Larry Cohen, JJ Abrams, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, Je Dante, Mich Garris, John Landis, Michael Moriarty, Fred Williamson
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a dyed-in-the-wool cinema rebel who deserves a far more elevated place in the genre pantheon…
Cult filmmaker Larry Cohen occupies a deeper substrata of cult culture than the more widely celebrated horror auteurs – your John Carpenters, George A. Romeros, and Wes Cravens. Everybody* has seen A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, but you have to dig a little deeper to get to Cohen’s oeuvre, be it monster baby trilogy It’s Alive, Jaws-in-the-sky exploitation classic Q the Winged Serpent, or ballsy satire The Stuff. Now this exhaustive and affectionate documentary puts the defiant and deliciously subversive filmmaker, and the result is an absolute must for fans of exploitation cinema in particular and genre films in general.
Not that Cohen was always on the fringes – after detailing his formative years growing up in NYC, the doco paints a vivid picture of his early successes in the golden age of television, where he became an in-demand writer after making his first story sale at the tender age of 17. Frustration over the lack of creative control drove Coen to take up directing for the big screen, and from there we’re off to the races, carving a manic path through his early blaxploitation successes (Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem) to the horror hit It’s Alive, which managed to challenge The Exorcist at the box office with a fraction of the budget; to his audacious ’80s output and beyond.
The real fun happens when genre notables offer up anecdotes about the irrepressible Cohen. Makeup legend Rick Baker recalls doing up his then-wife as the monstrous tyke in It’s Alive, blaxploitation star Fred Williamson challenges Cohen’s recall of their ad hoc stunt work in Hell Up in Harlem, and all and sundry chime in on the making of Q the Winged Serpent, the doco’s centrepiece, a film that Cohen cobbled together on the fly when another project fell apart and shot without permits on the streets of Manhattan.
It’s noted again and again that you just couldn’t do this stuff today, and that’s no lie – anyone firing machine guns from the Chrysler Building in the post-9/11 world would soon find themselves on the wrong end of a SWAT team. There’s something so charming about Cohen’s “ask forgiveness, not permission” attitude, and perhaps it’s because it simply wouldn’t fly today, either in attitude or execution; Cohen’s subject matter, steeped in exploitation sensibilities, is too rough-hewn for modern tastes, while his working methodology, whereby he frequently shot without permits, roping in passersby as extras and gleefully ignorant of the chaos he frequently caused, is simply a lawsuit magnet.
What King Cohen really drives home, though, is Cohen’s overlooked position as a New York filmmaker. The attitude he brings to bear on his films screams NYC: cynical, mistrustful of authority, sympathetic of underdogs and suspicious of sentiment, romantic nonetheless. Cohen may have pent his career toiling in the genre ghetto, but this film insists he no less a New York film voice than Abel Ferrara (who, lest we forget, started out with the exploitation cheapie Driller Killer) or even Martin Scorsese who, wonderfully, shows up to sing Cohen’s praises as only the master cineaste can.
It’s really fantastic stuff, and at the centre of it all is the irascible Larry Cohen himself, a dyed-in-the-wool cinema rebel who deserves a far more elevated place in the genre pantheon than the one he currently occupies. Hopefully King Cohen goes a long way towards making that happen.
*Well, everybody worth knowing.