King B: Larry Cohen's outrageous films were never going to win Oscars - and that's the way he likes it
He's appalled Stevie Wonder and inspired Quentin Tarantino. Geoffrey Macnab meets the director of some of the most gleefully over-the-top B-movies to grace the cinema screen.
'Less money, more freedom!" has long been the mantra of film-makers working in the B-movie arena. Yes, the critics will sneer at them. No, they're not going to win Academy Awards. The pay-off is the chance to be subversive, innovative and experimental.
One of the best in a dying breed of B-movie makers is the prolific 71-year-old writer-director Larry Cohen. "Many of the A-movies are long forgotten. They're boring, slow and tedious. The B-movies are fast-moving, exciting and energetic," Cohen declares when I meet him at the Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival, where he is guest of honour.
Cohen's own work bears out his assertion. He has given us flying serpents on top of New York skyscrapers (Q – The Winged Serpent), blaxploitation (Black Caesar), demonic babies (It's Alive) and even a film about addictive, ice cream-like gloop that turns those who eat it into violent zombies (The Stuff).
The B-movie as a form was born in the late 1920s, when the Hollywood studios began to make cheaper films to stand alongside their big-budget specials. In the Depression years, the studios tried to lure audiences back to cinemas with double features. There would be the A-picture and the supporting B-feature, shot at lightning speed. Many were Westerns or crime films – genre fare.
The Brits had their own such industry. The Rank Organisation made B-films at Highbury Studios in the late 1940s, among them Terence Fisher's To the Public Danger (1948), an overwrought thriller based on a Patrick Hamilton play and co-starring Desert Island Discs' Roy Plomley that warned against the perils of drink driving.
Martin Scorsese has written about the extraordinary artistic freedom that B-movie directors experienced in the 1940s and about how they were able to "smuggle" daring ideas into American cinema. Films like Edgar Ulmer's film noir classic Detour (1945) and Ida Lupino's Outrage (1950), one of the first Hollywood films to deal with the subject of rape, were B-movies. And directors from Jonathan Demme to Francis Coppola cut their teeth on B-fare for producer Roger Corman.
As Hollywood production methods change and tastes shift, the lines between prestige pictures and B-fare have become blurred. The latter remain formidably hard to classify. Nowadays, everything from slasher films to far-fetched sci-fi fantasy, from straight-to-video fare from the 1980s to a film noir from the 1940s, is called a B-movie.
For Cohen, budget remains the determining factor. These are films made quickly and cheaply – and that is still what gives them their freedom. By the time Cohen directed his debut feature Bone in 1972 (after a successful career writing for TV), the golden days of the studio system were long over, but the same rules about budget applied and it was still possible to make films under the radar.
"They [studio executives] don't spend the time to supervise the low-budget movies. They have too much trouble controlling their high-budget movies from going over budget and getting into problems. The executives think it is beneath them to deal with the low-budget movies. They want to be working on the high-budget pictures. They don't come around. They don't bother you. Before you know it, the picture is finished and they don't know what you shot."
Just because they're inexpensive, B-movies needn't be inept. Cohen is very keen to distance himself from such clumsy 1950s schlockmeisters as Ed Wood ("I couldn't stand Wood's movies – they were just bad movies") and William Castle, notorious for wiring up spectators' seats to give them an added frisson when they were watching his most famous film The Tingler. ("Frankly, I never thought William Castle's movies were worth bothering about," Cohen sniffs.)
But the veteran director is not above the occasional stunt himself. When his horror film It's Alive was released in London, he "hired a bunch of models to push baby carriages around Piccadilly with recording machines inside them with growls coming out… and a sign on the baby carriages – 'if you want to see the baby, you've got to go and see It's Alive!'"
However, Cohen was generally too busy making the films to spend time dreaming up wheezes for exploiting them. His work has always had a strong political dimension too, and has dealt forcefully and vividly with class tension, racism, rampant consumerism and abortion. "I want the picture to be about something – not just action and violence."
The Village Voice described even his most far-fetched movie The Stuff as "a horror comedy satirising a false utopia of mindless consumerism… something like Herbert Marcuse meets The Blob."
As Cohen acknowledges, his work is all "over the top, outrageous stuff." Nonetheless, he is proud of his B-movie background, and laments the disappearance of the kind of films he used to make. The closest director to Cohen today in his pop-culture references, outrageousness, violence and cinephilia is Quentin Tarantino, whose Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) are exploitation pics made with A-movie budgets and stars. Tarantino acknowledges the debt.
"I was just with Tarantino the other night. We were together at a science-fiction awards dinner," Cohen confides. "He got up and spoke about me on stage." Tarantino told Cohen that his own ultra-violent 1992 gangster thriller Reservoir Dogs was "Q without the bird." "If I influenced him [Tarantino] in any way, that's fine because he is a nice guy," Cohen declares.
Some of his screenplays have shed their B-movie origins along the way. Phone Booth (2002), directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Colin Farrell, has a B-movie premise – Farrell will be killed by a sniper if he hangs up the phone – but doesn't seem like exploitation fodder. One also guesses that Cohen would have treated Best Seller (1987), which he scripted, very differently from its eventual director John Flynn. It's a fascinating, if schlocky, thriller about a hitman (James Woods) and the cop/bestselling author (Brian Dennehy) who is forced into chronicling his life story. In Cohen's hands, the film would have been pulpier, with more grit, more chutzpah.
Cohen's artistic sensibility was formed when he was a kid in New York City in the 1940s and early 1950s, sneaking off to watch movies. Strictly speaking, Warner Bros gangster pictures with big-name stars like James Cagney, Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart weren't B-films but they shared many of the same characteristics. He reveres Warner Bros director Michael Curtiz, who made Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures Of Robin Hood (1938), for his versatility, flair and pragmatism – all qualities that any self-respecting B-movie film-maker needs too.
"Those [Warner Bros] films were energetic. They were fast-moving. The dialogue was read quickly and there was energy behind everything. I got a kick out of those – they were the movies I wanted to make."
In his films, Cohen often cast the stars he idolised in his youth: Sylvia Sidney co-starred in his 1976 film God Told Me To, and Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford starred in his biopic The Private Files of J Edgar Hoover (1977). He also directed Bette Davis in her final feature, Wicked Stepmother (1989). He tells a grotesque story about seeing Davis in her dotage, "dragging her leg and partly paralysed" at an awards show. Realising she was still keen to work, he wrote a script for her. She liked it and signed up to do the film. His agent told him he couldn't possibly make a film with a woman in this condition. "I said, well, she looks terrible, but when she starts talking, it's Bette Davis. And she is supposed to be this horrible old woman. She's a witch in the story."
MGM financed the film on the basis that Davis was starring in it. The problem was her teeth. "According to her own testimony in a deposition afterwards, her bridge broke and she didn't tell us about it. Her dentures kept coming out when she was talking. She had to stop and push them back in with her tongue." Cohen shares the anecdote as if this is just another everyday problem for a B-movie director. After a week, Davis couldn't go on but Cohen still managed to finish the film without her. "I convinced everybody that we had 15 minutes of Bette Davis still in the picture and we could use it. I said the thing won't do very well theatrically but almost every video store had a Bette Davis section."
Soul legend James Brown scored Cohen's 1973 feature Black Caesar, one of several blaxploitation films he has made. "We tried to get Stevie Wonder," he recalls. "They ran the picture for him. Imagine – running a movie for a blind man while his assistant described it to him. He thought it was too violent and so he didn't do it. So the next selection after that was James Brown."
Brown liked the movie and started calling himself "the Godfather of soul" after he worked on it. The singer then wrote a "spec score" for Cohen's next film, Hell Up in Harlem (1973), but the producers, American International Pictures, wouldn't let Cohen use it because of an ongoing dispute they had with the singer. (Brown released it as an album, The Payback, instead – it became one of his biggest hits.)
Cohen seems to disdain big budgets. "If a horror picture costs $100m, then it's not a horror picture any more. If a black picture costs $100m and stars Denzel Washington, then it's not a black exploitation picture any more."
He believes that Ridley Scott's big-budget American Gangster (2007), starring Washington, was derivative of Black Caesar. "It was virtually the same story. They were even wearing the clothes that were worn in Black Caesar." Not that he is bitter. After all, his film was itself partially inspired by Little Caesar (1931).
If you're a director of B-movies, you don't necessarily want to be too successful. That's the paradox about the best B-movie directors. They can only retain control over their work when the budgets are kept low. If their films are too successful, they're bound to be offered bigger projects – and that way danger lies. "You lose control," Cohen repeats himself. "You can't do what you want to do."
When he does have interfering producers, Cohen tries to get himself fired. He says he did this on both I, The Jury (1982) and Deadly Illusion (1982). "I couldn't quit because they can sue you. You have to make them fire you."
Speaking to Cohen, you realise that being in B-movies is a state of mind. This is a form of film-making that appeals to those with rebellious instincts, a desire to improvise and a ferocious work ethic. Cohen became a director because he "couldn't bear the condition of some of the movies they made based on my scripts". When he did start directing, he would "steal" shots in city locations that he didn't have permission to use. He preferred to work guerrilla-style in New York not only because it was his home town but because back in Hollywood, "they had these inflated ideas of what everybody was worth. There was much less work going on in New York and people were happy to get the jobs."
In the brave new era of indie film-making and digital distribution, there are more low-budget movies being made than ever before. Whether these can be classified as B-movies is a moot point.
"The problem with low-budget pictures today is there is almost no way to distribute them," Cohen laments. "The theatres are carrying all these $250m films… there's no place to play these pictures any more. They play 'em on Netflix and pay-per-view or something like that. Who knows if anybody sees the pictures. I used to like to make movies that played in theatres and we had quite a few hits too."
Ask Cohen where the B-movie spirit lives today and he suggests it is in television. While the Hollywood studios make torpid, big-budget movies, the original work with the edge that he admires is now being done for the small screen. "Television is better than it ever was. They really have good-quality shows, mainly because the writers are the producers… you might lump the television with B-movies. It's certainly made for less money and it's certainly better than the A-movies are. If you see something like Breaking Bad, it's a terrific series and a lot better than any of the movies currently playing. Not to say that all the B-movies ever made were really great. There were some really bad B-movies too. But once in a while, there was something that broke out..."
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