When one talks of schlock cinema, Herman Cohen should be among the first names that come to mind -- and that is not to insult the man. In producing those pictures, he also insinuated himself in popular culture of the late '50s about as securely as any B-movie producer in history.
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Cohen was born in Detroit, MI, and entered the business at age 12 as a janitor's assistant at a local theater, later becoming an usher and an assistant manager at the city's largest theater. After finishing a hitch in the Marine Corps in 1949, he joined Columbia Pictures' sales department, working out of Detroit, and later took a job in publicity at the studio's California headquarters. In 1951, he moved up to the production end of the business when he went to work for Realart Films. Cohen was lucky enough to join the company, which had previously specialized in re-releasing old releases of the big studios, just as it began making movies of its own. In addition to working in publicity, he served as assistant to the producer on Curt Siodmak's Bride of the Gorilla, Harold Schuster's Kid Monk Baroni, Edward L. Cahn's Two Dollar Bettor, and Felix Feist's The Basketball Fix. By 1952, Cohen had moved up to better Realart releases, including The Bushwackers (a sort of very good cross between Shane and Angel and the Badman), and also worked on the notorious Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. In 1953, he chanced upon a science fiction short story, called "Deadly City," which became the basis for the first movie he produced, Target Earth (1954). The film (which Cohen also partly directed) cost 85,000 dollars and earned back many times that figure for him and distributor Allied Artists, and it has since proved one of the most enduringly popular science fiction thrillers of the early '50s, with its mix of mystery and suspense in a story centered on an alien invasion of Earth.
Cohen subsequently signed a contract to produce films at United Artists, and his first two UA releases, Dance With Me, Henry, the final movie to star Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and The Brass Legend, a psychological Western starring Hugh O'Brien, were successful. In 1956, however, he put a lot of money and effort into a high-profile drama called Crime of Passion, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Sterling Hayden, and Raymond Burr, which failed at the box office. Having seen his first mainstream, non-genre movie sink like a stone, the producer tried to figure out where he went wrong by taking a long look at who was going to movies on a regular basis in 1956. He saw that it was mostly teenagers, and he also noticed that science fiction and horror movies were doing good business. At that point, he approached American International Pictures, a company co-founded by James H. Nicholson (Cohen's former assistant at Realart) and Samuel Z. Arkoff, about producing a movie for them. Cohen presented the company with an idea that combined the horror genre with a direct appeal to younger audiences: "Teenage Werewolf," later rechristened I Was a Teenage Werewolf with help from Nicholson.
Strangely enough, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, whether thanks to the script by Cohen and co-author Aben Kandel, the sensitive direction by Gene Fowler, Jr., or the superb lead performance by Michael Landon, turned out to be surprisingly good, and very serious at its core. I Was a Teenage Werewolf was made for 150,000 dollars and earned back seven times that amount after two months in theaters. Its success generated a follow-up film, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, which was decidedly more tongue-in-cheek at times, mostly courtesy of Cohen, who added some outrageously funny lines to the script, pushing the humor in ways that the earlier movie hadn't. In doing so, Cohen -- who has always described himself as a hands-on producer, on the set as much as possible -- had to overrule his director, Herbert L. Strock, who was trying to treat the horror material seriously. It was while the Frankenstein title was being prepared for shooting, to be delivered finished to theaters in less than three months, that Cohen was prevailed upon to write and produce yet another feature to go out with it. The result was Blood of Dracula, conceived and written by Cohen, which involved a teenage girl transformed into a vampire by one of her teachers.
I Was a Teenage Frankenstein was never as well liked as its predecessor, partly because of the change in tone -- it was grislier in its action and lacked the innocence of its predecessor, and audiences had a sense of being "let in" on the joke, which wasn't as much fun. Similarly, Blood of Dracula, with its perverse undertones and even cheaper look, was somewhat overlooked in pop-culture annals. They were enormously successful at the box office, however, and Cohen went to the well one more time with How to Make a Monster (1958), which seemed to be a burlesque of the prior Frankenstein and Werewolf movies.
Cohen devised the plot for his next film, Horrors of the Black Museum, after visiting Scotland Yard's real Black Museum in London. Shot in England, in color and CinemaScope, the movie was his most ambitious and expensive production to date. Financed by AIP in America and by Nat Cohen and his company, Anglo-Amalgamated, in England, it went on to huge success on both sides of the Atlantic. The movie also outraged critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are those historians and observers who believe that it was the lingering reaction to Horrors of the Black Museum in England that caused the huge outcry over a subsequent Anglo-Amalgamated release, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom. For reasons best understood to himself, Cohen took special pride in his next movie, Konga, a story about a scientist (Michael Gough) and the giant ape that he creates, which manages to wreck a big chunk of London before he is dispatched. Most critics were less kind about the threadbare special effects and over-the-top acting, but it did make money for all concerned. Cohen's The Black Zoo brought him back to Hollywood to make a story about a deadly cult of animal worshipers.
Cohen re-emerged next in 1967, once more based in England, with Berserk, a chiller set at a circus, which starred Joan Crawford. He followed this with the caper comedy Crooks and Coronets, and then cast Crawford in the final film of her career, Trog (1970), a movie that most critics regarded as the nadir of her screen work, portraying a scientist who finds a living prehistoric ape-man. During the 1970s, Cohen was far less active, producing a spaghetti Western (The Stranger's Gundown) and a horror thriller (Craze). The latest film to carry Cohen's name was Crocodile (1979), a Thai import that rather ineptly cribbed from Jaws, which he picked up for American release. In the 1980s, Cohen's early films began to get their due, at least as a pop-culture influence, acknowledged in works such as SCTV's brilliant I Was a Teenage Communist (based on the book Werewolf Without a Cause). Cohen's greatest visibility in the 1990s came through the theatrical repertory showings and videocassette releases of I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, both of which have also turned up on the American Movie Classics cable channel. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi