King Cohen Movie Review
Written by ZigZag
Released by Dark Star Pictures
Written and directed by Steve Mitchell
2017, 107 minutes, Not Rated
Film released on July 7th, 2018
Larry Cohen is a living legend in the world of low-budget and exploitation cinema. He is a tireless writer who sold his first script at the age of seventeen and soon began working in television in the 1950s, the medium’s Golden Age. He created shows like Branded and The Invaders but never stayed with a production too long. He told great stories but wasn’t pleased with how the work was being presented, so Cohen moved into directing so he could better protect the writing. When it became necessary to defend the integrity of the picture itself, he became a producer too. Cohen is a true auteur who leaves his distinctive stamp on everything he touches. His scripts are unpredictable and thoughtful and filled with social commentary and always seem to be ahead of the curve from what other filmmakers are doing at the time.
With his new film King Cohen, documentarian Steve Mitchell pays tribute to Cohen through a series of interviews with those closest to him as well as fellow filmmakers who share a reverence for his work. The key interview that makes this whole project come together is with Larry Cohen himself, who is a master storyteller and is clearly having a blast reflecting on his lengthy career. He’s an affable guy with a blue collar approach to the work. Both his current and former wives are on hand to lend more perspective to his character as a man. He’s a personable man and the majority of Cohen’s tales were shot in various rooms of his house, a location that has appeared in several of his movies. He comes off as a really down-to-earth, likeable guy who has a knack for making movies.
King Cohen begins with an introduction from J.J. Abrams, who relays the tale of being a teenager and meeting Cohen at a bus stop. From there we get a brief look at Cohen’s childhood via home movies and numerous personal photographs. The documentary covers a lot of ground with his various television creations before moving on to his work as a director. His first feature, Bone (1972), is a dark comedy about interracial relationships starring Yaphet Kotto, who appears here with his own reflections on the film. From there we move on to his Blaxploitation efforts Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem (both 1973) with Fred Williamson. Williamson gives one of the best interviews as he marvels at Cohen’s knack for stealing shots and locations (filming without permission) to add production value to the picture. Cohen’s biggest coups include planting Andy Kaufman in the NYPD march of the St. Patrick’s Day parade for God Told Me To (1976) and filming inside J. Edgar Hoover’s D.C. home in The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977).
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) found Cohen terrorizing the city of New York as he shot machine guns atop the Chrysler Building with shell casings raining down on the street below. When told of the situation, Cohen sent a second camera down to capture the panic. He loves New York and makes the city a character in most of his movies. He finds exciting ways to showcase the numerous locations and is always quick to improvise a shot. Cohen may be a bit cavalier with the rules of filmmaking, but he is always thinking of the end product and how to make it better.
Fellow directors on hand to lend their thoughts on all things Cohen include Martin Scorsese, John Landis, Joe Dante and Mick Garris. They each share stories that convey their respect for Cohen’s work and that they are fans themselves. Additional interviews are numerous and include actors Michael Moriarty (Return to Salem’s Lot), Eric Roberts (The Ambulance), Eric Bogosian (Special Effects) and Traci Lords (As Good as Dead). We also hear from journalists, film historians and fans. Editor Kai Thomasian structures the material in a clear and fast-moving manner that allows production stories to complement each other. Some of the best moments come as Williamson and Moriarty contradict Cohen in his recollections in a humorous manner.
Written and directed by Steve Mitchell (who wrote the classic Chopping Mall), King Cohen shares a similarity to other recent works, including Corman’s World and De Palma, that present a highly detailed look at a compelling subject. Mitchell pauses the rapid fire assault of anecdotes to focus on Cohen’s love of classic Hollywood. He grew close with composer Bernard Herrmann on It’s Alive (1974) and director Sam Fuller on Return to Salem’s Lot (1987). In 1989, he wrote a film for screen icon Bette Davis (Wicked Stepmother) because he knew she was in need of work. Their relationship soured and Davis walked off the picture, leaving Cohen heartbroken. Mitchell also follows Cohen into his office where we get a peek at the writing process. There’s no shortage of ideas, more than he could film himself and he discusses some of the projects he wrote for other directors including Maniac Cop (1988) and Phonebooth (2002).
King Cohen is a love letter to a master filmmaker who has made several contributions to the world of film and television for six decades. Well into his 70s, his output has not slowed down and the documentary includes a link in its closing credits to a website where fans can read a number of unproduced Cohen screenplays. His name may not be known outside the film community, but his work has been seen by countless audiences. It is nice to see this man receive such a moving tribute to his life and career. He closes the film with the promise of a potential sequel to cover the next wave of ideas. King Cohen will make you want to revisit the director’s filmography and encourages newcomers to check out several wild and exciting titles. Mitchell has made something special here and I cannot wait to see what he does next.