King Cohen: Hell Up In Harlem (1973) & Special Effects (1984)

I love that feeling when you just click with a director’s work. You see a film or two and then find yourself obsessed with tracking down all of their flicks (preferably on pristine Blu-rays chockablock full of features) and putting them in your eyeballs. I’ve had that with Larry Cohen, but it took a bit longer to reach full-on “gotta watch them all” mode. It turns out that Original Gangstas (his last feature) was the first one I saw back in 2009. A few years later, I checked out The Stuff and really liked it, but it was Q that hooked me! Since then, I’ve been slowly keeping an eye out for his films from the various boutique Blu-ray companies. Recently, I was able to pick up two from Olive Films through a DeepDiscount sale which were both rad in their own ways.

First up was Hell Up In Harlem from 1973. I had no idea that this is the sequel to Black Caesar, which I haven’t seen and don’t own (yet). I think I was able to get the gist, though. Another of Cohen’s blaxploitation pictures from the 70s — along with the aforementioned Caesar and Bone, his first film — Hell might be a bit all-over-the-place, but it’s also a pure gem. There are two major reasons I love Cohen’s films. First, he’s always telling a unique story that presents images and ideas I’ve never seen before, usually with a social commentary that I’m down with. Second, he fully captures the beauty and realness of his locations. He was known for running around and shooting whatever and wherever he could, especially in New York City. Both of those come through in third film.

As it turns out, star Fred Williamson — again playing the Black Caesar himself Tommy Gibbs — was not around for a lot of the shooting. To cover, Cohen used stand-ins and a variety of story and film tricks to work around this inconvenience. As a result, Tommy’s dad Papa Gibbs (Julius Harris) goes from being a concerned father for his bleeding son (the movie has a WILD start) to a full-on mob boss over the course of the picture. That’s just one of the many intertwining tales, though. Tommy deals with his legal problems by way of contracting a group of Harlem frogmen — something that might usually happen at the end of a film — at about the 30 minute mark. He’s also dealing with his ex in ways that capitalize the problematic nature of Gibbs and his world.

After that opening third, the picture opens up, bringing in more rivals for Tommy, boosting Papa Gibbs up the crime ladder, deepening the evil nature of the resident bad guy politician and even introducing a new love interest. Without giving too much away, the last half hour of the film involves some major deaths, perceived betrayal and an epic killing spree perpetrated by the film’s hero that covers everywhere from Coney Island (in the film’s craziest scene) to a quarry of sorts (which features the best shoot-out) to two different airports (the end fight is SO AWESOME and travels from one coast to the other!!!).

Even with a story that might feel like it bounces around a lot, Hell Up In Harlem still gets major points from me for taking all the great aspects of blaxploitation (a genre I enjoy, but am far from an expert in) — complicated leads, more diverse and (to some extent) real depictions of previously ignored communities, style and excellent music (more on this in a graph) — but also brings in the reality of these difficult lives. Cohen also shows early signs of his ability to get footage in so many different places that others couldn’t. We see a packed Coney Island, Harlem in both its glory and squalor, Broadway and up behind the signs in Times Square. Cohen even knows how to make airports and the baggage claim area look amazing! In the end, this isn’t his best film, but it offers plenty of opportunities to see the foundations he built his later classics on! I went on a bit of a ride watching this film (took me a few days because I have limited solo viewing time and fall asleep a lot), but I’m so glad I did. While I do wholeheartedly recommend the movie, it might not be for everyone, especially if the conventions of 70s blaxploitation films offend you. Otherwise, give it a watch!

Oh and back to the music for a second. With Black Caesar, James Brown co-wrote the songs and sang most of them. For Hell Up In Harlem, which came while Caesar was still in theaters in many places, Cohen asked Brown to do the same. When the tracks came in, though, the producers rejected them and went with Edwin Starr whose biggest hit “War,” came out in 1970 (the song was originally recorded by The Temptations the year before, but was far bigger for Starr). If you’re like me and very curious to hear Brown’s original tracks for Hell Up In Harlem, you can because it was released as The Payback in ’73 and, as of this writing, can be streamed on Amazon Music! I’ve only listened to it once, but it’s pretty interesting how the title track is this perfectly funky revenge song (which works both in the reality of the situation and the film itself). If you’re into funk at all (and you probably are if you dig blaxploitation flicks) then go five it a listen, though it does go on a bit.

Having watched Cohen’s third movie, it was really interesting to move on to his 12th, Special Effects, which came out in 1984. It’s pretty cool to see what over a decade of experience can do for a filmmaker. Cohen still has this incredible eye for locations and sets, but he seems to have even more to say. I’d never even heard of this movie, bought it sight-unseen and went in totally cold, which I highly recommend. The rest of this paragraph gets a bit spoilery for the first part of the film, but sets the stage. This film is about a woman (Zoe Lund) who ran away from her husband and son to New York City. Instead of becoming the big deal actress she imagined, she wears very little while dudes pay to photograph her. That comes to an end when her husband Keefe (Brad Rijn) shows up and tries forcing her to go back home with him. She lies and says she has a big meeting with a director by the name of Neville (Eric Bogosian), but winds up getting killed by him while his own secret camera is rolling.

However, waning to get back into Hollywood’s good graces (his last big project was a special effects-filled bomb), Neville decides to make use of this snuff footage and builds an entire narrative not just around what actually happened — the cops suspect Keefe — but also how it will all play into his gritty, raw new film. I feel like this movie has a lot of layers, but one of the outermost shows not just how poisonous the Hollywood way of thinking can be when it comes to processing your art for big time dollars, but also just how damn alluring the fame can be. Neville wants to get back to it, the woman wants it and we see what just the suggestion of it does to Keefe, the woman who plays his wife’s part in the biopic and even Detective Delroy (Kevin O’Connor), who becomes a consultant/producer on the project!

I absolutely fell in love with the winding, twisting story presented in Special Effects, but we all know that film is a visual medium and Cohen did not disappoint in that department either. From the strange photography studio to a less-than-stellar apartment to Neville’s absolutely insane rich guy pad (he has a Jacuzzi sunk into the middle of the floor in his red-carpeted bed room) and everywhere in between, this film offers plenty to look at. He even shows what the back half of a Salvation Army looks like. I didn’t know I wanted to see that, but I did! We also get glimpses of a film processing operation and Coney Island in the off-season (which looked like a bomb had gone off). It’s these layers that show how well Cohen knew how to work a film. He nails the story, the characters, the actors (who are all stellar in this film especially Lund,) the moments and their surroundings so well that I can’t help but be sucked right in. This is a lived-in world that’s alien to me, but I want the thrill of peaking in and seeing just a bit of how it works.

Though it sometimes does feature incredibly exciting, heartbreaking and gut-wrenching scenes, this film isn’t quite an action film and I don’t know if I’d call it a horror picture, though many of those elements are there. It’s not a mystery so much, because we know the killer and the way the movie dances, you’re not even sure if it’s going to be about anyone figuring out the real culprit. I love how hard it is to categorize Special Effects.

When we first meet Neville, he asks what’s the difference between footage of someone actually being killed and a fictional scene of the same content. It’s fascinating to see Bognosian’s Neville process that very idea throughout the film as he loses touch with humanity and only sees elements meant to be manipulated for his film. It’s also interesting to think about his own question as we get closer to computers being able to seamlessly render anything. What becomes of reality if everything looks real? What becomes of fiction? In so many ways, Cohen seemed ahead of the curve — something he even talked about when appearing on some of my favorite podcasts, Shock Waves — and it will be fascinating to see how this film’s central question plays out as Hollywood gains the potential to get rid of all those pesky actors and cast using computer models of anyone from any time.

I absolutely loved watching Hell Up In Harlem and Special Effects and am super glad I scored these discs. I definitely want to re-watch Stuff and Q, but also have the entire It’s Alive trilogy on DVD that I’m itching to dive into. However, I’ve got a box from Kino Lorber coming, not to mention a few other recent purchases and very little free time, so we’ll see how that goes!

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