A Larry Cohen Retrospective: The Godfather of Guerrilla Filmmaking
Widely recognized as one of the godfathers of guerrilla filmmaking, Larry Cohen was a rare, fully-fledged cinematic auteur who relished working independently, enabling him to approach serious subjects without any studio interference. He became well known for his progressive, socially conscious, low-budget genre films of the late ’70s and early ’80s that left critics scratching their heads and audiences running for the exit. When it comes to indie filmmakers, very few can stand side by side with this legend. He was a true maverick – a man who embodied a spirit of creative and personal artistic integrity that is increasingly missing in today’s corporate moviemaking culture.
Cohen made his first foray into the horror genre with It‘s Alive, a low-budget cult favourite about a murderous mutant baby on a killing rampage. Although not his first feature, the film helped establish Larry Cohen’s reputation as a director of ingenious low-budget genre films that come with unexpected twists, conflicted anti-heroes, dark humour, and sympathy for monsters – both human and non-human. It’s Alive kicks off with Lenore Davis (Sharon Farrell) giving birth to the hideous clawed and fanged offspring, which immediately slaughters the delivery team and then escapes the hospital to continue to conduct a flurry of killings in its search for food and shelter. When the story becomes front page news, Father Frank (John Ryan) joins the police manhunt, determined to exterminate the baby himself.
There are a number of standout scenes here, mostly crafted with superbly-controlled widescreen compositions by Fenton Hamilton’s blurry, fish-eyed Baby-cam cinematography. The initial delivery room scene is downright disturbing, beginning with a dolly down a long corridor showing a victim staggering out, to inside the gory operating room where the delivery team is dead and drenched in blood – topped by the chilling line delivery, “the umbilical cord’s been severed, but not surgically – it’s been chewed off.”
All the more effective is Larry Cohen’s perverse reversal of paternal/infant imagery. The baby, although murderous, is desperately trying to find either food or its family, and while the bloody rampage is mostly kept offscreen, the attack on the milkman remains the pic’s highlight, with the sight of glass shattering and the combination of blood and milk flowing out of the truck straight to the sewer. These scenes juxtaposed against John P. Ryan’s need to prove to himself that the baby by extension is not his is utterly heartbreaking. Cohen tells us that no matter how monstrous the newborn is, it is innocent in its search for maternal love.
It’s Alive also has one of the best endings of any horror film, where John P. Ryan follows the creature to the finale’s underground L.A. sewer system – which by design, is reminiscent of a womb. His fathering instinct takes over, suddenly turning him from the baby’s assassin to its savior. It’s Alive is elevated above typical piece of B-grade schlock by Ryan’s superb performance as the angst-ridden father. His work here is very moving, revealing, and important when addressing the film’s central theme. Of course, it helps that Larry Cohen livens up the proceedings with his characteristic wry wit, giving the cast plenty to work with (most notably during an early scene in the waiting room which features a great speech about how most people confuse Frankenstein as the monster and not the scientist).
One Of The All-Time Underrated Horror Movies
Scratching the surface are a few issues that perhaps Cohen could have further explored – most notably abortion – but regardless, It’s Alive remains provocative and leaves one with much to think about regarding unconditional love, parental responsibility, guilt, intolerance, and institutional care. The script also hints that the baby’s mutation was a result of either environmental pollution or inadequately tested fertility drugs, a concept later explored more fully in the sequels It Lives Again and Island of the Alive. Neither, however, has deeply terrifying as this.
It’s Alive is truly one of the best horror films of the 70s, that masterfully juggles terror, comedy, and social commentary, leaving us with a more engrossing horror pic than the usual for this genre. Also worth noting is legendary composer Bernard Herrmann’s fine soundtrack (his last work before he died in 1976), and Rick Baker’s creepy-looking baby model effects. If you haven’t yet seen this film, do yourself a favor and seek it out!
God Told Me To is Larry Cohen’s most audacious and insane film, a small screen masterpiece that left Roger Ebert baffled
Not long after It’s Alive, Larry Cohen wrote and directed the occult/sci-fi thriller, God Told Me To, starring Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection, The 7-Ups) as police Lieutenant Peter Nicholas, who unravels a mysterious spree of murders in New York City committed by regular citizens who each claim that God compelled them to commit the crimes. As Nicholas pries deeper into the mysterious crimes, what he uncovers is a secret cabal of corporate bigwigs working at the behest of a glowing hermaphroditic deity named Bernard (Richard Lynch), who seems to have been the product of an artificially-inseminated virgin birth orchestrated by space invaders – an origin shared by none other than Nicholas himself! The Christ-like figure with a vagina in his rib cage is just one of the insane images you’ll see in this unsung gem.
God Told Me To might be Larry Cohen’s most ambitious film; there are a lot of moving parts, and just when you think you know where it’s headed, along comes another unexpected twist and turn that gives new meaning to everything that came before it. As Chuck Bowen wrote in his review at Slant, “God Told Me To is a film of contrasts, most notably between queer and straight, male and female, righteousness and blasphemy, heaven and hell, hope and hopelessness, repression and progression, and law and anarchy.” – and that’s only scratching the surface. It is at once a gritty New York crime story and a science fiction/horror mystery, a stark police procedural that succeeds thanks to all its truly bizarre otherworldly themes, surprising plot twists, and strong performances from the entire cast. It’s without a doubt Larry Cohen’s most audacious and insane film, a small screen masterpiece that left Roger Ebert baffled enough to write “There were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order, as a quiet joke on the hapless audience. But, no, apparently the movie WAS supposed to be put together this way, as a sort of 52-card pick-up of cinema”.
Shot on low budget – mostly with handheld camerawork – almost entirely in New York City, the film has a realistic 70’s big-city sheen to it, lending the increasingly far-fetched proceedings an air of realism. Almost the entire film was made without any city permits, often using pedestrians as extras and taking full advantage of the surroundings. The best sequence was in fact filmed during an actual St. Patrick’s Day parade and features a young Andy Kaufman as a policeman who opens fire on a large, unsuspecting crowd. The people you see running in a panic aren’t even actors – they are actually just citizens of New York who believed they were truly in danger. Legend has it that some of the crowd members attempted to jump the barricades and beat Kaufman, and Cohen had to hold them back and explain they were only shooting a movie.
Cohen, a cult auteur with a yen for wild social commentary, crafted one of the oddest films about religion ever made. Since its release, God Told Me To has picked up a modest cult following, screening at midnight movie houses from time to time, but it’s a wonder that its following is not more widespread. The film is simply incredible at times, the director’s best-looking and also his best-sounding work (the latter thanks to composer Frank Cordell, whose lush, despairing score further intensified the bizarre proceedings), and the entire cast is great in their respective roles (and I do mean great), with the standout performance coming from Lo Bianco in the role of this film’s protagonist, and Lynch in the role of Bernard Phillips, the Christ-like figure with a vagina on his torso. His character alone is reason enough to see it.
Six years after Gold Told Me To, Larry Cohen took a stab at the giant-monster genre with Q – The Winged Serpent, a first-rate grade-Z schlock masterwork that successfully combines a film noir crime story with good old-fashioned creature effects. The title refers to the winged Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, represented here as a dragon-like flying serpent hovering over New York City. Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate a bizarre series of deaths where victims have been snatched from high-rise buildings and dropped to the streets below, minus their head. After witnesses reported seeing the flying creature, Shepard follows a lead that claims Quetzalcoatl has been brought back to life by a series of sacrifices performed by a killer they are also chasing. Meanwhile, when a diamond heist goes wrong, petty thief Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) hides out in the infrastructure of the Chrysler Building where the creature has made a nest. Quinn takes advantage of knowing where the serpent resides and tries to negotiate with the law to trade the whereabouts for a pardon and a million dollars in cash. It’s a typical oddity from Cohen, and anyone familiar with his work wouldn’t expect anything less.
Given his budgetary restrictions, Coen directs Q much like Spielberg directed Bruce in Jaws. We see a shadow here and there across the sides of skyscrapers and along the Brooklyn Bridge, and we catch a glimpse of its giant claws, but Cohen keeps the creature mostly offscreen for the first two acts. The cinematography by Robert Levi and Fred Murphy makes the most of the Big Apple atmosphere, and the aerial photography representing Q’s-point-of-view is especially impressive given the low budget. The monster itself looks silly, brought to life by a combination of stop-motion animation and prosthetics (courtesy of David Allen), but the homemade, Ray Harryhausen-like quality only adds to the pic’s odd charm.
A Neo-Noir Monster Movie With A Gritty New York Setting
What makes Q such an enjoyable film is not so much its gore or creature, but rather Cohen’s sense of humour and Michael Moriarty’s knockout performance as the small time criminal, Jimmy Quinn, who is down on his luck and on the run from the mob. The film lights up every second Moriarty is onscreen, and his performance is so good that the story becomes more about Jimmy than about the giant serpent terrorizing a city. A frequent Cohen collaborator, Moriarty (best known for Law & Order) dominates every scene, stealing the spotlight from everyone, including David Carradine (a bigger name actor). The film’s best scene takes place in a diner, where Carradine and Moriarty go head to head in what feels like an outtake from Michael Mann’s Thief. Carradine looks as if he’s always trying to catch up to Moriarty’s quivering hysterics, and the fun comes not in seeing Quetzalcoatl decapitate civilians, but rather in seeing whether Jimmy can break his streak of bad luck. The supporting cast includes Candy Clark as Moriarty’s girlfriend, and Malachy McCourt as a police commissioner.
Cohen used what little resources and money he had and made the most of it. Q is a movie crammed with witty dialogue, bizarre plot twists and some great ideas; it’s also sleazy, entertaining guerrilla filmmaking at its best.
Throughout the course of his filmmaking career, Larry Cohen defied the Hollywood system to deliver clever, original and inventive stories that subvert genre expectations and challenge societal norms. With over 20 directorial credits and countless writing credits to his name, Cohen’s influence in the realms of horror, sci-fi, and exploitation cinema cannot be understated. If you are a stranger to his films, now’s a good time to familiarize yourself with his body of work.
- Ricky D