Film reviews

King Cohen – Film Review

Larry Cohen, often referred to as “King Cohen”, is the king of what exactly? The King of Blaxploitation? The King of the B-Movie? The King of low-budget? The King of guerrilla filmmaking? King Cohen – opening with a pre-title segment of J.J. Abrams – is a tremendous documentary, successfully displaying the weird and wonderful filmmaking career of one of New York’s finest, Larry Cohen. Ranging from interviews with former collaborators, fans, authors, and a variation of interviews with the great man himself, King Cohen has the feel of a legitimate film documentary, of which should be consumed by film fans both young and old, for both recreational and educational purposes.

“He’s a one-man movie studio.”

King Cohen first presents Cohen, attending a film/pop culture convention, joyfully playing on his lack of A-list status and recognisability. From there, after a brief introduction from Cohen on his family when growing up, NY upbringing, college and cinema-going, the retrospective on Cohen’s producer-director-writer career sets its wheels in motion.

With origins in stand-up, including performances in Greenwich Village’s The Duplex, Cohen’s short-lived career comes as a surprise for viewers who prolifically recognise Cohen as the master behind the camera.

Cohen was writing for TV in the early 60s, including an unaccredited role within NYPD. Though deciding to not cause a ruckus with his lack of credit, Cohen was thankful for the producers of NYPD for the opportunity given. Later, Cohen would create the sci-fi series, The Invaders. Starring Roy Thinnes, The Invaders was influenced by fears generated during the Cold War – in King Cohen, this politically-influenced series is regarded as “Proper Cohen.”

From mainstream TV to indie film, Cohen’s first directorial feature was 1972’s Bone aka Dial Rat for Terror – a drama/comedy starring Live and Let Die’s Yaphet Kotto, and inclusive of a controversial interracial sex scene. Kotto, when interviewed, is in high praise of Larry Cohen to the extent where the latter is referred to as “the white Martin Luther King for movies!” Continuing with a black lead, Cohen would enter the world of Blaxploitation with 1973’s Black Caesar, starring the cigar-smoking, super-cool Fred Williamson. Black Caesar is a turning point in King Cohen because the former opens the door to the immensely fascinating world of guerrilla filmmaking.

The insight presented and the activities recollected of guerrilla filmmaking by Cohen and Williamson in their respective interviews wonderfully encapsulates that particular era of independent and low budget filmmaking, and establishes an eye-opening sensation for the viewer of King Cohen. Multiple contributors insist that Cohen’s guerrilla filmmaking could in no way exist in a post-9/11 world.    

The next pivotal story point lies within the hands of It’s Alive – Cohen’s biggest film, perhaps. The cult horror about a murderous monster baby explores Cohen’s darker filmmaking styles, but also acknowledges Cohen’s controversial and sometimes troubled career as a director. In 1974, Warner Bros. complicated the release of It’s Alive, as it was deemed utterly distasteful, but as Cohen argued, Warner’s other film – The Exorcist – displays a possessed child masturbating with a crucifix, so what’s wrong with It’s Alive? Eventually, Warner re-released It’s Alive in 1976/1977, resulting in good financial returns, the birth of a horror franchise, and a cult fandom still prominent today.

The likes of God Told Me To and Q continue in exploring Cohen’s controversies, but the latter explores, perhaps, Cohen’s biggest film controversy. Like much of his work, Cohen shot Q on location in New York – his hometown. Starring Michael Moriarty and David Carradine, Q entails the horror story of an Aztec dragon/beast residing in and flying around the Chrysler Building. In one instance, attack units fire at the winged beast from high up, though when making Q, the machine guns were firing blanks…of which were dropping at great heights, luckily, onto a canopy of sorts. Those on the streets of New York were just about safe from cartridges fatally landing on their heads, but they were mostly in fear of a terrorist attack when they heard the gunfire from above. Ultimately, this incident resulted in a newspaper apology from Cohen for scaring the public.

Whilst a terrific documentary about film and filmmaking, King Cohen does, however, lack a great emotional tension. The inclusion of an emotional tension at some stage would have surged the viewer into another state of viewership, but sadly, this didn’t occur. The closest to this happening was with the Q incident. On one hand, it is a shame. But on another, it is right to an extent that there is not an emotional tension at any point, because Cohen himself – whilst full of unlimited self pride and opinions – does not express an emotional tension of any kind during any variation of his interviews.

The notions of talking heads is quite frequent throughout King Cohen, but as all of the interviews are informative and entertaining, and the diverse contributors are interesting, the notion of talking heads in King Cohen is far from tiresome. Though there is a slight subtle humour in juxtaposing “traditional” factual storytelling with the story of an auteur director who created some of the most wild and weird B-Movie horror and sci-fi of the last 30-40 years. Importantly, the placements of archive pictures and excerpts of Cohen’s films provide a full contextualisation of the narrative dictated from the talking heads notion. Not often can one experience the viewing pleasure of an excerpt of Deadly Illusion, followed by captured video footage of the production falling foul when the production crew are stranded on a boat.

Additionally, an added mix of revisiting former filming locations would have been great to see, if only to see how said locations have changed over the decades since original filming took place. There is, however, the possibility that permission was not secured to film on location… in true Cohen fashion.

King Cohen’s director, Steve Mitchell, has achieved quite the accomplishment with this documentary. From acquiring, as contributors, the likes of J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese, Eric Roberts, Joe Dante, Fred Williamson, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, Yaphet Kotto, Tara Reid, Rick Baker, Eric Bogosian, and of course, Larry Cohen himself, to interlocking talking heads with many film excerpts and archive pictures, King Cohen is as good as it looks on paper thanks to Steve Mitchell’s terrific direction.

Ultimately, King Cohen is an essential viewing for any individual interested in non-mainstream film. Specifically, King Cohen is an important filmic text on B-movie production in both the 1970s and 1980s. Thankfully, the eras defined in this factual storytelling are not watered down to any extent, but instead, described in full accuracy. Hopefully, King Cohen can establish a new trend of film documentaries centred on B-Movie directors of yesteryear.

King Cohen is now on release in selected cinemas from Darkstar Pictures.

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