The Cohen Case Files: Full Moon High (1981)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen

For how much he has dabbled in various genres (horror, science fiction, blaxploitation, mystery, thriller), Cohen has largely steered clear of straight forward comedies.  There is plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor in films like The Stuff, Q, and his script for Maniac Cop, but for the most part, he only used humor in those films to skewer social or political mores.  But if you’re looking for out and out comedies in his filmography, you’re only given two real choices: Full Moon High and Wicked Stepmother.  While I will save my look at the latter for a time when I’ve had a few stiff drinks to sit through it, I thought I’d take a look at the former, just because I was intrigued by the cast and the premise.  I’m glad I did.

Tony (Adam Arkin) is the star quarterback at the titular high school.  He’s kind of a dim bulb, but he’s likable and, with his skills, the school has the chance to finally score a touchdown in the big game against Simpson High, their hated rivals.  He’s lusted after by Jane (Roz Kelly), an oversexed coed who is being pursued by his friend, Flynn (Bill Kirchenbauer).  His father (Ed McMahon!) is a military officer obsessed with the evils of communism (the film starts during the Eisenhower administration) who has built a bomb shelter in the basement of their home.

When Tony’s father is sent by the CIA to Romania on a secret mission, he decides that it’s not so secret that he can’t take Tony.  But once they get to their destination, dear old dad is too busy frolicking with prostitutes to pay any attention to his son.  One night, while trying to make his way to the Museum of Mental Illness, Tony is attacked by a werewolf.  Not surprisingly, Tony finds himself changing into a werewolf at the most inopportune of times.

Frustrated by the rash of nippings (he never kills and eats his victims–”I’m a nosher,” he explains at one point) that begin to plague his hometown upon his return (sample newspaper headline: WEREWOLF ANNOYS COMMUNITY), Tony takes the sudden accidental death of his father as an excuse to move away.  This drives Flynn crazy because without Tony, they have no shot of scoring a touchdown against Simpson.  It drives Jane mad because she’s in complete love/lust with Tony and she goes to such lengths to keep him from leaving as hanging on to his bus as it leaves town.

After twenty years of roaming the world, nipping people at every full moon, he returns to Full Moon High with the intent of scoring a touchdown in the big game, thereby fulfilling his destiny.

Full Moon High is a stupid movie.  But it knows it’s a stupid movie and revels in the fact, pulling out glorious puns, smutty double entendres worthy of a Connery-era James Bond film, cheap sight gags, the willingness to break the fourth wall, and gay panic jokes at a pace that’s so breathless you’d swear it was a Zucker-Abrahams film.

The film came out in the wake of the surprisingly successful Airplane.  Thirty years on, it’s easy to overlook the impact of that silly comedy, but it truly was a game-changer.  Full Moon High was arguably the first film to incorporate Airplane’s anarchic, silly sense of humor into its own spoof of a sub-genre staple.  But instead of sticking to skewering the rote clichés of the werewolf film, Cohen strikes off on any number of tangents that incorporate elements of sex comedies, sports films, and the teenage crime spree sub-genre.  It quickly becomes apparent that if a sequence had the potential to draw some laughs, Cohen left it in, whether it fit the film or not.  How else to explain the bizarre subplot involving Elizabeth Hartman as a meek high school teacher who is deathly afraid (with good reason) of her own students?

This loose, anything goes tone is both the film’s greatest asset and its biggest drawback.  While the jokes fly fast and furious, hitting at an impressively high hit-to-miss ratio, the loose feel extended to the technical aspects of the film.  While Cohen’s lower-budget films have always had something of a threadbare feel to them, he’s always made up for that by putting together good casts and drawing on a pool of solid technicians.  Here, the editing is sometimes sloppy, the special effects are charmingly cheap in some scenes and horribly fake in others, the sound design is dodgy, and some of the supporting actors are far too over-the-top.

But while it’s easy to find fault with the way the film was put together, it’s hard to deny just how funny it often is.  Even scenes and characters that shouldn’t work are given life by talented comedic actors.  Arkin shows a nimble way with some of the better one-liners in the script while remaining a sympathetic protagonist worth caring about.  Kenneth Mars, a Mel Brooks favorite, shows up as the gay football coach/high school principal.  His mincing, lisping performance is honestly funny beyond how completely offensive it is.  Likewise, a psychiatrist who “cures” his patients by insulting them could have been obnoxious.  But place that character in the hands of an actor as talented as Alan Arkin, and you’ve got pure comedic gold.

What is odd, considering this is a Cohen film, is the lack of any subversive subtext.  Aside from the occasional dig at the American public school system, the film largely avoids any of the philosophical questions raised in the best Cohen films.

Surprisingly, Full Moon High isn’t available on DVD or Blu-ray in the United States.  Until recently, if you didn’t own an all region DVD player to watch the Australian DVD release, you had to settle for VHS copies that are still floating around or getting lucky enough to catch it on cable.  Fortunately, Netflix has begun streaming it on their site in probably the best home presentation the film will ever get in America.

Full Moon High isn’t a great film and I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to watch it again, but it is an entertaining ninety minutes.  In this age when genre spoofs consist of such dreadful fare as the Scary Movie franchise, it’s a pleasure to look back to the infancy of movie spoofs and soak up just how loopy the films used to be.

NOTE: As a bonus, keep a look out for a young Bob Saget in a small role and Cohen regular, James Dixon as a Barney Fife-esque deputy.

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One thought on “The Cohen Case Files: Full Moon High (1981)

  1. I’m glad you finally got a chance to see this. I still have it on my TiVo, intermittently trying to figure out if I could break the “premium channel” encryption. Now I don’t have to! Huzzah!

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