Written and Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin and Sandy Dennis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“God told me to."
Larry Cohen is one of our most unique and overlooked auteurs. His string of films from Bone up to The Stuff is remarkable, if only due to its sheer variety and the subversive braininess that Cohen brought to his subjects, which included everything from racial tension to consumerist mass consumption. Nestled right in the middle of this run is arguably his best film, God Told Me To, a film that also encapsulates all you need to know about Cohen’s work. It’s a grittily-shot urban horror film that, like many of Cohen’s films, thrives despite its low-budget limitations due to the director’s knack for bizarre, imaginative storytelling. And while the title of God Told Me To hints at a weird enough concept, it’s just a glimpse into how strange the film eventually becomes.
It also contains one of the scariest opening sequences in a horror film. On an otherwise normal afternoon, a man has perched himself on top of a water tower in New York City and has begun firing on random targets below with a sniper rifle; detective Peter Nicholas (Tony LoBianco) attempts to talk the man down and get some sense out him to no avail. “God told me to,” he insists before flinging himself down onto the streets below. This is but the first of many similar murders, all with culprits whose rampages were divinely inspired, and Nicholas’s investigation of the case leads to a conspiracy that may stretch back to biblical times.
God Told Me To defies conventions with an amorphous script whose hooks are constantly being pierced into viewers; the opening scene is the first of many baits that are dangled in front of both Nicholas and the audience. A fascinating story eventually emerges out of this police procedural, which eventually has the detective chasing down an enigmatic, androgynous messiah figure. We’re privy to insidious meetings with this self-proclaimed savior’s insidious cabal and the fallout of his “hits,” which include a chilling, presaged St. Patrick’s Day parade massacre that Nicholas is powerless to prevent. Despite the obviously preternatural angle, the film feels like a rather grounded and unnerving look at religious fanaticism. The vacancy the followers is nearly pod-like (which actually makes more sense than it sounds), as if they’d been possessed--but by what? In many ways, the first half of God Told Me To feels like a stripped-down apocalypse story. Satan and the antichrist haunted 70s cinema, and this feels like Cohen’s take on it--only God is allegedly at the helm, which might be scarier, especially when you consider the Old Testament implications informing it.
Then Cohen takes a bit of a left turn--not a hard one, mind you, especially when you consider that he’s tapping into 70s Chariots of the Gods inspired paranoia, but God Told Me To slowly sheds the police part of the procedural. Instead, Nicholas ends up being like a proto Fox Mulder who not only discovers some possible extraterrestrial explanations, but also his own connection to it. While this shift slightly blunts the subversive religious stuff since it becomes full-bore sci-fi (though it could be argued that Cohen’s slyest joke is the reduction of religion to pulpy fantasy), it’s no less creepy, especially when Richard Lynch finally makes an appearance as the mysterious messiah. Bathed in an eerie, halo-like glow that obscures his features, he’s a perfectly sinister fusion of an angel and a demon, and Nicholas appropriately has to take an elevator trip down to the bowels of a hellish building for the encounter.
LoBianco is fantastic as the film’s protagonist; he has an odd balancing act since he has to bring a real, human warmth to the role, especially early. However, there’s something a little distant about him; his interactions with both his girlfriend (Deborah Raffin) and his ex-wife (Sandy Dennis) are terse. He’s suffocated with a Catholic guilt that has seemingly been with him his entire life; there’s a real Job-like quality to him that eventually gives way to something even bigger. You can almost see the life drain away from his eyes as he begins to learn his true purpose in this plot, and the film actually teases out that purpose in a menacing fashion. Nicholas’s crisis of faith is one of the most unique in all of cinema, as he finds himself enwrapped in rumors of virgin births and alien abductions.
Gold Told Me To does exhibit the usual grindhouse leakiness due to its roughshod, shoestring aesthetic; however, Cohen spins such a compelling yarn and fills it with so many powerful scenes that the leaks are more than adequately plugged. Aside from the opening sequence, the film is full of ominous and disquieting moments. Among the most haunting is an exchange between Nicholas and a man who’s just murdered his entire family, including his young children. The man’s soothing, reassuring recounting of the story is unsettling, and it is arguably the film’s best moment because it reveals a fanatic’s complete disconnection from reality; one wonders if this wasn’t Cohen’s paranoia about a growing moral majority that threatened to destroy America from the inside--there’s a wry moment when his camera pans up to a digitized American flag on an electronic billboard, leaving us to wonder about the status of a country on the verge of its bi-centennial.
Other moments are similarly haunting--there’s a slick and gross Cronenberg-esque body horror precursor in the form of an unnatural vagina, and the abduction scenes are coolly retro, which makes them all the more creepy because we can almost see America’s “golden age” being perverted right before our eyes. In the annuls of 70s cinema, few exploitation auteurs had their finger as firmly placed on the nation’s pulse as Cohen, and God Told Me To is a disturbing piece of work that thrives on an invasive, penetrating style that burrows right into your skin with an intriguing mystery before slowly peeling it off with its different reveals. There’s a good chance you might already own God Told Me To as part of a public domain set (where it might be found under its much more boring and stupid title, Demon), but the definitive DVD release is the Blue Underground DVD from some years back. With its restored video transfer and four different soundtracks, it looks and sounds about as good as God Told Me To will ever look given its budget. The special features include a commentary with Cohen, a theatrical trailer, TV spots, a poster and still gallery, and a bio for the director. I'm not God, but I am telling you to Buy it!
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