The too-easy shorthand description of legendary exploitation filmmaker Larry Cohen is that he’s New York’s answer to Roger Corman. The two share an affinity for the weirder margins of storytelling, have made cult hits with enduring fame for a dime and possess a mighty work ethic that keeps them creating from morning till night, even today. But where they differ is in motivation. Where Corman wants to make money telling whichever story he foresees will be hot (and he’s been frequently right), Cohen approaches even his most outlandish pictures, like The Stuff (1985), from a personal angle. He infuses them with a message, some kind of moral that you might miss if you’re only paying attention to the killer yogurt. In that way, Cohen is less like Corman than he is a sort of cousin of horror filmmakers like John Carpenter or Wes Craven. As those directors have won greater critical consideration, Cohen finally gets his in Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.
Mitchell’s documentary style isn’t flashy or refined, but it is economical. The director does his homework and almost cross-examines the film’s subjects. If Cohen tells a story about his collaborator Fred Williamson rolling out of a moving car on the set of Black Caesar (1973), Mitchell then puts the same questions to Williamson to get his side of of it — and, of course, both accounts are different. But that’s half the fun of a doc like this, with scruffy film-world characters (Williamson carefully poses himself lounging with a cigar) shooting the shit about the old days of guerrilla moviemaking and everything you could get away with back then: Martin Scorsese states that nobody could make films like Cohen did post-9/11 as Cohen tells the story of how he shot a brutal, bloody shootout scene at an airport baggage carousel, obviously with no permit. So, yeah.
While Cohen might accept his title as an exploitation director, he does take issue with other filmmakers pretending they’re not exploiting something or someone — “Isn’t every movie an exploitation movie?” he asks. His annoyance specifically stems from people labeling his black-cast films as blaxploitation, especially Black Caesar, which he considered simply an adaptation of James Cagney’s Little Caesar. He asks why his film should be called exploitation, just because he’s giving black actors some work, when Cagney’s film enjoys critical adoration as a classic. It’s a good question, one he’s clearly thought about a lot. Yaphet Kotto, who starred in Cohen’s first picture, the darkly comic dramatic thriller Bone (1972), says he saw the director as a kind of Martin Luther King Jr. for black actors, kicking down the doors in the 1970s, ushering in the new era of Pam Griers and Richard Roundtrees. That’s a bit of hyperbole, but it’s evident that Cohen really did care about giving work to his African-American collaborators, as well as lampooning in that work the real-life exploiters, notably the wealthy and powerful.
Late in the film, John Landis sheepishly admits that he really does think Cohen’s panned God Told Me to (1976) is actually a great movie. It’s a bonkers story about people murdering others on the order of a superior being with a vagina on its chest and, like all of Cohen’s works, it’s a film played earnestly, even if it is outrageous. Landis loves it, and King Cohen endeavors to remove the stigma of indulging in a Cohen classic, and largely succeeds.