Herman Cohen Interview: From Teenage Monsters to Shelock Holmes and Beyond.
One Saturday night, when I was around the tender age of ten, I was allowed to stay up past my bedtime because my parents were having guests over. It was 11:30 and Double Chiller Theater was on. Unlike most times when I had to sneak down to the rec room(after my parents went to bed) to enjoy the late night horror film fest, on this evening I had their permission. That is, until finally their guests went home and it was off to bed for yours truly. So, for at least a half an hour I watched Horrors of The Black Museum and was scared out of my socks upon viewing a particular scene where a woman was killed by a pair of binoculars with nails in the eye holes. That one scene still resonated with me even after being told by my Dad to," Shut off the TV and go to bed." And thus was my introduction to the films of Producer Herman Cohen.
During the next year or so, through watching Double Chiller Theatre, I became acquainted with other fifties horror/sci-fi filmmakers like Roger Corman and Bert .I. Gordon. These men were responsible for most of AIP'S monster films of the late fifties and early sixties from which sprang many of the iconic monsters of that era, entertaining the fertile imaginations of many other ten year olds like myself. As far as I was concerned, those Saturday nights watching monsters parading across the TV screen into the wee hours of the morning was time well spent.
In the early sixties, Cohen left AIP after becoming dissatisfied with Sam Arkoff to produce film projects for Allied Artists and Warner Brothers. When I interview him in 1985, Cohen headed his own company Cobra Media. The interview, which was to be featured in Bill George's book Drive-In Madness(The book was never published. Believe me, there's a great story behind that one I'll gladly tell you another time), was a short one due to the fact that Cohen was working on a new film and was going over to England the next day. However, he generously set aside some time in order to discuss with me his career in films. Before settling down to do the interview, I told Cohen what a pleasure it was talking to him because I had grown up watching his films on TV. He seemed genuinely flattered by my comment. The following article is by no means a definitive Herman Cohen interview, but it does encapsulate the vast career of this prolific independent filmmaker.
JV: Let's start the interview by talking about I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and I Was A Teenage Werewolf ,two movies you're known most for. How did those iconic teenage horror films come about?
HC: Well, I'm not known most for them. However, I did a picture with Barbara Stanwyck and Sterling Hayden called Crimes of Passion for United Artists which was quite a big picture at that that time; my biggest picture at that time. The picture went out and did not do any business and I was very angry at myself why it didn't do business when we got such great reviews. I made a tour of parts of the country and realized that it was the teenagers that were going to the movies,to the theatres,getting out of their house, getting away from TV. So therefor ,as a kid I always loved horror films and I threw in the teenage element, and I came up with an original story. I got a friend of mine who's a writer named Aben Kandel. We collaborated under a pseudo name and used Ralph Thornton at the time. And I produced I Was A Teenage Werewolf. He (Aben Kandel) also wrote City For Conquest with Jimmy Cagney. Aben has done several of the hip horror films with me and other pictures with me.
JV: Around that time, there was a letter published in Famous Monsters of Filmland in which you were attacked because you were supposedly quoted in Time magazine as saying that when you make a film you think of the title first and the picture second. The author of the letter felt you weren't taking the horror genre seriously. How do you respond to that?
HC: Well Joe, that's not true either. I don't know where you got this, if Time quoted me at the time. Now what we did, these were all original stories of mine and we worked then into screenplays. Of course the title is always very important when you're doing a picture, especially hitting the teenage market. At that time, James Nicholson who was President of American International Pictures, we were both very good friends and that's why I took I Was A Teenage Werewolf to him. he was terrific with advertising. We would sit together and when I came up with the title Teenage Werewolf, Jim added I Was A. That's were we got I Was A Teenage Werewolf. That was Jim Nicholson. When Teenage Werewolf came out and was so big, and did such great business, immediately the theatre circuits said," Give us another one. That's when I wrote I Was A Teenage Frankenstein. When that came out it was virtually as big as I Was A Teenage Werewolf at the box-office. That's how I got into that real horror things. Then I followed with Blood of Dracula 'cause they said," Herm, come up with another one".
JV: An interesting innovation that you came up with was having the last few minutes of I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and How To Make A Monster in color.
HC: The reason for this, this was my idea, I was furious that we didn't have the money that we could make the picture in color at the time. We made these pictures, I want you to know, they were all shot within a period of less than two weeks and they were all made for budgets around $150,000. So as gimmick that I came up with, not being able to spend the money to make the entire picture in color, and to come up with How To Make A Monster when Robert Harris the makeup artist went into his home and he locked the door and the picture turned to color. In fact, one of my beefs is when the picture sold to television all over the country, they don't take it from the original negative. They don't care and they show the picture to the audience all in black and white. They did the same thing to I Was A Teenage Frankenstein.
JV: How did you feel when pictures like War Of The Colossal Beast and The Return Of Dracula ripped off your idea of showing the last few minutes in color? Did it bother you?
HC: Listen Joe, once I did I Was A Teenage Werewolf and became very successful with that, everybody started stealing. Roger Corman did Teenage Caveman, other independents did I Was A Teenage This, I Was A Teenage That and they started putting some of the pictures in color. Listen, if I start something or if somebody else who starts something and there are people who follow, great. Best of luck to them. It didn't bother me.
JV: Michael Gough has starred in a number of your films. What qualities as an actor does he possess that compelled you to use him in your films?
HC: He's a brilliant actor. In fact, he's in Out Of Africa with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Michael Gough is a brilliant actor and when I went over to London, I saw him in a play and thought he was terrific. He had that sinister Vincent Price look. I didn't want to try to get Vincent Price because Roger Corman was using him in a lot of the Edgar Allen Poes around that time and Bill Castle used Vincent Price. The first picture I put Michael Gough in was Horrors Of The Black Museum, which I did in England. He was so great in that and the picture was such a big hit, I then brought Michael to Hollywood where I shot The Black Zoo for Allied Artists. Then I used Michael Gough in a couple of other pictures and he also had a very big part with Joan Crawford in Berserk.
JV: I understand there were censored scenes in Horrors Of The Black Museum which were not in the American release. Which scenes were censored?
HC: No, there were no scenes that were censored. I don't know where you got that. The tools and instruments of murder that were used in Black Museum, we changed the storyline, but everyone of those, including the portable guillotine and the binoculars were all used in a real murder in England. I went through Scotland Yard's Black Museum, which very few civilians go through, and that's where I got the idea to do the picture. That's when I wrote Horrors Of The Black Museum with Aben Kandel. But all those tools and instruments of murder were actually used in actual murders, but we just changed the settings and the characters.
JV: For Horrors Of The Black Museum you used an effect called Hypno Vista as an added attraction. What exactly was Hypno Vista?
HC: Hypno Vista, this was a gimmick of James Nicholson, American International. The picture did not have that any place else in the world, just in the USA. We wanted an extra gimmick and so did America International in releasing it. Jim Nicholson had met a hypnotist and we talked about that. I thought it'd be a good idea, along with Jim, that if we put on a prologue prior to the picture to have as a gimmick, to try to put the audience in the mood to see what they were going to see, it could be a very good selling gimmick. Evidently it worked. But in England we did not use it and the picture was a huge success, and in France and in Italy. So evidently we didn't need it. But the picture was a big hit here. Now whether or not Hypno Vista had anything to do with it or not, I don't know.
JV: Talking about gimmicks for a moment, are they necessary in order to sell an exploitation movie?
HC: It doesn't hurt. The more gimmicks you have, the better chance of getting the audience away from that TV box and getting them into the theatres.
JV: One of your movies, A Study In Terror, is considered one of the best Sherlock Holmes ever made.
HC: I feel so, yes. In fact, A Study In Terror is going to be on video with RCA/Columbia. It's going to be released in September of this year and so is Berserk. Now with A Study In Terror, I made a deal with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's son, Adrian Conan Doyle, because at that time it was not public domain. We put together a story of Jack The Ripper with Sherlock Holmes and came up with A Study In Terror. I was very proud of that picture. We had a hell of an English cast from John Neville to Anthony Quayle to Donna Huston, John Fraizer, Barbara Winsor, Adrianne Corri, Georgie Brown, Roberet Morely; I had a hell of a cast. As a budget picture I'm very proud of A Study In Terror.
JV: A Study In Terror ends with the prospect of a sequel. Why didn't you ever film a follow up to it?
HC: Well, virtually any movie ends with the prospect of a sequel(laughter) if you want it. I mean, look at Rocky IV, Friday The 13th V, or Police Academy 3. However, I have never made a sequel to any picture. I'm not saying I never will, I just never have. I just go on to something else.
JV: There is a rumor concerning you and American International Pictures that I'd like to clarify. You reportedly left them because of a disagreement with one of the owners and you were quoted as saying," And it wasn't Jim Nicholson."
HC: That's true. I left because of Sam Arkoff, not because of Jim Nicholson. Actually, Roger Corman and myself were the two producers of every picture we made that AIP released that made a lot of money. Sam Arkoff became very greedy and he also got Jim Nicholson out of the company, you know. He ended up as chairman of the board and chief executive office through a lot of maneuvering. But prior to that, Jim was still there. Sam was the deal maker, was the vice president in charge of legal, and he wanted more and more for AIP and less and less for me. And I walked, I said goodbye.
JV: Let me just mention in passing that I've recently procured some French photobusts from the original Konga that are very nice looking. What are your memories about making that film?
HC: I got permission from RKO, in fact, to use in our advertising that words "Not Since King Kong". We could use King Kong in our ads. I enjoyed making that. Konga a big hit. We did that in London, that's right, I forgot about that, and staring Michael Gough, again.
JV: I've interviewed other filmmakers who have at least one film they don't care to talk about. Are there any films you've made that you're not particularly proud of?
HC: No, you can mention anything I've ever done because they're all for fun. I want my audiences to enjoy them. I enjoy them and I enjoy making. I hope the audiences enjoy seeing them. I always do sort of a little tongue in cheek, so we all have fun with them. I think that's the idea; to go to the cinema and enjoy yourself. Just as you said, Joe, I cannot tell you how many people I run into, they say, " Oh my God, I grew up on your pictures." No, I don't have a picture that I'm ashamed of. Not at all. A lot of hard work, love, fun has gone into any picture I've ever made.
JV: Since the book Drive-In Madness(the book that never was.) concerns drive-in theatres and the movies geared toward their audiences, what in your opinion has contributed to the demise of the drive-in ?
HC: Real estate is what really contributed to the demise of the drive-ins. Where drive-ins were built throughout the country, cities grew further out and suddenly where a drive-in was, it was suddenly surrounded by high rises and the real estate was too valuable. No theatre company could afford to keep it as a drive-in. And that's happening all over, including here in California. Every couple of months there's another one closed because they're building another big shopping mall or they're building a high rise. In many, many areas the reason is the cost of the property. Then of course, besides that, with the ancillary today with video and pay cable, a lot of people who normally pack their families up and go to a drive-in; they can go to a video store for a dollar out here in L.A. or maybe two bucks where you're at in Wilmington, Delaware and bring home a film. That's a hell of a lot cheaper to watch a movie at home than to pack everybody in the car and pay three, four or five dollars a clip to get it.
JV: Even with the new ancillary markets, cable and video, don't you as a producer, the man who puts all of his time and effort into his movies, feel that it takes something away from the experience to see your movie at home rather than on a large screen?
HC: Well, I think there's nothing better than to see a film in a cinema. The larger the better, the bigger audience the better, because the feelings of an audience is infectious. Of course, it takes it away. But as the new electronic mediums come to be, here we are and let's go for it. At the present time, video has saved many independent producers to where they can still stay in business. And there's a new life for their old films.
JV: One last question. What projects are you working on these days?
HC: I'm working on a very exciting project, but I cannot discuss it right now. I 've been working on it for the past year. I can't discuss the title or what the project is, but it's going to be a very big budget picture. And it is in the horror/mystery, I'll use the name of a guy I've always respected, Hitchcock vein.