Essays · Movies

The Larry Cohen Starter Kit

Hail to the king.
King Cohen
Dark Star Pictures
By  · Published on March 27th, 2019

With the passing of Larry Cohen, the world of pop culture has lost a true original. Maybe you aren’t familiar with his work, but Cohen’s filmography is a treasure chest of delightful oddities. Most of his movies boast wacky premises that could only have been conjured by his imagination, and while many of his ideas were indeed batshit, the maverick writer and director also managed to make us think. His best movies are untouchable, and his worst are still fascinating.

Of course, the sheer existence of some of Cohen’s movies is nothing short of amazing. He wasn’t the type of filmmaker who compromised his creative freedom or took no for an answer. As such, his flicks were low-budget affairs that were often shot without permits. If you see a car chase, a public brawl, or a dangerous stunt in a Cohen flick, chances are he didn’t ask for permission beforehand. Some of his movies didn’t even contain scripts and were made up on the spot. His passion for his craft was the only fuel he needed.

In the grand scheme of things, Cohen is an overlooked figure. He’s the very definition of a cult icon, but his admirers include everyone from J.J. Abrams to Martin Scorsese. In recent years, though, he finally received some long-overdue recognition thanks to the excellent documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. Maybe the upstart filmmaker wasn’t super famous, but he was certainly beloved by his peers and fans.

The world of entertainment has lost a real spark, but Cohen’s movies will outlive us all. To honor his legacy, I decided to revisit some films that I feel are good starting points for newcomers. I recommend watching his entire oeuvre, but these make up a wonderful introduction to his work nonetheless.

Bone (1972)

As is the case with most of Cohen’s films, it’s best to know as little as possible about this one prior to watching it. On paper, the plot sounds like a home invasion thriller about a wealthy white couple being terrorized by a lowlife black man who’s assumed to be a rapist. In reality, though, Bone is an outrageous dark comedy that condemns racism and takes some truly unexpected and hilarious turns. This was Cohen’s feature directorial debut and immediately established him as an unconventional, entertaining, and thought-provoking auteur. Almost 50 years on, the movie still feels relevant and provocative.

Black Caesar (1973)

Black Caesar is one of Cohen’s simpler movies. Essentially, it’s a Blaxploitation remake of the 1931 mobster classic Little Caesar, with a funky James Brown soundtrack thrown in for good measure. However, even when Cohen was telling familiar rags-to-riches gangster stories, he still did things differently. As he discussed in King Cohen, he decided to cast black actors because movies like this had been made countless times before with white performers. Cohen just wanted to give black actors interesting roles. The success of Black Caesar also helped the Blaxploitation trend grow, which in turn brought more representation to American cinema during the ’70s.

It’s Alive (1974)

Every parent fears their baby being born with something wrong with them. In the case of the mother and father in It’s Alive, however, these parental fears are pushed to the extreme as we witness their newborn go on a killing rampage. That’s a schlocky premise for sure, but Cohen grounds the tale in human drama and challenges us to think about the issues that impact our society at large. Some critics have interpreted the film as Cohen’s take on the abortion debate, while others view it as a condemnation of the pharmaceutical industry. There’s a strong pro-environmental message throughout as well. Here, Cohen addressed various hot-button issues, while paving the way for one bonkers trilogy about homicidal babies.

God Told Me To (1976)

Plenty of horror movies have depicted people doing horrible things because they’re possessed or influenced by the Devil. But what if God was responsible for death and destruction instead? That’s one of the ideas explored in God Told Me To, a movie about New York City citizens who are inspired to kill by a force they think is the Almighty. Of course, with this being a Cohen movie it’s not quite that simple and things take a truly bizarre turn. That said, the concept was inspired by how violent Old Testament God is in the Bible, and the movie explores topics such as loss of faith and Catholic guilt. We haven’t seen many films since that even dare suggest God isn’t all he’s cracked up to be. That’s what makes this one remain so refreshing and ballsy after all these years.

The Stuff (1985)

Cohen really wasn’t a big fan of the corporate industries. Hence why they were the subject of his ire numerous times throughout the years. The Stuff sticks it to companies that profit off our unhealthy lifestyles more than most. In the movie, a yogurt substance hits the streets that gets people immediately hooked. Unfortunately, it turns them into zombie-like monstrosities who will do anything for a fix. The idea was inspired by products that Cohen deemed harmful to consumers, such as junk food. In true Cohen fashion, though, it’s also a very funny movie that has a great time indulging in the inherent ridiculousness of the premise.

The Ambulance (1990)

Another one of Cohen’s traits was to present society’s helpers as something insidious and frightening. For example, in Maniac Cop (which he wrote), a police officer returns from the dead and starts offing civilians and his old colleagues. The Ambulance is even more terrifying, however, as the object at the center of the torment is a vehicle we associate with saving lives. The ambulance in question here is more concerned with finding human guinea pigs for a bizarre experiment, which sends a comic book artist on a wild goose chase around New York City investigating the mystery. After watching it, you’ll shiver every time you hear sirens.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.