I have been a fan of writer/director Larry Cohen ever since viewing his 1970s classics The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) and It Lives Again (1978). Cohen was a true American maverick who preferred to work rapidly and cheaply in order to make movies his own way with a minimum of studio interference. I was able to examine the screenplays discussed in this article after they were acquired directly from the Larry Cohen estate by Walter Reuben of walterfilm.com, and I would like to thank Walter for loaning them to me. Any person or institution interested in purchasing these original manuscripts may do so through the WalterFilm website.
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BONE. Produced and directed by Larry Cohen. Screenplay titled “UNREAL” by Larry Cohen (undated). U.S. Release/New World Pictures – July 1972. 118 pp.
A writer/director’s first feature is often his most ambitious (see, e.g., Orson Welles and Citizen Kane). Such is the case with Larry Cohen’s 1972 directorial debut, Bone, a self-produced independent movie that combines elements of black comedy, art film, satire, and theater of the absurd.
Prior to writing and directing Bone, New York City-born Larry Cohen (1936-2019) was an accomplished television and motion picture writer, working on everything from Kraft Television Theater to The Defenders, and he was responsible for the creation of two successful TV series, Branded (1965-1966) and The Invaders (1967-1968). Cohen would later make a name for himself as a director of horror (It’s Alive, God Told Me To) and blaxploitation films (Black Caesar, Hell up in Harlem). Bone foreshadows his work in both genres.
In fact, the eclectic nature of Bone made it an extremely difficult film to market. Its on-screen title was Bone, A Bad Day in Beverly Hills (suggesting the movie’s essentially comedic nature), but distributors tried selling it under titles as varied and misleading as Housewife (attempting to market it as a sex film) and its British title Dial Rat for Terror (attempting to sell it as a horror film). Bone is essentially a home invasion story – a black man coming from nowhere disturbs the lives of an affluent Beverly Hills couple – but there are also elements of surrealism and fantasy. Hence, the screenplay’s original title, Unreal.
Clearly, the principal themes addressed by the movie are race and class, while also commenting on issues of consumer capitalism and sex. The four main characters are the white couple, Lenneck (Andrew Duggan) and his wife, Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten); Bone, the black intruder (Yaphet Kotto); and the girl Lenneck meets at a bank, referred to in the screenplay simply as “She” (Jeannie Berlin). As filmmaker Cohen points out in an audio commentary, each of the characters is in some way a fantasy of the others. For Lenneck and Bernadette, Bone embodies their fantasy of the stereotypical black intruder/rapist – hence, one of the screenplay’s key lines:
I’m just a big black buck doing what’s expected of him.
For Bone, Bernadette embodies his fantasy of the horny white housewife. For Lenneck, “She” embodies his fantasy of having sex with a younger woman. For “She,” Lenneck embodies her fantasy of having sex with the older man who molested her when she was an 11-year-old in a Loew’s movie theater balcony.
The screenplay begins with the following image that plays under the movie’s title credits:
A bare light bulb dangling by a frayed cord. It burns brightly – insistently – blindingly –
As we learn later, the bulb hangs in a jail cell occupied by the white couple’s 18-year-old son – they tell everyone he’s a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, but he is actually incarcerated in a Spanish prison for selling hashish. The fact that the screenplay begins with the bare bulb and ends with the son smashing it suggests that the entire story might be his fantasy of his parents’ destruction.
The sequence that immediately follows the opening shot shows Lenneck – he owns a car dealership – standing in an automobile graveyard making a sales pitch to the camera:
Hi friends. It’s me again, Bill. Bill Lenneck. Lenneck’s Auto Circus right out here where the friendly freeways meet.
Per the screenplay, the camera pulls back to show piles of wrecked cars, “some five stores high,” and inside the wrecked cars, the bloodied corpses of accident victims. This imagery, reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Weekend, immediately sets us up for the mixture of satire, nightmare, and surrealism that is to follow.
Bone, searching the white couple’s house for money, discovers that they are, in fact, deeply in debt, although the husband has a secret bank account in which he has stashed $5,000. Bone threatens to rape the wife and slice her throat with a gold letter opener afterward if Lenneck does not go to the bank and return with the $5,000 within the hour. (It is significant that Bone carries no weapons himself other than his “blackness.”) While at the bank, Lenneck runs into “She” and digresses to have an affair with her, rather than returning home with the money, not at all disturbed by the likelihood that Bone will kill Bernadette during his absence. In the meantime, Bone and Bernadette become allies and plot to murder Lenneck, Double Indemnity-style. Most of the screenplay intercuts between scenes of the two couples – Bone and Bernadette; Lenneck and the eccentric grifter, “She.”
This particular copy of the screenplay was Cohen’s personal shooting script – the completed film follows the screenplay closely – and it is heavily annotated in pencil and ink by the writer/director. The annotations consist of notes on camera placement (“360’ camera turn around phone”), indications of business, lines underlined for emphasis, and additional dialogue. For example, when Bone and Bernadette find Lenneck’s life insurance policy, Bernadette comments, “From here on WE’RE IN GOOD HANDS,” to which Cohen has added in pencil a line for Bone, “I know all about them good hands.”
Bone is a prime example of ‘70s “New American Cinema.” Cohen’s screenplay ends with Bernadette beating her husband to death on a sand dune, with no physical help from the bystander Bone. And then Bone disappears as magically as he appeared in the first place – suggesting he may never have existed at all.
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THE SECRET FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER. (Released as THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Produced and directed by Larry Cohen. Screenplay draft by Larry Cohen dated March 12, 1975 (per handwriting on title page). U.S. Release/ American International Pictures – December 1977. 166 pp.
Film theorist Robin Wood called Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover “perhaps the most intelligent film about politics ever to come out of Hollywood.”
Larry Cohen was an extraordinarily prolific and inventive filmmaker, who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for more than 40 produced feature films, and directed 19 of them. He was most associated with the horror or “monster” genre, his most important films in that genre being Its Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976), It Lives Again (1978), Q – The Winged Serpent (1982), and A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987). In The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Cohen chose to examine a real-life monster.
The film is a fictionalized chronicle of the life of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, from his earliest days in the FBI in the 1920s until his death in 1972. Like almost all political biographies made in Hollywood since the early 1940s, it is heavily influenced by Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It begins, as Kane does, with the death of its protagonist and then flashes back to show the major events in his life, how “Top Cop” Hoover (Broderick Crawford – born to play the part) interacted over the years with a diverse cast of characters, including supporters – like longtime associate and rumored lover, Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey) – and enemies – like Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (Michael Parks). Crammed with historical detail, mixing stock footage with recreated scenes shot on the actual locations where they occurred, Cohen’s Hoover foreshadows the formal strategies employed by Oliver Stone in his historical/political films JFK and Nixon.
Like Stone with Nixon and Welles with Kane, Cohen revels in the contradictions of his central character. We see Hoover’s good side – how when foreign-born “radicals” were imprisoned and deported during the 1920s “Palmer raids,” Hoover insisted on the prisoners’ rights to counsel and other constitutional rights; how he resisted in the 1940s when President Franklin Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) and California Attorney General Earl Warren wanted to confiscate the property of Japanese Americans and place them in internment camps. And we see Hoover’s bad side – his bullying, his blackmailing, his obsessive surveillance of everyone and everything, and his ultra-puritanical attitude toward sex.
Concerning the controversial issue of Hoover’s sexuality – his relationship with Clyde Tolson – Cohen, interviewed by The Flashback Files, took the position that it was homosocial, but not consciously homoerotic:
As far as I could ascertain there was never a physical relationship between Hoover and Colson. They were two old bachelors who liked to go to the ball game and the race track and that was it. There was no romance. All that stuff about Hoover putting on women’s clothing was a total lie. Every responsible historian has for the last fifteen years written that that was nonsense. Never happened. It was a subject for late night comedians to tell jokes about and they perpetuated this falsehood.
Whether historically accurate or not, Cohen’s position supports his screenplay’s thematic premises. As Robin Wood observes:
The presentation of Hoover-as-monster rests on the notion that his repression is total, that he is incapable of acknowledging a sexual response to anyone, male or female.
Hoover’s sexuality, such as it is, expresses itself mainly through voyeurism, through listening in on tape recordings of the sexual activities of others.
Cohen’s March 1975 screenplay is a preliminary draft of what he eventually filmed. The movie’s structure is substantially the same, but the dialogue has been tweaked and improved, and there were obviously some adjustments that had to be made in order to accommodate budget and the availability of Washington D.C. locations. Sequences were added and deleted. Scenes concerning the Lindbergh kidnapping were omitted from the completed film. Likewise a subplot involving a Nazi German saboteur. At least one character who figures prominently in this draft – a corrupt 1920s agent by the name of Gaston Means – was eliminated entirely.
The screenplay begins, as noted, with Hoover’s death:
CLOSEUP – A PAIR OF LIPS AT A TELEPHONE MOUTHPIECE
forming these words:
The man is dead!
This “Rosebud”-like opening shot is followed by a montage of various people reacting – FBI employees, politicians, and the press – and images of voluminous files being gathered and shredded.
The movie begins in more or less the same way, but the “Rosebud” lips have been eliminated, and, significantly, unlike in the screenplay, one of the first people we see reacting is the man who loved Hoover most, Clyde Tolson (referred to pseudonymously in this draft as “Lyle Guthrie”), who will emerge in many ways as the movie’s true hero, the man who the film suggests brought down the Nixon administration with Hoover’s secret files.
Another character in this draft who is eliminated from the completed film is someone referred to simply as RETIRED AGENT. His function in this draft – to provide explanatory voice-over in certain sequences – has been shifted to the younger idealistic agent, Dwight Webb, played in the movie by Rip Torn.
Cohen surmised correctly that it was a top Hoover lieutenant – Clyde Tolson in the movie, Mark Felt in real life – who, as “Deep Throat,” was principally responsible for exposing President Nixon and his Cabinet’s responsibility for the Watergate crimes. As the screenplay’s narrator concludes in voice-over:
– And some have been heard to speculate that if the hand of J. Edgar Hoover had reached back from beyond the grave . . . he couldn’t have done it any better himself.
An uncompromising look at 20th-century America’s political history, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover was among the most complex and ambitious projects that writer/director Cohen ever attempted and was, clearly, his masterpiece.
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J. DGAR HOOVER. Larry Cohen’s original manuscript (with much added handwritten dialogue and descriptions). Undated. 243 pp. (numbered in pencil)
Larry Cohen’s “original manuscript” titled J. Edgar Hoover predates The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover screenplay described above (released as The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover). It is copiously annotated and corrected by the writer/director. This “original manuscript” was plainly Cohen’s first draft. The later March 12, 1975, draft is essentially an edited version of this “original manuscript” with Cohen’s handwritten dialogue and other material retyped into readable form.
However, Cohen’s “original manuscript” is also substantially longer and contains significantly more dialogue than the March 1975 draft, much of it crossed out but still readable (in case the writer changed his mind and wanted to reinsert it). Here, for example, is an exchange (crossed out by Cohen), following Hoover’s death at the beginning of the film, between Senator Ashland and the idealistic Agent Webb (Rip Torn) who admired Hoover but was often critical of his methods.
You must have been rather bitter.
I wrote a few letters of protest . . . but I was lucky he didn’t have me resign with prejudice. That would have meant I couldn’t work for any other investigative branch of the government.
Much of the principal interest of the “original manuscript” – aside from seeing so much of the film’s dialogue and scene descriptions handwritten by Cohen – is noticing all the tweaks, corrections, and omissions that occurred between this manuscript and the March 1975 draft.
Many whole scenes were eliminated, for example, a sequence in which the real-life newspaper columnist Art Buchwald looked directly into the camera and provided a little “background”:
J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t exist, He is a mythical person first thought up by the Readers Digest – and over the years, he has become such a legend that no president has dared reveal the truth.
This is immediately followed by another scene – eliminated from subsequent drafts – in which a member of the American Legion speaks:
Today, we have lost our greatest bulwark against communism. . . .
This parade of witnesses and testimonials is more than a little reminiscent of the opening reels of Citizen Kane – which may be why Cohen deleted much of it. On another page – entirely handwritten by Cohen – the character known as “Retired Agent” informs a newspaperman:
He never really changed you know. Never had girlfriends even back then. . . .
Which sets us up for the extended flashback to Hoover’s life that makes up the remainder of the film, starting with a scene of Hoover as a young cadet in military school (not in the movie), followed by a scene of 24-year-old attorney Hoover in a Washington, D.C., meeting with Attorney General Palmer as the latter plans the infamous “Palmer raids” in which communists and other suspected radicals were arrested en masse. This section of the script has been heavily crossed out and rewritten.
We are introduced to the women in Hoover’s life – his doting mother, “Nanny,” and first potential girlfriend, Carrie Dewitt (played in the movie by Ronee Blakely). These scenes have also been extensively crossed out and rewritten in this manuscript. The relationship with Carrie goes nowhere, because paranoid Hoover believes he is being set up:
What would a girl like you want with me – if she weren’t being paid?
Hoover’s “boy scout” reputation is what eventually gets him appointed as head of the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation – following the corruption of the Harding administration – and the Bureau’s interaction with the bootleggers and gangsters of the 1930s is what propels him to national prominence – that and a carefully orchestrated multimedia public relations effort on Hoover’s behalf that becomes one of the screenplay’s principal themes:
I’m sick to death of the newspapers and pulp magazines glorifying these outlaws. Maybe it’s time we fought fire with fire.
The death of Hoover’s mother leads to an intriguing scene, not included in the movie, with Clyde Tolson and Hoover standing over Hoover’s mother’s grave, suggesting that Tolson has, in fact, taken her place in Hoover’s life. In another narrative thread, we see Hoover interacting with the various presidents under whom he served. We see FDR giving Hoover permission – not in writing – to conduct surveillance on Nazis, communists, and other suspected subversives:
This conversation was the only authority Hoover ever had to spy on American citizens, tap their phones, bug their apartments, invade their privacy, and he kept right on doing it for thirty years.
In another scene, omitted from subsequent drafts and the movie, Hoover clashes with President Truman over Truman’s formation of the rival Central Intelligence Agency. Hoover’s greatest clash will be with Attorney General Robert Kennedy (played brilliantly in the film by Michael Parks), in some ways Hoover’s doppelganger – a threat to Hoover’s power that ends when Robert’s brother John is assassinated. Hoover dies during the Nixon administration, another president with whom he clashed, but according to Cohen’s screenplay, it was Hoover’s secret files that finally brought Nixon down in conjunction with the Watergate scandal, and that Hoover’s longtime partner Clyde Tolson was the “Deep Throat” who delivered the damaging information contained in those files to the Washington Post.
Hoover emerges as a monster of repression, admired, detested, and pitied in equal measure by screenwriter Cohen, and Cohen’s original J. Edgar Hoover manuscript is, consequently, a fascinating read. The movie, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, that eventually resulted from it may be one of the finest political movies of the ‘70s, but one can only regret that Cohen did not have the time and budget to make the four-hour epic he envisioned in this initial draft.
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IT’S ALIVE 3: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. Produced by Paul Stader. Directed by Larry Cohen. Revised original screenplay by Larry Cohen dated January 26, 1986. U.S. Release/Warner Brothers – July 1972. 117 pp.
The original It’s Alive (1974) was the biggest box-office success of writer/director Larry Cohen’s career, one of the highest-grossing films Warner Bros. distributed during the 1970s. Inevitably there were sequels, both of them written and directed by Cohen: It Lives Again (aka It’s Alive 2) released in 1978, and It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, released in 1987.
The fascination of the mutant babies in It’s Alive (“There’s only one thing wrong with the Davis baby . . . It’s alive”) and its sequels lies in the filmmaker’s ambivalent attitude toward them. On the one hand, they are super-strong “monsters,” grotesquely fearsome-looking, and homicidal when they feel threatened. On the other hand, they might represent the next necessary step in human evolution, genetically equipped to survive the increasingly polluted world that gave birth to them. The story arc of both It’s Alive and It Lives Again is that of initially repelled parents who eventually learn to accept and love their children, even though they are “different.” (And that “difference” could be a metaphor for any way in which a child is different from his or her parents, be it skin color, body type, sexual orientation, or religious or political beliefs.)
In the first film, there was one mutant baby who was killed at the end. In the second film, there were two mutant babies born to two other sets of parents. As for the third film:
I thought if I was going to make a third movie, I had to follow this story through to some kind of new and satisfying resolution. So, I asked myself some questions: what are these babies like as adults? What is the monster going to look like when it physically develops and ages? I thought those were important questions to answer and deal with. Otherwise, there was no point in making the movie if I was just going to have a load of monster babies running around again, killing people. The second film was, to a degree, different from the first because the protagonists were trying to save the monsters. In the third film, we got all of the monster birth stuff out of the way in the prologue and gave the audience their horror. The rest of the movie was more of an exploration of Jarvis’s character and the progress of the monster children. I thought that differentiation from the events of the previous pictures made Island of the Alive a worthwhile project.1
Sympathy for the Monster
Cohen’s Island of the Alive screenplay begins with one of the most conceptually impressive set pieces to be found in any of his movies, a courtroom scene whose resolution will affect the fates of all of the mutant babies, born and yet-to-be-born. On one side, we have the special prosecutor Ralston (Gerritt Graham) arguing for the State’s right to execute the dangerous mutant children – as it has been doing – on sight.
Your honor, let’s not let this be degraded into a maudlin display of sympathy by depicting these creatures as “infants.” I can’t account for them. Science can’t account for them. But let us never mistake them for human beings.
On the other side, we have the plaintiff’s attorney, Robbins (a male in the screenplay, but played by a woman in the film), and her client, the story’s protagonist, Jarvis, played by Cohen’s favorite leading actor, Michael Moriarty, who argue for the mutant babies’ right to survive – in particular, his mutant baby. The scene intensifies when Jarvis’s baby is unexpectedly brought into the courtroom, caged, angry, and enchained, with a metal collar around his neck. Jarvis’s attorney tells him that if the prosecutor can show the elderly judge (Macdonald Carey) that Jarvis is afraid of his own child, then he’s won. Jarvis confides to his attorney:
I don’t want him to die, but I’m scared shitless of him.
Jarvis is asked to approach the cage, and identify the creature. He does so, with great trepidation, and goes even further than asked, placing his hand inside the cage to caress the infant. However, when a security guard reaches for his gun, the frightened creature breaks out of its cage and leaps onto the judge’s bench. Jarvis intervenes, calming the “monster child,” who begins to cry (!) as Jarvis takes it into his arms. The judge, concluding that the baby is human after all, orders that the executions cease, but that the five surviving mutant children be quarantined to a remote tropical island, away from all human contact, setting up the story’s basic premise.
Cohen addresses some very hot-button issues in this sequence, notably the “right to life.” One major difference between this screenplay and the completed movie is that the movie adds a horrific prologue in which a woman gives birth to one of the mutant babies inside a New York cab, and a cop fires four bullets into the child, who murders him in return. Investigators later discover the body of the baby in a church where the wounded infant has crawled to baptize itself before dying – adding a surprisingly Roman Catholic twist to a film directed by a Jewish American auteur. Another major difference between the screenplay and the film is the degree to which Cohen and his leading actor Moriarty improvised lines and business on the set, for example, Jarvis telling his frightened child in court not to “let the assholes win.”
The screenplay then introduces us to Jarvis’s estranged wife, the child’s mother (Karen Black), who is working under another name in a Florida bar. Failing to reconnect with her, Jarvis is picked up by a prostitute in an amusement park arcade who becomes horrified after sleeping with him and realizing that he is the notorious “father of the monster.” In an audio commentary, Cohen recalled critics who interpreted this scene as a comment on the ’80s AIDS crisis (the public’s fear of being in contact with someone who had the disease), and Cohen stated that this was, in fact, his intention.
There are two expeditions to the island where the babies are quarantined. The first is sponsored by a pharmaceutical manufacturer who wants to prove its product is not responsible for the mutations. All of the members of that expedition are slaughtered. The screenplay has two additional island-related scenes not included in the completed movie. In the first, we see a board meeting of the pharmaceutical executives planning the expedition and its objective – to murder the infants. In the second unfilmed sequence, a French photographer and his crew of beautiful bikini models land on the island, with predictably disastrous results.
Five years pass, and there is another expedition, scientific in purpose, bringing along Jarvis in the hope that he can act as intermediary between the scientists and the children. Most of that expedition, to the extent they are perceived as threats, are also slaughtered by the children – who are now full-grown, telepathic, and capable of reproduction – and the screenplay’s final act sees the mutants and Jarvis sailing the expedition’s boat to Florida to find the Jarvis child’s mother.
In his audio commentary, Cohen said the principal difference between Island of the Alive and the earlier It’s Alive films is the amount of manic humor in the screenplay, an element that became more and more pronounced in his movies after he began working with Michael Moriarty in Q – The Winged Serpent (1982). Island of the Alive mixes drama, outrageous humor, wild imagination, and social commentary in a manner unique to Larry Cohen.
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A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT. Produced by Larry Cohen and Paul Kurta. Directed by Larry Cohen. Screenplay treatment by Larry Cohen, undated – 38 pp. Revised screenplay by Larry Cohen, dated January 26, 1986 – 117 pp. Based on characters created by Stephen King. U.S. Release/Warner Brothers – September 11, 1987
Larry Cohen’s two greatest assets as a writer/filmmaker are his conceptual brilliance and the way he works with actors. In A Return to Salem’s Lot, he took the original ideas of Stephen King’s 1975 best-selling novel ‘Salem’s Lot (filmed as a 1979 TV miniseries by Tobe Hooper) and added his own distinctively Cohenian twists.
A Return to Salem’s Lot was part of a two-picture deal Cohen made with Warner Bros. that began when Cohen went to the studio with Andre De Toth and pitched them the idea of remaking De Toth’s House of Wax (1953). Uninterested in the House of Wax remake, the studio suggested as an alternative that Cohen should make something for their direct-to-video division, a sequel to his 1974 hit It’s Alive. Cohen said okay on the condition that Warner would finance two films to be shot back-to-back, the idea being that shooting two films in this way using the same crew and some of the same actors could provide greater production value for both projects. The two films that resulted were Island of the Alive, the third film in the It’s Alive franchise, shot mostly in Hawaii, and A Return to Salem’s Lot, another project with name-brand recognition, shot mostly in New England.
In the first paragraph of a treatment accompanying the screenplay, Cohen described the basic premise of his ‘Salem’s Lot sequel as follows:
Imagine a small village nestled in the New England countryside populated by vampires. A vampire community that lives only at night, a village that has survived this way for centuries. Here in this place where the pilgrims came seeking asylum from persecution in Europe, came the world’s most persecuted sect – the vampires themselves. Seeking in the New World a place to hide and to multiply.
Cohen’s sequel departs from King’s original in several significant respects. In the King novel and miniseries, a vampire, Mr. Barlow, and his familiar arrive in the town of Jerusalem’s Lot and proceed to vampirize the entire community. In Cohen’s version, the vampires have dominated the town since the early 1600s. In the King version, the vampires are fought by a trio of males, a young man, an old man, and boy. In Cohen’s sequel, the vampires are also fought by a trio of young man, old man, and boy, but they are not the same three as in the King version. In fact, none of the characters from King’s version reappear in the Cohen sequel.
Like most of Cohen’s best films, A Return to Salem’s Lot has a political subtext. His genteel vampires are “old money,” a metaphor for America’s white, propertied ruling class, and the screenplay’s dialogue emphasizes their wealth:
We’re all wealthy people. Can you imagine how rich you’d be if you got to live three hundred years?
What with just real estate alone. And we own land on Boston Common and property all up and through Maine and New Hampshire – why, vampire life and financial security go together.
Which is why some commentators have referred to the bloodsuckers in this Reagan-era film as “Republican vampires.”
During the daytime while the vampires are asleep, the town is managed by working-class “drones,” a race of human-vampire hybrids, raised by the vampires to take care of all the menial tasks that need doing and to protect their vampire overlords. In short, the vampires are a metaphor for the one-percent, while the exploited drones represent everyone else. The drones, in turn, raise cattle that are the primary source for the blood the vampires need to survive when they are not feeding on the occasional human.
The screenplay’s first act introduces us to Joe (Michael Moriarty), a renowned anthropologist who returns to the States from filming tribes in South America in order to take care of Jeremy, his troubled 11-year-old son. In the second act, Joe and Jeremy travel to Salem’s Lot, where a relative has left Joe some property, and they meet the community of vampires, led by the distinguished Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan). As it turns out, Judge Axel has brought Joe to Salem’s Lot for the specific purpose of employing Joe’s skills as an anthropologist to write a chronicle of the vampire settlement. Joe and Jeremy are gradually seduced into the vampire community – Joe by a childhood sweetheart, a vampire, still looking like the beautiful 17-year-old he remembers from so many years ago; and Jeremy by a vampire girl-child who appears to be the same age he is. In the third act, an elderly stranger named Van Meers arrives (a part written for and played by director Samuel Fuller), a Nazi hunter like the real-life Simon Wiesenthal who will soon turn into a vampire hunter when he realizes the Nazi-like nature of the community he has stumbled upon. He, in turn, will free Joe and Jeremy from the influence of the vampires (“Disenchantment has set in”), and the three of them will band together to destroy the community of monsters.
There are no major differences, apart from some tweaking of the dialogue, between the screenplay’s first act as written by Cohen and the way he films it. The second act, on the other hand, in which Joe and Jeremy arrive in Salem’s Lot, has been considerably revised and reordered, mainly to introduce the vampire horror threat much sooner. The movie includes a brief montage of the town’s New England homes, not in the screenplay, with whispered voice-over by the vampire characters. We also see a scene not in the screenplay of some of the vampires waking up, reminiscent of a similar scene in Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula. The order of the first two vampire attacks – one by the child vampires on a pair of hoboes, the second by adult vampires on a group of teenagers – has been reversed, and in the latter scene the movie introduces a hideous Nosferatu-like monster, amping up the scare factor, who turns out to be “other face” of the kindly-appearing Judge Axel. The film’s third act, dominated by the Fuller character, has been somewhat revised so that the boy Jeremy, actively involved in the screenplay’s vampire killing, is left behind in a church in the movie, all the better to be captured by the vampires and used as a hostage.
Throughout the screenplay and film, there is imagery that links the vampires with America and its Founding Fathers. A classroom scene begins with the vampire children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Judge Axel is ultimately killed by the pole of an American flag used as a wooden stake.
The screenplay ends with a shot of our three heroes driving off into the morning sun. The movie, on the other hand, ends with shots of the vampires’ cattle, who represent how ordinary humans are perceived by the story’s elitist master race.
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Cohen, Larry. Audio commentary, Bone, Blue Underground DVD, 2016.
Cohen, Larry. Audio commentary, It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, Warner Bros. Pictures DVD, 2004.
Cohen, Larry. Interview, The Flashback Files, https://www.flashbackfiles.com/larry-cohen-interview
Doyle, Michael. Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, BearManor Media, 2015.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan, Columbia University Press, 1986.
- Larry Cohen interviewed by Michael Doyle in his book, Larry Cohen: The Stuff of Gods and Monsters. BearManor Media, 2015. [↩]