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“King Cohen” Makes the Case for the Artistry of an Exploitation Film Hero

The too-easy shorthand description of legendary exploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen is that he’s New York’s answer to Roger Corman. The two share an affinity for the weirder margins of storytelling, have made cult hits with enduring fame for a dime, and possess a mighty work ethic that keeps them creating from morning till night, even today. But where they differ is in motivation. Where Corman wants to make money telling whichever story he foresees will be hot (and he’s been frequently right), Cohen approaches even his most outlandish pictures, like The Stuff (1985), from a personal angle. He infuses them with a message, some kind of moral that you might miss if you’re only paying attention to the killer yogurt. In that way, Cohen is less like Corman than he is a sort of cousin of horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Wes Craven. As those directors have won greater critical consideration, Cohen finally gets his in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this, with scruffy film-world characters (Williamson carefully poses himself lounging with a cigar) shooting the shit about the old days of guerrilla moviemaking and everything you could get away with back then; Martin Scorsese states that nobody could make films like Cohen did post–9-11 as Cohen tells the story of how he shot a brutal, bloody shootout scene at an airport baggage carousel, obviously with no permit. So, yeah.

While Cohen might accept his title as an exploitation director, he does take issue with other filmmakers pretending they’re not exploiting something or someone — “Isn’t every movie an exploitation movie?” he asks. His annoyance specifically stems from people labeling his black-cast films as blaxploitation, especially Black Caesar, which he considered simply an adaptation of James Cagney’s Little Caesar. He asks why his film should be called exploitation, just because he’s giving black actors some work, when Cagney’s film enjoys critical adoration as a classic. It’s a good question, one he’s clearly thought about a lot. Yaphet Kotto, who starred in Cohen’s first picture, the darkly comic dramatic thriller Bone (1972), says that he saw the director as a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. for black actors, kicking down the doors in the 1970s, ushering in the new era of Pam Griers and Richard Roundtrees. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s evident that Cohen really did care about giving work to his African-American collaborators, as well as lampooning in that work the real-life exploiters, notably the wealthy and powerful.

Late in the film, John Landis sheepishly admits that he really does think Cohen’s panned God Told Me To (1976) is actually a great movie. It’s a bonkers story about people murdering others on the order of a superior being with a vagina on its chest and, like all of Cohen’s works, it’s a film played earnestly, even if it is outrageous. Landis loves it, and King Cohen endeavors to remove the stigma of indulging in a Cohen classic, and largely succeeds.

King Cohen
Directed by Steve Mitchell

Dark Star Pictures
Opens August 3, Cinema Village

 

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Maniac Cop 2 Is Dopey Fun

By the end of Maniac Cop 2 (1990), director William Lustig and screenwriter Larry Cohen have all but cleaned up their corner of Fun City-era New York.

A would-be politician publicly confesses his previous crimes, a babbling wannabe serial killer gets caught, and the zombie cop of the film’s title is laid to rest. But the film’s grim tone is established early on with the death of two of its predecessor’s main characters.

Like most of Lustig and Cohen’s films, Maniac Cop 2 is dopey fun. The plot — Robert Davi’s stoic detective and Claudia Christian’s pushy psychologist hunt an undead lawman (Robert Z’Dar) — is pretty dull, but the film handily coasts on sleazy charm.

Strip club beardos, blind vets hawking newspapers, and pissy cab drivers are the main draw. Z’Dar’s cop is a magnet for emotionally disturbed bystanders, and his rampage is as cleansing as the hard rain Travis Bickle prayed for — and just as indiscriminately damning. Afterward, when the wall-demolishing, bullet-absorbing juggernaut’s hand bursts through a newly interred coffin, it’s not just a perfunctory tease for Maniac Cop 3. He lives on because the world outside of Lustig and Cohen’s window was still sick with rage and paranoia. Maniac Cop 2 is a believably unsettling time capsule reeking of its setting’s and its moment’s worst fears.

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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

Dir. Larry Cohen (1977).
Cohen’s hip and scurrilous docudrama is the best tabloid history made in Hollywood since they ran Sam Fuller out. Although the Cohen scenario is no less paranoid than Oliver Stone’s JFK or Nixon, the delivery is far more intentionally comic.

Thu., Nov. 3, 7 p.m., 2011

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Gold Told Me To

Dir. Larry Cohen (1976).
Cohen’s remarkable, if flawed, anti-Close Encounters opens with an alien divinity terrorizing midtown Manhattan by inspiring random sniper attacks, then spins into a fantastic yarn about repressed bisexuality, plutocratic cabals, and municipal corruption. There’s also a tormentingly devout cop who arrived, like Superman, from outer space—but doesn’t know it.

Sun., Oct. 23, 7 p.m., 2011

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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

Dir. Larry Cohen (1977).
Larry Cohen’s hip and scurrilous docudrama remains the best tabloid history since they ran Sam Fuller out of Hollywood. Although the Cohen scenario is no less paranoid than JFK or Nixon, the delivery is far more intentionally comic.

Tue., Aug. 30, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

Dir. Larry Cohen (1977).
A third of a century later, Larry Cohen’s hip and scurrilous docudrama is the best tabloid history since they ran Sam Fuller out of Hollywood. Although the Cohen scenario is no less paranoid than JFK or Nixon, the delivery is far more intentionally comic.

Sat., Aug. 14, 2:15 p.m., 2010

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Captivity

Captivity‘s credits bill it as “a Russian-American coproduction,” and it damn near warms the cockles of one’s heart to see that the two countries that nearly brought us nuclear war can come together to make a movie about torturing a supermodel (Elisha Cuthbert). Ah, capitalism. Surprising it took Lionsgate this long to do a decent rip-off of their Saw cash cow, but at least they took the time to do it right. Grungy warehouse rigged with ridiculously elaborate electronics, cameras, and traps? Check. Grotesque torture devices and “challenges” right out of a special snuff edition of Fear Factor? Definitely. Talented character actor (Pruitt Taylor Vince, in this case) cloaked in a black robe and a hidden agenda? You know it. Sure, there’s no character development to speak of, and one or two plot points make no sense at all, but director Roland Joffé creates a visually interesting and aurally unsettling vibe, and the story from B-movie maestro Larry Cohen keeps it simple: Girl needs to escape, but bad shit won’t stop happening. Screw the culture cops who freaked out over Captivity‘s graphic poster and always cry “torture porn”—this is a gleefully nasty piece of red meat for horror hounds that delivers as promised.

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Micro-thriller a Blockbuster at Heart

A paragon of guerrilla resourcefulness, Ian Gamazon and Neill Dela Llana’s micro-thriller is a more anxious and vivid experience than most movies with budgets literally a thousand times bigger. Made for little more than the cost of two plane tickets to Manila, Cavite uses a real-time ransom countdown to orchestrate a tour through the slum-ridden titular town. Adam (Gamazon), a lapsed Muslim, travels from San Diego to Manila for his father’s funeral and promptly finds himself a pawn in a terrorist plot, taking instructions via cell phone from an unseen Abu Sayyaf operative who has kidnapped his mother and sister. Despite its indie ingenuity, Cavite is a blockbuster at heart, a no-budget relation to screenwriter Larry Cohen’s beat-the-clock contraptions Cellular and Phone Booth. But the movie’s documentary elements are its selling point: Dela Llana’s video camera shadows Gamazon through the squatter camps and garbage mountains on the outskirts of the Philippine capital. Fueled by guilt, sorrow, and above all, visceral alienation, the film is a nightmare vision of an expatriate’s homecoming—and some kind of landmark in diaspora cinema.

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Film

Cellular was written by a neophyte script polisher, and directed by a second-unit pro whose main fame claim is having helmed Final Destination 2, but the whole buoyant, pleasantly pulpy, invigorating doodle has Larry Cohen’s pawprints all over it. (He receives only a “story by” credit.) The scenario is Cohen-ultra, akin to Phone Booth and an inverse-double-flip of Sorry, Wrong Number: Classy Santa Monica mom Kim Basinger is kidnapped God knows why, and manages to get a broken phone to work—calling, haphazardly, the cell phone of an irresponsible beach stud (Chris Evans), who must then drive like a bat out of hell through L.A. to save her family and intervene in the bad guys’ every maneuver. Dead spots, dying batteries, crossed lines—every cell phone tech burp is a set piece. As light on its feet as any B-movie this featherweight, Cellular belongs to Evans, who looks like a Tiger Beat demigod but jumps the hoops with infectious aplomb. Basinger takes her shuddery Stanwyckness very seriously, but everyone else has a ball.