Larry Cohen: A Retrospective

Larry Cohen, director of It's Alive, It's Alive 2, It's Alive; Island of the Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent: a Geek god among us.

Like so many great satirists before him, Larry Cohen had a knack for using a good story, off-beat characters, misdirection, humor and monsters to disguise some pointed commentary about a number of the most sacred of our sacred cows: childbirth, religion, cops, race, the military, AIDS, health care and consumerism. And he always did it in a hugely entertaining way, squeezing the very most out of tiny budgets, small, fleet-footed crews and simple, guerilla tactics.

The writer/producer/director responsible for Q: The Winged Serpent, God Told Me To and the It’s Alive! was 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 and the evidence is right there in their films. As a friend of mine newly converted to the Cohen school put it, “Like Cassavetes for a certain kind of totally independent, intelligent, ambitious filmmaker Cohen is absolutely key as antecedent and godfather for a relevant moviemaking up to today.”

(My friend just talks that way.)

Even when he was making low-budget monster pictures, Cohen’s films were always character-driven, so when it came to casting even the smallest part he was looking for people with interesting voices, faces and personalities, like you found in the ‘40s. It’s no surprise that he would so often choose to work with like-minded maverick young actors like Moriarty, David Carradine, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis, Candy Clark, even Andy Kaufman. At the same time, though, Cohen also went back to those old films, hiring great character actors like Sam Levine, Broderick Crawford,  and Sylvia Sidney. With casts like that together on the screen (many of them there simply because they wanted to work with Cohen) it’s sometimes easy to forget you’re watching a horror movie.

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It seems Cohen was born with a little too much energy. Years before getting his degree in film from the City College of New York, he was already selling scripts to television. In the short years following his graduation in ‘63, he was creating shows that would go on to become classics, like Branded and The Invaders. Hearing it now he almost sounds like the kind of guy you’d like to punch.

After ten prolific years as a television writer, Cohen finally made the expected jump into film directing. But Cohen didn’t go to Hollywood to do this and lord knows he didn’t aim for the mainstream. Though considered a blaxploitation picture today for some reason, Cohen’s directorial debut, 1972’s Bone, begins like a kidnapping film as would-be burglar Yaphet Kotto (Alien) takes a wealthy white man and his wife hostage in their palatial home. When he sends the husband out to get money though, the crime film becomes a social satire about both race relations and the generation gap as the wife begins falling for her kidnapper and the husband for a young hippie chick he meets on the way to the bank. In later films, Cohen would mix and match genres in a way that hadn’t been seen since the W. Lee Wilder weirdies of the ‘50s.

His next two films were both fairly straightforward blaxploitation numbers and both Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem would become genre standbys.

It was in 1974, though, that what is considered Cohen’s golden era would begin. Between ‘74 and the early ‘90s, Cohen was writing and directing the films he wanted to make. They were films that were completely his own, more than a little odd at times and utterly memorable. For a career that’s lasted about 50 years at this point, having an almost 20-year golden era ain’t too shabby.

Switching from blaxploitation to horror, Cohen made It’s Alive! starring the great John P. Ryan. On the surface it’s a horror film about a killer baby. It’s also a conspiracy film about some nefarious shenanigans at a large pharmaceutical company and a social commentary about the power of the press to destroy innocent lives. At it’s heart, though, it takes The Bad Seed a step further in exploring our deep fear of children and the screaming bloody horror of that most beautiful of miracles, childbirth.

Using the power of suggestion and some fantastic performances (many of the actors here would become a familiar part of Cohen’s stock troupe), coupled with some solid direction, clever cinematography, Rick Baker’s special effects and a Bernard Herrman score, this low budget killer baby film caught a lot of people off guard. It was smarter and slicker than anyone would’ve expected it to be given the budget and was a big hit for Cohen.

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Given that success he came back two years later with a film that was even stranger, more complex, and much harder to categorize. Trying not to give too much away here for those who haven’t seen it yet, God Told Me To stars Tony Lo Bianco as a New York cop who’s never been sick, feels he has some strange powers,and whose biography consists entirely of a very spotty paper trail. At the moment though he’s investigating a series of seemingly inexplicable rampage killings. A softspoken Gay man climbs atop a building with a high powered rifle and begins shooting people. A cop (Andy Kaufman in his big screen debut) shoots up the St. Patrick’s Day parade. A man slaughters his family for no reason. The only explanation any of them can give is that, yes, god told them to. Well, his investigation leads down some strange channels, including stories of an alien abduction, a secret cabal of wealthy executives and reports of a glowing figure who had contact with all the killers and who may or may not be god incarnate. In short it’s a film that asks the eternal question, “What if Jesus was a Venusian?” It may also be the best film Cohen ever made.

Although the film looks great (and brings together a remarkable cast), it represents a perfect example of the guerilla filmmaking Cohen would come to be known for. All the location shots, from the parade to the subway to the shooting of half a dozen people outside Bloomingdale’s were stolen. Cohen saw where he wanted to shoot, set up his crew and shot. If he were to try doing that today there would likely be casualties, but because he did it then he captured a portrait of a city long gone.

(On the downside, in his excitement to grab shots of actual events as they were happening, one sequence finds Lo Bianco racing from the St. Patrick’s Day parade in March and ending up some 70 blocks to the south at the San Gennaro festival on the Lower East Side in September. It was one hell of a run.)

The film was picked up by New World, Corman’s distribution company. Before releasing it they decided the title was too complicated and needed to be changed. They decided to call it The Demon and changed the font on the poster to match the font used recently on the posters for the incredibly popular The Omen. It didn’t seem to help. Whether it was the title or audiences were merely baffled by the film itself is hard to say, but it was a definite step down from the success of It’s Alive. Still, in the years since it has become one of the most popular of Cohen’s films and in terms of influence well, all you need to do is watch the last few seasons of the X Files to see for yourself if anyone was paying attention.

After God Told Me To, Cohen took a radical turn in more ways than one. After making three blaxploitation films and two sci-fi horror movies, the next logical step down the genre trail was making, yes, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover.

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A clear, though uncredited, influence on the recent Leonardo DiCaprio Hoover film, 1977’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover makes for an intriguing double bill with another AIP film, John Milius’ Dillinger. It stars screen legend Broderick Crawford in a brilliant turn as the enigmatic and all-powerful head of the FBI and co-stars a slew of famed character actors, from Lloyd Nolan and June Havoc to Howard DaSilva and Rip Torn.

Couching the story of Hoover’s life within the frantic scramble across Washington to gain access to Hoover’s secret files after his death, Cohen does something I don’t think anyone was expecting. In spite of Hoover’s reputation as a neurotic, paranoid, cross-dressing monster, Cohen treats him fairly, even sympathetically at times. There’s no real secret about his sexuality here, but it’s never made cartoonish. It’s a portrait of a deeply flawed man and a publicity whore yes, but one who was trying to do right. Oddly enough the historical figures who get slapped around more than anyone here are the Kennedy brothers, who come off like a couple of smug rich, asshole, college boys.

It’s an odd man out in his filmography, but what the Hoover film proves without a doubt is that Cohen is a director who knows pacing, who knows editing and who can, even without monsters, turn material like this into a gripping story.

Good as it was, The Private Files wasn’t a big hit either, so Cohen returned to killer babies in ‘78 with It Lives Again. Not interested in simply rehashing the same material, Cohen expanded it, broadening the idea of a conspiracy (conspiracies would play a larger and larger role in Cohen’s films) and multiplying the number of killer babies.

As more and more mutant babies are being born, a renegade group of scientists and parents (including John P. Ryan from the original and expecting father Frederic Forrest) is traveling the country trying to save the mutants before the government can terminate them with extreme prejudice. The hope is to be able to raise the mutants in a reasonably loving environment, rehabilitating them and making them contributing members of society. Let’s just say their success was limited.

The later ‘70s and early ‘80s were kind of rough for Cohen. His teen horror comedy Full Moon High bombed, and a made-for-TV mystery was ignored. He had the idea of resurrecting Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer character with a film version of I, The Jury starring Armand Assante. A large studio picked up the project, but then fired Cohen.

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Knowing he had to get right back on his feet, Cohen had a new independent film in production within a week. He started taking some location shots around New York before he had a cast and started filming before he had any backing. Still he was able to wrangle together another great (in B film terms) cast and he had a fantastic story, even if it owed a bit to 1948’s The Flying Serpent. He had some more wonderful characters, he had a monster, and all of New York was his playground again. Finally Samuel Z. Arkoff, who’d just sold AIP, fronted him a little cash and they were off.

Cohen’s mixing and matching of genres was never more evident than it was in ‘82’s Q The Winged Serpent. It’s a bungled jewel heist/cult murder/police procedural/giant monster picture with Michael Moriarty as an ex-con and failed jazz pianist who’s forced to participate in a heist that goes all wrong. He’s a neurotic to begin with and this doesn’t help. David Carradine meanwhile (who filmed his first scene before he’d had a chance to read the script or find out who his character was), is a detective investigating a series of murders in which the victims have all been skinned alive. And then there’s that pesky Aztec god who keeps flying around New York plucking people off rooftops and construction sites.

They all eventually do come together inside the cone atop the Chrysler Building (it was actually filmed up there too, even though he didn’t exactly have permission). But before they do Cohen has us so wrapped up in these individual character’s stories (and the countless little stories and side characters we encounter along the way) that the monster barely matters, save for providing some of the best aerial shots ever taken of NYC.

It’s a film packed with great small bits, set pieces and locations. And Moriarty, crazy and pathetic and fucked up as he is, is a gem. In one of the best (and mostly ad libbed) scenes in the film, he attempts to negotiate a deal with city officials and the cops. He knows where the creature’s nest is and wants money and amnesty in exchange for the info. It’s a real tour-de-force of sniveling bravado and desperation.

Cohen has more stories to tell about the making of Q than any of his other films (and he’s a man with a lot of stories). The final joke of it all being that Q opened the same day as I, the Jury and made four times as much money.

It occurs to me that any young would-be indie filmmaker would be better served by watching the film and listening to his commentary or reading his book than anything they’d learn from 3 years of NYU film school. He knew how to work fast and work cheap, yet still come away with a film whose production values matched anything being produced in Hollywood.

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Cohen was back on a roll after Q and even when he wasn’t working on a film himself he was selling scripts that had that unmistakable Larry Cohen feel to them. The William Lustig-directed Maniac Cop and Uncle Sam come to mind as prime examples, though Abel Ferrara seems to have dropped the ball on Cohen’s reboot of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a film I keep trying to like, but just can’t. Cohen’s understanding of character is something Ferrara’s never been able to grasp. It had so much going for it, it should’ve been so good, but Christ it’s just a tedious, fucking mess.  But I’m starting to ramble.

After making a few straightforward thrillers, Cohen returned to horror and social satire in 1985’s The Stuff. There had been elements of social satire and commentary in his previous films, but usually so well disguised it was easy to miss. Michael Moriarty’s gift for the ad lib and his ability to play crazy and manic so brilliantly allowed Cohen, in their second film together, to slap the satire right there on the surface, plain as day.

When a white goo comes bubbling out of the ground at a mining operation in Georgia, a miner unwittingly discovers that it’s not only delicious; it’s downright irresistible. Before you know it “The Stuff,” as it’s marketed, has become the most popular dessert item in the country, helped along by a celebrity-laden ad campaign (though many of the celebrities may no longer be recognizable to most audiences) and the small fact that it’s five times as addictive as crack. Yes, it’s mighty good right up to the point when it makes you explode. But no one talks about that.

Moriarty plays an ex-FBI man turned industrial spy who’s been hired by a now-struggling ice cream company to find out what’s in it. What begins as a simple job becomes much more than that when people start dying, small towns start vanishing, an ex-FDA employee (Danny Aiello in a smart and funny cameo) is killed by his Stuff-addicted Doberman and Moriarty uncovers a sinister conspiracy.

Along the way he’s assisted by Garrett Morris as a Famous Amos clone who’s cookie company was stolen from him, a young boy who realizes there’s something evil going on with The Stuff and  Paul Sorvino as an insane and paranoid militia leader/radio show host who’s more than willing to spread the word and lead a commando raid on The Stuff factory.

There are nods throughout the film to everything from Dr. Strangelove to White Heat, but the one film that kept coming to mind was Halloween III: Season of the Witch, from three years earlier. Both, after all, are horror conspiracy films concerning the potentially diabolical threat posed by marketing and consumerism. The ironic thing there is that when Halloween III came out in ‘82 I assumed, given the way the story was structured, that it had to be a Cohen film or at least based on a Cohen script. I was wrong, of course. The film had been written by Nigel Kneale. So it only made sense that here we got Cohen’s version. While Halloween III was very sharp and dark however, The Stuff reaches for some broad, heavy handed laughs and often falls short. Maybe Cohen figured if you wanted to reach an audience in the Reagan era, with a warning about rampant consumerism, subtlety would get you nowhere. The film does have a number of moments though and I love the fact that the “monster” is a smooth, white, featureless dessert. I also love the fact that it’s a paranoid Right Wing nut job who saves the day in the end.

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Two years after The Stuff, Warner Brothers offered Cohen a deal for two straight-to-video pictures: another  sequel to It’s Alive and a sequel to Tobe Hooper’s TV version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. Cohen, anxious to work with Moriarty again and push the story of the mutant babies a little further, went for it.

Working fast and cheap as ever (he says all of his films are shot in 18 days), Cohen returned to form with It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, with one difference. While the previous two films had been stark and ultimately quite grim, with Moriarty aboard Cohen was able to bring out a lot more humor. Mixed more evenly with the violence, the blood, a half-hidden AIDS parable and Cohen’s trademark strangeness, here it works more effectively than in The Stuff or his straight comedies.

Moriarty is a struggling actor who finally gains fame by becoming the father of another monster baby with his wife, Karen Black. That’s pretty much it for the marriage, but instead of destroying the baby, a judge orders that all the mutant babies be sent to, yes, an island where they can roam free and pose no threat to anyone.

Moriarty’s life, meanwhile, collapses under the constant questions and accusations until he finds himself working in a children’s shoe store. In a delightful set piece, he finally cracks and gives the what-for to all the rotten little brats and their obnoxious parents. There’s just something both terrifying and hilarious about Moriarty when he loses it.

Anyway, he joins a government-sponsored expedition to the island to study the mutants and run a few tests. Along the way, we learn the government has stopped trying to destroy the mutants after deciding instead they represent a new stage of human evolution, quite possibly a form of human who could survive a nuclear war.

Moriarty, who loves his child and wants to protect it, tries to warn the babies to stay away from the researchers, which does not endear him to the researchers. No matter, it isn’t long before all the members of the expedition are dead save for Moriarty, who finds himself alone on a boat with four mutants. And that’s when things start taking any number of strange turns.

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It seems that working with Moriarty lightened Cohen’s films considerably. Not simply in terms of the jokes, but the overall tone. There’s more ad libbing among other members of the cast and more throwaway scenes that still go a long way toward enriching the whole picture. In one scene aboard the boat, for instance, Moriarty breaks into an unexpected sea chanty, only to be joined by James Dixon (the only actor to appear in all three films).

Island of the Alive is also marked by a fantastic opening sequence, in which a woman gives birth in the back of an NYC cab as the cab driver panics about the mess. Or maybe that scene’s just memorable to me because it was shot in an alley behind the building where I used to work.

After the film was wrapped, Cohen packed up his crew and several members of the cast and flew to a small town in Vermont to start shooting the Salem’s Lot sequel.

A sequel in name and font alone, A Return to Salem’s Lot, in contrast to Island of the Alive, seemed almost an afterthought. Maybe people were just tired after the previous shoot, but the cinematography has all the flat earmarks of a TV film and the music, usually so rich in a Cohen film, has been reduced to a cheap, clichéd electronic score. Even the actors, apart from Cohen’s usual suspects (like Andrew Duggan), are abrasive at best.

Story’s still good, though. In their fourth and final collaboration, Moriarty is a famed anthropologist whose ex-wife saddles him with his troubled and foul-mouthed teenage son. Not knowing what else to do with the kid, he takes him to Salem’s Lot. Moriarty had visited an aunt there once when he was young, and when she died she left him her (now decrepit) house. It doesn’t take real long to figure out the town is home to a colony of vampires.

Cohen’s script plays around a lot with the mythology and in fact the anthropologist is asked to write the vampires’ history to set the record straight, but the film is memorable for one reason. Sam Fuller appears for the second half of the film playing, well, Sam Fuller. He’s given a different name of course and he’s playing a Van Helsing-like vampire hunter, but it’s Sam Fuller all right, as short, gruff and straightforward as ever and always chomping on that ever present cigar. Cohen’s homage to the king of independent filmmakers is the only thing here that lifts the picture above second-tier Cohen fare (which is nevertheless still more interesting than most vampire films made in the last 20 years).

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Cohen went on to make another straight thriller and a comedy about witches that turned out to be Bette Davis’ last film before returning to the horror, conspiracies and New York that always brought out the best in him. It would be the last of the classic Larry Cohen films.

In 1990’s The Ambulance, Eric Roberts plays an enthusiastic young comic book artist working for Marvel (Stan Lee has a few cameos as himself) who sees a young woman on the street and falls immediately and stupidly in love with her. When she collapses to the pavement while they’re talking and an antique ambulance appears out of nowhere to whisk her away, he sets out to find her without even knowing her name.

It sounds like fairly standard romantic comedy material and there’s no denying that’s at play here, but as usual there are a few other genres at work too, as we learn the drivers of that creepy antique ambulance are making their own victims all over the city.  It’s best to leave the story there and not mention the organ harvesting ring, but the film does include James Earl Jones, Eric Braedon,and a grainy, dirty, street level Manhattan that, even circa 1990, still seems so ancient and alive.

In the later ‘90s and 2000s, as films like his were no longer really viable in a marketplace so fixated on formula and empty, pointless characters, Cohen concentrated more on his screenplays. But even if the stories had that old Cohen spark and warp, the films that were made from them tended to be sadly conventional. He was behind Phone Booth, Cellular, Messages Deleted, Captivity and rewrote his own script for the reboot of It’s Alive

He once made the excellent point that B films tended to have a longer lifespan than A films, because it’s the genre pictures that find a new audience every generation. Kids have no idea who Robert Taylor or Greer Garson are anymore, but they will always know Karloff and Lugosi, because people will always be going back to horror films while the big dramas, so important at the time, fade away.

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Cohen made films that weren’t like anything else (except maybe Halloween III). They weren’t aimed at teenagers and they weren’t slasher pictures. They were intelligent, textured, character based and they dealt with adult themes. Plus they had monsters in them.

At this point his films date back about 40 years. Forty years from now I can almost guarantee that nobody will remember Titanic or Slumdog Millionaire, but they’ll still be watching God Told Me To.