TFH Fearless Leader Joe Dante very astutely tip-toes around Larry Cohen’s stylistic filmmaking identity early on in King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. Dante notes, “I would hardly call him the John Cassavetes of exploitation movies, but he does have a certain raw, visceral, realistic style.” Indeed, Larry Cohen’s signature film, Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), feels like what would happen if John Cassavetes directed a Ray Harryhausen film. And movie fans the world over are all the better for that most unlikely of authorial fusions!
For cineastes in LA, King Cohen debuts Friday, July 20th, at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre. There will be supplemental shows on the 23rd at the NoHo 7, and the Laemmle Monica on the 26th. It will expand to other select markets on July 27th (keep a sharp eye on the flick’s official site for further screening details). The rest of you can procure it wherever movies are streamed starting on August 14th. CineSavant guest critic Alex Kirschenbaum debuts with his King Cohen review.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen
Dark Star Films
2018 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date July 20, 2018
Starring: Larry Cohen, JJ Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Barbara Carrera, Joe Dante, FX Feeney, Robert Forster, Megan Gallagher, Mick Garris, Yaphet Kotto, Paul Kurta, John Landis, Laurene Landon, Traci Lords, Michael Moriarty, Tara Reid, Eric Roberts, Martin Scorsese, Fred Williamson.
Cinematography: David C.P. Chan
Film Editor: Kai Thomasian
Original Music: Joe Kraemer
Produced by Matt Verboys & Dan McKeon
Produced & Directed by Steven Mitchell
Producer/director Steve Mitchell’s spirited, affectionate tribute to one of the more esoteric American exploitation directors, King Cohen spotlights a true original with a movie-by-movie breakdown of TFH Guru Cohen’s filmography, peppered with insights from family, friends, fellow filmmakers, plus assorted cast and crew members. TFH Gurus Dante, Rick Baker (creator of the mutant baby in It’s Alive), Mick Garris, and John Landis number among the many Hollywood luminaries who appear in front of the camera in several illuminating interviews.
Some of the most fun King Cohen content is the retroactive back-and-forth, the memories recalled through rose-tinted glasses, where conflicting anecdotes are presented by various folks. One of Larry’s favorite collaborators was NFL defensive back-turned action star Fred Williamson, with whom he collaborated on Black Caesar and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem (both 1973), and Original Gangstas (1996). Williamson and Larry Cohen have very different takes on whether or not Cohen threw himself over the hood of a car to demonstrate the relative safety of a tricky guerrilla stunt during production on Hell Up In Harlem.
A recurring theme in Larry Cohen’s guerrilla filmography is the time-honored low-budget moviemaking tradition of “stealing” coverage. Put simply, that practice entails filming on a location without a permit. The high point of this is when Cohen enlisted avant garde comedian Andy Kaufmann to infiltrate a 5,000-officer strong NYPD parade in the introduction of God Told Me To (1976).
Mitchell’s cinematographer, David C.P. Chan, captures some great candid moments of Cohen mingling amongst rabid fans at a convention and confidently gliding through his beautiful house, which incidentally was the location for his directorial debut, the darkly funny 1972 Yaphet Kotto home burglary film Bone. Chan’s imagery is complimented capably by a lively original score, courtesy of composer Joe Kraemer. Kraemer’s themes oscillate from light mid-century jazz to the movie’s driving theme, an energetic ’70s disco-channeling instrumental ditty.
The film functions as a great primer on Larry Cohen’s life and career, which has really run the genre gamut. After logging much of his Manhattanite youth in front of movie theater screens, Cohen initially harbored aspirations of being a stand-up comic, inspired by Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar. Cohen employed what actress Traci Lords calls his “very wacky sense of humor” across several small comedy clubs in and around New York City. Cohen changed tactics, and became an NBC page. When Cohen was just 17, he sold his first produced TV script to Kraft Theatre, an Ed McBain adaptation called “The Eighty Seventh Precinct.” Because this was the era of live television, Cohen the writer was present when cameras rolled on his scripts — an experience he notes was invaluable in his eventual development as a director.
After 15 years of writing for television and film, and 15 years of frustration in watching other directors improperly interpret his material for the screen, Cohen transitioned to becoming a multi-hyphenate as the writer-director of Bone. Though the bizarre Bone tanked, Cohen’s sophomore film Black Caesar was a trailblazing blaxploitation hit. Soon thereafter, Cohen hit his stride with the cost-effective It’s Alive horror trilogy (1974, 1978, 1987), the tough-to-categorize God Told Me To, Special Effects (1984) and his wildest two Michael Moriarty curios Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff (1985).
Of particular interest to budding moviemakers is a peak into Cohen’s creative process around the house, narrated by Cohen and his wife Cynthia Costa-Cohen. This stuff is gold. Cynthia marvels at just how prolific a writer her hubby is, even now, at age 77. He writes daily, she reveals, either with a flurry of sticky notes or in monologuing his thoughts to a tape recorder.
Come for the behind-the-scenes trivia, stay for the story of Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese pretending to be Jewish pallbearers for God Told Me To composer Bernard Herrman’s funeral. King Cohen is not to be missed!
Reviewed by Alex Kirschenbaum