RIP Larry Cohen: Maniacal Movie Maverick

While everyone on TV and social media are babbling about The Mueller Report, I came across some bigger news: Larry Cohen has passed away at age 77. You can debate politics all you want, but you can’t debate the fact that Cohen was a true artist, despite working within Exploitation genres and dealing with budgetary limitations throughout most of his career. Cohen’s unique vision was his own, and he made some truly great films – some turkeys too, granted, but his overall batting average was high indeed.

I’ve written extensively on this blog about Cohen’s film and television work because I love his style. Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, he frequently turned straw into gold. Born in Manhattan in 1941, Larry Cohen was obsessed with B-movies and hard-boiled fiction, and after graduating from CCNY with a degree in film studies, he got a job as a page at NBC. Cohen worked his way into writing, and had scripts produced for series  like SURFSIDE 6, CHECKMATE, THE DEFENDERS, THE FUGITIVE, and KRAFT SUSPENSE THEATER before getting the green light on a show he created, BRANDED.

The Invaders (1967-68)

From there, Cohen created the TV spy drama BLUE LIGHT, the noirish thriller CORONET BLUE, the youth-oriented Western CUSTER, and his small screen magnum opus, the paranoiac sci-fi series THE INVADERS. I wrote a post on the Small Screen Adventures of Larry Cohen, which you can peruse by clicking this link . Cohen then turned his attention to the Big Screen, but didn’t abandon TV completely, writing the mystery TV Movie IN BROAD DAYLIGHT (starring Richard Boone), three episodes of COLUMBO, and (much later) an episode of NYPD BLUE.

Bone (1972)

Cohen’s first film screenplay was 1967’s RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT 7, a sequel to John Sturges’ 1960 classic. Yul Brynner was actually the only one of the originals who “returned”, joined by Robert Fuller and Warren Oates in this enjoyable Western. He wrote a pair of low-budget shockers (SCREAM BABY SCREAM and DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING) and another oater (the Spaghetti-influenced EL CONDOR with Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef) before getting his shot in the director’s chair with 1972’s BONE, a disturbing black comedy about a home invasion featuring Yaphet Kotto, Joyce Van Patten, and Andrew Duggan (who’d make several later appearances for Cohen). BONE wasn’t a box office hit, but it got Larry noticed by someone who would have a big influence on his career – AIP’s Samuel Z. Arkoff.

Black Caesar (1973)

At American-International, Cohen was given free rein to bring his demented vision to the screen. The Blaxpolitationer BLACK CAESAR , with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson as Harlem gangster Tommy Gibbs and a score by “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, was a smash, and Arkoff pressed for an immediate sequel. Having no story written whatsoever, Cohen and his crew virtually improvised HELL UP IN HARLEM , a slam-bang actioner that was another slam-bang hit!

It’s Alive! (1974)

Cohen’s best-known picture is undoubtedly IT’S ALIVE! , an out-and-out horror movie about a killer mutant baby that became a drive-in sensation! IT’S ALIVE! finds Larry coming into his own; a totally preposterous premise, deranged special effects, tongue firmly in cheek, and a dash of social commentary thrown in to boot! IT’S ALIVE! spawned a pair of sequels, including the completely over-the-top IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, and a 2009 remake which Cohen did not direct and completely disowned.

God Told Me To (1976)

Speaking of over-the-top, 1976’s GOD TOLD ME TO is my absolute favorite Larry Cohen film, a totally twisted sci-fi saga of mass murders taking place in New York, aliens who impregnate humans, and the nature of God himself. This one finds Tony LoBianco as a cop who learns more about his past than he ever wanted to discover and Richard Lynch as… well, you just have to watch this weirdly insane little gem to find out! It’s Cohen at his bizarre best, in my opinion, and well worth seeking out for yourselves.

The Stuff (1985)

Next up was Q, Cohen’s take on classic monster movies, concerning the Aztec god-beast Quetzalcoatl, with an off-the-wall performance by Michael Moriarty as a cheap crook who discovers the beast on top of a New York skyscraper and holds the city for ransom. Candy Clark, David Carradine, and Richard “SHAFT” Rountree also take part in the madness. After SPECIAL EFFECTS, a behind-the-scenes thriller with Eric Bogosian as a demented director, Cohen came up with THE STUFF, a cult classic about some sentient goo marketed as ice cream to an unsuspecting public. Moriarty starred again, with Andrea Marcovicci and Paul Sorvino in support.

Original Gangstas (1996)

More movie madness followed: RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT, a sequel to the Stephen King novel with Moriarty and cult director Sam Fuller; DEADLY ILLUSION, an action thriller with Billy Dee Williams and Vanity; WICKED STEPMOTHER, a not quite successful film taken out of Cohen’s hands and featuring Bette Davis’ last role; THE AMBULANCE, an action comedy with Eric Roberts. Cohen’s last great movie as director was ORIGINAL GANGSTAS, returning to his Blaxploitation roots and costarring genre vets Williamson, Rountree, Pam Grier, Ron O’Neal , and Jim Brown.

Cohen kept writing, creating the zombie/slasher flick MANIAC COP and its sequels (all directed by William Lustig), the neo-noir PHONE BOOTH with Colin Farrell, the thriller CELLULAR starring Chris Evans and Jason Statham, and the “torture porn” CAPTVITY with Elisha Cuthbert. Larry Cohen never ran out of ideas, but unfortunately he did run out of time. He leaves a distinctive body of work behind, a truly original, maniacal movie maverick with a singular vision and an independent streak. He made his movies his way, and we can all be thankful for that. We salute you, sir, and we’ll miss ya.

Rest in peace Larry Cohen
(1941-2019)
Thanks for the memories

 

That’s Blaxploitation! 13: BLACK CAESAR (AIP 1973)

1972’s blockbuster smash THE GODFATHER began an onslaught of gangster movies released to your neighborhood theaters and drive-ins trying to capitalize on that film’s success. American-International Pictures was right in the thick of it, and since Blaxploitation was all the rage at the time, why not combine the two hottest genres? Producer/director/genius Larry Cohen already had a script written for Sammy Davis Jr., but when Sammy backed out, AIP Boss of Bosses Samuel Z. Arkoff signed Fred “The Hammer” Williamson to star as the Godfather of Harlem, BLACK CAESAR.

BLACK CAESAR is a semi-remake of the 1932 classic LITTLE CAESAR starring Edward G. Robinson, updated for the Blaxploitation/Grindhouse crowd and spun around on it’s head by Larry Cohen. You already know how much I enjoy Cohen’s work, and the auteur doesn’t fail to deliver the goods with this one. Casting the charismatic former NFL star Williamson was a bonus, and though not the greatest actor around, Fred had a macho screen presence that rivaled 70’s icons like Eastwood and Bronson, and was perfect for the part.

The film chronicles the rise and fall of Tommy Gibbs, from his days as a shoeshine boy/gangster’s little helper in the 50’s to the top of the crime heap. Along the way, he steals some secret ledgers containing the names of all NYC’s crooked politicians and cops, giving him enough leverage to take over. Tommy’s more ruthless than Vito Corleone, as he controls his turf with an almost non-stop orgy of violence that draws the ire of both the Mafia and the bent police, led by his old nemesis Commissoner McKinney (who gave young Tommy a brutal beating as a child). Tommy’s too big now, and McKinney sets him up for a fall using his ex-girlfriend Helen as bait to retrieve those ledgers.

The totally unhinged climax involves Tommy, McKinney, and a shoeshine box as a weapon of ass-whoopin’ destruction, a wild taxi ride after an assassination attempt on Tommy goes awry, and an ambiguous finish that leaves room for a sequel, HELL UP IN HARLEM (which I previously reviewed last year). Cohen is a master at hiding his budget limitations, with close-ups and lots of location footage on the streets of New York (one scene that drew a smile: a wounded Tommy passes a theater that happens to be showing THE GODFATHER!). He’s a great visual storyteller, and his off-the-hook style always holds your interest… or at least, mine!

The cast is loaded with familiar character actors: Art Lund as the racist cop McKinney, Val Avery as Mafia boss Cardoza, William Wellman Jr. as Tommy’s lawyer Coleman, Myrna Hansen as Coleman’s horny wife. Gloria Hendry, a   contender for the title Queen of Blaxploitation, plays Helen, and her LIVE AND LET DIE co-star Julius Harris is Tommy’s estranged father (who played a much larger role in the sequel). BLACK CAESAR features a score by a Godfather of another kind – James Brown, who sings the funky “Down and Out in New York City” over the opening credits. Hit it, James: