What Went Right With… Larry Cohen?

A caricature of Director, Screenwriter, and Producer Larry Cohen by What Went Wrong Or Right With...? for

Larry Cohen is a very underrated screenwriter and director. He is described by many as a “B-Movie auteur” and although I agree with the “auteur” part, his films for me are much better than typical B-Movies, both in terms of plot and direction. Cohen’s films are usually unfairly dismissed as “cheesy” or “sloppy” with most critics looking at the budget and editing rather than the plot, they focus on superficial aspects such as effects and finances and neglect to mention the script, the direction, and the substance of his movies. The common thread that runs through all of Cohen’s films is the unique plot and let’s not forget the sheer ambition of making something with scope on a small budget, something that Larry Cohen does very well.

The aspect of Cohen’s work that instantly raises it from being a straight-forward B-Movie, is that he adds a hint of social commentary to some of his films. Making a comment on world events, politics, or social issues without making a documentary or a contrived “emotional drama” is a difficult thing to do, in fact it’s rarely done. Cohen however has done this quite a few times. The Stuff for example is a brilliant satire of advertising and consumerism and It’s Alive makes a comment about abortions and even disability and deformations (raising issues such as medical experimentation and untested prescription drugs like Thalidomide). Larry even attempted to mock militarism and gung-ho military fawners in Uncle Sam (not enough for my liking but it did contain a few good lines).

The speech by Isaac Hayes’ character Sgt. Jed Crowley in Uncle Sam is a great example of Cohen’s meaningful message. After a child who desperately wants to join the military asks in regards to killing “isn’t that what makes a hero?”, Jed replies; “There are no heroes. Only crazy people who lose their minds in the middle of a battle. Every sane person keeps their head down trying to stay alive. But one lunatic runs out there, out of control, crazy full of hate, and if by some miracle he doesn’t die, [we] pin a ribbon on him, send him home, and tell him never to be crazy again”.

There are many classic lines in God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent too (see the linked articles), lines which make you think about the nature of god, religion, life, and death. In Q where the characters muse over how it’s easier to kill a monster than a god (“You are talking about the incarnation of some ancient Aztec god, and it’s my duty to kill it. Now it’s much easier for me to think of killing a bird than a god”) it shows that Cohen’s films, even when containing a stop-motion monster is something other than a standard “creature feature”. Lines such as these show that Larry Cohen’s films are much more than throwaway cult movies.

Special Effects also contains some brilliant lines, the film which revolves around a once-popular film director named Christopher Neville, features an interview with Neville during the opening titles. A reporter asks Christopher “What director has influenced you the most?” and Neville answers “Abraham Zapruder… Honest Abe”. The interviewer asks “How do you spell that?”, “J-F-K” he answers. Where else do you get lines like this in a B-Movie? The critics must not be listening or watching closely enough, I see lots of zeal and I hear memorable and meaningful commentary.

Whilst on the topic of Special Effects (which stars the beautiful Zoë Lund) I have to say that it possesses a Brian De Palma-esque plot (incidentally another underrated filmmaker). Special Effects concerns a director who makes a movie about a murder he’s committed by hiring a lookalike, wanting to mix the real snuff footage into his film to gain his credibility. And because this is a Larry Cohen picture it’s never completely serious, there’s a hilarious scene where the headshot of Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie is part of the casting process! There’s also a Larry Cohen cameo at the airport during the close of the film à la Alfred Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan.

One of my favourite aspects of Larry Cohen’s pictures is his guerilla-esque style of filmmaking incorporating real people into his movies. Enlisting everyday people on the street adds to Cohen’s unique filmic aesthetic and this is done to great effect in God Told Me To where it strengthens and amplifies the tense, real-life look of a New York thriller. And speaking of the Empire State, we’re always told by mainstream critics that Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Lee make “New York” movies but for me Larry Cohen is up there when it comes to translating the city into celluloid. Films like Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To for me are perfect representations of the Big Apple, in fact they both pre-empted big budget action movies like Die Hard With A Vengeance; tense, N.Y.-based films where characters are running around an expansive metropolis, the hectic, urban atmosphere of the city acting as a perfect backdrop for a metropolitan-set plot.

The 1970s and 1980s were definitely Larry Cohen’s prime, this was the time when he made his most credible and memorable films including the aforementioned It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent, and The Stuff. Some of Cohen’s films in the 1990s were also impressive; The Ambulance which was shown on MGM HD before Sky shut the channel down was great fun, it was a highly watchable yet underrated horror-thriller. Plot-wise, Larry Cohen then moved with the times and wrote Phonebooth and Cellular, two technology-based films that became part of the late 1990s and early 2000s zeitgeist.

In the 2000s, Cohen proved that he could still direct with his episode in the Masters Of Horror series titled “Pick Me Up”. The episode was well directed having a gloomy yet slick look, it was also paced very well, and like many of Cohen’s contributions to the genre, it again included another fantastic performance by Michael Moriarty.

The fact that Cohen doesn’t direct all his work means that his under-performing or underwhelming films are sometimes the fault of the individual director involved. The various problems with Maniac Cop and Uncle Sam were arguably William Lustig’s, and Captivity was directed in a very amateur way (fading about a zillion times during the first fifteen minutes). The idea of something like Uncle Sam, Captivity, and even Messages Deleted is potentially interesting, I’m sure if Cohen was the director of each of these films, they would have been much more satisfying.

That’s not to say Cohen’s filmography is perfect, no writer director has ever achieved perfection, but there’s enough there for me to be a fan. I’m not however, going to be obsequious and sycophantic about Cohen’s work, of course there’s bad amongst the good, case in point his Delusion TV Pilot from 2014 which was horrendous in every way. It was so amateur in fact that it made me wonder if it was some kind of tax write-off (the scene where the lead character stabs an accountant in an alley might allude to this). But, one or a few blips of mediocrity for me don’t detract from all the enjoyable movies he’s made over the years.

Okay, so not everything Larry Cohen makes is a success, but his individuality is still something to be admired. It’s also commendable that he never goes with the mainstream, Cohen always writes and directs what he wants to. Just like Stephen King who sometimes takes mundane objects (a cellphone, a dog, a clown, a car etc.) and transforms them into something terrifying, Larry Cohen also takes ordinary, everyday people or objects and makes them scary or thrilling; a policeman, a war “hero”, an ambulance, a phone, an abortion, and even a dessert! Who else but Larry Cohen would turn a pudding into a science fiction flick? Larry Cohen jumps between genres creating horror, science fiction, drama, thriller, and even comedy movies, sometimes blending the genres together. The fact that you can’t pin him down or put his movies in a box, along with the sometimes outlandish plots, makes them quintessentially Larry Cohen. Nobody else makes films like him.

Happy As Larry.

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