A Toast To Larry Cohen

Time moves on. There are fewer classic Hollywood legends today than there were yesterday and fewer even in the horror field— and even most of them have either retired (John Carpenter) or moved away from their genre roots (David Cronenberg). With the passing of Larry Cohen on March 24, we’ve lost another great. Up until the end, Cohen was still knocking out scripts; he’d largely retired (though not by his own choice) from directing, his last TV episode having been the Masters Of Horror episode “Pick Me Up” in 2006. Fortunately, he was able to appreciate the Cohen Renaissance of the past few years, with a number of his films upgraded to Blu-Ray and given the special edition treatment and the man himself feted in a fantastic recent documentary, King Cohen, available on Blu-Ray from La-La-Land Records.

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Manhattan-born Larry Cohen’s career began in 1958, when he wrote two episodes of TV’s “Kraft Theater” and stretched through the ‘60s, when he became a regular television writer and creator— the cult late ‘60’s alien-attack series “The Invaders” and the Bourne Identity-esque “Coronet Blue” are his most famous works of the period. But Cohen’s heyday began in the early 1970’s when he put his own money into the black comedy Bone— which, like many of Cohen’s features, uses his own Coldwater Canyon home as a key location — and became one of the decade’s prominent, pre-eminent independent filmmakers. After the successes of Black Caesar and its sequel, Hell Up In Harlem— sold to Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American Independent Pictures — Cohen made It’s Alive, a creepy tale of a monster baby run amok, which, bought by Warner Bros. in 1974… completely died upon its first release, hobbled by uncaring executives and lackluster promotion.

But It’s Alive rose from the dead two years later, when a new group of executives re-discovered the movie, gave it a brand new ad campaign and re-released it to great success (which, as Cohen points out in the documentary “Cohen’s Alive: Looking Back At The It’s AliveFilms” on the recent Scream Factory Blu-Ray set, could only happen in a pre-home video marketplace). Two sequels followed — 1977’s It Lives Again (with a now-happy Warner Bros. supplying a larger budget) and 1987’s direct-to-video It’s Alive III: Island Of The Alive — and all three are available on Scream Factory’s It’s Alive Trilogy, which marks all three films’ debut on Blu-Ray.

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Despite the ‘70’s fashions and the very primitive special effects, with Rick Baker’s baby creature being basically a motionless sculpture (and some inserts with Baker’s then-wife wearing a killer-baby mask), the original It’s Alive remains the strongest of the three, with John P. Ryan as a freaked-out father-turned-protector adding to the sense of mounting dread throughout. It Lives Again gives us three babies and Frederic Forrest as a more ambivalent parent (with a great cameo by the increasingly unhinged Ryan) but, focused more on a police investigation than the actual killer infants, feels less essential. Island Of The Alive turns the series on its head by sending Michael Moriarty — the third in Cohen’s series of distraught dads — to the eponymous island, where the babies have grown into giant mutants. More of an dark-comic adventure story than a horror film, this underrated entry in the series benefits greatly from the manic presence of Moriarty, the star of Cohen’s 1982 cult hit Q: The Winged Serpent,as a sympathetic dad who remains stalwart in the creatures’ defense despite them clawing everyone on the island (and eventually the mainland) to pieces.

81bazxfb66L._SL1500_All three films sport new 2K scans “from the original film elements” and look clearer and more film-like than their old DVD counterparts. Each film contains a funny and insightful commentary by Cohen, an old hand at delivering quality on a budget— there’s plenty of useful information here for budding filmmakers and exploitation fans. The “Cohen’s Alive” documentary is a terrific companion to the films, with interviews with Cohen, Michael Moriarty, Cohen regular James Dixon (who stars as a police detective in all three films),Island Of The Alive co-star Laurene Landon, producer Paul Kurta, Island Of The Alive cinematographer Daniel Pearl, critic F.X. Feeney and film music historian Jon Burlingame, the latter of whom discusses Cohen’s relationship with the late composer Bernard Herrman, who scored the first film. Footage from a 40thAnniversary screening of It’s Alive at L.A.’s Nuart Theater with Cohen, trailers (including a particularly terrifying one forIt Lives Again), TV spots and still galleries for each film round out this fantastic package.

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Scream Factory has been particularly good to Larry Cohen, with recent releases of Q: The Winged Serpent, 1981’s broad horror comedy Full Moon High (featuring a young Adam Arkin as a football-playing werewolf) and the 1990 Eric Roberts thriller The Ambulance. Q is by far the best of the bunch, but The Ambulance, with a cast that includes James Earl Jones and a surprisingly fun turn by veteran comedian Red Buttons, has its charms. All three releases feature worthwhile commentaries by Cohen and trailers.

Particularly in the light of Cohen’s passing, Steve Mitchell’s documentary King Cohen is a more than just a solid overview of the man’s life and career— it’s a memorial to his unstoppable work ethic and his nature as a storyteller. There are a number of great testimonials to be found here — J.J. Abrams talks about running into Cohen at a bus station as a teenager; Martin Scorsese speaks of Cohen’s great “renegade spirit” and worries that, with fewer Cohens willing to take risks both creative and practical, we’ve lost personal, idiosyncratic visions on screen; Fred Williamson details how Cohen, who made his career, pulled off dangerous shots in Black Caesar without permits or stuntmen — but the true star of the show is Cohen himself. Cohen, sitting in a throne-like chair in his home, regales us with stories of a life well lived, detailing good times (where he was able to funnel the money he made from one independent production into the next, with no creative controls on him) and bad (dealing with Bette Davis on 1989’s Wicked Stepmother, with her leaving the shoot due to issues with her — no kidding — dentures, and being forced to rework the movie around the 15 minutes of footage he had with his star). We see Cohen walking around his cavernous home, every other room seemingly containing a desks full of notebooks that are packed with ideas; some becoming studio features like Phone Booth and Cellular and others waiting in the wings. Who knows what we’ve lost with the passing of a one-of-a-kind like Larry Cohen?

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While available on VOD and on services like iTunes and Amazon Prime, King Cohen is best appreciated on the limited edition Blu-Ray/CD soundtrack combo available exclusively from La-La Land Records. In addition to the soundtrack by composer Joe Kramer, this edition contains great deal of extra footage, including over 45 minutes of Cohen holding court, nearly 40 minutes of further testimonials from a variety of performers and production associates ranging from Eric Bogosian to Traci Lords (!) and a brief featurette where Cohen brings out various monster props from his horror films. It’s a solid package and a fitting tribute to the most independent of filmmakers.

You can purchase King Cohen directly from La-La Land Records.

You can purchase the It’s Alive Trilogy from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase Q: The Winged Serpent from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase Full Moon High from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

You can purchase The Ambulance from Amazon or directly from Shout Factory.

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