“’That’s not how it’s done!’ I’ve heard this my entire career, but I do what I want anyways and it always works out.”
Of the Movie Brats that helped establish the American New Wave, the most fascinating is ironically, the most underappreciated: Larry Cohen.
Known for pictures like It’s Alive (1974), Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and The Stuff (1985), Cohen is a pioneer of do-it-yourself, guerilla filmmaking and was at the forefront of the new independent cinema.
A godfather of exploitation and one of the progenitors of the blaxploitation genre, as well as dabbling in everything from slashers to Harryhausen-esque creature features, Cohen’s filmography is impossible to pin down.
Besides having unique premises and a streak of subversiveness running through each and every one of their backbones, there really is no through-line connecting his movies. Cohen makes whatever the fuck he wants, which is a joy for fans, but is ultimately the biggest problem with Steve Mitchell’s talking head/clip documentary King Cohen.
Mitchell does his best to form a narrative that tracks Cohen’s career from his days creating shows like Branded (1965), Blue Light (1966), Custer (1967), Coronet Blue (1967), and The Invaders (1967) to his first feature Bone (1972) to his career now pitching films such as Phone Booth (2002), Cellular (2004) and Captivity (2007).
However, because of the economy of time and the wide breath of material to work with, a lot of essential information gets lost on the cutting room floor.
The documentary wisely skips over a good chunk of the films he’s either written and/or directed, but egregiously leaves out Maniac Cop (1988) and it’s subsequent sequels, which are by far some of his most famous and acclaimed films.
This is all the more baffling considering all of the drama that happened between him and Nicolas Winding Refn over the remake. I’m guessing Mitchell wanted to end the documentary on more of a positive note or maybe Cohen himself asked for it to be omitted. I have no idea and although I’d understand either reason for its absence, It’s still a bizarre exclusion.
Those looking for an in depth overview of the director’s entire body of work will most likely be disappointed. Unlike the recent Brian De Palma documentary De Palma, King Cohen isn’t a detailed career retrospective, but instead a celebration of a eclectic maverick who played by his own rules.
It’s a fast paced love letter to Cohen that feels very similar in tone to Mark Hartley’s docs Not Quite Hollywood and Electric Boogaloo. Fans of the cult icon will love it, but it might turn off or be too much for the uninitiated.
Highlights of King Cohen include:
- Martin Scorsese singing the praises of the underseen The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977).
- Fred Williamson and Michael Moriarity both recalling completely different versions of two unrelated stories told by Cohen, calling into question the truthfulness of the raconteur.
- John Landis telling a story about New York temporarily panicking over a supposed terrorist attack due to the large number of shell casings that were raining down from the Chrysler building and knowing immediately it was Cohen not giving a fuck about safety regulations.
- The entire production of Wicked Stepmother (1989) which is simultaneously insane and heartfelt.
- Cohen’s relationships with both Bernard Hermann and Red Buttons which anchors the films craziness in genuine emotion.
- And any clip of the sorely underrated The Ambulance (1990) due to the magnificence of Eric Robert’s glorious 90s mullet.
Larry Cohen is one of the true originals of cinema and we are lucky to have him. All hail the king.