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Wednesday
Oct032012

THE BEST OF LARRY COHEN

Larry Cohen was born into the archetypal East Coast Jewish family and studied his filmmaking craft at the New York City College. Influenced by the commercial cinema of the 40s and 50’s, notably the Warner Brothers crowd-pleasers that starred Bogart and Cagney, he would meld the grittiness of his own reality with a rich and dark vision for the fantastic that would lead to some vivid and hotly-debated works of pulp art.

On the eve of the spritely 72 year-old’s return to Australia (he attended a retrospective celebration of his career at the 2009 Brisbane Film Festival), where he will be a keynote speaker at the production industry event, SPAA Fringe, and attend the start up genre gathering, Monster Fest, SCREEN-SPACE has cast an entirely subjective eye over Cohen’s vast body of work as director (many will decry the absence of his 1977 FBI expose, The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover, or his blaxploitation films Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and Original Gangsters; we thought the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive minor works, but will listen to all counter arguments). His oeuvre as a writer offers some crisply commercial works (I, The Jury, 1982; Best Seller, 1987; Maniac Cop, 1988; The Ambulance, 1990; Phone Booth, 2002), but we stuck to his career behind the camera (for now...). Here, we offer the following as defining moments in the maverick multi-hyphenate’s challenging, eclectic career.

BONE (aka HOUSEWIFE, 1970)
Featuring a star-making turn by Yaphet Kotto as the home invader whose felonious demands and open-ended threats change both his world and that of  a shallow Beverly Hills married couple (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten), this pitch-black morality play on race relations and social standing was Cohen’s single-finger salute to the LA lifestyle that he had endured since arriving on the West Coast in the mid 1960’s.
Larry Cohen: “I did that one because it had a very small cast and a limited number of locations. I saw it as a way to break into the business as a director and take the time to learn my craft. I actually think it’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever made because the script was so good. I was lucky to get a wonderful cast, as well. It was a pleasure to work on that film.” – Films in Review, 2009.

IT’S ALIVE (1974)
Such an underground hit it spawned two sequels (no pun intended), Cohen’s occasionally giggly but undeniably chilling mutant-baby horror film was his paranoid take on a generation of children struggling to deal with parents living the dreams of the ‘Me Generation’; for the first time in US history, kids were forced to deal with a sweeping social restructuring that didn’t always factor in their best interests. The message – ignore us at your peril.
Larry Cohen: “We were going through a period in America where people were becoming increasingly alienated from their children. So I said, ‘Oh my God, we’re having monster children, so let’s have a monster baby! Let’s have the whole allegorical approach.’” – ABC-TV Brisbane, 2009.

Q THE WINGED SERPENT (1982)
From his own screenplay (which New York Times revered critic Janet Maslin caustically described as being full of “inadvertent gems”), Cohen crafts the near-perfect low-budget mash-up of monster-movie malarkey and gritty NYC cop story. A giant flying-lizard is on the loose in the Big Apple, beheading passers-by and hiding out amongst the concrete jungle; lowlife Michael Moriarty (Cohen’s favourite leading man) secures one of the creature’s eggs and develops delusions of grandeur.
Larry Cohen: “Originally, the Michael Moriarty character was not a piano player or an aspiring performer, but I found out on the first day of the shoot that he was very musical. So I wrote that into the part, which I feel in the end gave the character much more depth. It was just by chance that I happened to find that out about him." – eFilmcritic, 1999.

FULL MOON HIGH (1981)
A pure indulgence on the part of SCREEN-SPACE, whose VHS copy wore thin back in the day but which, in hindsight, is a very threadbare effort. Cohen melded the popular werewolf trend of the day (The Howling, 1980; An American Werewolf in London, 1981; Wolfen, 1981) with the booming teen-comedy market with this high-school/lycanthrope comedy starring Adam Arkin. An ultra-cheapy that hasn’t aged well (nor which Cohen talks about much, despite our best efforts to find his thoughts on the film online...)

SPECIAL EFFECTS (1984)
A kind-of updated, B-movie homage to Michael Powell’s seminal shocker Peeping Tom, Special Effects saw Cohen take on dark psychological themes and an art-vs-reality aesthetic in his story of a film director (Eric Bogosian) who murders a starlet, then is inspired to recreate the narrative of his real-life murder for his new film (going so far as to cast the husband of the slain woman).
Larry Cohen: “I cast a wonderful young actress, Zoe Tamerlis (aka, Zoë Lund). She always came about with a big bag. ‘That’s my screenplay (in the bag)’, she’d say, ‘I can’t leave it home because someone is going to steal it’. She was paranoid about it. I asked her if she had copies, why she didn’t make copies. But no – she didn’t want anyone to have a chance to see it, take it. That script turned out to be the original Bad Lieutenant that Abel Ferrera made with Harvey Keitel. I guess she was addicted to drugs, though, because she died in Paris from an overdose in ’99.” – Horror Society, 2010.

THE STUFF (1985)
The director’s ravenous dissecting of 1980s consumerism and blind Reagan-era social conformity, Cohen secured a stellar cast (Morairty, again; Danny Aiello; Patrick O’Neal; Paul Sorvino; Garrett Morris) to tell his fiendishly satiric tale of a natural substance found oozing from underground and marketed as the most delicious dessert treat ever. The catch? Those who consume it turn into zombie-like cravers of the goo. As good a spin on our mindless, modern society as Don Siegel’s (or Philip Kaufman’s) Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.
Larry Cohen: “Instead of being a monster that comes into your house after you, (The Stuff is) one that you go out and buy and bring home, and you consume it of your own free will. You’re a willing collaborator in your own destruction.” – Time Out London, 1986.

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