Some filmmakers always work in the same genre or sub-genre because they have a subconscious connection to the material at hand; Hitchcock’s story of being taken down to a jail as a child was certainly scarring enough that he spent his entire adult life making films about wrongfully accused men trying to clear their name. But there are other filmmakers who make, quite literally, anything that crosses their mind. Though it makes it harder for film scholars and auteur theorists to place them in a simple category, it certainly makes it more fun for average filmgoers to sit down at their movies and always feel surprised. That is the category into which writer/director Larry Cohen falls.
Born in 1941, Larry Cohen was writing professionally before he was legally old enough to drink (his first credited writing work was on the television series Kraft Theatre in 1958, putting him at the tender age of seventeen). After a long and successful run working on numerous television series, including more famous ones like “The Invaders” and “Columbo”, Cohen made a name for himself in films with a sequel to “The Magnificent Seven” called “Return of the Seven”. With films like “Bone”, “Hell Up in Harlem”, and “Black Caesar”, he was one of the early blaxpoitation directors and helped to make Fred Williamson a movie star (they reteamed in the mid-90’s for an homage to the blaxpoitation era called “Original Gangstas”).
But it was his next film, “It’s Alive”, that tapped into why Cohen is a truly surprising and groundbreaking filmmaker. The story of a mutant baby on a rampage through Los Angeles, the film touched on genres that didn’t seem to make sense together: family drama, mutant monster film, and police procedural. This magic elixir of strange genre combinations and a straight-faced sense of humor kept Cohen producing more fun and surprising films through the late 1970’s and 1980’s (though he is still working today). Films like:
A truly bizarre and surreal film that telegraphs its manic intentions to modern audiences from the opening (which follows a crazed cop, played by Andy Kaufman, killing indiscriminately during a parade), “God Told Me To” is actually an extremely influential film as well; its mixing of the overt supernatural with the doggedly realistic police investigation had taken cues from “Kolchak: The Night Stalker”, and seems a likely candidate to have inspired Chris Carter in the creation of “The X-Files”. Combine that with a wild story about aliens passing themselves off as religious icons, and you have the stuff of a cult classic.
At best, Larry Cohen’s sense of humor has always been ahead of its time; and on rare occasions, it has been entirely off the charts. But his prescience about story has never failed him, and this comedy-horror hybrid, about a football player who becomes a werewolf after a family vacation to Transylvania, came out (and disappeared) a full four years before Michael J. Fox wowed the basketball team with his lupine skills in “Teen Wolf”. If that isn’t enough for you, how about appearances from such 1980’s time capsule performers as “Match Game” mainstay Jim J. Bullock, “Karate Kid” mentor Pat Morita, and “Tonight Show” co-host Ed McMahon? Still not enough to get you to watch? Yeah, I get that.
A truly idiosyncratic film, at times frustratingly amateur and at other times soaringly brilliant in its observational satire about American consumer culture and the obsession with the unattainable, “The Stuff” holds a special place in Larry Cohen’s filmography as both his greatest and most confused work. Arguably his last truly surprising work as a director (though there are those who would argue “The Ambulance” still has some of the manic charm he captures so well), the film boasts a cast made up of method actor Michael Moriarty (who worked with Cohen on a number of other projects), two actors/classical singers (“Law & Order” star Paul Sorvino and “Do the Right Thing” star Danny Aiello), and an original Saturday Night Live cast member (the underappreciated Garrett Morris). With the film taking aim at targets as wide-ranging as Otis Spunkmeyer, The John Birch Society, Abscam (who even remembers that?), and the FDA, the movie may be a little heavy on commentary, but it’s never light on fun and weirdness.
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