King Cohen (Fantasia 2017)
Written and directed by Steve Mitchell
Screened at Fantasia 2017
As stated in the opening minutes of Steve Mitchell’s explosive new documentary, you may have not even realized you were watching something from the mind of Larry Cohen when you were actually watching it. The Fantasia International Film Festival has just bestowed Cohen with its Lifetime Achievement Award before the World Premiere of the titular documentary about his life, King Cohen. The grand, winged Pegasus Award was wielded by Cohen as a weapon briefly to the delight of the audience; and luckily, no one accidentally ended up sitting on it.
For decades, Cohen has created countless television shows, turning out original story concepts and fully fleshed-out scripts at an alarming, almost prodigious rate. Performing at a professional level while still a teenager, Cohen has now become one of the elder Hollywood statesmen that he revered and shepherded in his earlier days.
However, for horror fans, he was the brash, death-defying New York guerilla filmmaker responsible for some of the most memorable cinema of the Seventies and Eighties including It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, and The Stuff. King Cohen follows Cohen through his entire wide-ranging filmography; but his misadventures within the horror genre are well covered with interviews from Rick Baker, Michael Moriarty, Mick Garris, and John Landis. Some of the most harrowing stories come from the days when Q: The Winged Serpent caused a momentary citywide frenzy in New York as shell casings flew during machine gun blasts on the very top of the Chrysler Building. Of course, this all ended up being pretty good for business at the time.
Some of the funniest moments in King Cohen come from the quick inter-cutting between Cohen himself and the legendary Fred Williamson, who insists that the director may be embellishing some key moments of their time together filming Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. What’s clear by the end of the documentary is that these stories need no embellishment, and Larry Cohen has no equal as a take-no-prisoners auteur.
Cohen was a triple threat as a writer who became a director to protect the script; then he became a producer to protect the film. The surprising thing about King Cohen is the reverence that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have for Cohen and the emotional core that’s struck when heartfelt stories come to pass about the director – stories that received an ovation during the premiere. Whether you’re looking at the moment in God Told Me To when Cohen thrusts Andy Kaufman alongside the NYPD during the St. Patrick’s Day Parade without a permit or his care and empathy for the aging Bette Davis in Wicked Stepmother, Cohen’s bold filmmaking and compassion are seen here in equal parts.
Although the film does start to slow down towards the conclusion once Cohen’s films become further and further apart, it’s always compelling, funny, and inspiring, especially now that so many movies are filmed on a stale green screen. King Cohen shows the renegade days of moviemaking where blood, dust, and sweat were still on the print when it showed up at the theater.