old-time, close-to-retirement newsman seeking a scoop (whom has been hospitalized having, like Cohen, succumbed to a bout of indigestion). Button’s performance and manner of line delivery very much recalls the acting style seen in Hollywood films of the 1940s. Megan Gallagher (best remembered as Lance Henriksen’s spouse in the television series Millennium) plays no bullshit fiesty officer Sandra Malloy and The Ambulance marks the first of only a few big screen appearances she has had so far. I’ve always felt Gallagher has had a unique and intriguing on-screen presence and its a shame we haven’t seen more of her in features. And Eric Braeden (whom genre fans will know from Colossus: The Forbin Project) is suave and unnerving as the mysterious doctor behind the abductions; delivering what is perhaps the most chilling line ever spouted by an insane serial killer, “I like the touch of human skin through a surgical glove.” And for eagle-eyed comic book fans – Marvel Comics founder Stan Lee makes an extended cameo appearance as himself.

A fun and fast-moving action thriller; running at a scant 91 minutes; The Ambulance barrels along at break-neck speed; the snappy dialogue and rapid-fire delivery adding greatly to the pacing. This, combined with the idea of an everyman stumbling into a conspiracy while not being believed by the authorities and then being targeted by said conspiracy very much recalls the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Interestingly, the 2002 Joel Schumacher-directed, Larry Cohen-penned thriller Phonebooth was orginally pitched as a vehicle for Hitchcock to helm back in the 60s.

The technical aspects of The Ambulance are top notch – with plenty of nicely choreographed fight scenes dotted throughout. And the cinematography by Jacques Haitkin (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Galaxy of Terror) lends the film a classy sheen. Indeed, this is perhaps Larry Cohen’s best-looking film to date.

I’m at a loss to understand why The Ambulance received such an unremarkable theatrical release back in the day, before being unceremoniously dumped onto the home video market – as it really is a little gem of a movie which deserves better.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.


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