Friday, 29 March 2019

Larry Cohen

I’ve been a fan of Larry Cohen’s work for about as long as I can remember.

Ok, perhaps not quite that long, but certainly since I first acquired a DVD player at some point in the early 2000s, and made the then newly reissued ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’ (1982) one of my inaugural impulsive purchases in this exciting new format.

I mean, who wouldn’t? Just look at the damn thing.

Long story short, I fucking loved it. I still do. It’s one of my absolute favourite movies. To this day, I’ve rarely seen a film that dared to be so much better, so much more original, than the constraints of its genre, budgetary status and marketing materials lead the audience to expect. I mean, most filmmakers would probably have been content just to have created a down-on-the-street New York crime story so compelling that it could made for a respectable addition to the ‘Mean Streets’ / ‘Serpico’ canon in its own right; but to then amp it up with decapitated sunbathers, sinister Aztec cultists skinning people alive and David Carradine blasting a tommy gun in the face of stop motion god-monster on top of the Chrysler Building..? Good grief.

Whoever this Larry Cohen guy was (and his “WRITTEN, DIRECTED AND PRODUCED BY..” credit leaves little room for authorial ambiguity), I immediately knew he was on my wave length (or rather, I aspired to be on HIS wave length, I suppose).

Learning more about ‘Q’s production circumstances over the years, my admiration for what Cohen managed to achieve with it has only increased. Like all of his films, it basically just began with a good idea and a throw of the dice. (He always claimed that he launched the production in a fit of pique after being fired from an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s ‘I, The Jury’, making initial calls to cast, crew and financial backers from his studio-booked hotel room and shooting the first footage for ‘Q’ the very next day.)

Looking back over Cohen’s filmography, it’s fair to say that this impulsive approach to movie-making – zero pre-production planning, total faith in on-set improvisation – was both his greatest strength and his Achilles’ heel. Sometimes he rolled a five, sometimes an eight, but on ‘Q’, he ended up with a double six staring back at him. Everything just comes together beautifully. Though fans of the equally extraordinary ‘God Told Me To’ (1976) could make a strong argument to the contrary, I still think it’s his masterpiece.

Cohen also claimed – in his characteristically entertaining audio commentary - that he met Michael Moriarty randomly, in a restaurant ferchristsake, immediately offered him a part in the film and began rewriting the script around him, resulting in what is almost certainly the best performance in either man’s career.

He also very nearly ended up in jail (surely only the intervention of friends in high places can possibly have kept him out of the cells) after causing a major security incident in New York City when – asking no one’s permission, as per usual – he had his people climb to the top of the Chrysler Building, hi-jack the hanging baskets used by steeplejacks carrying out renovation work, and start blasting away at an invisible monster with prop machine guns… whilst simultaneously stealing footage of the people on the streets below fleeing in panic!

Though Cohen perhaps never pulled off anything else quite so audacious / insane [delete as applicable], his best films of the ‘70s are full of similarly electrifying moments, in which the violent drama of the fictional narrative crashes headfirst into the real world, capturing the reactions of unsuspecting bystanders (see Andy Kaufman going crazy in the midst of the St Patrick’s Day parade in ‘God Told Me To’, or Fred Williamson staggering across Times Square with a bullet wound in ‘Black Caesar’(1973)). Although he seems to have largely curtailed these shenanigans from the mid ‘80s onward (perhaps considerations of safety and sanity began to win out), these outbursts of chaos are emblematic off the off kilter, anything-could-happen-next energy that defines the entirety of Cohen’s career.

Though he was still a young man when the ‘60s hit, Cohen never really seems to have embraced that decade’s counter-culture. In spite of the gonzo antics outlined above, he was never exactly what you’d call a rock n’ roll kinda guy. In fact, his aspirations early in life involved becoming a borsch-belt comedian or nightclub crooner, before unsolicited script submissions led him toward a career in network TV and, subsequently, independent filmmaking.

(All this is outlined, by the way, in Steve Mitchell’s 2017 documentary ‘King Cohen’, which I watched this week in preparation for writing this post; an excellent doc, and solid gold for anyone who enjoys listening to movie people talking – recommended.)

Despite this however, Cohen’s films and scripts are united by a rebellious spirit, and almost always manage to sneak in an element of pointed social criticism, hidden in plain sight beneath a thin veneer of commercial ballyhoo. Dealing candidly (sometimes furiously) with issues of societal inequality, race / gender / age discrimination and institutional corruption, his writing exhibits a near-obsessive distrust of authority, counselling profound suspicion of the motives of police and government, and frequently pitting unpredictable, potentially dangerous, outsiders against a hierarchy of ineffectual, morally tainted patriarchal figures.

These concerns are perhaps most immediately evident in Cohen’s directorial debut, ‘Bone’ (1970), an extraordinary and uncategorisable social satire which proved impossible to market at the time, and that remains sadly underappreciated to this day. (I reviewed it here as part of a Yaphet Kotto blogathon way back in 2010, though I can’t really vouch for the veracity of my writing or opinions at that time.)

Even more transgressive in their own way though are Cohen’s 1974 hit ‘It’s Alive’ and it’s two sequels – films whose outrageous, envelope-pushing subject matter allowed goofy, bad taste monster attack scenes to exist side by side with harrowing, elemental human drama, whilst also asking their audience to reflect on such startling sights as (in ‘It Lives Again’, 1978) an army of heavily armed riot police surrounding a hospital specifically for the purpose of killing a new born child, whilst a small band of dissidents try to smuggle the expectant mother into a mobile delivery room hidden in the back of a furniture truck. (Although, this being a Larry Cohen film of course, those dissidents prove to be pretty far from heroic themselves.)

Aside from anything else, the first ‘Alive’ film stands as a clear precursor to the work of both David Cronenberg and Frank Henenlotter, and its key scene - in which John Ryan sits in a hospital waiting room nervously anticipating the birth of his first child, only to instead see a nurse staggering through the door to the maternity ward with her throat torn out - remains one of the most jaw-dropping moments in all of ‘70s horror, created with little more than one good actor, one TV soap opera set and a few squirts of fake blood.

In all of the aforementioned films, there is something dangerous; something new and uncomfortable, giving voice to ideas not normally encountered in commercial genre cinema. Cohen’s persistent refusal to tow the usual line when it comes to deciding which characters are ‘good’, which are ‘bad’, and what should be done about whatever the status quo-upsetting threat under consideration happens to be, allows his work to remain provocative and unnerving to this day.

First and foremost I think, Cohen was a great writer. (This seems a good point at which to drop in mention of his voluminous screenwriting work, which included the creation of the ‘Maniac Cop’ franchise and the 2002 high concept thriller ‘Phone Booth’, amongst many others.)

One of the all-time great ‘high concept’ guys, most of Cohen’s scripts seem tailor made for a “give it to us in one sentence” pitch meeting, but he never failed to wring maximum dramatic value from his latest Crazy Idea, foregrounding character and consequence to give added weight to movies that could easily have become goofy timewasters. In an alternate universe – if he’d had lunch with Rod Sterling, or if he’d got to grips with prose - he could easily have slotted into the pantheon next to Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon or Ray Bradbury.

When the films Cohen directed did fall down or emerge as merely average, it was the vagaries of the execution (variable performances, uninspired camera work, botched effects, wonky pacing or simply a lack of time/resources) that let them down. His ideas and his instincts were always on-point, and, given the seat-of-his-pants circumstances under which he worked, it’s remarkable that he rarely, if ever, came up snake eyes.

To date, I’ve never seen a Larry Cohen film that wasn’t worth watching at least once, but, having said that, his extended catalogue is pretty damn vast, considering his preference for outré subject matter and his constant battles with studios and distributers. I’ve been gradually trying to fill in the gaps for myself over the past few years, but, watching the aforementioned documentary served to remind me just how many titles I still have to go.

In ‘King Cohen’, you will hear Martin Scorsese speak eloquently about the importance of Cohen’s near forgotten 1977 FBI biopic ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’. You will learn that his 1987 Stephen King sequel ‘Return to Salem’s Lot’ featured an elderly Sam Fuller teaming up with Michael Moriarty to battle vampires (now THAT I’ve got to see), or that he gave Bette Davis her final movie role in an ill-fated comedy named ‘Wicked Stepmother’ (1989), introducing a ‘body swap’ element into the script in order to allow him to finish the film after health problems and bad feeling led Davis to bail before the completion of shooting.

And, that’s before we even mention his 1980 horror-comedy ‘Full Moon High’ (four years before ‘Teen Wolf’, folks), or ‘Original Gangstas’ (1996), the post-‘Boyz N The Hood’ gang warfare movie he made in collaboration with Fred Williamson, casting genuine gang members in Gary, Indiana.

One suspects that Cohen’s dice hand may finally have failed him on some of these lesser known oddities, but you know, he who dares etc… I look forward to catching up with them at some point.

What a wild rampage of a career. Though Cohen effectively retired from directing in the 21st century (his 2006 ‘Masters of Horror’ episode ‘Pick Me Up’ – a final collaboration with Moriarty - was the only exception), he continued to keep the wolf from the door by writing prolifically for films and TV (in particular, the success of ‘Phone Booth’ seems to have made him the go-to guy for phone-related DTV horror flicks, strangely enough) – but I’m really glad that Mitchell’s aforementioned documentary came through in time to top off his filmography with an appropriately heartfelt tribute to his achievements.

Of course, the summary I’ve banged out above barely begins to scratch the surface of a full life of creative endeavour. How many spec scripts did he sell over the years, only to see them disappear into the ether? And I’m sure that a devotee of ‘60s American TV could probably write an even longer obit post, running down his successes and innovations in that field.

However you approach his career though, Larry Cohen stands as a pioneering figure in the realm of self-sufficient, independent American cinema, a persistent thorn in the side of slick, studio conformity, and a relentless champion of a wilder, weirder, angrier voices within popular entertainment. He will be much missed.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful retrospective Ben. I heard of Cohen’s death on a FB page devoted to The Invaders, a show he created in the 1960s which was an interesting work of paranoia with some genuinely interesting ideas. Wikipedia has some citation neededs on some potentially ambiguous themes around authority, but I would not be surprised if it was indeed intended as being anti-authoritarian whether left or right rather than a more straightforward allegory of communism as ‘aliens impersonating humans’ 50s-80s sci fi was invariably interpreted. Whether the low budget worked to its favour or it was a genuine artistic decision I actually found the sparsely populated suburbs and stretches of wastelands it was filmed in oddly worked in its favour.

I watched Q a few years ago and thought it was a blend of fun monster movie with great performances by Moriarty and Carradine. I will need to have a rewatch soon.

The Alive series are films I’ve always wanted to get round to watching, but never have. They sound intriguing plots anyway.

As you mention, perhaps Cohen never truly realised his potential, but nonetheless he was an important figure in sci-fi/ fantasy film.

Last but not least (for me anyway, let anyone else say what they will) he also came up with the story for my favourite Columbo episode, Any Old Port in a Storm, with Donald Pleasance as an obsessive vintner which had some surprisingly touching moments.

Ben said...

Hi Gregor - thanks as always for your comment.

I don't have much background in '60s American TV, but the 'King Cohen' documentary touched upon his work on 'The Invaders', and it indeed looks like a very interesting show.

I also note that Cohen created 'Branded', the western show eulogised by John Goodman's character in 'The Big Lebowski' (during the scene where they visit the guy in the iron lung)!

Funnily enough, my brother is a proud owner of a complete Columbo DVD box set, and he has sometimes been kind enough to pick out particular episodes directed by 'interesting' individuals (Patrick McGoohan's extremely odd contributions in particular), so maybe next time I can suggest we check out the Larry Cohen episode... it sounds great.