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Obituaries

Herman Cohen, 76; Film Producer Made Horror Movies Targeted at Teens

June 09, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Herman Cohen, a Hollywood producer and writer who launched the terrorized-teenager subgenre of horror movies in 1957 with the cult classic "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," starring an unknown actor named Michael Landon, has died. He was 76.

Cohen, who had throat cancer, died June 2 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"In the '50s, he was one of the kings of the drive-in horror movies, and his pictures helped put [American International Pictures] on the map," said film historian Tom Weaver, who interviewed Cohen several times.

Among the best-known of the seven films Cohen produced for AIP, in addition to "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," are "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein," "Horrors of the Black Museum" and "How to Make a Monster."

Cohen also produced a number of thrillers in England in the '60s, including "A Study in Terror," "Berserk," starring Joan Crawford, and "Trog," a box-office bomb notable for being Crawford's last picture.

A onetime teenage movie theater usher and assistant manager in Detroit, Cohen had progressed from producing low-budget independent films in the early '50s to more mainstream fare--including "Crime of Passion," starring Barbara Stanwyck--before finding his niche in teenage horror.

The switch came after an old friend, James H. Nicholson of the fledgling AIP, invited Cohen to produce a picture for the studio.

At the time, according to Weaver, Cohen had been analyzing changes in the film industry and discovered that nearly 72% of the audience was between the ages of 12 and 26.

Cohen knew horror pictures were popular with young audiences, but felt that having a cast of teenage characters, including teenage monsters, would greatly boost box office potential.

The lead character in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" is a likable yet troubled teenager who undergoes hypnotherapy to cure him of his bad temper, only to have the evil doctor give him an experimental serum that transforms him into a bloodthirsty werewolf.

Landon made his film debut cast as the werewolf. The "Werewolf" script was co-written by Cohen and Aben Kandel, who are listed in the credits under the pseudonym Ralph Thornton.

Cohen even planned to give the producing credit to "Ralph Thornton" after friends in the industry warned him he'd be ruined if he had his name attached to a film called "I Was a Teenage Werewolf."

But Cohen changed his mind about not taking the producer credit after Bob Hope, Jack Benny and other comedians heard of the movie's title before the film was released and began making fun of it.

"We started getting calls from Time magazine and Look magazine, and they wanted to talk to the producer of 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf,' " Cohen told Weaver in a 1991 interview for Fangoria magazine.

"My secretary said, 'Herman, what do I tell them?'

"Well, when Time and Look and Life started calling for the producer, I decided that the producer was going to be Herman Cohen."

Made for less than $100,000, "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" became a surprise hit that earned more than $2 million at the box office.

Six of Cohen's post-"Werewolf" movies featured a teenager who is manipulated by or transformed into a monster by an evil adult.

"I have always felt that most teenagers think that adults--their parents, or their teachers, anyone who was older and who had authority--were culprits in their lives," Cohen said in the 1991 interview.

"I know I felt that way when I was a teenager, and in talking to many teenagers, I found out that that was how they felt," Cohen said. "And so, in doing pictures primarily for the teenage audiences, I thought that this theme would strike them just right."

Like Alfred Hitchcock, Cohen frequently made uncredited cameos in his pictures--he's the man with the crime scene photos in "I Was a Teenage Werewolf."

And as co-writer of many of his films, he often named characters after relatives and friends. Brash and funny with a big, radio-broadcaster voice, Cohen took out his dislike of having to pay high taxes by naming the vicious mad scientist in "Konga" Decker, after his accountant.

The Detroit-born Cohen began his motion picture career at age 12, when he started helping out the janitor at a local movie house after school in exchange for free passes for himself and his family.

At 13, he was working as an usher, and by 18 he was managing the theater. He went on to become assistant manager of the Fox Theater in Detroit, a 5,200-seat movie palace that he bought in 1981 and owned for 21 years.

After wartime service in the Army, Cohen worked as sales manager for the Detroit branch of Columbia Pictures and, after moving to Hollywood, he joined the publicity department of Columbia Pictures.

He earned his first screen credit in 1951, as assistant producer of "Bride of the Gorilla," and a year later served as associate producer of "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."

Cohen stopped producing movies in the '70s and formed Cobra Media, a domestic distribution firm, in 1981.

He is survived by a brother, Aaron Cohen of Las Vegas, and a sister, Dorothy Droz Mills of Southfield, Mich.

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