He had the stuff: Horror legend Larry Cohen (1941 – 2019)


Larry Cohen passed away. Over his six decades in entertainment, Cohen created TV shows, directed legendary films, and became a formidable screenwriter.

Per Variety, a Facebook post announcing Larry Cohen’s death was confirmed. He died Saturday, surrounded by loved ones. Cohen is most well known for his work in blaxploitation and horror films in the 1970s and 80s.

Cohen is quoted in the Hollywood Reporter as saying that many of his films were “volatile and dealt with controversial subjects.” One of those subjects was racism. While many filmmakers explored that topic throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cohen was still concerned about it in the 90s and the early 21st century. This is the era where many began to consider society to be in a post racial era, as if racism was over.

In the same Hollywood Reporter story, Cohen said “…I thought that by the time we got to 2015 racism would be finished, but it isn’t…Even [after] a black president and a black attorney general, we’re back where we started from.”

Larry Cohen-George Romero-Courtesy of Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Two of the most well known blaxploitation films were directed by Cohen. Black Caesar and its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. Both productions starred Fred Williamson. They were often held up as works glorifying violence and reinforcing negative stereotypes.

Cohen eventually countered that with Original Gangstas in 1996, which reunited him with Williamson and also featured Pam Grier. The movie was about aging gangsters from the 1970s trying to stop the circle of violence once and for all. This is a good example of a filmmaker digging deeper into topics that many others would fear to address superficially.

The first of Cohen’s movies that I remember is The Stuff. It’s a satirical horror film about consumerism. Don’t let the description fool you. This is a horror film from the mid 80s. It’s legit.

A creamy substance that looks like slowly melted ice cream is sold as sweet, creamy and filling with zero calories. It’s a hit! But, the stuff is also a parasite that kills you.

The most scathing part of the satire was that the people who discover what the stuff really is are hired by the ice cream corporations. That’s right. People dying is sad, but profit losses are unacceptable.

Elements of police procedurals and a focus on corporations were a theme for Cohen. In his 1974 classic, It’s Alive, birth control previously taken by a woman causes her child to be born a mutant who murders when its upset. Eventually, the mutant is embraced by both its parents.

But the doctor who prescribed the drugs wants the child killed so no one finds out the cause of its deformity. At the end of the film, both doctor and mutant are killed. But similar mutants are beginning to be born.

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Cohen also wrote and directed Q, which was about a dragon-like Aztec god who made a nest out of the Art Deco spire of the Chrysler Building. Art Deco? Ancient being? Sounds like a precursor to Ghostbusters. He also directed God Told Me To, A Return to Salem’s Lot  and Ambulance.

In 1987, Cohen wrote the screenplay for Best Seller. It had familiar elements. Brian Dennehy is an author cop. James Woods plays a disgruntled hitman who helps Dennehy expose the head of an evil corporation. Cohen also wrote the screenplay for the 2003 Joel Schumacher helmed Phone Booth featuring Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland.

King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen is a documentary that includes interviews with Cohen, along with such entertainment luminaries as  J.J. Abrams, John Landis, and Martin Scorsese. It’s available on Shudder.

After it’s premiere, Cohen started to receive attention and respect from a new generation. After news of his death, Joe Bob Briggs acknowledged this on social media and vowed to include two of Cohen’s films on The Last Drive-In.

Larry Cohen was a bold, creative indie filmmaker who knew how to explore societal issues without beating you over the head with them.

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It was difficult to compare him to anyone. He was a unique artist who will be truly missed.

What was your favorite Larry Cohen film? Did you see King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen? Let’s discuss in the comments!