Larry Cohen, 1936–2019
The B-movie director who made schlock with a purpose
Larry Cohen delighted in shocking audiences with his B movies—and maybe making them think a little, too. His 1972 directorial debut, Bone, a social satire about a home invasion, played with racial stereotypes. Two years later, he obliquely addressed questions of nature vs. nurture with his biggest hit, the low-budget horror It’s Alive, in which a razor-toothed newborn goes on a killing spree as soon as it emerges from its mother’s womb. In 1985’s The Stuff, he skewered consumerism with a tale of a yogurt-like dessert that turns people into mindless zombies. His favorite shtick, Cohen said, was “taking something which is considered benevolent and turning it into some kind of monstrosity.”
Born in Manhattan, Cohen “exercised his imagination” as a child by drawing his own comic books, said The New York Times, and as a teenager he often sneaked into the NBC studios to watch shows being filmed. He began writing for TV in the late 1950s, and in 1965 created the Western series Branded—an allegory of McCarthyism in which a man tries to regain his honor after being drummed out of the Army over a false accusation of cowardice. “Seeking more control over his work,” he quit TV after creating the 1967–68 sci-fi show The Invaders and switched to movies.
To keep costs low, Cohen often “stole” shots in locations that he did not have permission to use, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). For 1976’s God Told Me To, Cohen had the then-unknown Andy Kaufman, playing a possessed policeman, join New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day parade down 5th Avenue and then pull out a fake gun and start shooting into the crowd. “Cohen had to intervene to stop the real police shooting Kaufman dead.”