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Fantasia 2017: A Night in with Larry Cohen and ‘King Cohen’

The Fantasia Film Festival has a tradition of taking some time out of each installment to honor the life and works of filmmakers who have done important work in genre cinema by awarding them with a special Lifetime Achievement Award. Past winners of this prestigious award include greats like Takashi Miike, Tobe Hooper, Mamoru Oshii and Andrzej Zulawski. This year, filmmaker Larry Cohen got his turn in the Fantasia spotlight, receiving his award before the world premiere of King Cohen, a new documentary chronicling his life and works. King Cohen will be available for all to see soon enough, but in the meantime be sure to read our own look back at Cohen’s works for an excellent primer. To call the event a wonderful evening would be underselling it. For old Cohen fans and newcomers in attendance, that Sunday night in Concordia’s D.B Clarke theatre was one to remember.

After a brief introduction from festival guru Mitch Davis, the first speaker takes the stage: Michael Moriarty, who starred in Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, A Return to Salem’s Lot and It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive. Moriarty’s voice is soft and gentle, but his training as a dramatic actor shines through when he speaks Cohen’s name, or the title of Q. When these moments arrive, his voice transforms and an ominous intonation overtakes every syllable. He only ever refers to Cohen as “Larry King Cohen,” his voice an equal mix of reverence and affection, and he stretches out the S in Q: The Winged Serpent with a gleeful drama. Like his former director, Moriarty’s flair for performance is impeccable. Not long after Moriarty completes his wonderful introduction, Cohen takes the stage, bounding up before Davis can even fully introduce him. Within moments, it’s apparent why: Cohen was born for this. Soaking in the applause from the standing ovation (one of many that evening), Cohen is instantly in his element on stage. Not in an arrogant or boastful way, mind – when the applause dies down, Cohen’s humor and wit come out, rife with self-deprecation and charm. It’s not surprising at all to learn that he once courted a career as a stand-up comic and MC. If anything, it’s hard to imagine him not making a killing at it.

Larry Cohen

Before long, Moriarty is piping in from his seat to one side of the stage, and his early assertion that the two had formed an impromptu comedy duo upon meeting is verified. They rib and cajole each other the whole evening, in that special way old friends can that never feels anything less than affectionate and loving. The camaraderie and friendship formed between these two men over the course of years radiates from the stage.

After graciously accepting his award, Cohen introduces the night’s feature presentation: Steve Mitchell’s King Cohen. Like other cinematic love-letters before it, like Electric Boogalo or Corman’s World, King Cohen is a treasure trove of anecdotes, starting with how a young JJ Abrams once gave Cohen directions, saving a crucial meeting. The interviews are a cavalcade of faces that 80s exploitation fans and movie buffs in general should be familiar with; Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Eric Roberts, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and of course Cohen and Moriarty themselves. It’s fun and informative, and rarely seems to wander or languish in its love for Cohen and his legacy. If anything, the film adheres too closely to the norm for these kinds of documentary biopics, alternating “talking head” interviews with clips and behind-the-scenes stock footage relevant to whatever the topic at hand is. There’s some fun to be had in the editing, like when Williamson (naturally with a cigar in one hand and a sly smirk) contradicts Cohen’s insistence that he jumped out of a moving taxi to prove a stunt could be done. There’s a brief back and forth between the two, shot in separate locations on separate days, that leaves the audience laughing.

However, these moments of style feel a bit too far in between. To be sure, Mitchell has a handle on the documentary game, but more infusions of personal style and playfulness would have elevated an already entertaining documentary. His film doesn’t have enough of the personal touches and creativity that made past Fantasia Docs like Rewind This or Remake, Remix, Rip-Off true standouts among their genre.

Larry Cohen

When the credits finish and the lights come back up, Cohen and Moriarty are joined on stage by Mitchell for a Q&A session to round off the evening. Cohen does most of the talking, but no one seems to mind except for maybe Cohen himself. “We’ve heard enough about Larry Cohen,” he says, drawing another laugh from the crowd. All the same, Cohen opens the treasure trove of anecdotes he’s spent a lifetime in the industry gathering. He tells us about the time he met with Donald Trump in the 80s to discuss writing and directing a made-for-TV movie biopic (one of Trump’s hotels went under the very next day, killing the picture dead). However, as Cohen tells us, he still has the script, and you just need to kick in 10 grand on his next movie to see it. Moriarty and Mitchell get their turns too, and Moriarty vehemently denies the chance of him ever returning to movies for one last ride with “King” Cohen – he’d prefer to finish writing his operas. “I hate to tell you, Michael,” interjects Cohen without missing a beat, “but that autograph you signed at dinner was a contract. I got you for twelve weeks.” The crowd cheers. These two should be playing Vegas.

For his part, Mitchell seems comfortable letting the others take the wheel. When asked directly, he talks about the daunting editing process that went into the film, the sensation of being adrift at sea among countless hours of footage. Thankfully for all of us, he made it to shore.

The night closes out with something Moriarty hyped up in his introduction hours earlier: Cohen’s impression of actor and comedian Ed Wynn. With barely a word of dissent, Cohen goes for it, launching into the bit with gusto. Sadly, it’s an impression the accuracy of which may have flown by the young ears of many audience members (this writer included), but to see the joy on Moriarty’s face when Cohen begins easily makes it a wonderful capper to an unforgettable night.

FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017

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