The Cohen Case Files: The Ambulance (1990)

Written and Directed by Larry Cohen

The Ambulance is a snapshot of an industry in transition. Released in 1990, it’s the type of low-budget independent thriller that would soon start going straight to video, but still managed to make its way into theaters…barely. If not for an eclectic cast of solid character actors and a former leading man working his way down the Hollywood food chain in Eric Roberts, it’s likely the film would have been completely forgotten by all but Cohen completists like myself. Fortunately, the goofy casting, a nifty premise working as a hook, and a tonally bizarre script keep the film such an oddity that it’s all but impossible to ignore it, even if it is just of mid-level importance when it comes to Cohen’s filmography.

Roberts plays Josh, an artist with one of the greatest late ’80s/early ’90s mullets you have ever seen. Josh works for Marvel Comics—a plot point that only exists to give Stan Lee a small role as himself. While he’s a talented artist, Josh is socially inept. He has a crush on Cheryl (Janine Turner), a woman he sees on the street everyday when he goes out for lunch. One day, he finally decides to introduce himself in a way that makes him seem like a crazed stalker. Walking along the sidewalk, badgering her for a date, even though she has been far kinder than the situation calls for in turning him down, Josh refuses to give up. Past the point when most sane women would have called the cops, Cheryl suddenly falls ill and collapses. Josh screams for someone to call an ambulance and gets just her first name before an old-fashioned ambulance (think the old model kind used in Ghostbusters) arrives in a fashion that’s quicker than normal. Before Josh has time to process what has happened, she is loaded into the ambulance and gone.

When Josh tries to visit her in the hospital, he discovers she was never brought in. In fact, she doesn’t seem to have been taken to any hospital in the city. Josh goes to the police and talks to a detective named Spencer (James Earl Jones), who dismisses him as having a nervous breakdown.

Frustrated, Josh turns to Cheryl’s roommate (Jill Gatsby) for help, only to see her kidnapped by the men in the ambulance. Becoming more paranoid by the minute, Josh careens from scene to scene, trying to track down where the ambulance is taking people and what is being done with them. His investigation is helped along by an aging New York Post reporter named Elias (Red Buttons), a uniform cop nursing a crush on him (Megan Gallagher), and a begrudgingly helpful Spencer. As the investigation reveals a bizarre conspiracy involving people with diabetes and a sinister doctor (Eric Braeden), Josh’s obsession threatens to destroy his life.

The Ambulance easily could have been a generic thriller that disappears from the mind of the viewer as soon as the end credits roll. But thanks to Cohen’s playful handling of the material and a wonderfully over-the-top performance by Roberts, it winds up as something unquantifiable; played too straight to be a commentary on the conspiracy thriller, but too aware of its own absurdity to operate as a true piece of suspense, it exists in a no-man’s-land of odd laughs and sudden violence.

While Cohen sets a tone that falls just short of outright mocking of his own film, the cast deliver several big laughs. Roberts turns his crazed intensity into a performance that borders on uncomfortable. Throwing his body around the locations, pulling off strange line readings that range from unintelligible to wildly inappropriate, he does everything to make sure all eyes are on him when he’s on screen. But even with Roberts going apeshit in thirty ways at once, Jones nearly steals the movie as a man even more paranoid than Josh, nervously chomping on gum and bellowing angrily at everyone he thinks is out to get him. It’s almost a shame when Cohen takes a break from the Roberts and Jones show to move the plot forward with a piece of exposition.

While the loose feel and indulgence in out-of-place comedy is pure Cohen, the film is lacking any kind of social or political commentary that is usually found in the projects he directs. Sure, there is a healthy dose of satirical humor as he takes a few jabs at the more ridiculous thriller clichés, but the film seems to exist in a vacuum, where the outside world does not matter. Even the New York locations that Cohen normally uses so well, feel routine and functional at best, generic and forgettable at worst.

In a strange way, The Ambulance feels like a companion-piece to the Cohen-scripted and produced Maniac Cop films. Both trade on the clever idea of authorities who show up to the scene of an emergency to harm, rather than help the victims. While this film does not delve into supernatural horror the way the Maniac Cop films do, it does plug into the same paranoia of not knowing whether to be thankful for the siren in the distance or if it should instill fear. Or, in the case of The Ambulance, the characters are always given the third option of laughing at how silly the thriller genre can get. For the most part, I laughed right along with them.

James Dixon Sighting: Playing yet another cop in a Larry Cohen film, he gets to be the butt of several jokes about his resemblance to a certain comic book character.

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