Join us for our year-long celebration of the USA World Premiere Movie in conjunction with Made-for-TV Mayhem! Check out out previous entries on THE FORGOTTEN here, MURDER BY NIGHT here, THE TICKET here, SNOW KILL here, DEADLY GAME here, ACCIDENTAL MEETING here, HITLER’S DAUGHTER here and ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT? here!
Larry Cohen has a long and celebrated history among genre fans, and he’s certainly had his name attached to a number of exploitation classics – IT’S ALIVE, BLACK CAESAR, BONE (covered this week by The Projection Booth’s great podcast here) and THE STUFF, just to name a few. While he’s continued to work as a screenwriter in recent years, he’s only directed two feature films since 1990, and while 1996’s ORIGINAL GANGSTAS is well-regarded enough to justify interest in a sequel, 1995’s AS GOOD AS DEAD is little more than a footnote.
That’s a common affliction among USA World Premiere Movies – even if they were pretty good (as AS GOOD AS DEAD is), they were so ephemeral that they’ve basically been lost to obscurity. Few have been issued on DVD, and most were so blandly marketed in their VHS incarnations that even the backing of a major video distributor (in this case, Paramount, whose television arm produced the film) couldn’t sell any video stores on more than a copy or two.
Make no mistake, AS GOOD AS DEAD is certainly a Made-for-USA movie, with the aforementioned quick pacing, interesting casts and plot twists that are simultaneously predictable and ridiculous intact. But it’s also very much a Larry Cohen film, and as writer, producer and director, he takes full control and works well within the limitations of the made-for-television movie, which should come as no surprise, considering his work on “The Intruders” TV series. It’s no Q THE WINGED SERPENT, of course, but it is an entertaining little ride that works as a low-key version of Cohen’s ‘80s thrillers like SPECIAL EFFECTS and PERFECT STRANGERS.
“Wings” (and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE II) star Crystal Bernard plays Susan Warfield, a relatively shy Texas girl who’s recently moved to Los Angeles in order to start a brave new career as some kind of office worker. While attempting to get into a hot new nightclub, she becomes connected (literally, via wardrobe malfunction) to outgoing hottie Nikki Grace (Traci Lords), a make-up artist and the object of all the boys’ affections. The two become fast friends, and Nicole admits to a sordid history of shoplifting and that, while she can get on plenty of guest lists, she can’t get a job to save her life. Susan begins to come out of her shell a bit and, honestly, I’d have been just fine if the movie was just about the friendship between the two.
This being a made-for-USA movie, of course, the plot has to kick in eventually, and it does so in the form of Nikki’s stomach ulcer. When she doubles over in pain, Susan insists they go to nearby hospital, and when Nikki reveals that she doesn’t have insurance (the perils of working freelance, an issue Cohen has no doubt had some experience with), Susan insists that she take her identity (and work-provided insurance) in order for her treatment to be covered.
This little insurance fraud plan doesn’t work out well, even with Susan covering her tracks by taking off of work with “women troubles” and leaving town when Nikki ends up needing surgery that will keep her hospitalized for a week. Susan returns home to find the operation bungled, Nikki dead and cremated thanks to someone claiming to be a brother (Susan had previously established that she was an only child whose father left when she was 2) and her apartment, job and money gone because she was assumed to have died in a hospital bed. It’s a bad day all around.
Susan does the only thing she can do – admit to everything and suffer the consequences of insurance fraud in order to get her life back. Ha, just kidding! She takes on Nikki’s identity, donning a blonde wig and using Nikki’s wardrobe of tight-fitting, skin-showing outfits in order to reinvent herself. Introducing herself as Susan’s friend, she begins investigating the mysterious brother and meets up with a man that she recognizes as the father who abandoned their family (George Dickerson), slowly uncovering a web of turmoil and danger that begins to have a body count of more than just a sultry make-up artist.
Judge Reinhold shows up over halfway through the film as a good-natured love interest whose car Susan/Nikki nearly hits, and the fact that Reinhold is top-billed should give you some clue that he’s more important than that. In fact, you’ll probably be able to figure things out even before he appears, as there aren’t any plot points in the film should come as much of a shock to anyone who’s, well, seen a movie before.
That doesn’t matter, however, as AS GOOD AS DEAD is still entertaining, thanks to Cohen’s screenwriting talents. Each character who speaks, no matter how insignificant, is given enough of a flair to their dialogue to make them feel like actual people rather than human traffic signals, just existing in order to move the plot along. From the nurses in the hospital to a random guy in a library, the world of AS GOOD AS DEAD is a compelling one simply because there’s enough of an energy to everyone on screen that you’re willing to overlook the predictability.
The biggest issue with AS GOOD AS DEAD isn’t the plotting, it’s a mildly miscast Bernard in the lead. As the mildly naïve Susan, Bernard doesn’t get the chance to bring out the brassy wit that she wielded in “Wings” and “It’s a Living,” and the idea of her going from wallflower to sexpot never really comes to fruition. It’s a shame, as Lords and Reinhold are both great and clearly enjoying themselves, and the relationships between the two of them and Susan are perfectly fun to watch. Susan’s adventures on her own, however, are more potential than execution.
AS GOOD AS DEAD is a solid melding of the voice of Cohen (even to the point of social commentary – hell, the whole plot hinges on lackluster health care, a hot topic after Hillary Clinton’s proposals of 1993) and the style of the USA World Premiere Movie, and one that should be better known in Cohen’s filmography. Sure, it’s no BEST SELLER, but it’s a solid enough way to kill 90 minutes – exactly what USA World Premiere Movies were made for.
And if that’s not enough, take this IMDb commenter’s review into consideration:
“The only reason I watched this was because I found both Crystal Bernard and Traci Lords very attractive. After Traci Lords died in the movie, the only reason I kept watching it was because Crystal Bernard had to dress up in all of Traci Lords mini dresses and she looked very sexy.”
Thank you, Donrmcm, for your input.
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