Few filmmakers have had as long a career, or as idiosyncratic a one, as Larry Cohen. He’s created TV shows, made classic horror movies, helped forge black cinema, and written high concept thrillers that percolated through each of the last four decades. He’s also one of those rarest of rare triple threats in Hollywood, a person who writes, directs and produces. And yet, despite having an IMDB.com page that lists 87 writing credits, 21 directing credits, and 20 producing credits, few know the name or face of this prolific artist. That’s about to change with the new documentary KING COHEN. It’s a tribute, as well as a chronicle of this maverick filmmaker. His work is well worth such a thorough examination, and even more worthy of being discovered anew by younger or unsuspecting audiences.
Documentary filmmaker Steve Miller tells the story here in a mostly straight-forward fashion, weaving Cohen’s personal history in sequence with the highlights of his career. It starts with his youth, when Cohen was a precocious whippersnapper, loving his family’s attention when he’d perform and displaying a distinct flair for what tickles an audience. He wanted to be a stand-up, adored the entertainment industry, and went to the movies 2-3 times a week for years. After attending New York city college, Cohen started writing scripts and soon was hawking them to producers down at Rockefeller Plaza.
It paid off. While barely in his 20’s, the tenacious and persuasive Cohen was writing scripts for hit shows like THE DEFENDERS and THE FUGITIVE. He penned dozens of them for almost as many series from 1964-1965, and then created his own four shows including THE INVADERS and BRANDED. He did all of this before he was 30. Miller blends terrific clips from these shows interspersed with Cohen’s anecdotes about each one, and the filmmaker is quite the raconteur being himself. One can see the Borscht Belt comedian he once desired to be there still in his impeccable timing with an anecdote and punchline.
Miller could’ve just let Cohen speak for two hours, and it would have made an excellent documentary, better than Brian De Palma’s uninspired blathering in the study of his films in 2015. The documentarian ups the ante considerably though by getting dozens of Cohen’s contemporaries to share their own stories, including Martin Scorsese, J.J. Abrams, Joe Dante, Traci Lords, Fred Williamson, John Landis, Rick Baker, Michael Moriarty, Eric Roberts and Yaphet Kotto.
It’s especially impressive to hear Scorsese discuss Cohen’s oeuvre, knowing that he came up at the same time. He’s a great admirer of the trailblazing daredevil that Cohen was, and he recognizes the importance of his unique contributions to cinematic storytelling and guerilla filmmaking techniques. Scorsese can relate especially to the total control Cohen desired as a filmmaker, responsible for all aspects of his products without studio interference.
Cohen was not only a wunderkind but an auteur who was obsessed with making sure what he wrote ended up on the screen. That’s why when he started making movies, Cohen insisted on getting final cut, as well as the choice of whom he would take on producing partners. Naturally, Cohen favored those producers who coughed up a lot of cash but remained silent partners throughout his shooting and post. He worked a lot with Samuel Z. Arkoff, the same producer who helped bring Roger Corman’s work to the screen. He saw the same maverick qualities in Cohen and gave him lots of free reign.
Some of the funniest stories in the documentary share how Cohen “stole” scenes for his movies, shooting in public areas, filled with real citizens as his extras, without ever getting permits. It saved tons of time and money. The scene from BLACK CAESAR where Williamson is shot on the street and people think he’s really been hurt is both hilarious and frightening. Cohen made them believe it was real and such “authenticity” gave his independent films the naturalism that helped come to define cinema of the 1970’s.
One of the most admirable things about Cohen in his career is that he never looked down his nose at the pulpy genres he used to tell his stories. He loved a good yarn, no matter whether it was for B-pictures, blaxploitation, or kitschy monster movies. That love helped make more out of those genres, and he paved the way for many young filmmakers who followed to do the same. Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma, and yes, Scorsese all owe a debt of gratitude to Cohen for his abilities to make horror thrilling, intelligent, and better than the average schlock being spit out for drive-ins and grindhouses. They learned well from the master.
Cohen, as the doc points out, also worked with an incredible array of talent who signed on to due to the power of his scripts. Classic film stars like Broderick Crawford, Bette Davis, Jose Ferrer, Celeste Holm, and Sylvia Sidney all signed up for his films, as well as future up-and-comers like Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, and Armand Assante. Cohen made a star out of Williamson and told African-American stories on the big screen when few were telling them. Cohen’s films, like BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, truly resonated in the black community as well as with general audiences. As Cohen knew, an entertaining tale would appeal to all, and indeed, almost all of his work found an audience.
The lion’s share of the doc focuses on Cohen’s horror films. His output worked as both scream-fests and social satires. IT’S ALIVE, about a monster baby terrorizing the city, was written due to Larry’s distaste for the noise, mess, and neediness of infants. He bet that others would find such dislike relatable and he was right as the film became an (ahem) monster hit and mustered two successful sequels.
He shot the B-monster movie entitled Q, about a winged dragon terrorizing New Yorkers, to play as both a schlocky send-up and a social satire as it commented on criminal rehabilitation, animal rights, and even urban renewal.
Many of his films were over-the-top, crude, or exploitative, like THE STUFF, a satiric frightener about a yogurt-type snack that starts to eat its consumers, but no matter how bombastic they appeared, there was also a lot of subtlety and nuance in the scripts. Cohen’s writing was always filled with layers, endless wicked wit, and very rich and distinct characters. He worked fast and cheap, but his screenplays were never rushed and inane. Hence, his resume stands the test of time and garners more respect with each passing year.
There’s almost too much career to discuss, and Miller’s doc barely touches on pulpy thrillers like BEST SELLER (1987), MANIAC COP (1988), and GUILTY AS SIN (1993) that Cohen did when he returned to his focus on screenwriting. His personal life after his childhood doesn’t get a lot of screen time either, even though his first wife and early co-producer Janelle Webb talks extensively on camera, as does his current wife, psychologist Cynthia Costas Cohen. And it would’ve been great to hear about the numerous stories he provided for the classic TV series COLUMBO too. (He came up with the story “An Exercise in Fatality” concerning a fitness guru played by Robert Conrad. It was one of the rare COLUMBO episodes where the shrewd detective truly grew to despise his adversary.)
Still, this terrific documentary covers a lot of ground. Cohen says towards the end that his long career could warrant a sequel to this doc. And something tells me that Cohen isn’t finished as a filmmaker quite yet. Indeed, let’s hope his career is just like that monster baby of his – it’s alive, it’s still alive!