Larry Cohen is a genius, a lo-fi wizard who’s produced a few movies you’ve probably seen before. Pictures like It’s Alive (’74), Q: The Winged Serpent (’82), and The Stuff (’85) wormed their way into horror and exploitation hounds’ brains by rejiggering tried and true subcategories (Blaxploitation, Harryhausen creature features, slashers) into subversive slices of cinema that owned their creator’s unique worldview. If Steve Mitchell’s talking head/clip doc, King Cohen, is to be believed, the grindhouse auteur (who just turned seventy-six this past summer) is still churning out ideas on the daily. He’s the “king of the logline”, able to sell a pitch to producers just by looking at a magazine cover moments before he walks into the room. He’s that good.
King Cohen plays like an extended DVD extra, and that’s not really a knock. Mitchell’s movie is a treat for fans who’re already familiar with the NYC eccentric's unusual career trajectory, coming from the world of TV, where he masterminded series like Branded (’65) before jumping into the world of no-budget genre filmmaking during the '70s in order to retain complete creative control over his outlandish story concepts. For the uninitiated, Mitchell’s doc may be a bit of a challenge, as it treats the audience as if films like Bone (’72), Perfect Strangers (’84) and Return to Salem’s Lot (’87) are well-worn pieces of pulp fiction, instead of the deep cut oddities they truly are. The tone of King Cohen is more like Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo (’14) instead of Not Quite Hollywood (’08); only it should be the other way around. Mitchell should’ve created a document for the unfamiliar, instead of a 105-minute rejoinder for those of us who’ve perused Cohen’s vast, oft-unwieldy body of work.
Still, King Cohen is a delight for those who already worship at the cult icon’s feet, and a solid refresher on his lengthy legacy in the world of guerilla filmmaking. Watching old school legends like Fred Williamson talk about both their creative agreements and conflicts while on set is nothing less than illuminating, and hearing Martin Scorsese sing the praises of underseen gems like The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (’77) demonstrates just how respected Cohen’s pieces of entertainment are. The writer/director’s affinity for craft and milking every dollar of a production’s budget never went unnoticed by his peers, so when Scorsese labels him a product of a bygone “maverick generation”, those words ring rather accurate. It’s also fun to hear Williamson credit the rough and tumble pioneer for teaching him how to “steal a shot”, as there were no rules at this level of genre filmmaking back in the day. Cohen would stage each scene with a meticulous eye for location, as the Big Apple came with built in production value no studio set could ever offer or afford. Then he’d crash a bunch of cars, let his actor spit his dialogue, and get lost before the cops came.
Best of all is Cohen himself, who relays his own stories with a real disregard for any semblance of vanity (recalling Brian De Palma in Jake Paltrow and Noah Baumbach’s similar doc about that genre ace). His greatest advice to young filmmakers is to handle rejection without a care for what anyone else thinks. “The more a script got rejected, the better I thought it was,” Cohen says (with the cadence of a wise Jewish uncle you never had), knowing that studios weren’t looking for the originality his screenplays contained. Many of his colleagues (and present day luminaries such as JJ Abrams) label his works “prescient”, as even the basest output in the writer/director’s body of work had foresight regarding a political climate that had yet to come. Like the very best genre craftsmen, Cohen filtered his observations through what many critics considered B-Movie entertainment, but the smuggled subversive material made movies like God Told Me To (’76) live on well beyond their initial run in Times Square theaters.
All in all, Mitchell’s doc is perfect for the Fantastic Fest throng. It’s here to play to the devoted, letting them look up at a big screen and see the smiling face of exploitation cinema’s cousin to Super Dave Osbourne (the section where collaborators talk about the inherent “danger” of Cohen’s productions is amazing). Plus, you get to see frequent Cohen frontman Michael Moriarity, and the brilliant Robert Forster extoll the virtues of how much creative freedom the auteur would give them to build a character from scratch. Cohen was one of the unsung Princes of NYC Grime, live-shooting his movies in crowds in order to obtain a Hitchcockian sense of authenticity. His productions were often chaotic and unprepared, but that’s what lent them such a vital spark. It’s great that we now have a feature length doc singing his praises for all to hear.