As fellow movie-maker Joe Dante succinctly puts it, Larry Cohen is a storytelling machine. A true genre auteur who could spin electrifying movies out of tiny budgets, he’s perhaps best known these days for his wryly entertaining horror flicks: things like It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff. But as the feature-length documentary King Cohen proves, there was far more to this hugely talented writer-director than mere schlock.
With his career beginning way back in the 50s, Cohen established himself as an adept storyteller while still in his teens. One of his first big hits on television, the western series Branded, was dreamed up on the spot while Cohen was sitting outside a producer’s office. He later created the cult sci-fi series, The Invaders, which did for television what Invasion Of The Body Snatchers did for cinema: captured the fear and paranoia of the Cold War era.
That show was an early sign of Cohen’s imaginative, subversive streak. Indeed, some of Cohen’s ideas were truly ahead of their time: take Coronet Blue, a cancelled thriller series whose plot about secret identities and amnesiac agents predated the likes of The Bourne Identity, Total Recall and Angelina Jolie action vehicle Salt by several decades.
As director Steve Mitchell’s documentary proves, Larry Cohen would have been a noteworthy writer had his career simply fizzled out with the 60s; by the end of the decade, he’d already written several episodes of The Fugitive, The Defenders and too many other shows to list. It was in the 70s, meanwhile, that Cohen turned to directing; sick of seeing other filmmakers mangle his scripts, Cohen decided to raise his own money and make a movie himself.
The result was 1972’s Bone, a racially-charged comedy drama that provided an early showcase for the great Yaphet Kotto. Bone also established Cohen as a low-budget auteur: he was its writer, director and producer, and much of the film was shot in and around his own house.
Thus began a long career of unique and varied independent movies, ranging from blaxploitation crime thrillers (Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem) to off-kilter horror. It’s Alive, a brilliantly weird movie about a killer baby, was almost buried by its distributor before a belated reissue turned it into a cult hit. Q: The Winged Serpent was filmed almost entirely on location in Manhattan – and without any permission to shoot. Cohen’s decision to stage a shoot-out at the top of the Chrysler Building – with extras firing blanks into the air at an imaginary monster – would probably have got him hauled off on terrorism charges today.
Such was the career of a director who shot fast and without a great deal of prior planning with the authorities. It’s a trait that’s highlighted with remarkable fondness in King Cohen; among the array of talking heads Mitchell’s gathered together – which includes JJ Abrams, effects guru Rick Baker, Yaphett Koto, Martin Scorsese and more besides – you’ll find nothing but admiration for Cohen and his methods.
Sitting in an ornate wooden chair, Cohen himself remains the consummate raconteur – smart, mischievous but also disarmingly warm-hearted. His tendency to hire older collaborators to work with him on his movies didn’t just make financial sense (they were out of work or semi-retired, and therefore cheap), but also borne out of his genuine respect for their abilities.
For Bone, Cohen turned to George Folsey, the 74 year-old cinematographer who shot dozens of classic films for MGM, including Forbidden Planet and Meet Me In St Louis. For It’s Alive, Cohen managed to secure the services of master composer Bernard Herrmann, by then in his 60s and nearing the end of his life. The Files Of J Edgar Hoover featured a startling cast of Oscar-winning actors – most of whom were getting old and struggling to find work.
King Cohen, above all, paints a portrait of a guy who simply loves movies. Cohen’s own work could be funny, thrilling, strange, and even bewildering – wait until you get to the part of the documentary where they talk about God Told Me To, which may be one of the weirdest movies of the 1970s. Sure enough, once again, Cohen shot his street scenes without asking for permission.
A celebration of a great filmmaker and a bygone era of independent cinema, King Cohen is a tender, informative, must-see documentary. From his ornate throne, Cohen, now well into his 70s, remains what he always was: a storytelling machine.
King Cohen is showing in selected US cinemas from the 20th July. When we hear of a UK date, we’ll pass it along.