‘God Told Me To’ (1976) Review

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“People who are too goddamned religious make a lot of trouble for everybody.”

I think Larry Cohen is a genius. A hack genius, a genius with no patience and a willingness to let “good enough” get in the way of “truly great,” but a genius nevertheless. He has fantastic ideas and the occasional gem of a shot or sequence, but they’re often intermingled with nonsense or lackluster footage that merely gets the job done.

Not that I’ve seen every Larry Cohen film. It’s Alive, Q, The Stuff, and A Return to Salem’s Lot are it at the moment , though I’ve seen more films that he’s scripted. So, yes, I’m basing the whole ‘genius’ label on cheap, exploitation-level genre fare, but  I’m telling you – not a single one of those films are simple, straightforward horror flicks. There are always crazy ideas, social commentary, satire and – often enough – some great characters. He’s like Robert Altman mixed with Roger Corman.

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Part of it is his willingness to pursue his ideas regardless of entertainment value. There’s some startling imagery in God Told Me To – including closeups of a fake vagina that probably cost him his original producers. It’s part of the story, though, and that means it goes in – regardless of the blowback. Also, there’s a bit of the ‘we shot it, we use it’ mentality of guerilla film-making going on. (Especially when it comes to the New York City footage in Q and God Told Me Too – most of which was shot without a permit.)

The Medium
I watched God Told Me To on Showtime, which is included with my subscription to YouTube TV for the summer. It’s also available on Shudder and for rent on pretty much every other service. Blue Underground released the film on Blu-ray in 2015 with a stack of extras (and commentary by Larry Cohen is usually worth the price of admission).

The Movie
A New York City street, crowds of people going about their daily business. Suddenly a man on a bicycle falls over, his head covered in blood. A second or two later the sound of a gunshot echoes amongst the skyscrapers. And then another one falls. And another. The gunshots continue in rapid, horrifying succession.

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There are two things that heighten the awfulness of this scene. The recent mass shootings around the country (and lord help me, I can probably leave the statement this vague and it’ll be relevant whenever you read it). It definitely hits you harder in the aftermath of real-life events (despite the technicolor nature of the ‘blood’). The second thing is that most of the people in those scenes had no idea what was going on. They’re truly innocent bystanders, unaware that a movie was being shot. Their reactions are genuine and it gives the scene a realism you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.

I wonder if Cohen ever got sued for therapy bills afterward.

The perpetrator of this massacre is an unassuming young man with a rifle, willing to talk to the police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), who climbs the rickety metal ladder of the water tower the gunman is perched on. When asked why he’s doing this horrible thing the man says, simply, “God told me to.” And then he pitches over the side of the water tower.

That fall is also somehow terrifyingly realistic – it doesn’t look like a dummy and the way it’s shot and framed makes it look like there couldn’t be a mat or net (and given Cohen’s usual budgetary restrictions, I don’t think he could have paid for such a stunt). You’re horrified – even though you know this guy just killed a dozen people.

These two opening sequences are stellar and you could be forgiven for wondering why this movie doesn’t have more acclaim and interest. But of course this is a Larry Cohen movie, and while there are flashes of this level of quality in the rest of the film there are also lots of shaky hand-held footage where things aren’t in focus, or the lighting is too low to see, or the effects are terrible. (There are sequences where Cohen re-uses effects from a popular 70’s sci-fi TV show that are incredibly jarring for fans of that show.)

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Detective Nicholas, a devout – if conflicted – Catholic, is disturbed by this senseless crime. His unease increases when this proves to be only the first  of a series of crimes committed by seemingly ordinary people who all claim that God had told them to do it. An anonymous tip informs him that there will be another attack during the St.Patrick’s Day parade and Nicholas races against time and bureaucratic intransigence to try and stop it. (Cohen actually managed to film a bunch of scenes in and around the actual parade decades before The Fugitive would do the same – although without that film’s permission!) He fails to prevent the shooting – committed by a young Andy Kaufman, playing a policeman in his first film role – but manages to get his first lead. The shooter had spoken to a young man with long, blonde hair.

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Here, the movie bogs down a bit, as it settles into a bit of a standard procedural role. Nicholas – whose religion prevents him from divorcing his wife, but not from living with another woman – runs from lead to lead, looking for the young man whose name is revealed to be Bernard Phillips. And who may just be God himself.

Things are never that straightforward in a Cohen film, though, and the twists and revelations are interesting enough that I won’t reveal more about the plot. They’re of varying quality, as is standard in a Cohen film, but well worth experiencing without knowing them ahead of time. I WILL mention that on top of the other craziness there are angels, alien abductions, hermaphrodites, mind control, pool hall hustlers and budget apocalypses.

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It’s a frustrating film because of that mix of excellence and mediocrity. There’s a fantastic, emotional scene between Nicholas and an elderly woman (played by Sylvia Sidney – who has been in a ton of things, but who I remembered primarily as Juno in Beetlejuice). It’s followed by an overly melodramatic scene between Nicholas, his wife Martha (Sandy Dennis) and his lover Casey (Deborah Raffin). The latter scene is so flat I found it hard to believe there wasn’t something wrong with the actor.

The Bottom Line
In the end, God Told Me To (also released as Demon) is a film with ideas bigger than its budget (particularly in a climactic final sequence that fails to be as apocalyptic as it’s intended to be). It’s still a pretty amazing film, worth seeing for the things that do work and to appreciate the vision, as flawed as it is.