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With: Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, Megan Gallagher, Red Buttons, Janine Turner, Eric Braeden, Richard Bright, James Dixon, Jill Gatsby, Martin Barter, Laurene Landon, Nick Chinlund, Matt Norklun, Rudy Jones, Stan Lee
Written by: Larry Cohen
Directed by: Larry Cohen
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 91
Date: 03/22/1990

The Ambulance (1990)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Siren Call

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most lovable things about filmmaker Larry Cohen (It's Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, etc.) is that he cooks up the barest ideas for movies and then counts upon the general weirdness of New Yorkers to help fill in the gaps. For example, take The Ambulance, his 1990 feature film that was recently released on DVD. The single-sentence pitch line starts with a mysterious ambulance that drive around New York, randomly picking up people, none of whom are ever heard from again.

It begins as the creepy, pushy hero, comic book artist Josh Baker (Eric Roberts, with a horrendous mullet), meets a pretty girl (Janine Turner), and just about fast-talks his way into a date when she collapses and gets picked up by said ambulance. Josh then spends his every waking moment trying to find her. It's a good thing he's so pushy.

He tries to enlist the aid of a gum-chewing cop, Lieutenant Spencer (James Earl Jones), who seems more concerned about people looking at his schedule book. For no particular reason, Josh himself collapses and goes to a real hospital, where he meets a cranky old newspaperman, Elias Zacharai (Red Buttons). Elias reluctantly agrees to look into Josh's story, thinking it could win him a Pulitzer. Josh starts to figure out that only diabetics are disappearing; the ambulance gets a bit greedy and picks up three or four of them in a matter of about two days. Finally, Josh locates the evil headquarters: upstairs from a dance club.

The oddest thing about this movie is the way the characters relate to each other. No one ever appears to be talking to or listening to one another, and some of the dialogue seems hilariously inappropriate or misplaced, and yet no one seems surprised. Everyone seems to exist on some bizarre plane where they understand each other, even if it doesn't come across onscreen.

Almost from pure force of will alone, Cohen manages to push his silly idea and off-kilter characters through some kind of story arc and conclusion. But more impressive than the idea or the story is Cohen's awesome devotion, in spite of all logical and creative roadblocks.

MGM released The Ambulance on home video as part of its limited edition collection, similar to the Warner Archive. It's a basic DVD-R, with no real extras, but worth seeking out.

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