The documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen comes with a certain anxiety about oblivion. First there is that title, modelled on the self-consciously lurid form of Mark Hartley’s Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold World of Ozploitation! (2008), yet betraying, with the insertion of that word ‘filmmaker’, a nervousness about whether filmgoers even know who Larry Cohen is. It is a fear which Cohen himself would appear, at least jokingly, to share, given that in his first appearance in the film, we see him walking the corridors of a fan convention – “lonely as a cloud,” as he puts it in his own words, “unrecognised, unrewarded for my lifetime achievement on the cinema screen.” By the documentary’s end, (almost) the last word is given to none other than Cohen’s fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese, who says: “You know, I miss the pictures that he made. I miss his spirit, and I miss the spirit of the times.” All this sounds like a eulogy, and yet Cohen is still very much alive.
The truth is, anyone who has even a passing acquaintance will genre cinema will have seen at least some of Cohen’s work, whether his proto-Blaxploitation films Bone (1972) and Black Caesar (1973), the mutant baby mayhem of It’s Alive! (1974) and its sequels, his SF allegory of faith God Told Me To (1976), the monstrous metropolitan (p)terror of Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) or his consumer satire The Stuff (1985), leave alone the script work he did on other people’s films like Best Seller (1987), Maniac Cop (1988) and Phone Booth (2002). Directed by Steve Mitchell (Chopping Mall, 1986), this documentary covers Cohen’s whole life (to date), from childhood, to prolific television writing in the Sixties, to his long career in independent, shoot-from-the-hip guerrilla filmmaking that has spawned one eccentric, ballsy genre surprise after another. All this is supported by photos, behind-the-scenes footage and film clips, as well as testimonies from a dizzying abundance of friends, wives, colleagues and fellow filmmakers – as well as multiple, extensive interviews with the man himself.
What emerges is a picture of a driven, maverick artist who will do anything to get his shot (typically without permission), who prefers on-set improvisation to meticulous prep, and whose sense of film history (not to mention his desire to hire top talent at low cost) has guided him to collaborate with Hollywood’s older, overlooked talents. For where Hollywood had long since abandoned the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Sam Fuller, Bette Davis and Red Buttons, Cohen offered them work, even writing rôles especially for them. Perhaps this willingness to respect cinema’s past, even as Cohen himself slowly becomes part of it, is what gives this otherwise conventional – if consummately compiled – documentary its elegiac feel. In a sense all films are ghost stories, preserving the dead beyond the grave – but Mitchell’s film serves equally as an invitation to commemorate, to honour, or even just to employ, living legends like Cohen.