The Fiercely Independent Larry Cohen

The Daily — Mar 25, 2019
Larry Cohen’s Q (1982)

As news spread this past weekend that Larry Cohen had died at the age of seventy-seven, few captured countless cinephiles’ appreciation for the prolific screenwriter and fiercely independent director as well as Edgar Wright. “For so many fun high concept genre romps with ideas bigger than the budgets, for so many truly inspiring cult movies, I thank you Larry,” tweeted the Baby Driver director.

Right up to the end, even as he was still pitching screenplays and series ideas, Cohen was reveling in such accolades, dancing in the aisles as the credits rolled on The Ambulance (1990) during a 2017 mini-retrospective at New York’s Quad Cinema and, just last summer, chatting to the press about his guerrilla style of filmmaking as Steve Mitchell’s documentary King Cohen rolled out online. “At his best,” wrote Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times in 2003, “he creates projects that center on stripping away skin, nerve endings and, ultimately, pretense.” Cohen “mined a career out of one simple question—what's the worst that could happen?—which he answers with the stinging, compelling heat of the exploitation thriller.”

Mitchell was writing as Phone Booth, written by Cohen, directed by Joel Schumacher, and starring Colin Farrell, had just hit theaters. It pins a publicist loosely based on Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco in Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) in a phone booth by a sniper who threatens to take him out if he hangs up. The original idea dates back to Cohen’s days as a television writer. At one point in the 1960s, Cohen was simultaneously working on three shows he’d created, Branded, a western; Coronet Blue, an espionage mystery; and the science fiction series The Invaders. He was also writing episodes of such hits as The Defenders and The Fugitive—and floating movie ideas.

Phone Booth caught the eye of none other than Alfred Hitchcock. That project was never realized, but Cohen’s memories of brainstorming with the Master of Suspense were still vivid when he spoke to Patrick McGilligan in Film International in 2011. “Suddenly this big man would get up and start moving with the grace of a ballet dancer,” Cohen recalled. “He was lost in himself, telling his story.” Cohen also noted that Hitchcock “talked with his hands. I remember he had this very strong handshake, and these big thumbs—good hands for a strangler. If those hands wrapped around your throat, boy!” Cohen, who tried his hand at standup comedy as a teen, always gave entertaining interviews, but if you only have time for one, make it this conversation conducted by McGilligan, author of widely admired biographies of Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and George Cukor.

“How did you talk someone into letting you direct?” McGilligan asks, and the story turns out to involve a convoluted deal that allowed Cohen to make Bone, his 1972 directorial debut starring Yaphet Kotto as a thief in for an unexpected welcome when he tries to rob a wealthy couple in Beverly Hills. Renowned critic Robin Wood called Bone “one of the most remarkable debuts in American cinema.” Wood devoted a good swath of his 1986 book Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan to Cohen, and as Glenn Kenny noted in the NYT last year, while Wood granted that there was a “sketchiness and sense of haste” in Cohen’s direction, his films had, as Kenny paraphrased it, “a genuinely subversive conceptual audacity.”

Cohen, a big fan of Warner Bros. gangster movies as a kid, then turned to the 1931 Edward G. Robinson vehicle Little Caesar for inspiration. Since Sammy Davis Jr. turned down the lead, Black Caesar (1973) stars Fred Williamson as a mobster battling both a rival gang and a dirty cop. It’s “as much a monster movie as any of Cohen's subsequent horror tabloids,” writes Fernando F. Croce, and it features a score by James Brown, who liked the movie so much he wrote a “spec score” for a follow-up, Hell Up in Harlem. Cohen’s producers, American International Pictures, clashed with Brown, so the Godfather of Soul pulled the score and released it as The Payback, Brown’s only studio album to be certified gold. Cohen, in the meantime, simply started shooting Harlem without a script. “I just made it up as I went along,” he told Kieran Fisher in Diabolique in 2017. “I knew I would get a movie out of it and that it would be fine, it’s just that everybody else thought I was crazy. I am crazy.”

With a score by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann, It’s Alive, in which a mutant baby goes on a killing rampage, stumbled at the box office when it was released in 1974 but was so successful when it was rereleased in 1977 that it spawned two sequels. “This stuff isn’t new,” Cohen told Rob Nelson in the Village Voice in 2007. “People say, ‘How can you make a movie about a monster baby?’ I say, ‘Look at ancient mythology, where people are giving birth to monsters all the time!’”

In God Told Me To (1976), a New York detective investigating a series of murders keeps hearing the various killers say that were acting by divine decree. Turns out, the real culprit is hermaphrodite child of alien visitors. “This is the most confused feature-length film I’ve ever seen,” declared Roger Ebert, but Slant Magazine has put God Told Me To on its list of the hundred greatest horror movies of all time. Cohen “dared to connect the diseased dots between rampage shootings, religious revivalism, alien abduction, original sin, and bicentennial apocalyptic dread,” writes Eric Henderson. “More than any other film in any genre, God Told Me To, a grindhouse basilica that practically craves for oblivion, could only have been made during the collective insanity that was 1970s America.”

Reviewing Q (1982) for Slant, Chuck Bowen finds that it’s “a sporadically lively, gnarly little film that doesn’t fully reap the potential harvest of its premise.” In brief, a mythical Aztec monster, a Quetzalcoatl, is nesting at the top of the Chrysler Building and generally wreaking havoc on New York City. Cohen famously hauled his actors and crew to the top of the skyscraper, where, confronting Q, they rained hundreds of bullet shells down to the streets. “New York’s still the greatest backlot in the world,” Cohen told Stephen Whitty in the Voice last summer. “You know what it would have cost to do those sequences any other way? Just to stage the shootout in the middle of that parade would have cost millions—you gotta close down Fifth Avenue, hire hundreds of extras, rent hundreds of uniforms. My way, I just stuck Andy [Kaufman] in the middle of it and started filming . . . I’m only interested in making movies my way. Total freedom.”

In The Stuff (1985), a corporation sells an alien substance bubbling up from the ground as a low-cal dessert. Turns out, the addictive stuff eats away at people from the inside. The movie is “a brilliant answer to the noxious excess and conformity of the Reagan ’80s: a product that consumes the consumer,” wrote the AV Club’s Scott Tobias in 2002. “Always a better idea-man than a director, Cohen has a knack for killing surefire premises, yet he leaves plenty to salvage from the twisted wreckage.”

Cohen’s filmography grows a little spotty after The Stuff. He wrote Maniac Cop (1988) for William Lustig, directed Bette Davis in her last onscreen performance in Wicked Stepmother (1989), worked on the screenplay for Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), and contributed an episode to Mick Garris’s television anthology series Masters of Horror in 2006. For over six decades, Cohen remained, as Jim Knipfel writes at the Chiseler, “a maverick, an independent’s independent, who wasn’t afraid to put a wild story on the screen and populate it with oddball characters (that Michael Moriarty would become his standard lead in four films in the ’80s says something). If Cohen owed a lot to Sam Fuller and Roger Corman, then most indie directors who’ve come along since owe a lot to him.”

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