OK, I admit it; I am a closeted Larry Cohen fan. I got my first taste of Larry Cohen’s handiwork when my friend Sam and I scored a VHS copy of the then notorious 1974 baby-killing-everyone-in-its-way film, “It’s Alive.” A film where a baby is born deformed and when the obstetrician tries to kill it, it goes all rip and tear on all who threaten it. Despite its bizarre concept, “Its Alive” was a sharp piece of satire on the abortion movement (Roe v. Wade was only a year earlier) and remains as Cohen’s most popular film as it did spawn (no pun intended) two more sequels. “It’s Alive” is not Cohen’s first attempt at directing a satire on the current state of American culture, his debut film “Bone,” would be Cohen’s opening and comedic salvo at an America rotting from the top down.
“Bone” begins with super car salesman, Bill Lennox (Andrew Duggan) pitching his wares which consist of mauled bodies in trashed cars during a fantasy television commercial sequence that clearly eludes to Godard’s 1967 classic, “Weekend.” I say this because reality kicks in soon afterwards, as we soon see a bourgeois Bill with his luxurious wife Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) going through the motions in a faux paradise while Bill secretly knows that it is all a façade. And to make things worse, there is a rat in pool’s filter, a big black rat, and Bill isn’t going to fish it out and neither will Bernadette. What is there to do? Here enters our “hero,” Bone (Yaphet Kotto).
Bone first comes off as what Spike Lee would call, “a magical negro,” you know, helpful with a dash of subservience, like Harry Belafone in 1970’s “The Angel Levine,” but that doesn’t last long. Soon, “Bone” gets down to business as he has been spying on the Lennox’s lavish home and he makes the natural but incorrect assumption that there is a lot of cash waiting inside which is soon finds is not there. Yes, the Lennox’s are mired in debt but after rifling through the Lennox’s home, Bone finds a bankbook and it seems that Bill has stashed away five grand without Bernadette’s knowledge. Now Bill must go out and get the money from the bank or else Bone would take out his rage on Bernadette in a not too pleasant threat of rape and beheading.
For the rest of the film, Bill and Bernadette are apart and experience two different kinds of journeys. Bill is offered a loan from his bank as opposed to full cash withdrawal. Being that he now has this option, Bill doesn’t seem too anxious to get home and wanders through Los Angeles until he finds a bar where he meets the dentally obsessed boozehound, Brett Somers, of TV’s “Match Game” fame. They share a drink and a view at her ex-husband’s dental records until he tires and flees into the company of a random kleptomaniac, played by the biggest name actress in the film, Jeannie Berlin, who had just received massive kudos from her role in “The Heartbreak Kid.” They plunder a supermarket and Bill eats a stolen steak with our klepto at her fabulous pad as she goes on about her many schemes to get free products and money. Bill quickly learns that she is no less the conman than himself and they go at it quickly before Bill decides to split.
Bernadette meanwhile has the daunting task of entertaining Bone, and first she tries to do so with her best upper class whiles which do not sit well. She offers to cook for him and after that fails, Bone’s thoughts turn to sexual assault which at first repels Bernadette, but then after putting up a small fight, she agrees to the rape which immediately deflates Bone’s imposing mojo and he seems defeated. After a bit of talking out of Bone’s loss of “nigger mystique,” they both have consensual sex and team up to go after Bill, who they feel has done them both wrong. There is a lot in this segment that will not sit well with the political correctness of this era, but it doesn’t make its overall message wrong by any means.
Bill and Bernadette’s individual dystopian journeys in “Bone” are what set it apart from so many of the well-intentioned but flawed racial films of its era. “Bone” is mean and quite funny at times, but unlike films like “Watermelon Man,” it pulls no punches and really gets at white America’s fear of the scary, uncontrollable black man and its own decaying class imperative. It’s 1972 after all, and racial issues are still on the forefront of the press coverage, as is the war in Vietnam, which is handled here in another one of the Lennox’s lies as they claim that their son is a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who we eventually find out is just another rich white kid who skipped out on the draft and is serving time in Spain for smuggling hash.
“Bone” did not fare well at the theaters. It was originally distributed in suburban markets as a tawdry expose and titled “Beverley Hills Nightmare.” After that failure, it was repackaged for black audiences as “Dial Rat For Murder” and “Bone” which also didn’t work, so they splattered the poster with an image of the film’s only big name, Jeannie Berlin, and renamed it “Housewife” for a chance to cash in on her fame in the arthouse circuit, which unfortunately did not work either.
Don’t Let The Title Fool You, It’s “BONE”
This would hardly be the end of Larry Cohen, who would direct two fairly popular films in 1973 with blaxpolitation film legend Fred Williamson, entitled “Black Caesar” and “Hell Up in Harlem” before scoring his biggest hit with the aforementioned “It’s Alive.” Cohen’s critical masterpiece “God Told Me To” about a deranged serial killer who receives divine inspiration to murder would be a couple of years later. Most of Cohen’s later efforts would be less on satire and more on the pure horror side with films like “Q” and “The Stuff.”
Sometimes entertaining and always audacious, Larry Cohen is the kind of exploitation film writer and director that is so sorely missing from today’s films. The kind of nasty, uncompromising filmmaker who is needed to get out the true message of an America rotting from the head down.