You may not know Larry Cohen by name, but if you’ve spent any amount of time watching movies or television, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ve seen his work. To call Cohen “prolific” would be an understatement. With a successful career as a writer, director, and producer that goes all the way back to the early 1960s and lasts through the present day, you’d think his name would be common knowledge — that we could refer to things as “Cohen-esque — but unless you’re talking to genre nerds, he’s a nobody. With King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, Steve Mitchell aims to correct this cultural inadequacy by showing not just how good of a storyteller his subject is, but how important he is to cinema on the whole, all the way from film craft to film business.
My first exposure to Larry Cohen came by indirect channels. As a teen I was as much of a comedy fanboy as I was a cinephile, so naturally, I was enamored with the work of Andy Kaufman. In seeking additional Kaufman media beyond back episodes of Taxi and underwhelming Jim Carrey biopics, I found my way to God Told Me To (aka Demon), a Cohen flick which features the oddball comedian in a rare dramatic performance. It’s just a single scene, but it’s one that stuck with me. The tagline for the film makes a promise that, at least to some degree, has been kept: “It will scare you… FOREVER!”
The delightful, grindhousey, hucksterism on display led me down a path into Cohen’s exploitation/New Hollywood era work (and away from Heartbeeps, the next piece of Andy Kaufman media on my list which, to this day, I have never seen and have been told is awful). Here I found The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, Black Caesar, and the utterly batshit It’s Alive trilogy. A trip to IMDB revealed that Cohen’s body of work digs considerably deeper than just goopy social-horror, proving him to be a cinematic Renaissance man of the highest order. The dude wrote Phone Booth!
King Cohen has collected an impressive amount of behind the scenes footage from all eras of Cohen’s career, with a laundry list of notable talking heads (including Larry’s own) to take us through his life and times. The most notable orator, Martin Scorsese, references the “renegade spirit” of Cohen’s heyday, citing the filmmaker’s inhuman imagination in the stories he tells and the novel ways in which he finds an outlet to tell them. This guerrilla energy is captured fully by Mitchell’s film, by painting Cohen as a distinctly New York filmmaker who had the ability to both game the Hollywood system and work outside of it.
To hear Cohen speak of his career is to hear the words of a man who, instead of becoming jaded by showbiz, made the decision to run showbiz on his own terms. He tells of the many ways in which he was able to leverage a project’s benefits for higher production value… without spending any money. “The price of a higher budget is interference,” brags Cohen in explaining why he chose to pinch pennies instead of seek funding — why he chose to work for himself rather than someone else.
Cohen would find old performers who were out of work but could still be billed as Oscar winners. He found underemployed cinematographers from the golden age of Hollywood. He even managed to get Bernard Hermann, the composer who gave us the iconic music for Psycho, to do a score for a film about mutant babies, simply by offering him free reign to compose however he wished without any unwanted tinkering (and it’s a damn good score too!). Cohen would save money by shooting scenes amongst real, completely clueless crowds, stealing as much footage as possible, permits be damned. In one story from the production of a Fred Williamson blaxploitation flick (a genre Cohen helped to birth), the innovative filmmaker had his actors stage a fight on top of a luggage carousel at LAX. How did he get away with it? Well, he just did. He figured that if having his performers climb to the top of the luggage drop with prop guns was a problem, someone would stop him, right?
“Anybody will put up with anything if they think a movie is being shot,” he gloats.
Ain’t that the truth?
King Cohen follows Cohen’s eclectic career chronologically, while showcasing an exciting collection of footage from Cohen’s considerable body of work. Talking heads include J.J. Abrams, Fred Williamson, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Laurene Landon, Joe Dante, Robert Forster, Mick Garris, Rick Baker, Yaphet Kotto, and many, many more. There isn’t much here by way of controversy or scandal, as the life of Larry Cohen was not one of exploitation, but rather of a man whose passion for his craft is happily pathological. One gets the sense that had he never made it in showbiz, he’d still be sitting atop a mountain of handwritten scripts, loving every minute of it. King Cohen is a film nerd’s dream — a love letter not just to a titan in the cinema game, but to an era where, if one were so inclined, a little bit of know how and some elbow grease was all you needed to make it in pictures.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.