Film Review: King Cohen

This briskly entertaining documentary about low-budget filmmaker Larry Cohen gives the writer plenty of time to tell his own story of making smart movies on the cheap, and includes accolades from a wide range of fans.
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Born-and-bred New Yorker Larry Cohen’s own explanation of how he forged a career out of making movies about mutant monster babies and ancient winged god-monsters picking apartment dwellers off rooftop boils down to “I got away with it.” The longer version includes considerable guerrilla ingenuity, shooting without permits (including an astonishing shot in God Told Me To in which, during the St. Patrick’s Day parade, a very young Andy Kaufman in a police officer’s uniform breaks ranks and starts shooting up the crowd), keeping down budgets and some world-class brass chutzpah.

But that’s par for the independent filmmaking course—what makes Cohen stand out is the sheer, bizarre range of his imagination and his willingness to follow it to the end. Killer babies—that’s a taboo buster, and one few people are willing to take on; the only other example I can think of is Ray Bradbury’s 1946 short story “The Small Assassin.” God as a malevolent alien with a vagina on his side—yes, his. A hot new zero-calorie dessert that turns people into zombie-like killers. A remake of Little Caesar set in Harlem. Cohen, who started his career in ’60s television, was an idea machine. He wrote more screenplays than even he could make and turned them over to Sidney Lumet (Guilty as Sin), Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers), Roland Joffé (Captivity) and Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth).

Steve Mitchell’s documentary King Cohen is clearly the work of an admirer, which shouldn’t be construed as a criticism—particularly given the company he’s keeping. It’s no great surprise that Joe Dante is a fan of Cohen’s, but so are Martin Scorsese, Eric Bogosian (who was in Cohen’s Special Effects), J.J. Abrams, John Landis and even Cohen's ex-wife, all of whom weigh in on his take-no-prisoners body of work. Cohen is own biggest supporter, but not by a wide margin, and his own WTF?! sense of humor comes through in his interviews, as does the genuine affection that many of the actors—even Fred Williamson, who butted heads with him on the 1996 Original Gangstas—and others with whom he's worked have for him. For fans of the writer-director’s work King Cohen is a delight, but all viewers looking for a behind-the-scenes look at filmmaking should find much to enjoy.