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Fantastic Fest: ‘King Cohen’ Celebrates the Best Guerrilla Filmmaker in the Business

“Anybody will put up with anything if they think a movie is being shot.”
By  · Published on September 23rd, 2017

“Anybody will put up with anything if they think a movie is being shot.”

Larry Cohen wanders down the hotel corridors of some unknown horror convention, passing through a torrent of genre enthusiasts. He laments the lack of autograph seekers.  Hunkered down at his table, selling replica cups of The Stuff, the writer/producer/director whines to the camera, “Anybody here like me?” No invasive selfies. No awkward handshakes.  No love. He’s Larry Cohen, dammit! After years of toiling away in the trenches of television, Cohen tore through exploitation cinema with an endless slew of memorable oddities like Bone, Hell Up In Harlem, It’s Alive, and Q: The Winged Serpent.  He made movies that rarely (if ever) attracted mainstream audiences, but for those that saw them, his films seared into the darkest matter of their consciousness.

King Cohen is here to spread the gospel, or maybe more appropriately, it’s here to violently shake contemporary genre fandom at its shoulders and scream his name into legend. It’s the kind of love letter documentary that collects as many famous devotees as possible to convince its audience of its subject’s worth.  If you’re already seated in the choir, then you’ll just sit back and enjoy the music emanating from the talking heads gathered by director Steve Mitchell. You know the drill. It’s hero worship cinema a la Dark Star, An Animated Life, and Life Itself. King Cohen splays its artist’s narrative in chronological order connecting Exhibit A to Exhibit B to Exhibit C. As fans, we eat it up, and the right clip from God Told Me To or quote from Joe Dante will pique the interest of a budding fanboy or fangirl. This kind of celebration is essential to our very being.

If you’re looking to pull a quote regarding Larry Cohen’s DGAF approach to movie magic then look no further than Fred “The Hammer” Williamson.  Always half-turned to the camera, resting as far back into his chair as possible with a firm grip on his cigar, Williamson proclaims Cohen as “the best guerilla filmmaker in the business.” His stories surrounding the production of Black Caesar are infamous. Refusing to put the time or energy into procuring permits, Cohen would charge his camera into New York City to steal footage wherever he could. However, memory and myth battle it out as Mitchel cuts back and forth between star and director. Who jumped out of that speeding New York cab first? Williamson is all too happy to maintain his credibility and cry bullshit where he sees it. Who’s to say.

Martin Scorsese certainly grieves for that era when all you needed was a madman’s spirit and a few other maniacs to follow suit. He recognizes Cohen’s films as lacking subtlety but champions the fury and willpower that he mustered to get his art made. Working as writer/producer/director, Larry Cohen went out and found the means to birth the best of the grindhouse. He used whatever he had access to, and he stole what he didn’t. For an icon like Scorsese, who still struggles to bring his movies to the big screen, King Cohen offers an opportunity to wistfully dream of a yesteryear where pure confidence got the job done.

Through recognition and celebration, King Cohen is ultimately concerned with the perpetration of art and our necessary need to feed off others to produce our own. Mitchel opens the film on J.J. Abrams, the very definition of a cinematic sponge, recollecting an utterly L.A. story about his first chance encounter with Larry Cohen. Once upon a time, 15-year-old Abrams and his pal Peter DeLuise (son of Dom) happened upon Cohen sitting at a bus stop in Westwood. Lost and desperate to make a meeting with Sidney Poitier and Gene Wilder, Abrams and DeLuise gave Cohen the necessary street directions. Years later, Cohen spots the It’s Alive baby in the background of some Bad Robot special feature. Having spent years hunting for opportunities to collaborate with the willing, Cohen cold calls Abrams. The two bask in the delight of coincidence, but we get to see Abrams beaming at finally being worthy enough of a Cohen business meeting.  It’s absolutely adorable and reveals to the audience the passion sparked by hero worship. Cohen always prided himself on never relying on the system, tackling whatever streets to get his footage, but he inevitably created a community that relied on him and loved him.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)