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Appreciation: Larry Cohen, the genre director who steadfastly avoided the generic

Appreciation: Larry Cohen, the genre director who steadfastly avoided the generic
Filmmaker Larry Cohen and his wife, Cynthia Cohen (Phil McCarten / Associated Press)

The “New Hollywood” era of the late 1960s and early ’70s has inspired shelves of showbiz history books about how visionary filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg fused their personal experiences with the stuff of old B-movies, pioneering a vital new era in American cinema.

This was Larry Cohen’s story too. It just hasn’t been told as often.

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Cohen, who died Saturday, directed about half a dozen movies that pulp connoisseurs know well: “Black Caesar,” “It’s Alive,” “Q,” “The Stuff,” “The Ambulance,” “Original Gangstas” and more. He made monster movies and mobster movies, science fiction and shoot-em-ups. Sometimes — as in 1976’s gonzo “God Told Me To” — he chopped up multiple genres into a rich, bloody hash.

Like George Romero, John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante and a handful of other drive-in maestros, Cohen made the most of minuscule budgets: writing, directing and producing pictures that were unabashedly trashy, but suffused with passion and perspective.

It’d be doing Cohen a disservice to say he made masterpieces. Even his best films feel like they’re held together by duct tape and B-roll, stretched to feature length with the help of whatever his editors could sweep up off the cutting-room floor. Panning “God Told Me To,” Roger Ebert wrote, “There were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order, as a quiet joke on the hapless audience.”

But it’s not overstating the case to say that Cohen was a genius. Two of the keys to a successful filmmaking career are productivity and problem-solving. Cohen mastered both.

Cohen began his career in the late 1950s as a television writer, and thought of himself as a salesman as much as a scribe. He stocked his sample case every day with ideas, and kept schlepping them around even long after he’d “made it” as a movie director. He sold stories to “Columbo” in the ’70s, and in the ‘90s revived a “one person stuck on the telephone” premise he’d originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock, belatedly cashing paychecks for 2002’s “Phone Booth” and 2004’s “Cellular.”

Colin Farrell in the 2002 movie "Phone Booth," written by Larry Cohen
Colin Farrell in the 2002 movie "Phone Booth," written by Larry Cohen (Christine Loss / Associated Press)

Behind the camera, Cohen developed a reputation as the best in the business at getting top-dollar production value for pennies: by hiring skilled older craftspeople who couldn’t find work at the major studios anymore; or by shooting without permits around New York, and letting the grime and glory of the city be his set.

As Steve Mitchell’s entertaining 2017 documentary “King Cohen” makes clear, Cohen’s “get in, get out, move on” approach to art maybe kept him from becoming as well-known of a name among movie buffs as his friends Scorsese, Dante and J.J. Abrams. But it also meant that his work has a from-the-gut quality that sometimes gets lost with large-scale productions.

Cohen would say that his pictures were apolitical, but they did have a point of view, even if it was just an extension of his “if it sells, it works” philosophy. His biggest moneymakers often repeated the formula of, as he put it: “Taking something which is considered benevolent and turning it into some kind of monstrosity.” He changed the way audiences felt about babies (in “It’s Alive”), ambulances (in “The Ambulance”) and yogurt (in “The Stuff”).

The result — intentionally or not — was a filmography full of films about a rotting world, populated by wondrous grotesqueries, all seen through one man’s magnificently jaundiced eyes. His films were almost always “Larry Cohen films” … never generic, and rarely routine.

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