His movies exist in that netherworld of B-movie brilliance that grew out of ‘50s pulp-cinema, came to fruition to service the grindhouse palaces of the ‘70s and found their true niche in the VCRs of ‘80s teenagers. Those teenagers have become the genre filmmakers, festival programmers and influential executives of world cinema today and to them, Larry Cohen’s films are sacrosanct.
“As time went on, thanks mainly to DVDs and videotape and cable, these pictures got discovered again. That’s the wonderful thing about these movies,” the chatty 72-year-old New York native told SBS Film, on the eve of Melbourne’s start-up horror gathering, Monster Fest. “Generations ago, when these movies finished their theatrical run, the only way to see a movie from the past was to go to a revival house, if you were lucky enough to find one that played these types of movies,” he says. “But today, you can see a film many different ways, even own a copy. It is a whole different world, one that I have benefitted by tremendously.”
As a director, the films that have endeared him to two generations of eager fans aren’t the type to attract Oscar glory. Rather, they are known simply by titles that conjure vivid images and lifelong memories for his devoted fans. After his racially-charged debut Bone (1972), which featured a commanding Yaphet Kotto as the black man who invades the home and alters the lives of a wealthy LA white couple, Cohen went on to direct the blaxploitation classics Black Caesar (1973) and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem (1973) before moving into blood-curdling terrain with his evil-baby trilogy, It’s Alive (1974), It Lives Again (1978) and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987). He challenged the establishment with his stunning expose, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977); crafted a monster-movie cult classic with Q: The Winged-Serpent (1982; screening at the Canberra International Film Festival); and attacked the greed and rampant consumerism of Reagan’s America in what many consider to be his finest work, The Stuff (1985).
It was the latter film that finally got him noticed by serious film critics. “The late Andrew Sarris started liking my films when we got around to making The Stuff. It was one of his favourite films of the year. Up until that time he had more or less ignored me,” Cohen recalls, citing one of the most influential voices of early-‘70s film criticism, a man who deeply believed in ‘The Auteur Theory’.
“We had a couple of critics in New York that liked my films, like Judith Christ, and we had good reviews here and there. But what has happened is that the films, like vintage wine, seem to have improved with the years. People have finally seen these movies and gone ‘Hey, this film has wonderful performances and a wonderful script with great dialogue’ and they realised it was about something, not just a bunch of people stabbing other people. They were, in fact, films about human beings, real characters and relationships.”
Though he has not directed a feature since his 1996 urban action-comedy Original Gangstas, Cohen has always worked steadily as one of Hollywood’s most respected writers. His prolific output includes I, The Jury (1982), A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), Best Seller (1987), Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993) and one of the most notorious of the ‘80s ‘video nasties’, Maniac Cop (1988; also screening at the Canberra International Film Festival). His philosophy is simple. “The audience wants to hear a good story that they haven’t heard before. You can dress things up with special effects and production values and throw big name actors onto the screen, but if you don’t have a good story to tell then it is all for nothing,” says the industry veteran.
The big-budget spectacles that dominate the multiplexes don’t interest him, either as a writer or a viewer. “It can become very tiresome, like the last Transformers film. It is so easy to just zone out, despite the wealth of production value. There is so much crashing and grinding and exploding and yet there is no story; nothing happens to anybody. There is nothing that reaches inside and touches your heart or touches your mind. All my movies have some emotional content to them,” he says.
Cohen references one of his own fantasy films from over three decades ago as the template for his writing ethic today. “Tony Lo Bianco, in God Told Me To, finds out he is not really a full human being but a hybrid and he has to deal with that emotionally. How it impacts his wife, his girlfriend and his brother are all dealt with as if they were really happening, not in some silly, nonsensical way with the use of CGI. The people are real people and the situations are real, even if they may be fantastic.”
Driven to adhere to character-based tension in his scripts (he admits to being a huge fan of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest for that very reason), Cohen’s two most high-profile studio pictures, the thrillers Phone Booth (2002) and Cellular (2004), were determinedly minimalist. “I wanted to make a movie that was so small it represented the exact opposite of the big movies that were being made. So I figured, ‘What could be smaller than a movie that all takes place in a telephone booth?’ And I followed that with a movie that all takes place during a cellular phone call. We were trying to do something that dealt with suspense rather than an over-abundance of mindless action and effects. You don’t see much in the way of suspense in movies anymore,” he says.
In the planning of the celebrations of his work taking place in Australia this month, Cohen was asked to describe what the best of his films offer.
“An above-average quality of dialogue, truthful characterisations, an intricate plot with lots of twists and turns and, in the latter films, quite a touch of humour,” he replied.
“All those things make up my pictures and would be recognisable to those that appreciate my films.”
Ill health has forced Larry Cohen to cancel a planned trip to Australia this month, however Maniac Cop and The Stuff will screen at Monster Fest, and the Canberra International Fillm Festival will also screen Maniac Cop and The Stuff, along with Q. The Winged Serpent.