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‘King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen’ (review)

Produced by Steve Mitchell, Matt Verboys,
Dan McKeon, Clff Stephenson
Written and Directed by Steve Mitchell
Featuring Larry Cohen, J.J. Abrams,
Yaphet Kotto,
Rick Baker, Joe Dante,
Eric Bogosian, John Landis, Traci Lords,
Michael Moriarty, Barbara Carrera,
James Dixon,
Cynthia Costas Cohen,
Laurene Landon, Eric Roberts,
Robert Forster, Martin Scorsese,
Mick Garris,
Fred Williamson

I’ve been a Larry Cohen fan since my teens, when I caught the enjoyable but admittedly ragged It’s Alive on The Movie Channel and sneaked into his film Q: The Winged Serpent when I was thirteen.

As I watched more and more of his films, I quickly realized that enjoyable but ragged would be a common description, but so would intelligent, imaginative and original.

Probably the most original of his films – and the one that sealed it for me as a Cohen fan forever – is God Told Me To.

After being introduced to the film by my college roommate, fellow movie nerd and lifelong friend Mark, I did my best to spread the word as well. I even wrote a paper on it for a film class; after reading it, my professor proclaimed, “I HAVE to see this movie!”

I’ve seen all of his films (and a smattering of the wealth of television he wrote and created), have read the excellent book Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker by Tony Williams, and even got to meet him at the 2012 Saturn Awards. A small group, including Cohen and frequent Cohen actress and friend Laurene Landon, hanging out, drinking cocktails and talking movies. Pretty great.

Needless to say, I was very excited to watch the new documentary, King Cohen, which details his life and career and features interviews with the likes of Martin Scorsese, John Landis, Joe Dante, J.J. Abrams and collaborators such as Fred Williamson, Yaphet Kotto, Robert Forster, Michael Moriarty, and many others.

The vast majority of the insights and anecdotes are very positive: everyone seems to like Cohen, even his ex-wife. Peers admire him for putting his visions on screen for peanuts, even if, as is noted more than a few times, safety (or permits) didn’t always come first.

There’s some amusing crosscutting between Cohen and Williamson at several points in the film, with Cohen telling a story about the making of one of their collaborations and Williamson flat-out saying that Cohen is lying. Even while calling his friend a liar, Williamson’s affection and admiration for Cohen shine through.

It’s nice to see the semi-reclusive Moriarty on hand as well, especially considering he did some of his best – and certainly quirkiest and even unhinged – work in his many performances for Cohen.

It’s been noted that other recent films on iconic directors (De Palma, Spielberg) suffered from not being long enough and thereby giving some films in their respective canons short shrift. I’m sure there are Cohen fans who will feel the same way about King Cohen, but I didn’t really feel shortchanged by the film at all. Sure, I’d love to hear about God Told Me To all day long, but director Steve Mitchell does a very commendable job of making the film feel thorough and satisfying. Hell, even Wicked Stepmother (in my opinion, Cohen’s only flat-out bad film) gets its fair share, mainly due to the behind-the-scenes drama involving star Bette Davis, and her subsequent trashing of the film and Cohen on the talk shows, which apparently left him crushed.

There are so many great anecdotes and insights that even casual movie fans should get a kick out of the film, and students of writing will likely be fascinated by Cohen, who is called both a “prodigy” and the “king of the premise” here.

With my background knowledge of Cohen, I didn’t expect to hear any major revelations in the doc, and I didn’t. No matter. I still found the film greatly enjoyable and quite valuable as a record of the man and his work. More than my enjoyment, I truly hope King Cohen might nudge films fans unfamiliar with him to seek out his films. They’re almost always a blast, and so is King Cohen.


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