Larry Cohen, the innovative visionary of 1970s and 1980s horror, blaxspoitation and sci-fi movies, passed away on 3/23/19.
Cohen started working in television as a writer in the early 1960s for classic shows like “The Defenders” and “The Fugitive”. In 1967, he created the sci-fi drama “The Invaders” for ABC which starred Roy Thinnes playing a architect who discovers an alien invasion plot to take over Earth.
In the 1970s, Cohen scripted episodes of “Columbo” and began writing material for the big screen with gritty and cutting edge subject matter, usually with New York City as the setting.
Many of his movies contained genuine “jump scare” moments leaving the viewers with dropped jaws. His movies made you feel like you are in a claustrophobic nightmare. People talk about scenes from a book “jumping right off of the page”. Cohen’s movies had characters that felt like they were jumping out at you from off of the screen.
His first feature film was”Bone” (1972), a dark comedy starring Yaphet Kotto as the title character.
It was the 1974 horror movie “It’s Alive” that put Cohen on the map as a horror and cult writer, director, and producer. The movie featured a murderous mutant baby who goes on a killing spree each time it becomes afraid. A young Rick Baker was the prop and special effects designer a few years before his work on Star Wars (1977).
In its first big screen release “It’s Alive” was not fully supported by Warner Bros. management, as they apparently didn’t have much faith in the premise. Most movie critics, including Gene Siskel, were not kind in their reviews.
Two years later, Cohen asked the new WB executive team to take another look. They decided to give it another chance with a much bigger and slicker advertising campaign behind it. That plan worked and the movie became a drive-in and grindhouse hit.
“It’s Alive” spawned two sequels, “It Lives Again” (1978) and “It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive” (1987). Both were written and directed by Cohen.
The controversial “God Told Me To” (aka “Demon”) in 1976 is probably even more shocking and offensive today than it was back then. Society has almost become as violent as the movie itself. Tony Lo Bianco plays a NYPD police detective who investigates a series of bizarre and seemingly random killings. The response from each of the killers is always the same when questioned: “God Told Me To”. The movie also stars the sorely missed Deborah Raffin and the always creepy Richard Lynch. Legendary comedy actor Andy Kaufman even has an important role as a police officer.
Cohen said he was inspired by the Bible to write the movie. He thought God was the most violent “character” and people willing to do literally anything to serve a prophet or god made for a good concept. The movie was panned by critics and many in the audiences found it to be blasphemous.
1982’s “Q: The Winged Serpent” was Cohen’s “giant moster movie” in the tradition of “King Kong” and “Mothra”. A flying dragon-like creature decides to build a nest on top of the Chrysler Building to lay her eggs. She will kill anyone around the nest to protect her babies. There is also a side plot about a cult who perform ritual killings as sacrifices that the police also have to deal with. The movie stars Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, and Richard Roundtree.
“The Stuff” (1985) was everywhere after it’s theatrical release. It was a big VHS rental hit in the VCR Era (thanks to it’s striking movie poster/box cover) and it was also in regular rotation on cable TV throughout the remainder of the 1980s. It was Cohen’s biting commentary on America’s unhealthy obsession and addiction to “junk food”. The Stuff was an addictive yogurt-like substance that turned out to be a parasite which infected people and caused them to become zombies. The movie starred Michael Moriarty, Garrett Morris, and Paul Sorvino.
Cohen was the writer of “Maniac Cop” in 1988 directed by William Lusting. That movie, along with its sequels, were in endless rotation on The Movie Channel and Cinemax. Edited versions were broadcast on USA Network and other basic cable networks during the 1990s.
In the 1990s, Cohen was involved in projects that would generally go straight to cable or to video like the charming “The Ambulance” (with Eric Roberts, James Earl Jones, and Red Buttons), “As Good as Dead” (with Traci Lords), and the infamous “Uncle Sam” (with William Smith, Bo Hopkins, and Isaac Hayes) which seemed to be on every video store shelf in those days.
In 2017, Cohen was the subject of Steve Mitchell’s documentary, “King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen”. Countless stars who worked with him were interviewed for the piece along with current directors and producers that were inspired by him.