A rental shop mainstay that never made the great technological leap to DVD (and thus dropped out of circulation in the UK for some while), Larry Cohen's deranged 1990 thriller The Ambulance has popped up in a workable print on YouTube. It's the one with a luxuriantly bemulleted Eric Roberts, in the final seconds of his leading-man career, as an illustrator for a down-at-heel Manhattan incarnation of Marvel Comics - there's an early Stan Lee cameo - who helps diabetic Janine Turner into the back of an ambulance after she collapses outside his office, only to then learn she never arrived at any of New York's legitimate hospitals. What follows is a dottily plotted cherchez la femme runaround in which our hero is assisted in his quest by a real ragbag of co-stars: James Earl Jones as a complacent, cantankerous detective ("One thing about women - they always show up!"), veteran Red Buttons the wardmate who helps Roberts flee the hospital he gets himself admitted to, TVM regular Megan Gallagher the plucky cop who may be a better match for old mullethead than the gal he starts the movie aggressively hitting on. Everyone's dialled up to eleven or twelve, either to compete with Jay Chattaway's none-more-1990 synth score, or because they realise Cohen's armed them with lines worth shouting to the heavens. Instructed by a nurse that it's time for him to go pass water, Buttons retorts: "I'm 73. I've peed enough."
We are some distance from the aspirational New York of countless canonical Eighties/Nineties titles: while fleeing his pursuers, Roberts stumbles into an entirely unrelated murder scene. Matters proceed instead with a wild-eyed conspiracy nut's sense for what might be going on beneath the noses of the city's ivory towers, in this case a softly spoken doctor (German-born Eric Braeden, found shortly before taking up residency on TV's The Young and the Restless) carting innocents off to "private research" centres. Cohen fosters a gaudy bad-dream aesthetic (not too far removed from the default aesthetic of the late Eighties DTV thriller), but auteurists will have to wrestle with a feeling the movie barely seems to be under anybody's control. The quality fluctuates wildly from scene to scene - Roberts, in particular, illustrates just why his career went so badly off the rails - though it still somehow generates moments that might legitimately seem like great cinema even if you weren't approaching the the bottom of your fourth can of lager: the hero escaping the ambulance while strapped down to a gurney, or that ambulance smashing into a nightclub mere minutes before a much-trumpeted bikini contest is set to begin. The kind of lively, chancy pulp our minor studios once ran a surplus of, back when directors were being hired to take risks - and its genuinely spooky shots of the glowing ambo tearing off into the night appear to have registered with Lars von Trier in the run-up to making The Kingdom.
The Ambulance is now streaming on YouTube.