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

 

Confessions of a TV Addict #11: The Small Screen Adventures of Larry Cohen!


I was a Larry Cohen fan before I even knew there was a Larry Cohen! Before IT’S ALIVE! , before  BLACK CAESAR , I was watching the following Cohen Creations on my parents big, bulky TV console:

BRANDED (ABC 1965) – Cohen’s first series as creator debuted as a midseason replacement for Bill Dana’s failed sitcom. THE RIFLEMAN’s Chuck Connors  returned to TV as Jason McCord, a disgraced Cavalry officer court martialed and drummed out of the service after being falsely accused of cowardice. McCord then wanders the West getting involved in a new adventure every week while trying to clear his name. Viewers welcomed Connors back to the small screen, and the half-hour black and white Western was renewed for a full season – this time “in living color”! The show featured a memorable opening theme song by Dominic Frontiere and Alan Arch…

… unfortunately, Jason McCord never did get to clear his name, as the show was sent scampering away by ratings juggernauts THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and THE FBI. BRANDED can be viewed Saturday afternoons on the INSP Network’s Western lineup, and still holds up well today!

BLUE LIGHT (ABC 1966) – Spies were the “in” thing, and this half-hour World War II drama cast deep-voiced singer Robert Goulet as David March, a traitorous American journalist now working for the Nazi propaganda machine – only he’s really a double agent working for the Allies undercover in a project called  “Code: Blue Light”! All his fellow spies have been discovered and assassinated, and now March is pretty much on his own, trying to maintain his cover and do what he must without getting killed himself. French actress Christine Carere costarred as French underground agent Suzanne Duchard, under deep cover as a member of the Gestapo. and one of only a handful of people who know David’s true identity. Larry co-created the series with film director Walter Grauman (LADY IN A CAGE), and BLUE LIGHT was noted for being one of TV’s most violent at the time (are you surprised, with Cohen and Grauman at the helm?). The show was a midseason replacement for Sally Field’s GIDGET, who moved into THE DONNA REED SHOW’s old time slot,  and from what I can remember was pretty darn good, but didn’t catch on and lasted just 17 episodes.

THE LEGEND OF CUSTER (ABC 1967) – Or “Counter-Culture Custer”, in this series “suggested by Larry Cohen”. Young Wayne Maunder, with his long golden locks, starred as young Lt. Col. Custer, in charge of a bunch of misfits and reprobates known as the 7th Cavalry. Custer’s methods were always at odds with his commanding officer General Terry (Robert F. Simon), representing the establishment. Western vet Slim Pickens was cast as scout California Joe to give the series some sagebrush cred, but after 17 episodes CUSTER was defeated, not by the Sioux at Little Big Horn, but by another establishment figure – James Drury’s ratings monster THE VIRGINIAN. As for Maunder, he survived to costar on the Western LANCER for two seasons, the short-lived Jack Webb/Stephen J. Cannell crime drama CHASE, and the Russ Meyer film THE SEVEN MINUTES. Maunder recently passed away on November 11 at age 82.

CORONET BLUE (CBS 1967) – Cohen switched from ABC to CBS for this summer replacement series, which only lasted 13 episodes. The pilot found Frank Converse as a man attacked, drugged, tossed in the river, and left for dead… but lives, and the only thing he remembers is the phrase “Coronet Blue”! The now-amnesiac man assumes the name ‘Michael Alden’ and wanders about seeking to uncover clues to his true identity while trying not to get killed by assassins. This was a good premise, one I really enjoyed, and apparently CBS did too, wanting to renew CORONET BLUE for another season. However, they waited too long, and star Converse had already accepted a part in ABC’s new crime drama NYPD, alongside Jack Warden and Robert Hooks (which as I recall was also pretty damn good!). Oh well, I guess we’ll never find out who ‘Alden’ really was, or who was out to kill him.

THE INVADERS (ABC 1967-69) – This was Larry Cohen at his best, a paranoia-filled science-fiction extravaganza, and one of my favorite shows of the era. Aliens have infiltrated Earth bent on conquering the human race, and architect David Vincent (actor Roy Thinnes) runs around America trying to expose them (they can only be identified by their crooked pinky fingers and a tendency to turn red and disintegrate when killed!), while warning everyone he comes across of impending doom! Yep, it’s another 60’s Cold War allegory, substituting spacemen for Commies, and it clicked with viewers young and old (my Dad loved it!) for different reasons. The kids dug the sci-fi stuff, and THE INVADERS proved a marketing cash cow, with comic books, paperback novels, and even an Aurora plastic model spaceship (just don’t sniff the glue, kiddies!). The series debuted as a midseason replacement for another show Cohen was associated with – THE FUGITIVE, which concluded it’s run when David Janssen finally caught up with that One-Armed Man (Larry had written a couple of early episodes).

Larry Cohen soon moved to feature films, and his singular, somewhat loopy  vision has kept fans like me happy for decades. But don’t discount his TV efforts, many of which are available on YouTube and DVD collections. Catch them when you can, they’re a blast!

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:

That’s Blaxploitation! 10: HELL UP IN HARLEM (AIP 1973)

I’ve covered producer/writer/director Larry Cohen’s marvelously manic work in the horror genre ( IT’S ALIVE! , GOD TOLD ME TO ), but did you know the low-budget auteur also contributed some solid entries to the Blaxploitation field? Cohen’s gangster epic BLACK CAESAR starred Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and was such a smash a sequel was rushed into production and released ten months later. HELL UP IN HARLEM picks up right where the original left off, as ‘Black Caesar’ Tommy Gibbs is set up by corrupt DA DiAngelo and shot on the streets of New York City. Tommy has possession of some ledgers with the names of all the crooked politicians and cops on his payroll, and DiAngelo and his Mafioso friends want to put him out of circulation for good. Escaping via a wild taxi ride, Tommy is back in business and out for revenge.

This enables Cohen to serve up a series of crazy/cool set pieces that moves the film forward at a dizzying speed. There’s an amphibious assault on the syndicate’s compound where the bodies pile up and the gangsters are force-fed soul food! You can’t have a 70’s flick without the obligatory sex scene, and Williamson engages in a sensuous tryst with the angelic Sister Jennifer (Margaret Avery, later an Oscar nom for THE COLOR PURPLE). A moody scene highlighting 42nd Street in its sleazy 70’s heyday (there’s even a movie poster for Klaus Kinski’s ’71 giallo SLAUGHTER HOTEL!) finds the traitorous Zach (Tony King) murdering Tommy’s ex Helen (Gloria Hendry) in a dark alley. Tommy chases Zach from New York to LA in an improbable scene that winds up in a Los Angeles airport. Tommy’s final acts of retribution include slamming a beach umbrella through the sunning torso of Mafia chief Joe Frankfurter, and other gruesome highlights!

HELL UP IN HARLEM has a massive body count, crazy cartoonish violence, tough banter, and even some brief  kung-fu action thrown in for good measure! Former NFL/AFL star Williamson was one of the genre’s most charismatic stars, looking sharp in those totally outrageous 70’s outfits, and runs through the film like an All-Pro defensive back (which he was!). Julius Harris steals the show as Tommy’s Big Papa, adding to his list of colorful characterizations in films like SUPER FLY, TROUBLE MAN, and LIVE AND LET DIE. He even gets his own theme song, the funky “Big Papa”:

The funk/jazz score by Fonce Mizell (who co-wrote many of the Jackson 5’s hits) and Freddie Perren (the disco anthem “I Will Survive”) features the gruff vocal talents of Motown’s Edwin Starr, whose hits included “Agent Double-O Soul”, “Twenty Five Miles”, and the classic track “War”, later covered by Bruce Springsteen. HELL UP IN HARLEM was obviously a rush job to capitalize on the success of BLACK CAESAR, but Larry Cohen doesn’t fail to disappoint his audience, cramming in action scene after action scene. It’s sexy and violent and complete nonsense, but somehow Cohen and his cast make it work on a shoestring budget and a warped sense of humor.

Now enjoy Edwin Starr lip-synching “War”, along with the funky gyrations of the SOUL TRAIN dancers:

Halloween Havoc!: GOD TOLD ME TO (New World 1976)

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

Last year during “Halloween Havoc!”, I took a look at writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’s cult classic IT’S ALIVE . This time around, it’s GOD TOLD ME TO, a  creepily twisted tale tackling mass murder, aliens, Catholicism, and the nature of God himself that could’ve only been made in the paranoiac 70’s, and may be Cohen’s best film.

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There’s a sniper on a rampage in New York City perched atop a water tower. Fourteen people are dead, and police have the scene surrounded. Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas, a devout Catholic who was orphaned as a child and goes to confession daily,  climbs the ladder in hopes of engaging the shooter before he kills again. When Nicholas asks the killer why he’s caused all this carnage, the man simply replies, “God told me to”, then jumps off the tower, plunging to his doom.

godtold3

This sets the stage for more bizarre mayhem, starting with a young cop wreaking havoc at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, same results, same statement. Nicholas follows a lead on a young, long-haired man named Bernard Phillips, and tracks him to his mother’s apartment house, where he’s attacked by the woman on the staircase (in an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO). Further investigation leads Nicholas to discover Mrs. Phillips was a virgin who mysteriously gave birth to a child of “undetermined sex”. A witness who encountered Mrs. Phillips two decades ago states he came upon her stark naked, in a rainstorm, babbling about being abducted by aliens.

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Meanwhile, the killings continue, including a man who guns down his wife and children while claiming, “God told me to”. Nicholas gets the science editor at one of the major papers to write a column about the divine-inspired murders, and when the story hits the streets, panic and riots ensue. The police board stages an inquiry, trying to paint Nicholas as an overzealous religious nut. The cop is taken to a Mr. Richards, one of Phillips’s “chosen”. Nicholas starts talking about Phillips’ mother, and Richards is overtaken by what looks like a heart attack, but is actually the handiwork of Phillips.

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After another disciple tries to push Nicholas in front of a subway car, he’s led to Phillips’ hideout. The long-haired, robe clad Phillips is bathed in an eerie yellow light, and asks Nicholas to accept him, “no questions”, suggesting they have something in common. The detective researches his own background, and to his horror finds out he was “born fatherless” to a woman named Elizabeth Mullin. Tracking her down to a retirement home, Nicholas learns she too claims to have once been abducted by aliens, resulting in a virgin birth… his!

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I’m not going to spoil the nightmarish ending, you’ll have to watch for yourselves. And I encourage you to do so, for GOD TOLD ME TO is an unheralded gem of a horror flick, with plenty of twists and turns. The judicial use of religious iconography and location shooting in NYC aid greatly to the movie’s unsettling atmosphere. The juxtaposition of 70’s New York with the otherworldly goings-on make this a sure-fire winner for horror lovers. You definatley will not be disappointed.

tony

The cast is lead by Tony LoBianco  as Nicholas, an actor who should’ve had a much bigger career. He appeared in the thriller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, and films like MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY and BLOODBROTHERS, but never quite crossed the threshold to major stardom. Sandy Dennis and Deborah Raffin, both of whom I usually find annoying, play his estranged wife and current girlfriend respectively. Fortunately, their roles are small. A pair of veterans also show up in small roles; Sam Levene  as the science writer and Sylvia Sidney   as Nicholas’ mother. The Familiar Faces have a decidedly New York flavor: Mike Kellin,  Robert Drivas, Dan Resin, and in his feature film debut, Andy Kaufman as the young killer cop at the St. Pat’s parade.

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The eccentric character actor Richard Lynch has the pivotal part of Bernard Phillips, and puts his unique stamp on it. Lynch was featured in tons of movies from the 70’s up to his death in 2012.  His scarred visage was the result of setting himself on fire in a drug-fueled haze during the 60’s, and after getting clean he began his acting career, appearing in (among others) THE HAPPY HOOKER, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, LITTLE NIKITA, TRANCERS II, CYBORG 3, and an incredible amount of episodic TV.

GOD TOLD ME TO is “dedicated to the memory of Mr. Bernard Herrmann”, the veteran Hollywood composer who scored Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE! Herrmann was scheduled to do this one but, after completing work on Martin Scorcese’s TAXI DRIVER, he passed away at age 64. Frank Cordell filled in admirably, his score influenced tremendously by Herrmann’s work. This movie deserves to be rediscovered by horror fans, a deviously dark and demented tale by the underrated Larry Cohen that I highly recommend for this Halloween season.

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!