J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, November 10, 2017

DOC NYC ’17: King Cohen

It is mind-blowing, but true: both Bernard Hermann and Miklos Rozsa composed scores for Larry Cohen films. Reportedly, they got along with the exploitation auteur like a house on fire. Heck, even Cohen’s first wife has good things to say about him, so he must be quite a guy. Of course, his body of work is also something else. The horror legend and blaxploitation pioneer gets his due in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (trailer here), which screens during DOC NYC 2017.

Those who know Cohen probably had their impressions formed by cult classics like It’s Alive (the killer baby horror movie scored by Rozsa) and Q (the winger-serpent monster movie that would be his first collaboration with the great Michael Moriarty), but he had quite a bit of initial success in television. He was even an uncredited creator of the show N.Y.P.D., which would later be the primary inspiration for Leslie Nielsen’s spoof series, Police Squad! However, Cohen wanted creative control and autonomy, so he became an indie filmmaker before that was an acknowledged thing.

Ironically, Cohen started with one of his most serious films, Bone, an edgy comedy about interracial relationships. He then jump-started the blaxploitation genre with Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. Those films really established his practice of “stealing shots” in public places, without any kind of license or permissions. There are a lot of crazy stories about his guerilla filmmaking practices and Fred Williamson is not shy about telling him. Indeed, King Cohen is laugh out loud funny when Mitchell contrasts the very different recollections of Cohen and Williamson (who still looks like he can throw down like the old days).

Of course, Cohen worked with Eric Roberts, who naturally notches another screen credit talking about the experience. Filmmakers Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and J.J. Abrams all show their respect, as does makeup artist Rick Baker. However, Cohen’s reminiscences of working with legends like Hermann, Rozsa, and Sam Fuller will genuinely deepen viewers’ respect for the taste-challenging auteur.

Cohen emerges as a rather inspiring figure. He is a survivor, who has sold way more produced screenplays than even his fans probably realize (Phone Booth, Cellular, and Guilty as Sin were all his). Mitchell keeps the vibe breezy and upbeat, while incorporating many wonderfully illustrative films clips. King Cohen will definitely put viewers in the mood to revisit or catch-up with Cohen’s films, so many genre festivals have shrewdly programmed it as part of a retrospective tribute sidebar. Alas, DOC NYC will not be screening Original Gangstas or The Stuff. King Cohen is still the most fun you will have during the doc fest. Very highly recommended, it screens this coming Monday night (11/13) at the Cinepolis Chelsea.

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