Larry Cohen's The Ambulance, Import Vs MOD

A few posts ago, I mentioned that if you're a serious Larry Cohen fan, you have to be prepared to track down obscure imports and MOD discs from the various major studios. Well, today we're going to look at a film that's been released as both; and the definitive version switched from one to the other. I'm talking about 1990's amusing thriller The Ambulance.

I'm pretty sure everybody who's ever seen The Ambulance has liked it. For non-Cohen fans it's probably just a faded memory of a flick they caught on cable or a weekend rental from Blockbuster, but a pleasant one. A movie that was just a little bit better than most of the others. It's not a showy movie; it's not a great work of art or anybody's favorite. I was going to say it's not ambitious, but actually, considering the cast they enlist even for the small roles, and some of the stunts they go for on an indie budget - they get several live horses running loose for one quick moment just to add a little extra excitement. So it is ambitious, and that's a big part of it's charm. While they could have easily gotten away with a very obvious, generic thriller, they take every opportunity surprise with a great line, creative plot twist, clever character moment and pretty much just making every moment better than you'd expect.
It's a charming story of Eric Roberts (in a complete 180 from the last film I just wrote about him in) as a lovesick comic book writer who falls for a woman he sees walking in the city streets during his lunch breaks. He finally gets up the nerve to talk to her when she passes out. An ambulance comes and collects her before he can get her last name, and the story is his journey to find her and make sure she's alright. But he has no idea just how sinister the ambulance to took her really is. It's such a great cast, from the major roles: Roberts, James Earl Jones, The Young & The Restless's Eric Braeden as the sinister villain and a surprisingly good turn by Red Buttons as a news reporter who gets wind of the story. To the small parts: Stan Lee as himself (Roberts' character doesn't just work for a generic comic book company, but Marvel Comics! Look for more authentic Marvel guys in the background), radio host Tim Byrd, Richard Bright and of course Cohen staple James Dixon.
So, for almost a decade, The Ambulance, like Full Moon High, was only available on Australian DVD. In fact, it was from the same company: Shock. Somebody over there must be a real Larry Cohen fan. Unlike Full Moon High, however, it was just a fullscreen transfer. But eventually, in 2011, MGM released it as one of their MOD discs. And happily, their disc is anamorphic widescreen, slightly letterboxed to a proper 1.85:1.

The MOD opens with a message stating that, "[t]his film has been manufactured using the best source material available." That had me expecting a damaged print or something; but it actually looks pretty fine for the most part. There is an issue or two, though, that I reckon it's in reference to.
MGM's 2011 MOD on top; Shock's 2003 DVD below.
The upshot for owners of the Shock disc, as you can see, is that it's open matte. Nothing was chopped off the sides or anything. And for the most part, it otherwise looks like exactly the same transfer; the MOD was just matted to 1.85:1. It's clearly the right way to view the film however; there's a lot of excess headroom on the Shock disc, and the framing just looks so much more artfully composed on the MOD. And that winds up becoming one more aspect that works in this film's favor, making it all the more enjoyable.

But let's get back to that warning. Here's why it's there:
MGM's 2011 MOD on top; Shock's 2003 DVD below.
There's this ugly ghosting effect on the MOD [top]. Why is it there? Did they take it from a PAL source? Was the best source material available... Oh jeez, I think it was. I think they only had Shock's PAL transfer (MGM was also involved with that disc) - or perhaps just weren't willing to pay to scan the film elements again for this new release; but their message promises us they used the best they had - and so they just transferred it to NTSC and matted it. ((sigh))

Still, the film looks a lot better matted, so to me the MOD easily wins out. But it's definitely one of those "here's the facts, now you decide for yourself" cases. The Shock disc has the added advantage of being a pressed sic of a DV-R, but it's still a single layer disc, so I don't think you're getting a big encode advantage either way. Sure, you dodge the PAL speed-up issue with the MOD if that irks you, but that's at the cost of a screwed up PAL to NTSC transfer, so I can't really rate that as a positive.
And if you're looking tor extras to push you in one direction or the other, I'm sorry to say that there's none to speak of on either disc. Not that I would have expected any; but we all know how awesome a Cohen commentary would've been. There's literally nothing on the MOD disc; even the menu is generic and the chapters are just randomly generated at 10 minute intervals. And the Shock release is almost as barren, not even a trailer, despite some misleading packaging. In fact, look at this:
You'd think from reading the above that the theatrical trailer might be included for this film? Ha ha ha.... So naive! No, it's not here, though there are bonus trailers for Vampire's Kiss and Monkey Shines. The photo gallery is on there, at least. It's mostly just stills from the film, but there is a nice shot of Cohen directing the actors. But yeah, I'm being desperate at this point. There's essentially no bonus features of value on either disc.
So yeah, I highly recommend the film for any Larry Cohen fan who hasn't seen it yet, and casually recommend it to anyone interested in an inexpensive B-movie for a good time. And if you're asking me which disc, I'd say the MGM MOD, but certainly a case could be made for either. I can at least promise it's going to be an entertaining watch whichever way you wind up going.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your review and comparison of this classic!