Coma Chameleon

  • videoarchives
  • September 27, 2022

Don’t take any drinks from suspiciously friendly surgeons before today’s episode of the Video Archives Podcast!

Quentin & Roger escape from the hospital just in time to discuss 1978’s Michael Crichton medical thriller Coma. Then they spend a fateful evening with two petty criminals for Elaine May’s underappreciated masterwork Mikey & Nicky….before hightailing it out of Lost River, chased by Joe Dante’s Piranha! This is a heavy-hitting triple feature, and I’ve got film facts and video covers galore on today’s Counter Talk…

Just like Jaws kept wary vacationers away from beaches a few years earlier, Coma was so convincingly terrifying, hospitals reported a drop in organ donations and other elective medical procedures in the wake of its release. Going under while doctors cut your body open is already plenty scary, but Crichton (adapting Robin Cook’s story) adds a layer of histrionic conspiracy that makes the film mesmerizing. Some hospitals even had to stop performing surgery in rooms numbered 8, like the room at the center of Coma’s diabolical plot.

This MGM Coma cover lingers on the image of bodies suspended in midair – eerie even if you haven’t seen the film, but especially chilling if you have:

The back of the box starts with a stern “Warning,” but there’s also a smaller “WARNING” at the bottom that’s been cut off. Oh no, what else do I need to be warned about??

I also have to include the original movie poster for Coma, if only for the phenomenal tagline:

For many years, the story of the making of Mikey & Nicky – how Elaine May shot 1.4 million feet of film (refusing to call “Cut” so she could capture hours of improv between Peter Falk and John Cassavetes), how Paramount sued for control and final cut of the film (even as May hid film reels in her garage so the studio couldn’t take them), and how Paramount eventually butchered the cut and gave the film a cursory release with no marketing – was more noteworthy than the film itself. It took another ten years for May’s version of the film to find release, and get the acclaim this heartbreaking two-hander between two actors at the top of their game always deserved.

Quentin & Roger’s discussion of Mikey & Nicky focuses in on the film itself, from the deftness of the story structure to the way Falk and Cassavetes’ long history informed their interplay. And how many other podcasters could get Elaine May on the phone to ask what inspired her to tell this story? That’s a Video Archives Podcast exclusive!

Considering Mikey & Nicky’s history, it feels churlish to critique the packaging – we should be grateful we got any release at all. But the cover of this Warner clamshell with Falk and Cassavetes’ heads in the crosshairs is pretty basic. (The short essay on the back is lovely, though.)

This poster accompanying the 80s re-release is better, with a neat twist on the smoking gun motif:

Still, my favorite is this original ‘76 poster - as rushed as the release may have been, the shadowy figures in flight here are perfect, and the tagline is hilarious. (And the ampersand has a little gun!)

Speaking of studios taking unfinished films away from demanding auteurs…the Piranha series has become a famous launching ground for young genre directors, from Alexandre Aja’s stint on Piranha 3D to James Cameron’s disavowed Piranha 2: The Spawning. Cameron, working with an Italian crew that didn’t speak English, had limited control over the production and wasn’t even allowed to watch the footage he shot afterwards. While it was technically his debut as a director, he was replaced after two weeks of shooting and never really considered Piranha 2 one of his own films. He did end up reusing some of the piranha effects he developed for Aliens, though, exemplifying the low-stakes experimentation that make these films such perfect playgrounds for young filmmakers.

Joe Dante’s own debut as a solo filmmaker, the first and greatest Piranha, endures today as a hilarious and sadistic treat – as Steven Spielberg called it, “the best of the Jaws ripoffs.” The classy presentation on this VHS cover belongs to a series dedicated to the man who made it all possible, New World Pictures impresario Roger Corman:

The back of the box has a wonderful quote from Corman that, like Roger and Quentin, praises Dante’s editorial prowess:

I’m always delighted when I see Video Archives fans popping up across the internet – this week, I found a TikTok from user @moviesorcinema, happily extolling the virtues of The One Armed Executioner, Welcome To Blood City and Blind Rage. Thanks for spreading the love on TikTok!

In our Merch Spotlight this week, big thanks to listener Gary Lime, showing us his Video Archives T-shirt in front of his “Bookcase of Doom”:

Next week, tune in to the After Show as we’ll have more thoughts on these three films (and continue a heated debate about Coma), plus the first installment of a new interview series with Roger, all about the history of Video Archives. Remember to rate and review us on Apple and Spotify, and tell your friends and social media folks about us too! See you next week everybody.