I first watched prolific writer and director Larry Cohen’s work as a child, long before I figured out who he was and how much I enjoyed his creative output. Writer/director Steve Mitchell reminded me of this with his incredible documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, while exposing me to sides and shades of Cohen and his prolific body of work that I had never before experienced.
Cohen created the Quinn Martin–produced science fiction television series The Invaders, which caught my attention as a very young, budding science fiction fan when it ran in 1967 and 1968. About six years later, Cohen wrote, directed, and produced the horror movie classic It’s Alive, about a killer baby. Although my parents did not take me to see the film during its theatrical run, it became the stuff of schoolyard legend when one of my friends saw it and then described to other friends and me, in vivid detail, about how the monster baby slaughtered everyone in the operating room where it was delivered, and then later killed a milkman, and how the man’s blood and milk ran together on the pavement.
Once I saw giant-monster movie Q (AKA Q: The Winged Serpent) on the big screen when it came out in 1982, I would forever remember the name Larry Cohen, and equate this maverick filmmaker with lower-budget gems that had atmospheres like no other movies. King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen shines a light on these titles, as well as many other of Cohen’s cinematic and television works before and after my sweet-spot initial exposure to him. Mitchell’s documentary is far more than a mere clip-show introduction to Cohen’s oeuvre, however; it is a jaw-dropping tribute to, and an irresistible history of, this creator, who has rarely let things like shooting permits or limited budgets stop him from forging ever onward with his cinematic and TV visions.
Mitchell wisely allows Cohen to discuss his career and projects at great length, and it should come as no surprise that Cohen is a captivating storyteller. Mitchell has also interviewed a great many former cast and crew members of Cohen’s films. Personalities such as Michael Moriarty (Q, The Stuff , Island of the Alive , A Return to Salem’s Lot ), Yaphet Kotto (Bone, 1972), Traci Lords (As Good as Dead, 1995), and Robert Forster (Original Gangstas, 1996) often add details to his stories and have plenty of tales of their own. In some cases, however, such as that of actor Fred Williamson — who collaborated with Cohen on the crime films Black Caesar (1973), its sequel Hell Up in Harlem (1973), and Original Gangstas — memories differ greatly between people. For example, Cohen talks about throwing himself out of a car for a stunt before Williamson did, showing that he wouldn’t ask anything of his cast that he himself wouldn’t do. Williamson denies that Cohen did this.
Cohen is a genre-film treasure, an auteur who didn’t shy away from raising a little Hell with social commentary in his films. His large body of work as director, writer, and sometimes both in horror, action, crime, thriller, exploitation, and other styles of motion pictures is legendary. Mitchell has gathered testimony from such fellow filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and Mick Garris to attest to that fact.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen, is both a near-exhaustive documentary that long-time Cohen fans will treasure and a perfect introduction for newcomers to the filmmaker’s astounding output and do-or-die-trying philosophy. No matter in which camp viewers might fall, chances are high that they will find many touching and inspirational moments in this film, along with a list of Cohen films to discover for the first time, or move high on their rewatch lists.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen screened at Fantastic Fest, which ran September 21–28 in Austin, Texas.
(4.5 / 5)