Written and Directed by Justin Kelly
Based on the book by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway
Released April 16, 2016, at the Tribeca Film Festival
Review by Stephen O. Murray
March 21, 2017.
The 2016 King Cobra is based on the 24 January 2007 murder of the porn producer-director Bryan Kocis (born in Alaska in 1962) who billed himself “King Cobra,” also the name of his porn line.
The initial prime suspect was the estranged King Cobra Productions star, Sean Paul Lockhart (born on Halloween 1986), who had chosen his screen name, Brent Corrigan, paging through a phonebook. Kocis trademarked “Brent Corrigan,” and when his protégé sought to strike out on his own, he learned that he could not appear using that name, the established name that other porn producers wanted to use if they cast him.
Impressario and star had come to terms, but the new impresario (a pair) did not seem to know this, and in the movie, agreement between King Cobra and Brent Carrington was in process rather than accomplished.
Lockhart’s employability was also compromised by his having used fake ID and begun his King Cobra career before his 18th birthday (so it was legally classified as “kiddie porn”). He had revealed this thinking it would hurt King Cobra more than it would hurt him, though others in the gay porn industry were unhappy both with what he did and his later revelation of having been underage.
The movie, in which Christian Slater played Kocis, renamed him “Stephen” and much simplified the geography of the story, not least in moving the murder from rural Luzerne County, Pennsylvania to L.A., though keeping the name of his killer, male escort Harlow Cuadra (played as a needy guy traumatized by having repeatedly been raped by his stepfather growing up by Keegan Allen) and his killer’s partner (in sex scenes and in trying to make a movie with Brent Corrigan), Joe (overacted by James Franco, playing gay yet again).
When Sean/Brent and his new manager/life-partner (not included in the movie version) recorded Cuadra telling Lockhart about having murdered King Cobra, it was on the San Diego nude beach, Black’s. I’d think the real location was more photogenic than the hot tub in the movie, though more expensive to shoot on location. Plus, the writer-director (Justin Kelly, who also directed Franco in the infamous ex-gay biopic “I Am Michael”) seems to have a problem with male nudity (and with male-male eroticism).
I think that Slater is very good as the Svengali jealous of his creation/product and of his Trilby making it with other guys except onscreen under his direction. I also think that Keegan Allen is quite good as the traumatized second Trilby, more emotionally dependent upon (and, indeed, in love with) his own Svengali, who drove Harlow to the King Cobra “audition” at the home of Kocis/Stephen and was also convicted for first-degree murder.
Molly Ringwald is wasted as Stephen’s conventional sister, Amy. Alicia Silverstone has more screen time as Sean’s mother, who is made much more conventional a good, if unsuspecting mother than the real-life model, who was an alcoholic who at one point abandoned her children to the care of a stepfather.
As Sean/Brent, Garret Clayton seems initially naïve and eventually more sure of himself and what he wanted (which was to make movies, not porn movies, and not starring himself). The verisimilitude problem is that the actor was 25 playing someone whose age of 17 at the start is a major plot point (moreover, Sean/Brent looked young even for 17). I know that 25 year olds are often cast in parts of high-school students. I never believe this, but it is rarely quite as important as in this case. I have no fault to find with Clayton’s acting, but passing as a young 17 is not something acting can accomplish.
The 38-year-old Franco looks like the washed-up escort no longer in demand and frustrated at being left behind by his still marketable partner, though overly histrionic.
The parallel stories of porn (plus prostitution) Svengali/Trilby pairs are awkwardly juxtaposed, though the stories necessarily come together when Harlow and Joe eliminate the problem (who no longer was one) of King Cobra with a brutal murder. The answer to the “Cui bono?” question is Lockhart, and he cooperated with the police in getting a confession on tape from Harlow. (The case was otherwise circumstantial, with no fingerprints and no murder weapon.)
For more on the real story see the 2007 Rolling Stone article “Death of a Porn King” (by Peter Wilkinson) and/or the book by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway, Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder on which the movie was based.
©2017, Stephen O. Murray