Twists of Plot, Twists of Fate

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: Larry Cohen does not make splatter movies. He's adamant about that. Sure, there's blood -- how could you make movies about man-eating newborns or ritualistic killings without it? -- but he doesn't use a blood-spotted camera lens to shoot the action.

There's something very likable about a grown man who still believes in serendipity. Larry Cohen, iconoclastic writer/ producer/director of fun and fearsome films, often welcomes the whims of fate when he makes a movie. He even helps them along sometimes.

"To me," he explains, "shooting a film is like painting a picture: Why should you have to know what it looks like before you paint it, like those sets you buy where #1 is green and #42 is yellow? The way to make a movie is to look in the cameras and just start going."

This insouciant attitude turned a bit part into a major character during the production of Special Effects, one of Cohen's newest films. It approved the use of accidentally discovered graffiti art to add dimension to a killer's character in Perfect Strangers, another recent release. Locations in The Stuff, which will premiere September 20, can thank that strange blend of kismet and Cohentuition for their inclusion in the film.

Cohen owes his current status in the entertainment world to more than karmic inspiration. Several of his films (including Q: The Winged Serpent, Black Caesar and It's Alive Part II), have become cult favorites and box office successes. He has been honored with awards and retrospectives such as the "Late Night Show With Larry Cohen" at Dallas' USA Film Festival. His distributor recently deemed his first movie, Bone (1972), worthy of re-release. He created and/or scripted such television series as "The Defenders," "Columbo," "The Invaders" and "Branded," to name a few. He's even had a few fingers in plays on and off Broadway.

Serendipity's nice, but in Larry Cohen's case, it shares the bill with talent and ability ... and, of course, chutzpah.

To date, Larry Cohen is best known for his 1974 release It's Alive. He would probably like to be remembered for 1978's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. ("But I hope I'm not gonna `be remembered' for anything yet!" he quips. Cohen should also be recognized as the stand-up comic of triple-threat filmmakers.)

On the surface, these films seem complete opposites. One is the horror story of a mutant man-eating newborn that made millions internationally. The other is a seldom-seen film verite' of the life of a very real, very public figure. Their link is quality: It's Alive won the Avoirez Film Festival's Critics' Award in France (judged by Roman Polanski, Costa-Gavras, Claude Chabrol and Francoise Sagan), while Hoover won credibility during the subsequent Frank Church Congressional investigation, in which many of the film's revelations about the late FBI chief were confirmed.

In fact, even the most exploitative of Cohen's films, the Superfly-inspired Hell Up In Harlem starring ex-jock Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, shows an attention to detail missing in most B-movies. The thrills and chills are there, sure, but Cohen's twisting plots demand more from his audiences than attention. His open-ended scripts avoid simple conclusions, simultaneously inviting suppositions and sequels.

It would be easy to say that Larry Cohen is creating hidden treasures, that when film critics and audiences seek out Cohen screenings, they come away a little richer. But let's not go overboard. A number of well-known filmmakers have gained initial attention through low-budget movies that offer the viewer more than gore.

Of his contemporaries with whom he is most often compared, Cohen jokes, "Brian DePalma, John Carpenter, we all do the same thing. They're just getting more money, that's all.

"Anybody who does any kind of suspense movie is compared to Alfred Hitchcock in some way. If I'm in a tough situation, I might ask, `What would Hitchcock have done here?' But I won't steal a scene he's already done and label it a homage," he adds pointedly.

For his screenplays, Cohen often prefers innuendo, the psychological over the physical. His plots begin with non-threatening situations gone amok. "Usually there are no good guys or bad guys to begin with, no psychopathic killers like in those Friday the 13th pictures. Although, in Q, there's a guy going around performing ritualistic murders. But he's just a subordinate character."

Also like Hitchcock et al, Cohen tends to rehire cast and crew. Michael Moriarty, Q's habitual loser, returns in a completely different role in The Stuff. "He's a wonderful actor, touts Cohen. "I wanted to use him again while I could still afford him." After seeing newcomer Brad Rijn in Susan Seidelman's Smithereens, Cohen named Rijn as male lead in both Perfect Strangers and Special Effects, back-to-back productions using most of the same company.

Comparisons aside, Cohen seems at ease in his present situation. If he seriously longs for the elusive big budget, he isn't letting on: "This way, I can do what I want while I'm shooting the film. You can't do that in a major studio picture. Everything has to be storyboarded, planned ahead of time.

"To me," he explains, "shooting a film is like painting a picture: Why should you have to know what it looks like before you paint it, like those sets you buy where #1 is green and #42 is yellow? The way to make a movie is to look in the cameras and just start going."

"In Special Effects [which features Eric Bogosian as a homicidal washed-up filmmaker], the only autobiographical detail -- other than wanting to kill the actors sometimes! -- is that, when you're making a movie, the only person who really knows what's going on is the director. Nobody knows how you're going to use the footage, where you're going to put the pieces. The actor's intention and what you finally do with his role can be entirely different."

This doesn't mean that Cohen's unfamiliar with advance planning. As a kid, he created entire comic books -- plot, drawings and all -- which would look suspiciously akin to the storyboards he'll use when creating future film projects based on Marvel Comics characters Doctor Strange and Submariner.

In Larry Cohen movies, maybe events do hinge on simple twists of fate, abetted by finagling. Take, for example, the making of The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.

"There are laws," he notes, "that any movie or show about the FBI must have one of their representatives on the set at all times during its filming. You have to have permission, and we didn't. I guess this movie broke the law!

"Anyway, we were having trouble getting realistic locations in Washington, since certain people disapproved of what we were doing. Then one day, a newspaper happened to run a picture of Broderick Crawford and Dan Dailey on the set. Betty Ford, who was First Lady at the time and a longtime fan of Dailey's hoofing, saw the picture and asked Dailey and Crawford to lunch the next day.

"So while production closed and they ate, I called around town -- `We'd like to use your office in our movie. Mr. Crawford and Mr. Dailey aren't filming today, they're having lunch at the White House,' -- that was the clincher -- `so how about tomorrow afternoon?' It worked every time."

Serendipity and chutzpah: For filmmaker Larry Cohen, they work every time, too.