Cinema/TV, Film Notes

FrightFest review – King Cohen

My notes on the documentary King Cohen (King Cohen The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen)


Roger Corman’s famous dictum for talent-spotting was ‘find some kid in film school who’ll work cheap’ … throughout this thoroughly engaging documentary about Larry Cohen, there’s a thread about the way Cohen has achieved a similar end by hiring veterans who still want to work but aren’t getting the offers any more, with contrasting anecdotes about the way this worked out so well with composers Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rosza, cinematographer George Folsey Jr, all-round legend Sam Fuller and actor Red Buttons … but rebounded somewhat when an ailing Bette Davis walked off Wicked Stepmother, a project Cohen created for her.  In the event, he did a quick rewrite and Barbara Carrera inherited Davis’s lines – the film is full of anecdotes about shooting on the fly without permits (securing amazing New York and Washington locations for verite set-piece scenes in Black Caesar, God Told Me To, Q The Winged Serpent and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover), turning reversals into advantages (though not always – Cohen was eased out of the director’s chair on two films) and delivering scrappy, ambitious, memorable and unique films.


Writer-director Steve Mitchell opens with an anecdote from JJ Abrams, who met Cohen at a bus stop as a teenager, and then hauls on longtime collaborators – Michael Moriarty (whose collaboration with Cohen is one of the great oddball star-director teamings), Fred Williamson, James Dixon, wives Janelle Webb and Cynthia Costas – and folks who did a project or two with him – David J. Schow, Robert Forster, Yaphet Kotto, Traci Lords, Eric Roberts, Eric Bogosian, Tara Reid – along with peers (Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Mick Garris) and fans to talk about his films and his wild ride of a career, dipping in and out of the mainstream with TV work (a clip from The Big Lebowski reminds us he actually created Branded, a show ascribed to the guy in the iron lung in the Coens’ film) and high-concept spec scripts (Phone Booth, Cellular) but focusing intently on his own, unique and uniquely odd films.  He had big hits with Black Caesar and It’s Alive, and was usually a studio man – even if the studio was AIP as often as Warners – but his most distinctive films are the sorts of things only a powerhouse creative willing to make do and mend could get away with … Bone (Kotto says he’d never have made it if the script were called Dial RAT for Terror), God Told Me To (a film even stranger than the clips here suggest), Q, Special Effects or The Ambulance.  Cohen’s career has been so rich that there are whole films (the It’s Alive sequels, Full Moon High) and TV gigs (creating the murders for Columbo) that barely rate a passing mention, and we only touch on the wealth of unrealised scripts (the film gives a handy link) he thinks might still get made, and since he admits to selling a rejected 1960s Naked City pitch to NYPD Blue in the ‘90s, he might well be right.


It’s a lively talking-heads-and-clips show, though we get a few views of Cohen’s LA home (as seen in many of his films) and some footage shot as he hustles amusingly at a convention, mock-lamenting his career woes and signing empty pots of the Stuff.  It may be that Cohen is now a veteran who doesn’t get hired as much as he once did, though his wife notes that he writes every day and doesn’t seem to slow down … and if he has any real anger or resentment about his situation (for someone so busy in the ‘70s and ‘80s, his director credits have been sparse since) then it doesn’t come through in his patter.  He began wanting to be a standup, and he turns his anecdotes charmingly – even when other interviewees are ready to accuse him of printing the legend (Williamson, very firmly waving a cigar, unpicks several of the best stories, though he’s plainly a mythmaker himself), a few times he gets confirmation (Scorsese talks about his tutoring of Italians like Robert De Niro and Brian DePalma in being Jewish for Herrmann’s funeral).  Great claims have been made for Cohen by a run of critics – Robin Wood and Tony Williams, especially, though I’ll own up to being an unabashed fan too – but this doesn’t get very deep into analysis of the oeuvre (Williams and Michael Doyle, who’ve both written books about Cohen, don’t show up).  It is, however, a sprightly and engaging introduction to one of the American cinema’s great off-off-mainstream filmmakers …

Here’s a trailer.


2 thoughts on “FrightFest review – King Cohen

  1. A bit sad that Al Adamson and HG Lewis got lavish box sets of their work released while some of Larry’s films barely got a DVD issue – I’m thinking of Private Files Of J Edgar Hoover, which I’ve wanted to see for about thirty years (missed the only BBC TV showing in that period), but has only had a miniscule US DVD release, on 2Oth C Fox I think (maybe the subject matter has something to do with the lack of exposure – not having seen it, I wouldn’t know). Certainly, a box featuring Q, Bone, God Told Me To, Black Caesar and It’s Alive alone would have pride of place and be watched to death. (Another thing – why no Q model kits or toys? It’s a beautiful monster). Suppose the other filmmakers are easier to license, Cohen’s work is divided between different rights holders, including monolith monster Big Studios …

    Posted by wmsagittarius | July 4, 2021, 5:07 pm


  1. Pingback: FrightFest 2017 – Complete Review Round-Up | The Kim Newman Web Site - August 29, 2017

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