One of the loopier careers in and on the fringes of mainstream Hollywood is paid loving tribute in Steve Mitchell’s documentary “King Cohen.” There’s nothing particularly inspired about Mitchell’s treatment here — he’s directed a lot of DVD extras, and this first feature feels like a plus-sized version of one — but there’s considerable entertainment value in its subject. Particularly these days, when most commercial cinema seems given over to cookie-cutter sequels, spinoffs and remakes, a wellspring of original (not to mention frequently bizarre) ideas like those of producer-director-writer Larry Cohen seems akin to a fabled magical fountain.
Even back in his 1970s and ’80s heyday, when the ebbing drive-in theater market and growing presence of home-video got a lot of goofy genre exercises greenlit, Cohen’s films were notable for their eccentric individuality. Those who haven’t tasted the hybrid delights of “God Told Me To,” “The Stuff” or “Q: The Winged Serpent” will want to immediately chase them down after watching this doc. Those who have seen those films will enjoy the predictably colorful behind-the-scenes anecdotes Cohen and surviving collaborators offer up here.
A native New Yorker who snuck out to all-day movie-palace bills at an early age, Cohen was a “frustrated comedian” who decided perhaps his talents were better used (or at least better appreciated) behind the scenes. He got a foot in the door of the first golden age of television, seeing his first produced scripts broadcast while just 17 in 1958. Live TV production proved a terrific film school, so that by the mid-’60s he was creating several innovative shows, including “The Invaders,” a paranoid serial in which American society suffered a stealth invasion by space aliens. The fact that few of these series lasted long didn’t bother him — with so many percolating in his brain, he got bored quickly sticking with any one narrative concept.
He also wrote feature films, but was increasingly frustrated by the casual treatment his scripts were afforded by other directors and producers. So he decided to take on all three of those roles himself, shooting 1972’s idiosyncratic race/class talkfest “Bone” in his own sizable Beverly Hills home. It was not a success, but it led to two highly successful “blaxploitation” films (“Black Caesar” and its sequel). Still, Warner Bros. was initially embarrassed to release “mutant killer baby” movie “It’s Alive” (1974); they changed their tune when it turned out to be an enormous hit.
That gave Cohen the clout to get funding for some delightfully peculiar movies united only by their maker’s penchant for shooting without permits (among other resourceful budgetary tricks); hiring famous but neglected old-guard Hollywood talent; and incorporating jaw-dropping plot quirks into an acceptably commercial exploitation framework.
He somehow got away with making the flabbergasting policier/horror/religious allegory “God Told Me To,” following it with the “Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.” Other highlights included the giant-monster pic “Q”; “The Stuff,” about an addicting junk food that creates genetic mutations; and “Wicked Stepmother,” in which he dealt with the premature departure of ailing star Bette Davis, for whom he’d written the movie, by simply transforming her character into one played by Nicaraguan bombshell Barbara Carrera.
After 1996’s blaxploitation redux “Original Gangstas,” Cohen’s directing opportunities petered out. But he remained a busy creator and (not-always-credited) fixer of scripts, particularly thrillers with novel plot hooks that encompassed everything from cult fave “Maniac Cop” to Joel Schumacher’s 2002 hit “Phone Booth” and beyond.
Cohen proves a great raconteur with plenty of good stories, particularly about his close collaborative relationships with composer Bernard Herrmann, Sam Fuller (with whom he shares some artistic similarities) and Michael Moriarty. The latter, a reliably idiosyncratic actor who seldom seemed as deliciously footloose as when riffing on the warped notes of Cohen’s crazy screenplays, remains an enthusiastic booster in fresh interview footage.
If anyone has found Cohen difficult to work with, they are absent here. There’s input from starry fans/colleagues (Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, J.J. Abrams) and actors impressed by his spontaneous methods (Eric Roberts, Carrera). Not just his current but also his ex-wife show up as friendly witnesses. There’s almost nothing about his personal life, although he seems the classic showbiz workaholic with little time for anything else. The only hint of discord is in a few cross-cuts of Cohen and Fred Williamson. Between the former’s penchant for embellishment and the latter’s healthy ego, they don’t quite see eye to eye on several points of professional reminiscence.
The straightforward chronological march from project to project (skimming past some lesser ones) in “King Cohen” will appeal to buffs looking for trivia. But it doesn’t lend Mitchell’s feature much personality of its own, let alone room to explore particular themes within the subject’s work and career. Talking heads, film clips, behind-scenes footage and errata are assembled competently if without much imagination. The most notable packaging addition, Joe Kraemer’s original score, has a retro disco-synth tilt that hits a more rotely camp-nostalgic note than Cohen’s filmography deserves.