B-movie auteur Larry Cohen passed away March 23 at the age of 82, leaving behind a truly unique cinematic legacy. As genre fans, we thought it might be nice to celebrate the horror-centric parts of his career.
It’s important to note, however, that Cohen didn’t only make “garish horror classics,” as the New York Times dubbed them in its obituary headline. He got his start working in TV in the 1950s, directed a few blaxploitation movies (including 1973's Black Caesar), and in more recent decades had focused more on screenwriting, including penning Joel Schumacher’s acclaimed 2002 thriller Phone Booth.
Those are all big accomplishments, but cult movie fans will always remember Cohen most for his horror/sci-fi films, which include some of the strangest, most energetic entries the genre has ever seen. Want a crash course in Cohen craziness? Step right up for these four Cohen classics, plus a doc that gives context to Cohen’s career and particular brand of weird genius.
King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen
If you are completely new to Cohen’s films, or even if you’re a longtime fan, this 2017 documentary from director Steve Mitchell is well worth checking out. King Cohen takes you through his career with clips from nearly every notable project, interviews with actors (including Michael Moriarty, Yaphet Kotto, and Fred Williamson) and others Cohen worked with along the way (like make-up master Rick Baker and writer David J. Schow), as well as his wife and his ex-wife, and famous friends like J.J. Abrams and Martin Scorsese. But the most important talking head in the doc is Cohen himself, who proves a highly entertaining presence as he looks back on a prolific, fearless career of making movies his way, regardless of what mainstream Hollywood had to say about it.
“All the movies I do are all basically taking something that’s considered benevolent and turning it into some kind of monstrosity,” Cohen explains in King Cohen, and perhaps the very best example of that is killer-baby flick It’s Alive. A sketchy pharmaceutical company’s to blame when a Los Angeles couple’s second son is born a vicious mutant, ripping through every medical professional who’s present at the birth (sparing his mother, thankfully) and then going on the lam (complete with lurking, low-angle POV shots).
It’s a schlocky but genuinely unnerving premise elevated by some very effective elements, including a score by Oscar-winning composer Bernard Herrmann, Rick Baker’s special effects work on the rarely-seen but still horrifying infant, and John P. Ryan’s performance as the traumatized father who’s tempted to turn on his murderous spawn. Though It’s Alive was first released in 1974, it didn’t catch on with audiences until it was re-released with a ramped-up ad campaign in 1977—and proved such a hit Cohen later made two sequels, 1978's It Lives Again and 1987's It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive.
God Told Me To
Cohen’s early TV career was dotted with crime shows, courtroom dramas, and spy thrillers, and he would return to variations on those themes throughout his career, with a particular fondness for cop characters. But there’s no police-procedural tale anywhere on Earth quite like 1976's God Told Me To, in which NYPD detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) is faced with a series of bizarre murders that are as random as they are gruesome. (One such incident, in which an officer played by comedian Andy Kaufman goes berserk at a St. Patrick’s Day parade, is a textbook example of Cohen’s “who needs permits?” approach, favored while filming in crowded public spaces; the crew just showed up with Kaufman in costume and stuck him into a real parade as the cameras rolled.)
Each murderer explains they did it because “God told me to,” a jarring thing for Nicholas, a devout Catholic, to contemplate. But the case gets even stranger the closer he gets to the truth, which involves a cult led by a sinister, telepathic leader who shares a very freaky family-tree branch with Nicholas. What filmmaker would dare to make his movie’s big bad a glowing, half-extraterrestrial creature with a vagina on its torso? Only one...guess who.
Q: The Winged Serpent
The Empire State Building had King Kong, but in this 1982 tale, the Chrysler Building gets a beast that’s arguably even more alarming: a giant bird-creature that appears to be a modern-day coming of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. The stop-motion animation hasn’t aged well—funny story, but one of the guys who worked on it, Randall William Cook, was later on the Oscar-winning team that won visual effects Oscars for all three Lord of the Rings movies—and unfortunately it’s what most people first associate with Q: The Winged Serpent.
But like most of Cohen’s films, Q has so much more going for it than its monster element. Again, there’s a police story forming the backbone of the plot, as cops David Carradine (Kill Bill) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) puzzle through a series of ritualistic killings that start happening right around the time something starts attacking from the rooftops high above Manhattan. But the real gem here is actor Michael Moriarty, starring in his first of many collaborations with Cohen; his performance as a jittery small-time crook who discovers a rather fantastic nest (which he promptly tries to utilize as part of his next hustle) is an unhinged delight.
Moriarty also stars in this 1985 horror comedy that cheekily takes on consumerism, advertising, and America’s obsession with junk food, while also delivering some outstandingly gross special effects. It begins as a mysterious sweet substance, discovered just casually oozing from the ground, becomes a nationwide addiction. Moriarty plays an eccentric ex-FBI agent who’s hired by Big Ice Cream execs concerned that the Stuff is cutting into their profits. But corporate espionage soon takes a back seat to basic human survival when the addictively tasty treat (contained and marketed by a sinister company that has zero intention of stopping) is revealed to be a sentient organism that gradually eats anyone who consumes it from the inside out, but not before they get to devolve into creepy zombie versions of themselves first!
The Stuff isn’t filmed in the same run-and-gun style as many of Cohen’s other movies, but that just means there was time to produce things like fake Stuff commercials (complete with catchy jingles: “Enough is never enough...of the Stuff!”) that add dimension to what is, in true classic Cohen style, “taking something that’s considered benevolent”—like yogurt, for instance—“and turning it into some kind of monstrosity.”
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