We’re ‘Cohen’ to the Movies: King Cohen and the Story of a True Maverick

VHS Revival honours a B-movie visionary with a taste for the downright peculiar

I’ve been thinking, when was the last time one of Larry Cohen’s films was screened on terrestrial TV? I’m not counting Phone Booth, the brilliantly simple and super-tense Joel Schumacher thriller from 2002 that he wrote. No, I mean a proper, legit Larry Cohen-directed film. There are more than a few out there. Blimey, was it really around twenty or so years ago when Channel 5, in its infant years, screened Q: The Winged Serpent on a Saturday night? It might be. I remember satellite channel Bravo, in its ‘twisted cult horror’ incarnation, showing The Stuff and one of the Sky movie channels put on A Return to Salem’s Lot one night (a screening I taped for myself). After that, I’m struggling to think of any more.

Larry Cohen is probably the textbook definition of a cult director. His films are idiosyncratic, unique, unpredictable and totally inspired. They are often bursting at the seams with great ideas, offbeat characters, clever and/or funny dialogue and a real sense of off-the-cuff spontaneity. There are many people who can’t or won’t see past the roughness, the unrefined execution, the occasional stiff performance or outrageous plot development. I can understand that. Compared to many films, Cohen’s works can appear amateurish or even shoddy. But to deny his work on the basis of these flaws, which can be difficult to come to terms with for those groomed on polished, mainstream cinema, is to deny yourself a canon of spectacularly wild entertainment.

I love Cohen’s style. I love that it has no outside pressure or interference, that it is so quintessentially him. Of course, his films aren’t just one-man shows – like every film, they’re team efforts – but the auteur theory applies to Cohen once you see a few of his works and notice the strands connecting them. He is a ‘triple-threat’ (writer/producer/director) who creates films without compromise, where it seems as though anything goes and that the viewer should never get too comfortable in their seat, for who knows what’s around the corner? He is also a remarkably hands-on director who gets right in on the action, who doesn’t believe in watertight preparation because some of the best ideas are the ones that sneak up on you. For example, upon learning on set that lead actor Michael Moriarty was an adept jazz pianist and composer, Cohen quickly wrote it into the script of Q and all of a sudden we got that great scene where Moriarty’s Jimmy Quinn tries (and fails) to get a gig at a nearby bar by showing off his scat-singing and ivory-tinkling.

Larry Cohen

Cohen is also a director who’s  not averse to breaking the rules in order to get the right moment on film, be it filming without permission, or potentially putting lives in danger (don’t worry, no one died) or turning a crisis into an opportunity – there was a moment during the making of Black Caesar when local Harlem gangsters were pushing Cohen for money in exchange for being allowed to shoot in the area – Cohen ended up giving the gangsters roles in the film! The word ‘maverick’ occupies a prominent place in the promotional material for the new documentary about Cohen, and I can’t think of a better description.

The documentary in question, Steve Mitchell’s delightful King Cohen, has been doing the festival circuits throughout 2017-18 to much acclaim, is a straight-up, chronologically-structured look at Cohen’s career, from his early days in stand-up comedy to his prolific era as a television screenwriter and eventual show creator, and then onto his real forte, directing feature-length films. Right from the off his films were eye-catching and subversive, with 1970’s Bone tackling race relations head-on, even if it wasn’t a hit with either black or white audiences. Things took a more fortunate turn with the classic Blaxploitation drama Black Caesar, which was a big hit and cemented Cohen’s knack for guerrilla filmmaking. Without the budget or resources to get permission to film in New York’s most famous hotspots, Cohen resorted to filming on the fly and sometimes with hidden cameras, such as when Fred Williamson’s title character is gunned down in public, without informing any of the passers-by, who thought they were witnessing a real-life murder!

This would be a method of hair-trigger, risky movie-making that Cohen would continue to employ, from staging an ‘assassination’ during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in To, to a full-on fist fight on a baggage carousel in a busy airport in Hell up in Harlem, and most controversially, firing live rounds of ammunition from the top of the Chrysler Building in New York for Q, which caused such fuss that Cohen eventually paid for a full-page advert in various trade papers apologising for scaring the locals! A very good point is made that in this post-9/11 world, such reckless use of guns in public, even in the name of art, would simply not be tolerated.

After Black Caesar, the films just kept on coming, including the excellent horror It’s Alive, which is one of the rare instances of a film not becoming a box office smash until it was re-released three years later at Cohen’s insistence. There was also the astonishing God Told Me To, which remains unclassifiable, unless excessive use of hyphens are your thing, the biopic The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, the monster-movie magnificence of Q (which may be Cohen’s most perfectly executed blend of horror and comedy), the meta-madness and twisted psychology of Special Effects, the satire of phoney health food fads that was The Stuff and the wild, inventive sequel A Return to Salem’s Lot, which played very fast and loose with the legacy of the original mini-series/ novel and is a film I love for its abundance of imagination and wicked humour. After The Ambulance and 1996’s Original Gangstas (his final feature film to date), Cohen’s directorial output became far less regular, though he continued (and continues) to write and write and write, the most famous example being the aforementioned Phone Booth, whose irresistible premise (Colin Farrell’s obnoxious agent finds himself caught in the cross-hairs of a sniper and is unable to leave the title location for the whole of the film) helped it become a commercial success.

There’s a running theme here involving Cohen’s ideas proving to be either ahead of their time – his short-lived sixties television series Coronet Blue’s main concept looks ahead to The Bourne Identity, for example – or simply out of time (God Told Me To, anyone?). Simply put, he likes doing his own thing and if you’re along for the ride, that’s great – if not, well there’s plenty of other things showing down the street. Saying that, he’s not averse to the odd compromise – after the original, downbeat ending to Black Caesar got a very negative reaction from one preview audience, he rushed to New York and literally cut the final scene from the movie days before it was due to be released! So even when it came to climbing down he still did it in his own admirably off-the-cuff style.

Not everything in Cohen’s career is covered here in depth – given little to no mention are the It’s Alive sequels, Full Moon High, Perfect Strangers, his writing duties for both Maniac Cop and the 90s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for example – and for sheer volume, the tremendous book The Stuff of Gods and Monsters, comprised of interviews with Cohen by Michael Doyle, remains the definitive source for anyone wanting the biggest and best number of anecdotes. Yet King Cohen has the clear edge when it comes to the multitude of interviewees on offer. As well as the man himself, there are stars, producers, friends and associates of Cohen who recollect their times working with him – any notable absences are mostly and sadly because the likes of Andrew Duggan, Samuel Fuller, David Carradine, Richard Lynch and others are sadly no longer with us. What becomes apparent from all the talking heads is that Cohen sounds like a truly stand-up gent as well as an engaging raconteur and fun director to work for. This documentary is a celebration, an applause, a long overdue pat on the back.

And why not? In this era of instant availability, many of the works of Cohen are still what I’d still call underrated and overlooked, and this guy certainly needs a boost in the popular consciousness. However, I should add that despite his outsider status, there was the odd moment where the underdog got his moment of public glory. Take the low point in his career when he was fired from his film I, the Jury in the early eighties; instead of wallowing in defeat, he immediately (and I mean, immediately – literally the next day) set to work on Q, a film that would be made at a fraction of the cost of the other movie but would end up making much more money!

One of the most revealing of the interviewees is Fred Williamson, who doesn’t seem to have aged much since From Dusk Till Dawn, and who, through his trademark cigar, refers to the ‘Cohen myth’, in that some of the his most memorable anecdotes may not be entirely accurate. The specific example here is the bit near the end of Black Caesar when Williamson’s character had to jump out of a moving taxi. According to Cohen, Williamson was very reluctant to do this stunt so Cohen did it first to show that it was no big deal (as Cohen admits, it was a big deal and was howling in agony the moment he was out of sight). According to Williamson, Cohen most certainly did not jump out of a vehicle in motion, so who are we to believe? Oh well, it makes a great story, and Cohen’s got plenty of those, inside and outside of his movies.

The most welcome appearance here, however, comes from the inimitable Michael Moriarty, who for a period in the eighties was De Niro to Cohen’s Scorsese. They made four films together (plus an episode of Mick Garris’ Masters of Horror TV series later on), and even though the actor has been very impressive in many other films and on television, in Cohen he found a kindred spirit who let him do his thing with spectacular results. His performance in Q should have won awards – it’s truly live wire. There are also appearances from Cohen regulars like James Dixon (who seemed to play a cop in every Cohen film he appeared in) and Laurene Landon, as well as one-off actors like Eric Bogosian, Eric Roberts, Tara Reid, Yaphet Kotto and Barbara Carerra, not to mention friends including Martin Scorsese and Joe Dante. The list goes on. It’s an impressive round-up.

If there’s one obvious flaw in King Cohen, it is that it’s too short, but that’s only a problem existing fans of the director like me will have with it, who will want more and more of this kind of thing. However, for those unaware of Cohen, and they’re just as, maybe even more, important an audience for this film, it’s the perfect introduction.

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