October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror movies directed by Larry Cohen is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
As much as we think of Larry Cohen as the director of some of the wildest Blaxploitation and Horror films of the 1970s and 1980s, he was really a much more accomplished screenwriter, with over eighty credits to his name by his death in 2019.
Sure, Cohen was the master at visually capturing the grimy reality of pre-Disneyfied New York City – with deliberate surreptitiousness in getting some of his shots – but it’s the satirical voice he layered into each of his films that make them so much more engaging than all of the gimmicks baked within. Even in movies featuring giant Aztec gods, killer mutant babies, and globs of primordial yogurt set to take over the world, he’s needling into socio-political themes that offers the perfect counterweight to his film’s overt ridiculousness.
Of the twenty feature-length films that Larry Cohen directed, exactly ten of them rest within the horror genre, so you likely can guess which films made the cut. How they rank, well, that’ll be up to Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Mary Beth McAndrews, Meg Shields, Anna Swanson, and myself! Regardless of which way the chips fall, you can bet that these are Larry Cohen’s finest horror films.
10. Full Moon High (1981)
Two shorts months after An American Werewolf in London debuted, Larry Cohen’s own spin on lycanthropy hit the screens. After being bitten by a Transylvanian werewolf, the newly-eternal Tony Walker (Adam Arkin) traverses the globe in search for life’s meaning, only to return home to try and pick up the pieces of his life while he squashes a losing streak for his alma mater’s football team.
Full Moon High isn’t interested in subverting or elaborating on the werewolf mythos. Rather, it takes its inspiration squarely from the teen screams of the 1950s like I Was a Teenage Werewolf to make a cartoonishly silly monster film that is far more zany than it ever tries to be scary. It does show flashes of true originality however, like in a recurring anachronistic joke where phantom violins keep appearing out of thin air to underscore key moments. Ed McMahon also co-stars as Walker’s father, purposefully giving us a performance that is far flung from what we would expect from his long role as Johnny Carson’s hype man.
The humor Cohen uses throughout Full Moon High are all from a bygone era of comedy. But credit where credit’s due for Cohen putting as many bits into this movie as he did. He just throws whatever he thinks might be funny at the wall. Do all those laughs stick? I’ll leave that up to you. (Jacob Trussell)
9. Wicked Stepmother (1989)
Larry Cohen has a calling card, and upon it reads the phrase: “huh, well that was a lot better than it had any business being.” 1989’s Wicked Stepmother is no exception. Ever wonder what it’d look like if Cohen made a Disney Channel movie? Well wonder no more. Wicked Stepmother sees a witchy mother-daughter duo (Barbara Carrera and Bette Davis, in her last on-screen performance) descending on a yuppie family to wreak havoc. Oh right, and they must share one body. Whoever doesn’t get use of the body gets to live in a cat! Bless you Larry Cohen, you absolute madman. Luckily, the yuppie daughter (Colleen Camp), a private dick, and a suspended police officer (the holy trinity of Justice) are on the case to thwart the witches. Is the body possession a needlessly complicated way around Davis leaving the film a week into production? Is it “barely a movie”? Ha ha, shut up. Larry Cohen couldn’t make an un-entertaining film if he tried. That’s what makes him the best. (Meg Shields)
8. A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)
Before Tobe Hooper took the directorial reins for the TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, Larry Cohen was able to take a crack at crafting his own spin on adapting that influential vampire classic. After his treatment was rejected, he was given another chance at bat with this sequel, A Return to Salem’s Lot which recycled many of the themes he wanted to layer into the original.
Cohen may retcon many of the plot points of the original TV film, namely in how the vampires came to run the town, but it’s in these diversions that his sequel can stand on its own. You see, Kurt Barlow didn’t transform the town into a haven for the undead, rather the undead have existed in the area of Salem’s Lot for generations, having first come over with the original colonizers of America to escape persecution from Eastern Europeans. Salem’s Lot became their new world, where no vampire would ever have to run from an angry mob of torchbearers ever again. More so Cohen insinuates that America’s capitalist economy and the rise of vampires go hand in hand, both sucking the life force out of the country for their own selfish reasons. Through these themes, as well as an accomplished cast including Cohen stalwart Michael Moriarty and legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller, A Return to Salem’s Lot becomes a worthy successor to the social subtext within Hooper and King’s original and an entertaining Larry Cohen horror movie. (Jacob Trussell)
7. It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)
I’m just going to start by saying what everyone’s thinking — this film should be sitting higher on the list and most definitely above both It’s Alive and It Lives Again. Once again, democracy has failed us. Where the first film is a pure but goofy creature feature, the second moves heavily into more social commentary while turning up the dial on the silliness. It took the third film in the franchise, though, to crank this baby all the way to eleven and deliver an absurdly wonderful horror/comedy.
Society still isn’t ready for these monstrous kids, but one father gives an impassioned speech in court and convinces the authorities to send the mutant babes to a remote island. That father? An amazing Michael Moriarty who may or may not have read the script. Who’s to say, really, as I would buy in a heartbeat the revelation that he improvised all of his dialogue here. He’s treating this as the most serious of films even as giant babies are sailing to Florida hoping to place their own offspring — that’s right, babies having babies! — with a reluctant mother. It’s all glorious nonsense, and it never stops being entertaining thanks to the kills, the kids, and the kooky Moriarty. (Rob Hunter)
6. It Lives Again (1978)
The strength of the It’s Alive series hinges on actor John P. Ryan, star of the original film who is back in the sequel. Even in the opening moments of the first sequel, It Lives Again, he reminds us just why he was so engaging in the first film. Amidst all the schlock and exploitation, he gives us a masterclass in volatile restraint as he tries to warn an expectant mother over what may be lurking inside her womb. Even if the rest of the film can’t support Ryan’s performance, he grounds us in his world through the emotional connection of a man who was given a renewed purpose in life through fatherhood. It’s just not exactly the purpose – or the picture perfect portrait of parenting – he had in mind.
The third film in the trilogy may be more bombastic, but this sequel approaches the material in a mature manner that is welcomingly discordant. That’s because Larry Cohen takes the subject matter seriously, regardless of the overall silliness of evil killer mutant babies. Cohen was always striving to layer in social commentary to all of his films, and he uses the It’s Alive series to exorcise his own personal fears and anxieties about being a parent in the wake of the Thalidomide scandal. It may not offer any solutions, but It Lives Again is still an interesting framework to engage with a moment in history rife with uncertainty about how to protect the next generation. (Jacob Trussell)