Often referred to as “the Cassavetes of exploitation,” filmmaker Larry Cohen was responsible for some of the most engaging and transgressive films of the 70's and 80's. Though arguably more famous as the creative force behind the It’s Alive franchise and the quirky cult film Q, his career began as a prolific television writer for dozens of 60's television productions. His work spans six decades of creative and often challenging material, which would make any attempt at a documentary on his legacy a daunting task. Fortunately, writer/director Steve Mitchell found the ideal narrator for the film – Cohen himself, who, as many of his fans already know, is an extremely engaging personality. King Cohen might not break new ground on the documentary front, but it does offer an extensive and substantive overview of the under-appreciated filmmaker’s career.
Featuring an impressive list of talking heads, the film includes famous admirers, close family, and actors from previous Cohen films. Everyone from J.J. Abrams (who discusses a chance encounter with the director as a teenager) to Fred Williamson (who continues a tenuous relationship with the director) are given some screen time to share their thoughts. The wide range of voices from throughout his long career offer a more complex view of the artist than similarly focused documentaries created for DVD supplements. Beginning with his years as a movie-obsessed youth in the Bronx, director Mitchell skillfully takes the audience through each step in his ambitious creative pursuits. Covered extensively are his early days as an in-demand writer for studio-based television entertainment in the early 60's. The frustration that Cohen felt within that rigid corporate system laid the groundwork for his move into independent filmmaking.
Starting with the incendiary Bone in 1972, the young auteur proceeded to write, direct and often produce projects himself – cutting out the middleman to ensure his artistic vision remained intact. This focus resulted in a string of intelligent, dramatically-sound indie films created primarily for the exploitation market. Cohen found his creative voice within this low-budget framework; tackling social and political issues hidden within the popular action and horror trappings of the day. These productions also allowed him to work with older creatives in the film industry, both in front of and behind the camera, who was still active and looking for work.
Bone starred a young Yaphett Kotto (who is interviewed here as well) in a dark satire of class and racial division. Though not a huge hit, the film led to an association with exploitation king Sam Arkoff who hired him to produce the successful black action titles Black Caesar (1973) and its sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973). The success of those two Fred Williamson vehicles gave Cohen the freedom to create, arguably, his most popular film, It's Alive (1974). The Warner Brothers-backed killer baby film, which became a hit after a well-promoted re-release, brought Cohen into the genre that he is most admired: horror. He solidified this reputation with the cult hit God Told Me (1976), a completely captivating and original thriller featuring Tony Lo Bianco as a New York City detective investigating a string of disparate murders that were committed by the command of God (hence, the title). Featuring a solid cast of New York actors grounding Cohen’s unconventional script, it’s one of the director’s most disturbing films.
Mitchell doesn’t shy away from the thornier issues of Cohen’s maverick working style. Bypassing permits or official permission to shoot in certain locations, the director would often take the guerrilla filmmaking route of placing actors in busy streets or events and shoot footage on the fly. He would also require some to do their own dangerous stunts, though not without first performing them himself. Actor Williamson, who acted as his own stunt double, refutes some of the information given by Cohen - though both acknowledge that the stunt work was often created on the spot. This type of shooting finally got the director into trouble with an incident at the Chrysler building while filming the stop-motion monster thriller Q (1982). Hiring actual off-duty policemen and building maintenance employees, Cohen used real machine guns and ammunition to shoot into the sky at the titular monster. The resulting chaos lead to a negative piece in the New York Daily News which put an end to the director’s riskier filming techniques.
With informative commentary by Cohen regular Michael Moriarty (Q, The Stuff, Return to Salem's Lot), actor Eric Bogosian (Special Effects) and, of all people, Martin Scorsese, King Cohen offers a satisfying glimpse into the career of this talented and truly underrated auteur. King Cohen, which played to wide film festival acclaim last year will be available on Blu-ray Sept. 25th.
Bradley Steele Harding