The Cohen Case Files: Wicked Stepmother (1989)

Executive Produced, Written and Directed by Larry Cohen

As I mentioned in my Movie Defender piece on Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, I have the tendency to go a little soft on the lesser films of directors I admire. When that director is someone who is also undervalued, as is the case with Larry Cohen, I have to be doubly careful not to develop a blind spot for the flaws in a given film. I knew the reputation Wicked Stepmother had, and I was concerned that my affection for Cohen and his work might encourage me to see it as better than it was. After finally watching the film, I can report that any temptation to go soft on it went out the window after about fifteen minutes.

In a truly strange opening sequence, Police Lieutenant MacIntosh (Tom Bosley) answers a call from the concerned former housekeeper of a wealthy Los Angeles family. While they search the seemingly empty house, the housekeeper babbles a mile-a-minute about an old lady who was hired as a cook and took over the household, the family winning the lottery, and her unceremonious dismissal as housekeeper after twenty years. MacIntosh barely listens to this monologue of woe, doing a quick inspection, not expecting the family to be found. Then, in the first of the film’s strange visual punch-lines, he makes a discovery in a shoebox that gives the audience the first clue that they’re in for a movie that doesn’t play by any set rules.

Even though this sequence is poorly acted, I appreciated just how odd of a tone it achieved. While Bosley tries to play straight-man to the housekeeper’s rambling eccentric, Cohen drops macabre touches into the background of the comedy with an officer mentioning that the basement is empty and there’s not any fresh concrete down there. This strikes me as the type of thing that a police detective would actually take note of when searching a house where foul play may have occurred. It gave me hope that Cohen was going to ground a loopy comedy-fantasy in some real-world details. That hope was quickly dashed.

The action then shifts to the Fisher household. Husband and father Steve (David Rasche) is a successful tax attorney. Wife and mother Jenny (Colleen Camp) is a high-strung housewife. Son Mike (Shawn Donahue) is vaguely defined as the victim of bullying. Jenny’s retired carpenter father, Sam (Lionel Stander), lives with the family. As Steve and Jenny return home from a vacation, they are greeted with the surprising news that Sam has married Miranda (Bette Davis—yes, that Bette Davis).

Not only is Jenny shocked that Sam would have met and married a stranger in the course of two weeks, she is aghast to learn that Miranda is her worst nightmare. Not only does she seem to have some kind of mind-control over Sam (he used to think television was a waste of time, now he watches game shows nonstop), she smokes like a chimney and has stocked the kitchen with meat. Did I forget to mention that Steve and Jenny are vegetarians?

When Miranda brings a black cat into the house, despite Jenny’s severe allergies and a woman named Priscilla (Barbara Carrera) shows up at the house claiming to be Miranda’s daughter, Jenny has had enough. She hires an incompetent private detective (Richard Moll of Night Court fame) to dig up dirt on Miranda.

This is just way too much plot and too many characters for such a slight comedy to support and the film quickly collapses under the weight. Perhaps the film could have been salvaged if Davis had not left the picture. The reasons for her exit are muddy. Some blame her poor health on her inability to continue. Others claim that she grew disgusted with the script and became a nightmare for Cohen to work with. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a combination of both reasons. The material is certainly beneath a star of her caliber, but she was obviously very frail, looking as though she weighed less than her age. But the reasons for her departure don’t matter. What does matter is Cohen had to scramble to rewrite the film on the fly after losing his star only a few days into shooting. Normally a brilliant writer with the ability to script and shoot on the fly, Cohen was unable to write his way out of the mess the film became.

Miranda is promptly written out by sending her off on business and the film shifts its focus to Priscilla as she worms her way into the family. She sets to work on gaining Steve’s sympathy by making it seem as though Jenny has a vendetta against her. She gets Mike on her side by granting him superpowers to beat up his bullies (in a creepy button on this scene, it’s implied that 12-year-old Mike so impresses a girl who appears to be 17 or 18 with his strength that she’s going to have sex with him). She then brainwashes Sam to make him think she’s Miranda.

Jenny makes the non-surprising discovery that Miranda and Priscilla are witches and there’s a confused explanation that they’re two spirits sharing the same human form…or something. With Davis off the film, Cohen’s explanation for Miranda and Priscilla’s relationship goes from nonsensical to complete incoherence. But honestly, the inability to clarify that plot point is far from the worst thing about the film.

Cohen tries to grant the film the same sort of freewheeling comedic lunacy he gave Full Moon High. But where that picture had a clear premise, a talented cast of comedic ringers, and the occasionally razor-sharp satirical point to make, Wicked Stepmother has the worst trait a comedy can contain: desperation.

There are sequences in this film that made me look away from the screen in embarrassment for the cast and Cohen. A scene with the private detective going undercover as a gardener starts out unfunny, and becomes horrifying in its awfulness as it goes on and on and on. The same can be said for a courtroom scene interrupted by Priscilla and the extended climax and ending that requires far more special effects than the budget of the film allowed.

Even worse than Cohen’s inability to wrangle the story and limited resources into anything resembling a watchable film is his failure to reign in his cast. Normally reliable comedic performers Camp, Rasche, and Stander, perhaps sensing that they were going down with the ship, overact to epic proportions. Eyes bug out, limbs flail, and nearly every line is shouted as they try to inject some kind of life into the dreadful scenes they are playing. Carrera gets by with slightly more dignity. That’s not to say she gives a good performance, but she avoids the temptation to fly over-the-top.

Sadly, Wicked Stepmother turned out to be Davis’ final film. Not surprisingly, she gives a rough performance. By the time she filmed her scenes, she had suffered several strokes and gone through years of rehabilitation to re-gain her ability to speak. Her halting, concentrated speech pattern actually works for Miranda. She is supposed to be a witch capable of mind-control and her line delivery sounds a bit like someone trying to enforce their will over the mind of another person. But she doesn’t even bother to cover up how embarrassed she is by the script she’s acting out. In one scene, she blatantly glares off-camera several times, as though giving Cohen the evil eye. Those looks are far more intimidating than anything she pulls off as the supposedly malevolent Miranda.

Occasional moments of a cleverer movie creep to the surface. An over-the-top, sarcastic look at game shows is funnier and more cynical than is expected. A scene with Seymour Cassel as the owner of a paranormal bookstore is nicely underplayed and charming. And Evelyn Keyes delivers a fun cameo as the owner of a witchcraft school. But the dreck far outweighs anything good that can be salvaged from the film. This is a rare, complete misfire from Cohen. I will definitely not be revisiting it.

James Dixon Sighting: Playing yet another police officer in a few scenes with Tom Bosley.

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