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

 

Halloween Havoc!: IT’S ALIVE! (Warner Bros 1974)

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IT’S ALIVE! is Larry Cohen’s magnum opus. This drive-in classic about a mutant killer baby keeps its tongue firmly in cheek while relating the saga of Frank and Lenore Davis (John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell), whose newborn child is a freakish monster that goes on a killing rampage. The beastly bambino slaughters the entire OR staff and escapes the hospital. The cops vow to “exterminate” this demon child for the good of mankind. A University professor (Andrew Duggan) wants the baby’s corpse for study, but a pharmaceutical exec (Robert Emhardt) wants it destroyed. It seems the drug company’s birth control pills contributed to the horrible mutation.

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The little bundle of terror eludes the police, murdering any threats in its way. It makes its way home, and momma Lenore hides it in the basement. Frank finds out and, with the cops help, aims to destroy it himself. The chase ends in the sewers of LA, where daddy Frank can’t bring himself to kill his mutant offspring. Emerging from the sewers with his beastly baby, the cops end up blasting it, ending the menace of the killer baby once and for all. Until they get a radio call that “Another one’s been born in Seattle”….

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Larry Cohen got his start as a television writer, including 43 episodes of the 60s sci-fi series THE INVADERS.  Making his directorial debut with the 1972 thriller BONE, Cohen turned to Blaxploitation with BLACK CAESAR and HELL UP IN HARLEM, both starring ex-NFLer Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Then came a string of strange but interesting movies: THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER, FULL MOON HIGH, Q:THE WINGED SERPENT, and THE WICKED STEPMOTHER (Bette Davis’s swan song). IT’S ALIVE! spawned two sequels by Cohen, IT LIVES AGAIN and IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. Larry Cohen is still active as a screenwriter, penning such fare as MANIAC COP, I THE JURY, PHONE BOOTH, and CELLUALR. IT’S ALIVE! was remade in 2008, but like most remakes it didn’t come close to the original.

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The cast plays it straight, with Ryan and Farrell particularly good as the beleaguered parents. Michael Ansara, William Wellman Jr., and Guy Stockwell also appear. The “baby” itself, which resembles the World Weekly News tabloid’s Bat Boy, was the creation of make-up wizard Rick Baker. Baker’s makeup and puppetry make Baby come alive. Hidden in the shadows for the most part, we only get glimpses of the chilling cherub. Veteran composer Bernard Herrman wrote the eerie score. I’m a big fan of IT’S ALIVE!, having seen it upon release (at a Drive-In of course!). Your suspension of disbelief is required for this one. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy IT’S ALIVE!

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