Larry Cohen’s recent death at the age of 77 marked the end of an era of moviemaking that has all but disappeared. Beginning as a television writer in the 1950s, he made the jump to film with 1972’s Bone, which serving as writer, director, and producer. This effort set him on a path in small budget genre films filled with a sense of guerilla-style.
Pugnacious, shrewd, and willing to do anything to steal a shot, Larry Cohen made constantly inventive cinema. Minus the fancy trappings of movies made within a more traditional studio system, his flicks are smartly written and socially conscious: favoring parody and social commentary over Hollywood effects. That’s not to say that his films lack action or intrigue, however: Cohen was a highly conceptual director, using B-movie creatures and plots to point out uneasy truths that are still relevant. Below are ten of his most essential works.
10 Bone (1972)
Far different from the genre fare he’d eventually become known for, Cohen’s directorial debut is a somewhat heavy-handed comedic jab at American race relations delivered via a story about a miserable Beverly Hills couple (Joyce Van Patten & Andrew Duggan) who mistake a robber/rapist named Bone (Yaphet Kotto) for an exterminator, who then takes them hostage in their own home.
Provocative even by today’s standards, Cohen’s talky first feature is like a challenging three-hander play on film. But Bone isn’t as cut and dried as it initially appears--neither in thematic content nor style. Strange, surreal, perverse, and compelling, this dark satire of the elite class and the racist specters that haunt them is of a different stripe from his later works, but still features the sly humor and clear-eyed messaging of his best features.
9 It’s Alive (1974)
A gynecological nightmare predating Cronenberg, It’s Alive is about a couple, Frank Davis (John Ryan) and his wife, Lenore (Sharon Farrell) who are nervously prepping for the birth of their second child. After Lenore's water breaks, the two rush to the hospital where the baby is born, after which it attacks the staff, and escapes. As the couple tries to cope with the guilt and uncertainty of their predicament and locate their sharp-toothed little brute, the creature cuts a bloody swath across Los Angeles.
Bolstered by a score by the legendary Bernard Herrmann (Psycho) and a Val Lewton-esque focus on shadowy, subtle scares, Cohen’s inaugural horror effort is both a monster movie and an allegory on the dangers of procreation. At once sensational and heady, Cohen’s It’s Alive trademarked the unique blend of B-movie thrills and political/philosophical themes that would be his bread and butter.
8 God Told Me To (1976)
A favorite among film people (Panos Cosmatos essentially lifted a character wholesale from it for his 2018 feature, Mandy) God Told Me To is a seedy police procedural turned full-tilt sci-fi freakout. The story of a devout Catholic NYPD detective (Tony Lo Bianco) investigating a series of homicides by perpetrators who believe that “God” told them to kill is patently silly, but Cohen’s no-nonsense, vérité style makes even the inconceivable feel utterly plausible and rooted in New York grime.
Peeling back the layers of this out and proud B-picture, one finds a profoundly sick and scary vision of a faith-starved America unmoored and adrift in the cosmic void. Though it somewhat lacks the strong socio-political undercurrents that are often found in his filmography, God Told Me To is the director's masterwork: a film that makes you laugh at the grim absurdity of it all, but leaves its oily fingerprints on your soul.
7 It Lives Again (1978)
Instances of bloodthirsty infants have cropped up across the country. Having weathered the nightmarish ordeal with his own kid, Frank Davis has begun crashing baby showers to forewarn those who may carry the same mutant gene as he and intercede before their children can be impounded by the government. When Frank absconds with expectant parents Eugene (Frederic Forrest) and Jody Scott (Kathleen Lloyd) to a hidden compound, they learn that the bloodthirsty-babies may be the next step in mankind's evolutionary journey.
Trading the first film’s more internal existential terrors for apocalyptic fears on an exterior, global scale, It Lives Again offers up Cohen's twisted litter of mini-monsters as Mother Nature’s response to a planet killing itself in brutal slow-motion with pollution and pills. It Lives Again's wider scope makes it an ambitious companion piece to the first film, following its initial concept to its logical conclusions about a world where pregnancy is treated as a dangerous epidemic.
6 Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
When New York suffers a rash of decapitated window-washers and brutal flayings, the city’s detectives start looking for answers. The Cause? Quetzalcoatl, the legendary flying serpent of Aztec lore, has been awoken by a cult and begun feasting on innocent pedestrians. While fleeing a botched robbery, an ex-convict named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) discovers the beast’s nest high atop the city in an abandoned belfry. Jimmy offers to help the NYPD in their quest to clip the flying monster’s wings, but only if they make it worth his while...
Q: The Winged Serpent was one of Cohen’s most successful films at the box office, and it’s also one of his most approachable flicks. Sometimes referred to as “Cohen’s King Kong”, the film is a contemporary take on the AIP monster cheapies of the 50s and 60s and a grand example of his ability make a small production feel big. It also marked the director’s first time working with Moriarty, who would go on to be a frequent collaborator--his low key eccentricities bringing a special flavor to no less than four Cohen features. Q: The Winged Serpent is one of those rare movies that has something to offer everyone but doesn’t suffer in quality because of it.
5 Special Effects (1984)
Arriving in cinemas the same year as Brian De Palma’s Body Double, Cohen’s own riff on Hitchcock plays a little more fast and loose with the trappings of the identity thriller, using it to express his attitude towards Hollywood, itself. Special Effects stars Eric Bogosian as a megalomaniacal movie director who, after killing a young wannabe actress (Zoë Lund), sets out to make a feature film about the deed starring the dead starlet’s husband opposite a dead ringer (also Lund) who assumes the part of his wife, the murdered actress.
Those who find De Palma’s erotic thrillers incoherent or overly complex will have a hell of a time unpacking Cohen’s version of the same. The director is less interested in a coherent, tidy narrative than commenting on the nature of filmmaking and reality. But this is still Cohen, so his concerns are less abstract; cruel directors, egotist artists, and corrupting studio heads all receive a severe lashing by his incisive pen, and though it isn’t entirely successful, Special Effects, as was its creator’s intent, leaves viewers with plenty to chew on.
4 The Stuff (1983)
This screed against consumer culture is the broadest of Cohen’s films, and also his best known. When a group of workers discover a white, viscous substance bubbling up from the ground, they decide to market it as the newest food craze to American families. Low in calories and addictively tasty, “the stuff” unfortunately carries one awful side-effect: it mutates those who eat enough of it into lurching zombies before consuming them from the inside out.
This scathing 80s satire takes on corporations, capitalism, and the military-industrial complex with varying degrees of success, but it’s the consumerist elements and uber-gross special effects that stick in the mind. The Stuff is over-ambitious and Cohen’s reach eventually exceeds his grasp in the film’s back end, but it’s his most biting and audacious cinematic blunderbuss, and the last “great” film he’d make.
3 The Ambulance (1990)
When a comic book artist Josh Baker (Eric Roberts) attempts to visit a woman named Cheryl (Janine Turner) who suffered a sudden collapse and was rushed to a hospital by an ambulance, he’s shocked to discover that there is no record of her ever being admitted. The mystery deepens when he learns that Cheryl’s roommate has also disappeared after being picked up by the same ambulance. Convinced that the women are pawns in a conspiracy, Josh seeks to discover their whereabouts and blow the lid off of whatever dealings are going on.
An evil ambulance abducting innocent women is a bizarre setup, even for Cohen but this is one of his most purely pleasurable films. The paranoid conspiracy angle central to his earlier work is obviously there (this time taking a shot at the medical industry itself) but it’s a bit downplayed in favor of cheap thrills. A heavily-mulleted Eric Roberts (brother of Julia) comes within spitting distance of a Michael Moriarty level of nervy peculiarity, and the cast is rounded out by James Earl Jones, Red Buttons and Stan Lee in what may have very likely been his first film cameo. A streamlined, high-speed thriller, The Ambulance is lighter Cohen fare, but a total blast, and essential nonetheless.
2 Original Gangstas (1996)
The rare film directed, but not written by Cohen, Original Gangstas is a throwback feature reuniting some of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation era for one last go-round as versions of the characters that made them famous decades earlier. Fred Williamson stars as LA football coach, John Bookman who returns home after the death of his father to discover that his town has been taken over by violent gangs, one of which he used to be a part of. Mad as hell, Bookman teams up with the parents of a murdered boy (Jim Brown and Pam Grier) and two of his former gang brothers (Ron O’Neal and Richard Roundtree) to take back the town.
Though nowadays such a movie helmed by a white man would be highly controversial, Cohen was a fixture of the urban exploitation boom--writing/directing classics of the genre like Black Caesar (1973) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973) with his usual flair and subversive style. The cast of Original Gangstas is a veritable who’s who of blaxploitation cinema and though they’re a bit longer in the tooth, they still radiate the undeniable charisma they displayed in their best-known films. With solid action and a nostalgic bent, Original Gangstas is a loving tribute to the blaxploitation stars of old directed by one of the era’s most influential filmmakers.
1 Phone Booth (2002)
A commercial hit and one his rare blushes with mainstream success, the Joel Schumacher directed Phone Booth was Cohen’s last solid work as a screenwriter. Though he wrote/directed an episode of Mick Garris’ Showtime Anthology series Masters of Horror, penned Captivity (2007), and co-wrote the script for the remake of his own It’s Alive (2009), this neo-noir thriller is the last film that feels like vintage Cohen.
Based on an idea Cohen initially had in the 1960s, the film stars the then up-and-coming Colin Farrell as an arrogant NYC publicist who, upon using a phone booth, finds himself the target of a sniper. The film was shot in LA but in signature Cohen style, the rat-a-tat dialogue and attitude is all New York, unfolding in real time in yet another of the director’s audacious genre experiments. Though it’s easy to wish Cohen had been able to direct for the big screen at least once more (and heaven knows the film could have used a bit more of his immediacy and grit), Phone Booth feels like a fitting end to a cinematic legacy for a filmmaker who was always a writer at heart.