On March 23, 2019, the film industry lost a true auteur. Larry Cohen was the king of B-Movies. He started his career in the industry as a writer for television creating cult shows such as The Invaders, Coronet Blue and N.Y.P.D. Refusing to bow to Hollywood, Larry Cohen went out and created the movies he wanted to create. He wrote, produced, and directed numerous films of different genres. He was also known for giving up and coming African American actors and actresses their big break in the business as well as giving forgotten legends a second wind. His guerilla style of filmmaking was bold and risky. If Cohen were making movies without permits today, he would be arrested multiple times. I consider Larry Cohen my second favorite filmmaker only to John Carpenter. His movies are refreshing to watch for its originality, characters, and the reflection of the world during the particular time. Larry Cohen has claimed to be a writer first as it is notable through various scripts that have been produced into hits such as William Lustig’s Maniac Cop trilogy and the early 2000s suspense thrillers Phone Booth and Cellular. To celebrate his birthday today, I’m sharing with you my ten favorite movies from Larry Cohen’s filmography. These films are listed in order.
10. Original Gangstas
The first film in the list ends up being the last feature film directed by Larry Cohen and teaming up again with Fred Williamson who starred in the movies Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. Original Gangstas tells the story of John Bookman (Williamson) who returns to his hometown of Gary, Indiana upon hearing the news that his father got shot by some local gangsters. A former gang member himself, Bookman enlists the help of Jake Trevor (Jim Brown) and Laurie Thompson (Pam Grier) to bring a sense of order and justice to the one flourishing city that has been reduced to rubble, poverty and chaos. The film is notable for being shot on location in Gary during a time where there were more than three thousand crimes reported and hundreds of people murdered as well as Cohen hiring the local gangs to not only perform in the movie, but work alongside the crew. Original Gangstas is a tribute to the Blaxploitation films of the 1970s filled with traditional action scenes of the era and a dramatic story. This film was a personal project for Williamson who was born and raised in Gary and wanted to show the audience that Gary is not the murder capital of America, rather it’s a city looking for it’s sense of place and there are hard working people who are trying to make a difference in improving the community. Original Gangstas is the perfect movie to watch especially during these divisive times in America and by watching should give a glimmer of hope that things can be turned around for the better.
Larry Cohen’s film debut was not a horror flick, but a strange dark comedy. Bone stars Yaphet Kotto as a criminal who breaks into the home of a wealthy couple who are having marital problems. He gets to know the couple and comes up with a resolution to their problems. The movie also stars Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten as the married couple. The film is dialogue heavy with some good acting, early foreshadowing and surreal moments. The film was shot inside and outside Larry Cohen’s house to save money on the budget (he would use his home for scene locations in future movies). Many consider Bone part of the blaxploitation film library, but it really isn’t. Bone is essentially a social commentary piece about race relations along with the attitudes of upper-class society and their opposition to those who they feel are beneath them. The film features the first interracial sex scene shot on film involving an African American male and a white woman as Van Patten helps Kotto with his own sexual insecurities.
8. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
Spanning six decades and eight United States presidents, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is one of the first film biopics about America’s number one crime fighter. Cohen chronologically walks through Hoover’s career in law enforcement from recruit to establishing the FBI and his continual rise to power and influence while at the same time focusing on the dual nature of his morality. James Wainwright plays a young J. Edgar which then transitions to Broderick Crawford playing him in his formidable years. The film also features an ensemble cast including Michael Parks, Jose Ferrer, Dan Dailey and Rip Torn. The film notably known for Cohen and his crew shooting on location in Washington D.C. and notably at Hoover’s home without permits while getting permission to shoot at the FBI Training Center and inside the FBI building himself, thanks to the first lady at the time Betty Ford. Crawford is the highlight of the film as he portrays Hoover as stoic and stone faced and is determined to hold on to his power by any means necessary. It’s a reminder that power can corrupt a person. Compared to Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is more accurate account of his life and career.
7. Special Effects
Featuring a small cast including early roles for Zoe Lund and Eric Bogosian, Special Effects is a Hitchcockian style film that gives viewers a behind the scenes look at the process of a film being made. Bogosian plays filmmaker Christopher Neville whose career is in jeopardy after he is fired from a multimillion-dollar project. He has an unexpected visitor in Lund who is an aspiring actress. After an attempt to sleep with her to which she refuses his advances, Neville kills the actress. He uses this experience to make his comeback film. The cast of the film as well as the police are suspicious about the details he puts in while shooting the film. While the pacing of the film is slow and focuses on way too many behind the scenes details, Special Effects is a decent thriller with beautiful cinematography, a heavy synth score and very convincing performances from Bogosian and Lund, who actually plays two roles in the film as the victim and the leading actress of the movie. Special Effects also depicts the seedy side of the movie business as Cohen throws in numerous examples of how cast and crew are treated and how far someone will go to make sure that their vision is completed.
6. The Ambulance
Larry Cohen’s first movie in the 90s, The Ambulance is a quirky suspense thriller mixed with some unexpected comedy. The Ambulance stars Eric Roberts as a comic book artist is currently working on a project for none other than Marvel Comics (featuring a cameo from the late great Stan Lee) who meets a young woman on a New York City street named Cheryl (Janine Turner). Suddenly, Cheryl collapses on the street and within a matter of minutes, an ambulance arrives to take Cheryl to the hospital. Josh heads to the nearest hospital to check up on her. When he arrives at the front desk to find out what room Cheryl is in, the staff tell him that she was not admitted to the hospital. Now Josh is convinced there is something going on with the ambulance and the people who are associated with it. After asking for help from the local police department, specifically Lt. Frank Spencer (James Earl Jones) who is not convinced of his story, Josh continues his investigation hoping to find Cheryl before it’s too late. Larry Cohen based this movie on his own frightening experience involving an ambulance. The movie features great performances from Roberts who uses his skills as a comic book artist to his advantage in his finding of Cheryl. Jones plays a cynical meaty role as the rundown detective Spencer who is not convinced of Josh’s story. Legendary comic Red Buttons provides zingers and one liners throughout his screen time as New York Post reporter Elias Zacharai. One thing that struck out to me about The Ambulance was its cinematography. It was sharp, bright, and fit what films would look like in the 90s. The Ambulance itself is a character much like Stephen King’s Christine. Although it’s not a car that comes to life, but it comes to life from the look and the individuals who are driving it. Whenever the ambulance appears on screen, you know something is about to go down and not for good intentions. The Ambulance is a fast-paced thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
5. It’s Alive
Larry Cohen’s first take on a monster movie continues to be one of his scariest and iconic in the film world. It’s Alive tells the story of the Davis family who become parents of a killer mutant baby. From there local and government authorities attempt to track it down and kill it. However, the father hopes to find the child before they do. It’s Alive is the quintessential film for horror fans with plenty of scares and gore with a monster that lurks in the shadows. The first fifteen minutes of the film are the most tense and shocking moments captured on film. There are many things to love about It’s Alive from the pacing to the special effects and especially the music which was composed by longtime Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Hermann. Cohen uses the techniques from Spielberg’s Jaws by showing little of the mutant baby and having the audience interpret what is happening to the victims of its murderous rampage. It’s Alive is also a social commentary about the behavior of newborns and the changes of habitat and effects of chemicals that can cause harm to those in the womb. It’s Alive became such a financial success in the United States and overseas that it spawned two sequels.
4. God Told Me To
Perhaps the strangest movie Larry Cohen ever made, God Told Me To stars Tony Lo Bianco as Detective Peter Nicholas who investigates a series of murders all around New York City with the suspect proclaiming that God told them to do it. His investigation leads to a cult leader and from there unleashes starting revelations about himself and his beliefs. God Told Me To is a cryptic and challenging film as Cohen creates a world that is focused on religion, cultism, the duality of mankind and the questioning of one’s existence. It’s a complexed than Cohen’s other movies, but provides enough in terms of action, suspense, and imagery to keep you focused. Besides Lo Bianco there are solid performances from respected character actors including Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sydney and Richard Lynch. The film is notable for Andy Kauffman’s appearance as a New York City police officer walking in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade along with the rest of New York’s finest. You can see the different reactions from the officers when they recognize Kauffman, all thanks to Cohen’s trademark of stealing shots. God Told Me To is a venturous film with twists and turns that dig deep into the mystery of whether or not man is alone in the universe.
3. Black Caesar
One of the most underrated gangster films, Larry Cohen’s second feature Black Caesar is a jewel of the 70s blaxploitation cinema which launched Fred Williamson’s post NFL career as an actor. Black Caesar is a film that has a ton of attitude filled with charismatic characters, a cohesive storyline, violence that would make The Godfather jealous and a phenomenal soundtrack from the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. Williamson owns the role of Tommy Gibbs as a man who grew up in poverty in Harlem harassed by racist cops to taking over his home territory and gradually building his own empire under the noses of his employers. At the rise of his power is when his past comes back to haunt him and becomes suspicions of those close to him. The film is the first to show off Cohen’s guerrilla style of film-making as it was shot in New York City and Harlem with zero permits. The reactions you see from the bystanders in the movie are unscripted. Black Caesar became Cohen’s first financially successful film that a sequel was immediately green-lit which was shot and released in the same year as Black Caesar titled Hell Up In Harlem. This film would become the blueprint to how Larry Cohen would create his future works.
2. The Stuff
Perhaps the most regarded and well-known film in Larry Cohen’s filmography, The Stuff is not just a horror movie, but a social commentary. Cohen made this movie at a time in the eighties where people consumed everything. The eighties was the birth of many electronics such as video game consoles, Walkman’s, VCRs, etc. It wasn’t just electronics people were craving, it was the current fashion trends, fast food restaurants popping up at every street corner. Cohen based “The Stuff” off the yogurt craze going on at the time. People were obsessed with yogurt because it was advertised as being healthy, filling, and tasty. Add heavy advertising to that and you have people become hooked on it turning them into consumer zombies. They consume and consume while the companies that make it rake in the profits. The movie is a pure 80s movie in terms of look, music, effects, and overall style. You have the bright neon lights of “The Stuff” logo along with its catchy music and commercials. Featuring a cast which includes Michael Moriarty, Andrea Marcovicci, Garrett Morris and Paul Sorvino. Oh, there’s even an appearance from the old lady in the Wendy’s commercials where instead of screaming, “Where’s the beef?” she cries, “Where’s the Stuff?” The effects of The Stuff creature vary throughout the film. In some parts of the film, it looks like a mix between frozen yogurt and marshmallow. In scenes where it bursts through walls, it milky and watery. Cohen does a great job showing that the creature doesn’t take on a basic form, rather it can come in multiple forms and textures. It even features a great tag line, “Is it eating it or is it eating you?”
1. Q: The Winged Serpent
Unquestionably my favorite Larry Cohen film of all time. Q: The Winged Serpent perfectly blends the genres of a monster flick with a crime noir filled with off beat characters and amazing performances by the actors that bring them to life including the memorable role of Jimmy Quinn played by Michael Moriarty in which has been described by many critics as the best piece of method acting they’ve seen for a small film. Larry Cohen wrote this film in six days and began shooting quickly after he was fired from directing I, The Jury. Like all his movies, Larry Cohen shot the film with no permits and used real life police officers, construction workers and window washers which gives the movie an authentic feel. The movie is shot in the streets of New York, over the skies of New York and of course the inside and outside of the Chrysler Building. When you watch the people of New York look above when they are getting splattered with blood falling from the sky or taking cover when bullet cases are raining down, those aren’t paid actors, those are real people who are quickly reacting to the situation that they are in. The only permission he received was from the owners of the Chrysler Building. At the cost of $15,000 Cohen was able to shoot inside the building all the way up to the top where no ordinary citizen has gone before. From there you will be amazed by what the top of the building looks like and becomes the set piece for the climatic showdown between the monster and the police which is this reviewer’s favorite scene in the whole picture. Now let’s get to the character of the monster itself, Quetzalcoatl! The special effects for Q were done using stop-motion animation by Randall William Cook and David Allen. It is custom for stop motion sequences to be shot as they are happening. This was not the case (nothing is ever coherent in a Larry Cohen movie). When Cohen hired Cook and Allen to do the stop motion animation, he had already finished shooting the movie. His plan was to add the creature into shots already taken. This results in the monster looking like he was pasted onto an existing shot. It brings a sense of unevenness when watching the monster when it appears or has moments of action such as plucking the heads off people. The effects are no different from what you would see in a b movie involving a monster, but don’t let the cheapness distract you. You will easily bypass it as you continue to be engrossed in the movie and enjoy the effects for the sheer fun. Q continues to be a timeless classic for me that I can watch repeatedly. It’s a great homage to the monster movies of the past.
So what did you think of the list? Do you agree or disagree? What movie from Larry Cohen’s library would you replace? If you’re interested in learning more about Larry Cohen’s career and his films, check out the award-winning documentary King Cohen. It’s one of the best documentaries of a filmmaker I’ve seen in the past five years.