Larry Cohen is a genre unto himself. A movie is no longer horror, comedy, action, or thriller when Larry Cohen is involved, it’s simply a Larry Cohen film. Who is Larry Cohen? Why do I insist on writing “Larry Cohen” over and over?
Larry Cohen is a writer. Larry Cohen is a producer. Larry Cohen is a director. Often, but not always, Larry Cohen is all three at once. Starting out in television in the early 1960s, he created The Invaders, Branded, and Coronet Blue (which heavily inspired The Bourne Identity), while simultaneously cranking out scripts for the top shows of the era, such as The Defenders and The Fugitive. In 1972 he made his directorial debut with Bone aka Dial Rat for Terror, a scorching racial satire about a black thief/rapist invading the home of an upper-class white family in Beverly Hills. It also contains a scene where someone slips on a banana peel.
It was merely a warm-up (warning?) for what was to come.
What followed is a dizzying career of murderous mutant infants (It’s Alive trilogy), maniac cops (Maniac Cop trilogy), and winged serpents (Q, The Winged Serpent, not a trilogy). And much like the eponymous Stuff of The Stuff, once you start into Larry Cohen, you just can’t stop, as he only become more and more habit-forming, mind-controlling, and life-absorbing.
But before you take the plunge, before becoming a full-on addict, here’s what you need to know:
Larry Cohen Does High-Concepts
A man answers a ringing payphone, and the sniper on the other end tells him he’ll be shot if he hangs up. New Yorkers are disappearing after being picked up by a mysterious ambulance. A black shoeshine boy takes over the Italian mafia. Cohen has a seemingly endless supply of these crackerjack premises, so many so that he’ll often switch gears mid-story and surprise you with another.
Larry Cohen Hates Asking for Permission
At times it can feel as if Cohen is in a mad dash to finish up whatever he’s making, so he can move on to the next thing. This behind-the-scenes rush translates to the screen in the form of a crackling energy, and a freewheeling, jazz-like style. But when moving this fast, there’s one thing you have absolutely zero time for: filming permits.
On a normal movie or TV shoot, one would file for a permit with the city, and coordinate with local police to block off busy streets and control pedestrians. But there’s nothing normal about a Larry Cohen film, and all this tedious paperwork isn’t nearly as fun as driving a speeding taxi down a crowded New York sidewalk, or blasting machine gun fire from the top of the Chrysler Building — shells raining down onto terrified onlookers. And don’t think for a second that he’d pass up the opportunity to capture an innocent bystander’s shocked expression on camera.
Larry Cohen Loves Character Actors
Nearly every Larry Cohen film features a great — sometimes incredible — lead performance. And nearly every single time, it’s delivered by the unlikeliest of leads: the character actor. With a stunning consistency, these performers often appear as if they’re unaware of the kind of film they’re in, fully committed to taking the oddball material seriously. As a father coping with his newborn being a killer mutant with an extremely muscular butt in It’s Alive, frequent TV guest star John P. Ryan commands the screen with one of the rawest, most moving portrayals I’ve ever seen. I’m not even kidding.
Larry Cohen Has a Message for You
Subtext is nonexistent in a Larry Cohen film, with his characters shouting the intended message loud and clear, preferably while being attacked by a serpentine Aztec god named Quetzalcoatl. Politics, society, taboos, hot-button issues, Cohen’s got something to say about them all, and he wants to make sure you hear it.
But don’t mistake him for the LSD-dropping hippies of his 70s heyday. He’s not of the Easy Rider generation, but instead a paranoid cynic, tripping on heavy doses of McCarthyism and the private files of J. Edgar Hoover (also the title of his 1977 film). Watch for him to frequently display sympathy for the monster, and disdain for the (white, upper-class male) establishment that’s looking to bring them down. Sometimes progressive, other times problematic, always Larry Cohen.
What’s the High-Concept: A highly addictive, wildly popular new ice cream called The Stuff is eating consumers from the inside.
Did Larry Ask for Permission: Unclear, but probably not.
Name that Character Actor: Michael Moriarty, a brilliant, but volatile performer who was quick to boredom, and even quicker to lash out. With Cohen, there was no opportunity for boredom, with the director shouting new lines for Moriarty to recite mid-take, indulging the actor’s penchant for accents, and creating eccentric character traits to weave into his performance on the fly. In The Stuff he plays smooth Southern industrial spy Mo “every time they give me money, I just want mo” Rutherford, hired to find out The Stuff’s secret ingredient.
And the Message: Corporations make money selling poison to the people. And the government lets them. And we’re all zombies being controlled by ad campaigns.
What’s the High-Concept: A group of unlikely murderers all utter identical last words, “God told me to.”
Did Larry Ask for Permission: No, he did not ask for permission when he dressed up a young Andy Kaufman as a policeman, and had him open fire in the middle of New York’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. That would just be silly.
Name that Character Actor: Tony Lo Bianco, a veteran stage actor, and a fixture in the background of basically every New York crime film ever. Here he gives arguably the performance of his life as a Catholic cop on the trail of a Christ-like figure that all of the murderers at one point encountered.
Bonus Character Actor: Richard Lynch, the finest thespian to ever light his face on fire while having an acid freak-out, as the messianic and possibly maniacal Bernard Phillips.
And the Message: a full-force attack on organized religion. And an effective one at that, as it was picketed by The Legion of Decency. Personally, I make it a rule to avoid movies that weren’t picketed by The Legion of Decency.