(1934- ) US film-maker. A cult figure as much for the wildness of his ideas as for the sporadic brilliance of his direction, Cohen has never tried to graduate to the mainstream in the way contemporaries like David Cronenberg or Brian De Palma have, and turns out as many curate's eggs as low-budget masterpieces. Originally a television writer, he early discovered Paranoia in his creation of the Western show Branded (1965-1966) and the sf show The Invaders (1967-1968), both featuring on-the-run protagonists, perhaps modelled on The Fugitive (1963-1967). He continued to write for television, including prestigious series like The Defenders and Columbo, turning also to film writing with Westerns and suspense dramas. He made his directorial debut with the Absurdist thriller Bone (1972; vt Dial Rat for Terror; vt Beverly Hills Nightmare). Nearly all his films are written, produced and directed by Cohen himself and made by his own production company, Larco, which he founded in 1965.
He made the superior black action movies Black Caesar (1973; vt The Godfather of Harlem) and Hell up in Harlem (1973) before discovering the sf Monster Movie with It's Alive (1974), a compound of ecological, familial and 1950s sf ideas about a mutant killer baby on the loose in Los Angeles. Cohen subsequently developed the theme in two sequels, It Lives Again (1978; vt It's Alive II) and It's Alive III: Island of the Alive (1986), and alternated between sf, Horror and suspense in a series of gritty, oddball pictures: God Told Me To (1976; vt Demon), in which a modern "Jesus" is shown to have been a hermaphrodite homicidal maniac from outer space; The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1976), a fascinating political-psychological autopsy of Hoover's USA; Full Moon High (1982), a werewolf comedy; Q (1983; vt The Winged Serpent; vt Q: The Winged Serpent), an ingenious different take on the giant-monster theme; Blind Alley (1984), a Hitchcockian thriller; Special Effects (1984), a psycho-horror drama in a film milieu; The Stuff (1985), a sloppy but amiable Parody of The Blob (1958) in which the formless monster disguises itself as an addictive fast food; Return to Salem's Lot (1987), a clever variant on the village-of-Vampires concept; Wicked Stepmother (1989), a farcical witch story; and The Ambulance (1990), a striking slice of medical paranoia and urban nightmare.
Energetic and often lopsided, Cohen's films benefit from unusual characterizations, wayward plotting, cleverly cast familiar faces and a determination not to do things the accepted way. [KN]
see also: Cinema; Humour.
Lawrence S Cohen
born New York: 15 July 1934 [also given as 1938 and 1941: public records indicate that he was 74 years old in September 2008]
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