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Larry Cohen, a Thinking Man's Horror Director - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2008

Films directed by Larry Cohen on (re)Search my Trash


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Talking about horror directors who got their start in the 1970's, Larry Cohen is by today mostly overshadowed by other filmmakers of his generation, like George A.Romero (who actually got his start in the late 1960's), Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven or even Joe Dante - which is a downright shame, because other than above-mentioned directors (with the occasional exception of Romero) Larry Cohen always infused his films with social satire and biting political commentary, and other than above directors (again, with the occasional exception of Romero) he never betrayed his indie roots and - at least as a director - managed to stay out of the Hollywood ratrace, as he would rather do what he wants to on a low budget than selling out for a few million Dollars. And this attitude is exactly what makes his films - from his directorial debut onwards - so incredibly fresh in approach, which makes them seem fresh even today while many a higher budgeted shocker has long gathered an outdated look and feel to it.

But the special aspect of Cohen's films is not so much that they contain social satire and biting political commentary, it's that he serves these elements in a wholly entertaining context, giving the audience a genre movie rather than some sort of pamphlet film - which in my eyes makes Cohen one of the very few (if not the only) thinking man's B-movie directors.

In this respect, it's interesting to note that Cohen, who was soon regarded as something like a non-conformist guerrila-filmmaker, has actually found his start within the studio system, above all things as a TV-scriptwriter - but I'm getting ahead of myself, let's start at the beginning ...



Early Life, Early Career


Larry Cohen was born in 1941 in Kingston, New York, but eventually, his family relocated to the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, where he attended highschool.

Always interested in films, he worked as a page at NBC, New York, at a young age, and he sold his first script to the station - the episode The Eighty Seventh Precinct of Kraft Television Theatre which was based on the novel by Evan Hunter - in 1958, when he was not yet 18 ... and to avoid complications because of him being underage, he claimed he was born in 1938, a birth date many sources carry to this day.

As a talented writer, Cohen soon found work on many TV-series, including the Zane Grey Theatre (1960), The Nurses (1963), The Fugitive (1964 - 1965) starring David Janssen, and The Defenders (1963 - 1965) starring E.G.Marshall. One of his episodes of The Defenders, The Traitor (1963, David Greene), was actually spun off into its own series, Coronet Blue, in 1967, though the links of the two series were only vague - The Defenders was actually a courtroom drama series, while Coronet Blue was an espionage drama that would anticipate The Bourne Identity's (2002, Doug Liman) main storyline - an amnesiac spy on the run from his own people - by quite some decades.


Especially his work on The Defenders made Cohen a sought after screenwriter, so around the mid-1960's. he relocated to Los Angeles, where he not only wrote many more screenplays for TV-series but also created a few series as such, such as above mentioned Coronet Blue, the Chuck Connors-Western series Branded (1965 - 1966) and the today unfortunately largely forgotten sci fi series The Invaders (1967 - 1968), a series that much more than everything else he has written for television was a precursor for things to come, because of its theme (alien invasion) and its many political allusions - though Coronet Blue also carries at least some subversive messages.


Eventually, Larry Cohen has made a big enough name of himself as a screenwriter that he was hired to script feature films as well. His first film though was nothing big, The Return of the Magnificent Seven (Burt Kennedy), the 1966 sequel to 1960's The Magnificent Seven (John Sturges), again starring Yul Brynner, but Steve McQueen was replaced by Robert Fuller - and of course, the sequel did not live up to the first part (just as The Magnificent Seven did not live up to its inspiration, Akira Kurosawa's Shichinin no Samurai from 1954). Still, The Return of the Magnificent Seven did prove to be a big enough success for two more sequels about the Magnificent Seven to follow - but without the involvement of Larry Cohen ... or Yul Brynner, for that matter.


Larry Cohen's first excursion into the horror genre was a film called Scream Baby Scream (1969, Joseph Adler), an over-the-top shocker about a crazed artist carving models' faces up to reassemble them to new mutant models. In sheer outrageousness, this film of the grindhouse variety matches any film by Herschell Gordon Lewis - but it does feature a lot less explicit gore.


Other than the outrageous Scream Baby Scream, Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, also from 1969, is a pretty straight thriller about a man wanting to have revenge on the woman who once had his child aborted - but unfortunately, the film is let down by a bland, at best functional directorial effort by Mark Robson.


With El Condor (1970, John Guillermin), Larry Cohen returned to Western territory, but the movie, starring Lee Van Cleef and Jim Brown, failed to create too much of a stir.


After his first forays into the world of feature films, it was back to writing for television for another couple of years before Larry Cohen could have his directorial debut - and he would return to the medium repeatedly (as writer, not director) even throughout his - at times pretty successful - career as director.

But while the theatrical films he wrote scripts for early in his career seem rather on the humble side, to judge him by them would mean doing unjustice to the man - actually, back in the day, he wrote several screenplays that Alfred Hitchcock - one of Cohen's idols - wanted to get his hands on, but for some reasons, Hitchcock's production company Universal vetoed these collaborations. These scripts reportedly included above-mentioned Daddy's Gone A-Hunting, The Cutting Room (which Cohen eventually directed himself in 1984 as Special Effects) and Phone Booth (made into a feature film in 2002 by Joel Schumacher).



A Success Story: The 1970's

If you thought that Larry Cohen was pretty well domesticated after 14 years of training in television screenwriting - and TV traditionally not being to much of a medium open to social or political satire, much less to any kind of outrageousness - you'd have to think again after seeing Bone (1972), Larry Cohen's directorial debut.

On the surface, Bone featured a rather typical, tried-and-true grindhouse-thriller plotline: A black man (Yaphet Kotto in the title role) terrorizes a white couple (Andrew Duggan, Joyce Van Patten) and ultimately blackmails the husband into getting him money from the bank while he holds his wife hostage, even threatening to rape her. But what would have been a heap of trash in the hands of your typical B-movie director (not that that's necessarily a bad thing) turned into gold in Cohen's hands, a socio-political satire on the value of money, on the difference between having and not having, on race and racial prejudice, on perfect love gone wrong, on consumerism, and last but not least on the American way of life as such. But while the film can be seen as a commentary on all these things, Cohen still makes sure it's a wholly entertaining genre film ... and in this respect, it's unfortunate that the film bombed at the box office, according to Cohen mainly due to botched up marketing.

While due to its black lead character and its racial subtext, Bone can be seen as pseudo-blaxploitation, the next film Cohen directed was not only a full-fledged blaxploitation film but also a genre classic: Black Caesar (1973). The film chronicles the rise of a black man (Fred Williamson) from shoeshine boy to the most powerful and most feared gangster in New York City - and his downfall that ends in him dying in front of his childhood home while a gang of teenagers steal his wristwatch - one of the many moments of black humour in the film. On the outside though, Black Caesar resembles the Warner Brothers gangster movies of the 1930's (and the title closely resembling Mervyn Leroy's 1931 classic Little Caesar is of course no coincidence), but with a blaxploitation flavour attached to it (for better or worse) ... however, Cohen is by far not content to make a mere genre movie with a black hero sticking it to the man, he creates a complex world with no definitive good and bad, black and white, but a sea of grey that allows the viewer to come to his or her own conclusions.

But again, thanks to clever writing, Cohen has wrapped his socio-political commentary into an entertaining genre piece, and this time, the formula worked - so much so that Black Caesar- a AIP-coproduced B movie - topped the box office charts for a week or so.

In fact, Black Caesar proved so successful that a sequel was hastily produced and brought into the theatres later in 1973, Hell up in Harlem, again directed by Cohen and again starring Fred Williamson, quite despite the fact that he died at the end of Black Caesar. Here he - or rather his character - is alive again and has his revenge on those who wronged him. But unfortunately, the sequel does not work as well as the original: Sure, it's still a well-made, well-paced action flick the blaxploitation way, but the sociopolitical subtext is more or less lost in a rather simplistic revenge-plot. The problem actually was that the film had to be put into production too hastily because Fred Williamson was only available for a very limited time - which is why Cohen had to come up with pretty much everything on the spot ...


Cohen's next film, his first bona fide shocker, on the other hand was anything but simplistic - even if it looked like it on the outside: On a pure plot level, It's Alive (1974) is little more than a monster movie, the twist of this one being that the monster is actually a baby, a baby that roams the streets killing people and that's proficient enough from birth onwards to escape capture for the longest time. However, behind this rather standard monstermovie-plotline, Cohen hides all sorts of subtexts, from more socio-political satire to enviromental issues to a pro-life message. Add to this perfect pacing (of course), drama on a grand scope (the on-screen goings-on concerning lead John P.Ryan almost resemble a Greek tragedy), a convincing monster by Rick Baker (that is wisely kept in the shadows most of the time), and a fantastic score by Hitchcock-favourite Bernard Herrmann, and you are left with a movie that works on almost every level. Most of the audience seemed to agree to my judgement actually, and just like Black Caesar, It's Alive made it to number one of the box office charts - unfortunately, it would already be Cohen's last number one though. However, It's Alive was so successful that it did spawn two sequels (both directed by Cohen himself) and a remake (not directed by Cohen, unfortunately) - but more of that later.

By the way, Larry Cohen later claimed that Steven Spielberg took much of the inspiration for his blockbuster movie E.T. (1982) from It's Alive, even copying some sequences shot by shot. And seeing the two films back-to-back, one feels inclined to believe Cohen - and it's kind of ironic that an incredibly intelligent B-shocker for adult audiences has become the template for a simplistic multi million Dollar kiddie movie.

Apart from Bone maybe, Larry Cohen's satirical edge was never more apparent than in his next film, God Told Me To.

God Told Me To is Larry Cohen at his most radical, tackling nothing smaller than religion (pretty much any religion) as such. The film is about innocent people who all of a sudden kill in the name of God. Only God is not this man with a white beard high up in heaven (or however else you picture your God), but a man (Richard Lynch) immaculately conceived by a human mother during an alien abduction who has suddenly found himself with all these amazing powers at his disposal - and to no one's real surprise, he can't help but use them to his own ends, while he also manages to make several people believe that he really is God. Thing is, the cop (Tony Lo Bianco) after him eventually finds out he is an alien-human hybrid too with the same powers as his opponent, and before the film ends, he might have already fallen prey to the many lures these powers possess.

Other than in his previous films, Cohen hasn't hidden his criticism and satire in the subtext, this time around, everything is in plain sight - which possibly prevented God Told Me To from becoming another bona fide box office success ... but over the years, it has become a cult item with leftist film fanatics.


Like God Told Me To, Cohen's next film, The Private Files of Edgar J. Hoover from 1977 was very direct in its criticism and satirical approach, chronicling the life of the controversial and possibly dangerous head of the FBI. However, the film never really caught on with the audiences, neither in the short nor the long run, because it not only takes apart Hoover himself (as played by Broderick Crawford) but also boldly takes shots at such national icons as Franklin D.Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva), Martin Luther King (Raymond St.Jacques), and John F.Kennedy (William Jordon) and his brother Robert F. (Michael Parks) - something that didn't go too well with the liberals, who probably would have loved the film otherwise. This of course makes the film all more likeable for its sheer audacity ...


After The Private Files of Edgar J. Hoover flopped at the box office, Cohen palyed it safe with It Lives Again (1978), the (first) sequel to his landmark It's Alive - and unfortunately, the sequel, starring veteran actor Eddie Constantine [Eddie Constantine bio - click here] in a supporting role, does by no means match the first part. Though it raises pretty much the same questions as its predecessor, It Lives Again is no more than a fairly intelligent genre pic where It's Alive was truly thoughtful. And the monster babies (yup, this time there are more than one), while still scary, fail to pack the same kind of punch this time around and are left in plain sight way too much. Still, the film delivers some solid genre entertainment, and it was successful enough to eventually spawn another It's Alive-sequel.


It should also be noted (and has actually already been noted above) that Larry Cohen during his most successful period in the 1970's never stopped writing for television, among other things creating the short-lived crime series Cool Million (1972), writing the stories for a few episodes of the popular crime-series Columbo in 1973 and 74 (third and fourth season of the series), including the Emmy-winning episode Any Old Port in a Storm (1973, Leo Penn) starring, besides Peter Falk of course, Donald Pleasence as the villain [Donald Pleasence bio - click here], and delivering the story for Burt Kennedy's Shootout in a One-Dog Town (1975) starring Richard Crenna and Stefanie Powers.



Slow Decline: The 1980's


The first film Larry Cohen directed in the 1980's was rather a disappointment: Full Moon High (1981), a highschool horror comedy about a teenager (Adam Arkin) who is turned into a werewolf - which in this film also means that he remains a teenager and has to go to highschool forever - yikes.

True, the film does feature some nice ideas of its own, but in all it's just too nice a highschool comedy to live up to Cohen's earlier work. Still, at least it is way more entertaining than the Michael J.Fox-starrer Teen Wolf (1985, Rob Daniel), a film that used Full Moon High as its template.


From Full Moon High, Cohen even took one step back to direct his first movie for television, See China and Die/Momma the Detective (1981), basically a showcase for Esther Rolle, a black actress in her 60's, playing a resolute maid becoming entangled in a murder mystery. It might not have been one of Larry Cohen's better or more sophisticated films, but it was still a likeable little comedy.


Cohen was next set to direct I, the Jury (1982), a Mickey Spillane-based Mike Hammer film based on Cohen's own script with Armand Assante in the lead and Barbara Carrera and Lauren Landon giving able support (interestingly both Carrera and Landon also turn up in Cohen's Wicked Stepmother from 1989). However, Cohen eventually fell out with the producers, direction of the film was handed over to Richard T.Heffron, and the script was changed considerably.

Being removed from I, the Jury, Cohen made the best of the situation and decided to make Q: The Winged Serpent - since he was already in New York and that movie needed New York locations anyways. And while Larry Cohen's last directorial effort Full Moon High might have been a disappointment, it was back to form with Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), one of the most charming and intelligeng monster movies this side of the 1950's. Essentially, Q was about a flying serpent (the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl to be precise) killing of people on rooftops all over New York City, a failed pianist (Michael Moriarty) who's the only one knowing the secret of the giant reptile, and a cop (David Carradine) who's trying to make head and tails of the whole thing.

Granted, Q is not as thoughtful and thought-provoking as the best of Cohen's earlier films, but it still features its fair amount of social satire and above all, it's amazing fun to watch - and Dave Allen's stop motion creature effects are nothing short of wonderful.

Plus it should also be noted that Q was Cohen's first collaboration with Michael Moriarty, who is not only great in this one but would also become Cohen's most frequent leading man over the years. And no matter how unimpressive Moriarty might sometimes be in films for other directors, Cohen always manages to get incredibly quirky and suitably off-beat performances out of him.

And by the way, ultimately, I, the Jury and Q opened almost simultanously - and the much cheaper Q outdid the other film circa 3 to one - plus it has gathered over the years quite a cult following while I, the Jury is by now largely forgotten.


Larry Cohen's next two films, Special Effects and Perfect Strangers, shot back-to-back in 1984, had even less to offer in terms of socio-political subtext than Q. This doesn't automatically mean they are bad movies though, they are actually pretty good at what they are, Special Effects being a suspense film in Alfred Hitchcock-tradition (the film's script was actually offered to and even accepted by Hitchcock, see above) starring Zoe Tamerlis (aka Zoe Lund) of Ms .45 fame (1981, Abel Ferrara) and Eric Bogosian, while Perfect Strangers is a modern day film noir.


But if you thought Cohen had lost his edge completely in the mid-1980's, think again when watching The Stuff (1985), a film in which he boldly takes on the FDA and the food industry as a whole. The titular Stuff is actually an FDA-approved dessert from the center of the earth, but also a dessert that's incredibly addictive and that literally eats up its consumers from the inside. And all that stands in the way of the stuff taking over the USA is ... Michael Moriarty. The whole concept is of course incredibly silly, but Cohen manages to pull it off anyhow by adding massive doses of black humour ans satire to the obligatory horror and gore, and thus he turns what could have been a stupid piece of trash into a clever social commentary ... but whoever thinks that this film was made especially to please left-wing filmfans would be eventually proven dead wrong by Cohen, who never liked to be pinned down to any one political ideology, as the film ultimately has Moriarty save the world with the help of a right-wing militia-leader and white supremacist (Paul Sorvino). Sure enough, Cohen does not portray the character in a favourable light, quite the contrary, but the fact alone that such a character is allowed to do something positive must have been a (long deserved) slap in the face of the politically correct establishmant - and only adds to the subversiveness of The Stuff.


In all, The Stuff, while not as successful as some of his earlier films, showed Cohen on top of his game - but unfortunately it went downhill from here: While so far, all of Cohen's films (as a director) had been released theatrically (apart from See China and Die of course), his next two, Island of the Alive, the third part of the It's Alive-series, and A Return to Salem's Lot, an unofficial sequel to Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot miniseries (1979) featuring Sam Fuller - both films from 1987 and both starring Michael Moriarty, incidently - were intended to only be released on video. Ultimately, both films received a limited theatrical run (at least), but that was only little comfort to the man who topped the box office charts (however shortly) no 15 years back.

Even apart from this though, the films showed that Larry Cohen has at least lost some of his edge. True, neither Island of the Alive nor A Return to Salem's Lot could be described as exactly conformist, but they also lacked the sharp tongue, angry bite and wicked humour of The Stuff and other Larry Cohen-masterpieces.


Next came Deadly Illusion (1987), a film he was fired from halfway through production and that was finished by William Tannen. As a hole though, the movie, a rather labyrinthine murder mystery, starring Billy Dee Williams, Vanity, Morgan Fairchild and John Beck is at best of marginal interest ...


Of a little more interest is Wicked Stepmother (1989), a tale about modern-day witches, not so much because it is all that much of a better film but because of its filming history: First of all, it was Hollywood icon Bette Davis' last ever performance (she died in late 1989), secondly she walked out of the film after only one week of filming - she claimed because of Cohen's bad script, he claimed because of Davis' bad health -, and instead of just abandoning the film, Cohen found a way to replace 81-year old Davis with sensual Barbara Carrera, who was about half her age. It's entirely to Larry Cohen's credit that the film's plot still works, and even was funny to an extent, but that said, Wicked Stepmother is anything but a great film.


Probably Larry Cohen's most interesting work in the latter half of the 1980's was a film he only wrote and produced, William Lustig's classic Maniac Cop (1988), a film about a cop (Robert Z'Dar) in New York City who, well, goes bonkers and starts killing those he has sworn to protect.

While on the outside nothing more than a run-of-the-mill slasher, Maniac Cop has an antiauthorian streak running through it, best exemplified in scenes where ordinary citizens start attacking regular cops just to defend themselves from the maniac. Unfortunately though, director William Lustig is much more an artisan and much less an auteur than Larry Cohen, so he put much more emphasis on the main narrative and action, and much less on the subtext to turn this into a rather standard - if well made - thriller. Still, the film also starring B-movie favourites like Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon, Richard Roundtree and  William Smith, became an instant hit with the horror crowd and even spawned two sequels - both brought to life by the Cohen-Lustig duo as well ...



Back to the Writing Desk: The 1990's and 2000's


The 1990's were no longer as rewarding a decade for an independent director as the 1970's and (to an extent) the 1980's were - a fact Larry Cohen painfully had to come to terms with when he found it almost impossible to get his film The Ambulance (1990) a decent release. Which is a shame too because The Ambulance, starring Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones and Megan Gallagher, with Cohen regular Laurene Landon and Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee giving support, is a rather well-done little horror-thriller with a busload of chase sequences about a killer ambulance (not in the literal sense). True, the film is not quite as edgy as some of Cohen's earlier efforts and almost a little too slick for its own good, but it's still enjoyable, even intelligent genre entertainment by all means. The only way around distribution problems in those days  would be throwing in with a major production company, but as a director, Cohen insists on absolute creative freedom - and if that is not granted, his films usually lead to relative desasters like I, the Jury and Deadly Illusion, both projects he didn't see to their conclusion ... and thus, after The Ambulance, he left the director's chair for a while.


But Cohen was still held in high regard as a writer, so before long he had penned two sequels to genre fave Maniac Cop, Maniac Cop 2 (1990, William Lustig) starring Robert Davi in the lead plus Robert Z'Dar as the title character, Bruce Campbell, Laurene Landon and Charles Napier, and Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1993, William Lustig, Joel Soisson), starring Davi and Z'dar. While both films paled in comparison to the first part let alone Cohen's best films, they were still some fun to watch and sure enough found there audience among genre fans.


With the film Body Snatchers (1993, Abel Ferrara), for which Larry Cohen co-wrote the screen story, he at least remained true to the sci fi horror genre he has become associated with, and he also took the opportunity to infuse some subversive ideas of his own into the film. Of course, essentially, Body Snatchers was the adaptation of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers, the novel which was also the source for Don Siegel's classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956 (and two more films so far which shall remain unnamed), but Ferrara's film should be credited with the fact that it went out of its way to not remake the earlier film as such but to infuse fresh ideas into the concept. How many of these fresh ideas can be credited to Larry Cohen though is left at anybody's guess.


Far less interesting than Body Snatchers was Sidney Lumet's Guilty as Sin, also from 1993, in which lawyer Rebecca De Mornay has to defend wifekiller Don Johnson in court ... but has to more and more realize he's not really a good guy - well, him being a wifekiller might have been a clue. True, the concept of this film might sound kind of interesting, but the film is let down every step along the way, from forgettable central performances to a tired directorial effort to a by-the-numbers script by Larry Cohen, who must have had one of his worse days writing this.


Larry Cohen gave directing another try in 1995 with the television movie As Good as Dead starring Crystal Bernard, Judge Reinhold and Traci Lords, a weird thriller about two women switching identities - to the worst of outcomes. Pretty much your standard TV-fare, the film still manages to take a few jabs at the American social security system in best Larry Cohen manner


It should also be mentioned that The Invaders, the alien-invasion-TV series Cohen created back in the 1960's, was remade into a miniseries directed by Paul Shapiro and starring Scott Bakula in 1995 - but without Cohen's direct involvement.


In 1996, Larry Cohen directed another film for theatrical release, and unfortunately his last so far: Original Gangstas. Interestingly it was also his first film as a director he didn't also write, Aubrey K.Rattan did the honours. Original Gangstas is something of a footnote to the blaxploitation genre, done by a man who made one of the best and most interesting blaxploitation movies and starring a cast of blaxploitation regulars: Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree, plus jazz singer Oscar Brown jr and B-movie regulars Charles Napier and Wings Hauser. The film is interesting inasmuch as it takes apart modern gangster clichés as made popular by rap music, and has them clash with original gangsters, meaning old school blaxploitation veterans (with the genre of course having been a big influence on rap music, music-wise as well as style-wise).

In the latter part of the 1990's, Larry Cohen wrote screenplays for quite a few films and TV-shows, but nothing really groundbreaking. The most interesting film from that era might be Uncle Sam (1997), another collaboration with William Lustig. Uncle Sam is a shocker about a soldier who got killed in a friendly fire (horrible word by the way) in the first Gulf War. But once brought back to his hometown, he rises from the dead and punishes the un-patriotic. The film itself has a satirical, anti-authoritarian edge to it just like you'd expect from Larry Cohen, but unfortunately it failed to catch on with the audiences just like Maniac Cop and its sequels did.


Of rudimentary interest might also be The Defenders: Choice of Evil (1998, Andy Wolk), a TV-movie Cohen co-wrote based on the 1960's courtroom drama series The Defenders he wrote for, even starring the original series' lead E.G. Marshall.


In the 1990's, Larry Cohen also wrote a screenplay, Cast of Characters, together with Martin Poll. In this script, which he allegedly tried to sell to 20th Century Fox numerous times between 1993 and 1996, several characters of literature gathered to fight evil. Nothing ever came of the film, but in 2003, 20th Century Fox released the film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Steve Norrington), a film based on the popular comicbook by Alan Moore (writer) and Kevin O'Neill (artist), but the film took several liberties with its source material that would suggest that it was at least partly based on Cast of Characters ... and gave Larry Cohen reason enough to sue the company. 20th Century Fox dismissed Cohen's allegations as nonsense - but they ultimately settled the case out of court paying an undisclosed amount of money ... hm.

The really sad thing about the whole affair is though that 20th Century Fox used writer Alan Moore as their scapegoat in court - even though the whole case primarily revolved around characters and plot elements that weren't even in the comicbook. The whole affair left Alan Moore gravely embittered about Hollywood as a whole, and from that point on, he refused to have anything to do with Tinseltown - which is why his name doesn't even appear on adaptations of his comicbooks like V for Vendetta (2006, James McTeige) and Watchmen (2009, Zack Snyder).


By the turn of the millenium, it already seemed as if Larry Cohen's career was essentially going nowhere, and nowhere fast, when in 2002 he hit gold with Phone Booth (Joel Schumacher), a blockbuster of a movie. Phone Booth was actually a script Cohen wrote for Alfred Hitchcock back in the 1960's, and after years of being locked away in some drawer or other, Cohen dusted it off and wanted to bring it to the screen himself, as he saw its plot, a man pretty much captured in a phonebooth and unable to hang up, as the perfect antithesis of blockbuster filmmaking of the early 2000's with all its mindless explosions and impersonal special effects. By its concept alone, Phone Booth was a much more intimate and involving movie, lacking the spending of silly amounts of money on meaningless plot devices.

Then though, several big Hollywood studios and Colin Farrell personally showed interest in the screenplay, and Cohen preferred to back out of his own movie, as with big Hollywood stars and money he would have seen his creative freedom gone. Ultimately, direction was handed over to impersonal studio hack Joel Schumacher - and he did turn in one of his better films ... though that's not saying all that much considering his track record so far. It just would have been interesting, what Cohen himself would have made out of the script, but I guess we'll just never find out.

By the way, besides Farrell, Phone Booth also stars Kiefer Sutherland, Forest Whitaker and Katie Holmes.


With Phone Booth having become a success, Cohen was soon invited to write another thriller - again with a telephone theme oddly enough: Cellular (2004, David R.Ellis). The basic plot seems interesting enough (if totally far-fetched): Kim Basinger plays a kidnapped woman whose only link to the outside world is her cellphone that's running alarmingly low on battery, and Chris Evans is a random guy she reaches on the phone who's now rushing to her rescue.

Unfortunately, Cohen only wrote the story for this one, and every now and again, the plot with all of its twists and turns seems to get a little out of hands of first-time screnwriter Chris Morgan and director Ellis. Still, the film was a reasonable success.


Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the horror thriller Captivity (2007, Roland Joffé), a film about a model (Elisha Cuthbert) kidnapped and locked into a cell in a cellar, where she is tormented - but the more she finds out about her captor, the more unpleasent things get. The film bombed at the box office - but in all fairness, it was running against Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007, David Yates), a surefire winner - and even received three Razzie nominations (screenplay not among them, but worst excuse for a horror movie) ... ultimately though all Razzies Captivity was nominated for (as well as a few others) went to I Know Who Killed Me (2007, Chris Sivertson). The film though, which Cohen co-wrote with Joseph Tura, is considered as little more than torture porn ... something which actually has become quite fashionable in the latter part of the 2000's, even if it was an aspect of the horror genre that did not really interest Larry Cohen.


Times were not all bad though for Larry Cohen lately, and the best news is that he found his way back into the director's chair, first for a documentary (something very unusual for a filmmaker with Larry Cohen's track record), Air Force One: The Final Mission (2004, co-directed with Michael Cohen), about the final journey of the famed Boeing called Air Force One - by truck and totally disassembled.


Then though Cohen's past came catching up with him - in a good way: In 2006, Mick Garris gathered many an old-school horror director from Joe Dante to Tobe Hooper, from John Carpenter to Stuart Gordon, from Dario Argento to John Landis, around himself to produce a horror anthology television series called Masters of Horror (2005 - 2007) for Showtime, where each director would have total creative control over his segment, provided he woldn't outspend his respective budget and would turn in a 50 minute horror featurette.

And while some of Garris' choices for the series were questionable (starting with his own involvement as a director, actually), he at least had the good judgement to also hire Larry Cohen to do one segment, Pick Me Up (2006) - and Cohen delivered one of the funniest episodes of the whole (uneven) series, the story about two serial killers (Michael Moriarty, as mad as ever in a Larry Cohen film, and Warren Kole) specialized on killing hitchhikers fighting over supremacy of a certain stretch of highway, and especially over one girl (Fairuza Balk), who just refuses to be killed. The film showed Larry Cohen was still at the height of his game, even if it wasn't scripted by himself but by David J.Schow, who based the screenplay on his own short story.



The Future/Final Thoughts


Born in 1941, Larry Cohen has well reached retirement age in 2008 - but fortunately that doesn't necessarily slow him, one of the most intelligent and interesting heads in genre cinema, down too much. As of speaking, several films based on his scripts are in production, among them Connected (2008, Benny Chan), a Hong Kong remake of the 2004 film Cellular - and it's more than just a little interesting what this film would turn out to be once given the Hong Kong-treatment -, the long announced remake It's Alive (2008, Josef Rusnak), for which Cohen also cowrote the screenplay and which he was originally also going to direct, Message Deleted (2008, Rob Cowan), quite possibly another thriller with a telecommunications-theme, and Tremble (2008), a project about which next to nothing is known as of yet (August 2008). And then there's also Doctor Strange, a script that he has worked on with (former) Marvel-mastermind (and Doctor Strange-creator) Stan Lee, a film that has been announced for an incredibly long time, and that might never see the light of day - at least not with Larry Cohen's name attached to it.

And I personally refuse to give up hope that he will eventually direct another film himself, a genre film he has complete creative freedom over, as in today's movie world of faceless, over-budgeted blockbusters, where many a genre veteran has long sold out to the major studios, a filmmaker as original, as unconventional, as satirical and as anti-autoritarian as Larry Cohen is sadly needed ...


© by Mike Haberfelner

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