March 23rd saw the passing of one of popular cinema’s great originals, the inimitable Larry Cohen. He began his career as a gifted screenwriter and creator of television shows before turning to directing in the early ’70s. Cohen spent the next few decades and change making a string of idiosyncratic films in multiple genres that mixed high concept premises (long before anyone knew what a high concept was) with a raw, seat-of-the-pants indie sensibility in how he captured them on film.
Along the way, he created a string of enduring cult favorites that mix the ephemeral joys of genre cinema with bold, often provocative commentary on social, political and philosophical ideas. As has been said before here, his work moved at the speed of inspiration and there was nothing quite like it.
Here’s a quick overview of five key titles – in Schlockmania’s estimation – that define Cohen’s work as an offbeat auteur. Three of these titles have received full length reviews on this site: just look for clickable links on the titles below and they will lead you to the full read for each.
Black Caesar: Cohen created one of the greatest films from blaxploitation’s prime period by applying the social and racial themes of the genre to a classic gangster’s-story-as-morality-play plot right out of the ’30s Warner Brothers handbook. Fred Williamson gives an incendiary performance as a hard-luck kid who survives racism from both cops and Italian gangsters to strike out on his own as a ganglord who dominates Harlem. It boasts excellent use of New York locations (a Cohen trademark) and a memorable James Brown score. Look out for a scene near the end where the hero strikes back at a vicious cop who has dogged him since childhood: it delivers a one-two punch of in-your-face commentary and the kind of taboo-busting shock guaranteed to make an exploitation movie audience cheer.
It’s Alive: It took a re-release to become a hit but this distinctive monster movie was one of Cohen’s biggest successes, spawning two Cohen-directed sequels in subsequent years. The premise features expectant parents whose dreams of parenthood curdle into nightmares when their newborn is revealed to be a powerful mutant that kills anyone who threatens him. This film cleverly exploits the fears inherent in bringing a child into the world with commentary on the role of science in medicine and how society fears “the other.” Ryan and Farrell give stellar, emotionally affecting performances and Cohen shows himself to be adept at suspense, making sparing but effective use of a monster baby designed by a young Rick Baker. Soundtrack fans should note this also boasts one of Bernard Herrmann’s best latter-day scores.
God Told Me To: Cohen was known for unique and provocative plot concepts but he really swung for the fences with this one. This film begins with New York city rocked by a string of mass murder/suicide incidents where the assailants explain their actions by saying “God told me to.” A tormented Catholic cop (Tony LoBianco) tries to figure out what’s causing this and stumbles into a bizarre scenario that blurs the line between religion and the paranormal. The pseudo-documentary edge of Cohen’s direction brings a you-are-there intensity to a string of ideas that grow wilder with each passing reel. Better yet, it’s anchored by a really strong cast: LoBianco makes a sympathetic hero plus there are juicy roles for Sandy Dennis and Sylvia Sydney (a shattering single-scene performance). Look out for an early role for Andy Kaufman!
The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover: this is the toughest to see of Cohen’s films, perhaps because of its subject matter. It’s a breakneck-paced ride through the controversial career of the title figure – played in youth by James Wainwright and in later years by Broderick Crawford – as it sizes up the way he affected American history while struggling with secrets and traumas of his own. Cohen’s scrappy, go-for-broke approach feels oddly fitting for this film’s muckraking tone, resulting in a film that often plays like a drive-in-style dry-run for Oliver Stone’s political epics. Look out for a dazzling support cast that includes Rip Torn as an FBI rival, Michael Parks as Robert Kennedy and Raymond St. Jacques as Martin Luther King.
Q The Winged Serpent: Cohen returns to the monster movie in a way that only he could dream up. In this film, a flying serpent god from Aztec lore begins to attack New York City – and the only man who can help the police force track it down is a small-time hood (Michael Moriarty) who wants to use the knowledge to avenge his hard-knock life. Monster movie thrills slam up against quirky crime potboiler, plus you get perhaps Cohen’s best-ever cast with Moriarty supported by Candy Clark, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Moriarty and Cohen made a magical actor/director team and would continue on throughout the ’80s, with Moriarty fleshing out Cohen’s oddball heroes via a sense of Method actor daring that matched Cohen’s blitzkreig aesthetic.
Additional Viewing: it was a bitch limiting this list to just five movies as there is tons of fun to be had in the Cohen filmography. Once you’ve watched the above five titles, additional recommendations would include Bone, The Stuff, It’s Alive III and The Ambulance. He also penned one of the best Columbo episodes (“Any Port In A Storm”) and created some excellent t.v. series like The Invaders and Coronet Blue (both available on DVD). There’s also plenty of cool films that Cohen wrote the script for but did not direct: excellent films in this area include Best Seller, Maniac Cop, Cellular and Phone Booth.