Let's just start with the numbers. During his more-than-five-decade career as a rare multi-hyphenate writer/producer/director, Larry Cohen has directed 21 feature films, 17 of which he also produced; wrote dozens of scripts for 23 different television series, seven of which he created; and wrote or co-wrote scripts for 57 feature films and made-for-television movies. He has been, in a word, prolific. And, even though he has been significantly less active over the past 20 years, having directed his last feature film in 1996 and a single episode of the Masters of Horror anthology series in 2006 and not having had a script produced since 2010, his impact on American cinema is undeniable. Like Roger Corman before him, Cohen was an intensely independent artist who chaffed at working under the auspices of others (which is why he produced so many of his own films). As horror screenwriter David J. Schow explains, Cohen started as a writer, then became a director to protect Larry the writer, and then became a producer to protect Larry the writer and director. Also like Corman, he has not always been taken as seriously as he deserves because he has worked almost entirely in the B-movie realm of low- to mid-budget horror, science fiction, and crime movies. He's never been nominated for an Oscar, but everyone in Hollywood-then and now-knows his name and has seen a lot of his work.
Steve Mitchell's highly entertaining new documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen covers the entirety of the filmmaker's career, beginning with his New York childhood, his initial forays into stand-up comedy, his early work creating and writing for various television series (including highly regarded anthology series like Kraft Theatre and The United States Steel Hour), and his eventual emergence in the early 1970s as a unique craftsman of oddly compelling B-movie gems, beginning with the racially charged thriller Bone (1972) and the Blaxploitation crime epics Black Caesar (1973) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973). The demented murderous baby in It's Alive (1974)-whose unforgettable tagline assured us "There's only one thing wrong with the Davis baby-it's alive!"-assured Cohen a fabled place in the annals of low-budget horror, which he further cemented throughout the decade with the weirdo science fiction/religious drama God Told Me To (1976), the sequel It Lives Again (1978), the teen werewolf comedy Full Moon High (1981), the winged monster movie Q (1981), and the biting commercial satire The Stuff (1985). Yet, even then Cohen was branching out in odd and unexpected directions with his seedy biopic The Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) and the Hitchcockian exercise Special Effects (1985). Some of those movies are better than others, and some of them are just this side of outright failures, but they are all interesting, in some way daring, and distinctly the work of Larry Cohen.
Director Steve Mitchell, who wrote the rampaging-robots horror cheapie Chopping Mall (1986) and episodes for a handful of '80s and early '90s TV series, has recently turned his attention to making-of documentaries and featurettes (many of which appeared on the recently released Chopping Mall Blu-ray); thus, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that King Cohen feels like a really well-done and lengthy supplement to a box set of Cohen's masterworks. There is little in the way of experimentation or deviation from the established norms of the standard filmmaker biography, as King Cohen proceeds in strict linear fashion, moving through Cohen's life and stopping off for a few minutes with each of his most important productions. The films works best as an introduction to the man and his works (many of which are represented with extensive clips of their most memorable sequences), as long-time Cohen fans will have heard most of this before (including all the stories about Cohen's audacious tendency to grab shots on the streets of New York without a permit to get more bang for his often limited buck; actor Fred Williamson calls him "the greatest thief-director" and "the greatest guerilla filmmaker in the business").
However, much credit should be given to Mitchell for the breadth of interview subjects he assembled to tell Cohen's tale, which range from producer-director J.J. Abrams, who in the film's opening segment tells a funny story about meeting Cohen at a bus stop when he was a kid, to a long list of actors and actresses with whom Cohen has worked (Eric Bogosian, Barbara Carrera, Robert Forster, Yaphet Kotto, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Tara Reid, Eric Roberts, and the aforementioned Fred Williamson, among others), as well as producers (Paul Kurta), editors (David Kern), and cinematographers (Paul Glickman, Daniel Pearl) with whom he collaborated, various directors who admire his work and the impact he has made on the industry (Mick Garris, John Landis, Joe Dante, and, of course, Martin Scorsese), and several film historians and writers (F.X. Feeney, John Burlingame). Cohen himself is present throughout the film, and Mitchell also got lengthy interviews with both his ex-wife Janelle Web and his current wife Cynthia Costas, both of whom have much to say about his copious cinematic output, but also emphasize what a good person Cohen is (although Costas tells a funny story about her response to seeing It's Alive for the first time: "Oh my God, Larry-who are you? You're so weird!").
Cohen certainly tangled with various people over the years (what good independent filmmaker doesn't?), but the sense you get is that he is a generous soul who connected with the people with whom he worked on a level that often transcended the artistic creation itself. We really see that in the poignant scenes detailing his relationship with Red Buttons late in the acerbic comic's life and his mentor-mentee relationship with iconoclastic independent director Sam Fuller. We also see it in a different way in the fraught experience Cohen had working with the legendary Bette Davis, whose last film appearance in Cohen's Wicked Stepmother (1987) was a disaster that was long blamed on Cohen's directing style, but is here revealed to be the result of Davis having terrible denture problems that caused her to leave the production in embarrassment. Her early departure forced Cohen to completely rewrite the script on the fly and make a different film than the one he intended (one that was slammed by critics and sank at the box office), but from listening to his interview, you wouldn't think he harbors even one bad feeling toward Davis. King Cohen plays as a bit of a hagiography, but it seems like there isn't a person around who has anything bad to say about Cohen, who for his part comes across as an entertainingly salty, but genuinely decent person who loves putting pen to paper.
The closest the film gets to real conflict is in the interview with Fred Williamson, who starred in Cohen's second and third features Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem and also his last feature, Original Gangstas (1996), which Williamson has originally intended to direct himself. He and Cohen have, shall we say, differing memories on certain things, such as whether or not Cohen demonstrated stunts himself or whether Cohen's attachment to Original Gangstas secured its funding. Mitchell and editor Kai Thomasian intercut Cohen and Williamson talking about the same events, with Williamson sometimes directly contradicting Cohen's claims (regarding Cohen's assertion that he did a stunt involving falling out of a cab before Williamson did, the actor, huge cigar in hand, says, "That a Larry myth, that's a Larry myth Larry Cohen did not fall out of a cab, and if he told you that he fell out of the cab first, he's lying!"). It's funny and clearly part of a longstanding rapport between the two men (no animosity intended or reasonably inferred), which is telling about Cohen's interpersonal legacy. He made some good films and some bad films and a bunch in-between, in the process forging real relationships that, in a fickle town like Hollywood, may be his greatest achievement.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright La La Land Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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