R.I.P. Larry Cohen – Love’m or Leave’m
Article by Ray Schillaci
Larry Cohen, the man of many talents, and some of them quite bizarre, has left the building. Writer, director, and producer of some of the most off-the-wall cult films, great action “B” movies, and some very smart projects that gained a large fanbase, passed away at 77 in Los Angeles on March 23rd. Labeled by many as either a legendary horror director or exploitation filmmaker, Larry was far more than either of those labels.
Yes, he was well known as the guy that went too far by giving us a monstrous infant that killed unrelentingly with his successful trilogy of It’s Alive! films. He jettisoned the popularity of the blaxploitation genre (for better or for worse) with Black Caesar, his blaxploitation version of the 1931 classic Edward G. Robinson gangster film, Little Caesar. In fact, it was so successful that the producer demanded he do a sequel even though the lead character supposedly died and he wanted it released while the original film was still in theaters. He did, and Hell Up In Harlem became even more popular. He also gave us one of the most tongue twisting names of a monster, Quetzalcoatl, with the most outrageous plot about Aztec murders and a dragon living on top of the Chrysler Building in New York in Q, The Winged Serpent. All of these films are well worth checking out for the pure fun of it.
But, Larry was not just a schlockmeister as some would suggest. He was very smart and adept in writing great characters in absorbing scripts. His best examples being Best Seller, starring James Woods and Brian Dennehy, I, the Jury, a Mike Hammer film starring a perfectly cast Armand Assante, and the very intense Phone Booth, starring Colin Farrell.
Alas, Larry did not ever feel below reveling in schlock, and some of his most ardent fans praise him for such films. The Maniac Cop trilogy, the god awful God Told Me To, and A Return to Salem’s Lot (which we wish we never had) still have a cult following. But, for every one of those ill-conceived projects were exploitive diamonds in the rough.
The screenplay for which he shared credit with the original author, El Condor, was an exploitation western wet dream. The story of two adventurers that attempt to break into a fabled Mexican stronghold containing a fortune in gold. The film featured blaxploitation star Jim Brown, exploitation western star Lee Van Cleef, and the vey attractive star, Marianna Hill, who would eventually go on to co-star with Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter.
Larry would go on to write and direct the consumer horror satire The Stuff, about a dangerous dessert that rots people and turns them into zombies. He also worked as a television writer from 1958 all the way until 2010, having worked on such classic shows as the Kraft Theater TV series, the adventure crime drama, The Fugitive, and the popular legal drama, The Defenders and several TV movies. Whatever you say about Larry Cohen, he was a filmmaker that was never boring, and if you are not familiar with the man’s legacy, now is a time to check it out. The best way is not only to see some of his films I’ve mentioned, but also view the wonderful documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Larry Cohen. Enjoy.