Larry Cohen, 1976
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney
Lieutenant Peter Nicholas attempts to talk down a man high up on a building shooting people in New York City. He kills more than two dozen people before telling Nicholas that God told him to do it, and then flings himself from the tower. As more killers are found around the city with seemingly no motive other than “Gold told me to,” Nicholas finds himself sucked deeper and deeper into the investigation. His own life is beginning to unravel thanks to his intense and closeted Catholic beliefs and the fact that he lives with his girlfriend, but is unable to divorce his wife. The more he uncovers about the investigation, all signs point to a mysterious religious figure and to Nicholas’s own murky background.
I love many of writer, director, and producer Larry Cohen’s films, including the It’s Alive series, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent, etc. God Told Me To actually has a fair amount in common with Q. Both begin as police procedurals set in New York City and a surround a central cop figure, sort of an anti-hero or black sheep, who is the protagonist trying to solve a series of bizarre murders. To varying degrees, both films are deeply critical of organized religion and spiritual mania. While the murderers in God Told Me To claim that the Christian God told them to go out and kill people, the perpetrator in Q is a high priest obsessed with sacrificing people to bring back his God, the Aztec winged serpent, Quetzalcoatl.
Unlike Q, God Told Me To is deadly serious. There are some bad effects, very dated moments, and unintentionally funny scenes, but the film’s utter seriousness and sincerity – carried across by both Cohen and the cast – is part of what makes it so unique and so effective. Questions of identity, aimless murder, virgin birth, and alien gestation, haunt the protagonist, Detective Lieutenant Nicholas. He is a closeted Catholic; obsessed with his faith, he also feels intensely guilty about it and conceals it from his girlfriend. It also prevents him from getting a divorce and from totally abandoning his wife. This religious aspect also makes him take the killers, their crimes, and their alleged motive so seriously. Tony Lo Bianco (The Honeymoon Killers) is competent and suitably dark as one of Cohen’s signature cop protagonists. It’s easy to see how The X-Files’ Fox Mulder was modeled on Nicholas, as both men are antiheroic, guilt-ridden, and obsessed.
The other performances in the film are mixed, but mostly solid. Next to Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch (The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Barbarians) is the most memorable and is excellent as Nicholas’s adversary, a supposed messiah and cult leader. The pretty Deborah Raffin (The Sentinel) is likable as his girlfriend, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do. Sandy Dennis (976-EVIL) is somewhat menacing as his ex-wife and her role in his life isn’t clear for much of the film. Comedian Andy Kaufman appears in a very early role as a police officer who shoots a number of people during the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in one of the film’s most effective scenes.
It’s fair to say that there’s no one quite like Larry Cohen and there is certainly no other film quite like God Told Me To. With elements of the police procedural, apocalyptic cult movie, horror flick, and sci-fi film, this has tidbits of everything from The Night Stalker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Cohen’s own Q: The Winged Serpent, The Sentinel, and so much more. Cohen includes a diverse range of plot elements including religious mania, government and police corruption, aliens and spaceships, mass murder, and a serious amount of masculine and Catholic guilt. He even offers up an explanation for virgin birth, which, to this atheist, is equally as plausible as any other.
The plot is long, winding, and complex. If you miss more than five minutes of the film, chances are you will be utterly lost; either way a second viewing is probably necessary for a lot of people. The film’s unpredictability may frustrate or confuse a lot of viewers, but I think that’s one of its finest points. Cohen’s treatment of religion seems silly at the first pass, but is really a brilliant moment of social satire. There are also some very effective body horror scenes – which I will not ruin here by describing – that are suitably disturbing and very reminiscent of Cronenberg.
God Told Me To is certainly a neglected film. It expects a lot out of its audience and lacks much of the humor that make Cohen’s other films so endearing. Distributor Roger Corman also did the film a disservice by trying to piggy-back on the ‘70s run of satanic horror during its initial release. The film was retitled Demon for certain audiences and had a correspondingly misleading poster. This has far more in common with The X-Files than it does with The Exorcist, however.
The film is available on DVD and it comes highly recommended, though you will certainly need some patience and an open mind. It’s one of the unsung apocalyptic films of the ‘70s and stubbornly defies categorization. Though his more whimsical films are far more accessible, God Told Me To just might be Larry Cohen’s masterpiece.