by Patrick Bromley
Writer and director Larry Cohen has passed away. He was 77 years old but still gone too soon.
Of all the Masters of Horror, none were as singular as the great Larry Cohen. Many horror directors have made great movies that are identifiable as their own either stylistically or thematically (or many times both), but Cohen’s films truly could not be made by anyone else. They didn't necessarily have the technical sheen of Carpenter or the primal, confrontational quality of early Craven, but no one else in the genre combined inspired premises with subversive humor, political commentary, offbeat dialogue, and a specific feel for his locations – most commonly New York, which lives and breathes in Larry Cohen’s movies in a way it rarely does in any other filmmaker’s work. He was a genuine one-of-a-kind treasure, and seeing his filmography reassessed and celebrated in the coming weeks will be bittersweet. On the one hand, the amount of articles and appreciations being written about him will serve as a reminder that he's gone; on the other, at least he will be getting his due. Hopefully his films will find some new audiences as a result. He was one of the truly originals of cinema and we were lucky to have him.
1. Black Caesar (1973) I'm only not including Bone, Cohen's debut feature as a filmmaker, in the first spot on this list because, to be completely honest, I still haven't seen it. Instead, I'll go with his follow-up feature, the blaxploitation classic Black Caesar, the first of several collaborations between Cohen and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. Shot fast and cheap, guerrilla-style, on the streets of New York City, Black Caesar is incredibly canny in the way that Cohen saw a void in cinema -- genre movies with black casts for black audiences -- and filled it. The film's success helped buy Cohen a career and made a movie star out of Fred Williamson. I actually prefer the sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, which Cohen wrote and directed the very same year, but if I can only recommend one to represent this period in Cohen's career, it should be this one.
3. God Told Me To (1976) Of all the insane, eccentric movies Larry Cohen made during his career, this one is the most eccentric and the most insane. A devout Catholic New York City detective (Tony Lo Bianco) investigates a series of mass murders all committed by people claiming God told them to kill. It's a typically high concept Larry Cohen premise, but it barely scratches the surface of where this movie goes. There's a case to be made for God Told Me To as Coen's best movie. It's certainly his most audacious and ambitious, and there's not another director alive who could have made it.
4. Full Moon High (1981) I know it might be considered blasphemous to say it, but I don't find Full Moon High especially funny. That's ok. That's not why I put it on the list. This horror comedy, in which a young Adam Arkin is bit by a werewolf and then has to go through high school as a monster, is here because it's maybe Cohen's only full-blown comedy, and the single best representation of his Borscht-belt approach to humor. There's no joke too stupid for him try, and the law of averages suggests that this kind of quantity over quality approach means he's guaranteed to hit at least a few times. Had the movie been a big hit, I wonder if we would have seen the direction of Cohen's career change.
6. Special Effects (1984) This movie, my pick for the most underrated in Larry Cohen's filmography, is years ahead of its time in the way that it examines the relationship between cinema and reality and how they constantly reflect one another; it's like Albert Brooks' Real Life crossed with Body Double with some Vertigo thrown in. Eric Bogosian plays Neville, a sleazy director who becomes taken with the idea of committing murder on film. The longer the film goes, the deeper into Neville's new project we go, the more Cohen blurs the lines between film and reality both in front of the camera and behind it. There are also satirical elements to the film, probably because Larry Cohen is incapable of not being satirical, like the subplot with the cop who trades in his investigation for a producer credit and starts doing his own rewrites. Everybody wants into the movie business.
8. The Ambulance (1990) Alongside Special Effects, this is maybe most underrated entry in Cohen's filmography. Eric Roberts plays a comic book artist (working for Marvel, complete with early Stan Lee cameo) who begins to suspect an ambulance of picking up patients who are never heard from again. The Ambulance features the director's usual blend of thriller with comedy elements, once again showcasing New York in a way no other filmmaker does. It's one of Larry Cohen's most purely "fun" efforts, and proves that, unlike some of his contemporaries in the genre, he was still a force to be reckoned with even into the 1990s.
10. King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017, dir. Steve Mitchell) Ok, this is technically a movie about Larry Cohen and not a movie he directed, but it really is essential viewing as an overview of his entire career. Not only do you get a glimpse of each of his movies, complete with corresponding clips and correct context, but the interviews with Cohen are worth the runtime alone. He's such a gifted storyteller and conversationalist that it's impossible not to love him, and the movie reveals a side of his personality that you won't necessarily see just by watching his movies. The stuff about him befriending several Hollywood legends (like Red Buttons and Bernard Herrmann) is genuinely touching and sweet, only serving to make me like Larry Cohen even more than I already did. I didn't even know that was possible.