When it comes to genre cinema, very few filmmakers have been as prolific, daring and exciting as director, writer and producer, Larry Cohen. Starting out in 1958 as a brief writer on the television drama, Kraft Theatre, the New York son went on to unleash some of the most offbeat, outlandish and thought provoking genre films of the past 60 years, often reflecting the social and political climate present at the time. Whether tackling themes like child birth (It’s Alive, 1974), religion (God Told Me To, 1976), consumerism (The Stuff, 1987), police corruption (Maniac Cop, 1988), or militarisation (Uncle Sam, 1996), Cohen’s films often tapped into the zeitgeist and exposed its flaws, fears and concerns through a satirical lens.
Although mostly renowned for his horror and thriller fare, Cohen also explored blaxploitation (Black Caesar & Hell Up in Harlem, both 1973), biographical dramas (The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, 1977), and giant monster movies (Q, 1982). As a screenwriter, he even crossed over into the mainstream with Phone Booth (2002) and Cellular (2004), which provided vehicles for Colin Farrell and Jason Statham respectively. Despite his legacy as a B-movie auteur, Cohen’s influence hasn’t been ignored in A-list popular culture either.
One of the defining characteristics of much of Cohen’s work was the backdrop of New York City, which he made feel like an integral character in and of itself. Therefore it is fitting that one of the city’s best theatres, The Quad Cinema, will be hosting a pocket retrospective next month dedicated to celebrating some of the maverick’s finest films set in the Big Apple. Taking place on the 6th and 7th, the two-day event will show six films which showcase the diversity of his oeuvre, including a first ever showing in the city of the original “Whisper’’ print of God Told Me To. Furthermore, Cohen himself will be present for select films on both days.
The Ambulance (1990)
Larry Cohen, 1990, U.S., 95m, 35mm
Sunday, May 7
Cohen once again imbues the benign and everyday things with menace as Eric Roberts gives new meaning to the term “ambulance chaser” when he tries to find out why Janine Turner never made it to the emergency room after she’s whisked away by ambulance following a collapse. James Earl Jones is on hand as the requisite skeptical cop. Print courtesy of The Academy Film Archive.
Black Caesar (1973)
Larry Cohen, 1973, U.S., 87m, 35mm
Saturday May 6
Football star turned blaxploitation fixture Fred Williamson stars in Cohen’s inspired remake of Little Caesar (1931), in which a Harlem youth ascends from shoeshine to mob overlord, with the action set to an irresistible original soundtrack by James Brown. As brutal a work of social realism as it is a cracking entertainment.
God Told Me To (1976)
Larry Cohen, 1976, U.S., 96m, 35mm
Saturday May 6
A way-out mash-up of detective mystery, horror and science fiction elements, with a twist that gives new meaning to the word transgender. With panic in the streets, guilt ridden Catholic cop Tony LoBianco goes down a rabbit hole investigating a series of mass killings whose culprits (including kill-crazy cop Andy Kaufman!) share only one motive: we refer you to the title. Print courtesy of The Academy Film Archive.
Legend has it God Told Me To was originally to be titled Whisper, with Bernard Herrmann set to compose the score. Cohen produced and screened an advance cut of the film (for one week only at a theater in Oregon) as a means of getting a tax credit. Herrmann passed away shortly following and the film was recut for its theatrical release. This original print, the Whisper cut, has never been seen in New York before.
Perfect Strangers (1984)
Larry Cohen, 1984, U.S., 91m, 35mm
Saturday May 6
Liquid Sky (1982) star Anne Carlisle becomes romantically involved with a hitman intent on murdering her son, witness to a contract killing. Made back to back with Special Effects and similarly drawing on the ambience of mid-’80s downtown, Cohen’s film is a typically efficient thriller with a feminist bent and his customary gallery of sharply drawn side characters. Print courtesy of The Academy Film Archive.
Larry Cohen, 1982, U.S., 93m, 35mm
Sunday May 7
Death from above! New York is terrorized by a flying menace and jittery thief Michael Moriarty knows where it nests. Meanwhile cop David Carradine suspects the man-eater is the reincarnation of Mexican god Quetzalcoatl, summoned by a spate of sacrificial murders. An old-school monster movie with a modern sense of humor and amazing aerial shots of early ’80s Manhattan. Print courtesy of The Academy Film Archive.
The Stuff (1987)
Larry Cohen, 1985, U.S., 87m, 35mm
Sunday May 7
“Are you eating it or is it eating you?” went the tag line to Cohen’s satiric takedown of junk-food culture and Corporate America. Industrial spy Michael Moriarty is hired by ice cream manufacturers to discover the secret of an addictive new dessert that’s putting them out.
For more information, you can visit The Quad’s website.