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Sunday 18 August 2019

Obituary: Larry Cohen

Hollywood's 'king of schlock' who was best known for 'It's Alive' but who went mainstream with 'Phone Booth'

PROLIFIC: Renowned Hollywood B-movie director Larry Cohen with some of his props
PROLIFIC: Renowned Hollywood B-movie director Larry Cohen with some of his props

Larry Cohen, who has died aged 82, was a prolific writer and director of unpretentious drive-in cinema exploitation thrillers; he was known as "Hollywood's king of schlock", though some detected the hand of a satirist under the cult filmmaker's disguise.

As a director he was best known for his 1974 low-budget horror flick It's Alive, about a mutant baby with needle-sharp teeth who goes on a killing spree as soon as he pops out of the womb, starting with the attendant medical staff.

With a tension-building score by Hitchcock's composer, Bernard Herrmann, drowning out some of the ensuing screams, Cohen revealed the killer baby gradually over the course of the film, thus intensifying the heart-stopping effect.

When the work was released in London, Cohen hired a bunch of models to push prams around Piccadilly fitted with recording machines emanating blood-curdling growls, and a sign reading "If you want to see the baby, you've got to go and see It's Alive".

Warner Bro s was initially embarrassed to release such a low-budget horror, but changed its tune when the film turned out to be an enormous hit. Indeed it was so successful that Cohen went on to write and direct two sequels.

Some of his films managed to shed their B-movie origins along the way. Phone Booth (2002), for which he wrote the screenplay, had a B-movie premise focused on a smarmy New York City publicist (Colin Farrell) who picks up a ringing pay phone and learns that a sniper will kill him if he hangs up.

But it attracted the interest of Hollywood movers and shakers.

Tom Cruise's production company flirted with buying it before 20th Century Fox paid $750,000 (€670,000) for the rights. Steven Spielberg considered directing it, as did Mel Gibson, who also planned to star. Michael Bay was in line for the job, and then the Hughes brothers and several others, before Joel Schumacher landed the role.

The film was made for just $12m but grossed $46m at the US box office, and millions more from video and DVD sales, The New York Times praising Cohen's "mastery of the paranoid premise - airport-lounge fiction as a school of filmmaking". But by this time Cohen had got so fed up with A-listers offering their suggestions for rewrites that he dealt with his frustration by writing a new script, Cellular, and selling it for $900,000 to Dean Devlin, the producer of Godzilla, who planned to make it as a vehicle for Kim Basinger.

But the plot, about a man who answers his mobile phone and hears a woman say that a kidnapper will kill her if he hangs up, was so close to Phone Booth, Fox's lawyers threatened to sue before negotiating a deal that their film should be released first. Meanwhile Cohen's sister, Ronni Chasen, a well-known Hollywood publicist before her murder in 2010, had been lobbying Fox to mount an Oscar campaign for Cohen's Phone Booth screenplay.

There was no campaign - and no Oscar - and Cohen never understood why people got so worked up: "So I'm in my phone phase - so what?"

Quentin Tarantino was one of several directors to acknowledge Cohen as an influence, and Cohen hung around long enough for his work to stimulate the interest of art-house and academic circles, his work becoming the subject of learned theses detecting political messages behind the gore.

The Stuff, for example, a 1985 movie about a frozen-yogurt-like goo that turns people into zombies (tag line: "Are you eating it or is it eating you?") was seen by some as a satire on mindless consumerism, one scholar declaring it "one of the few radical films that emerged during the Reagan era".

Cohen's killer baby movie It's Alive, meanwhile, was reinterpreted as a meditation on the enduring themes of parenthood and alienation.

Lawrence Cohen was born on July 15, 1936 in New York. His father, Irving, was a Harlem property landlord with an interest in photography; his mother, the daughter of a vaudevillian, was a film buff who encouraged her son's fascination with Hollywood gangster movies.

He began writing television scripts in his teens and had his first script broadcast on NBC when he was 17. After graduating from City College, he was offered a writing job on The Defenders television series. He went on to create other hit shows including Branded and The Invaders, a sci-fi series in which America is infiltrated by aliens.

In the 1970s he moved into film directing, making his debut with Bone, starring Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten as a middle-aged Beverly Hills couple whose home is invaded by an African-American thief (Yaphet Kotto).

The thief's plans misfire when he sends the husband to a bank for a ransom while he holds the wife hostage, only for the husband to decide that he would rather keep the money and be rid of his nagging spouse. Partly a satire on racial stereotyping, Bone was daring for its time - "Don't call me names, lady," Kotto tells the woman at one point. "I'm just a big black buck doing what's expected of him" - and Cohen's portrayal of liberals trying to mask their prejudices continues to resonate.

It was not a success, however, and Cohen was angry that it was marketed as a "blaxploitation" film. Making a virtue of necessity, he did a deal with Samuel Z Arkoff, the prime purveyor of exploitation cinema, and made two successful films in that genre, Black Caesar, starring Fred Williamson as a Harlem crime lord, with a score by James Brown, and a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem (both 1973). Then came It's Alive.

Cohen disdained big budgets, and to cut costs he often used his own sizeable Beverly Hills home as a studio. It served as the main set in Bone, and a bedroom was transformed into the mutant baby's nursery in It's Alive.

His practice of "stealing" shots in locations that he did not have permission to use could cause problems. At one point during the filming of God Told Me To (1976), an extraordinary psychosexual theological sci-fi caper about a deranged police detective (Tony Lo Bianco) who discovers that his sibling is a hermaphrodite, Cohen had the then unknown Andy Kaufman, playing a possessed policeman, join the St Patrick's Day parade as it marched down Fifth Avenue. When Kaufman, as instructed, pulled out a fake gun and started firing into the crowd, Cohen had to intervene to stop the real police shooting him dead.

In another cost-cutting wheeze, he would often cast the famous but neglected stars he had idolised in his youth. Sylvia Sidney co-starred in God Told Me To, and Broderick Crawford appeared in his biopic The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977). He directed Bette Davis in her final feature, Wicked Stepmother (1989), which she quit after a week, announcing that while she had dealt with many directors, "with Larry Cohen I have finally met my Waterloo".

In fact, Cohen revealed later, her false teeth kept falling out on set, and after dental treatment she suffered complications and could not work. Cohen simply rewrote the script, transforming her character, a chain-smoking witch, into a spirit inhabiting the body of a cat.

Cohen's other films included Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), a horror thriller in which Michael Moriarty plays a small-time crook who discovers a gigantic flying lizard - an ancient Mexican monster-god - nesting at the top of the Chrysler Building.

Cohen directed his last film, the "blaxploitation homage" Original Gangstas, in 1996, but continued to turn out film and television scripts until 2009.

Cohen, who died on March 23, is survived by his second wife Cynthia, nee Costas, and by two daughters from his earlier marriage, to Janelle Webb.

© Telegraph


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