God Told Me To (1976)
Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Sandy Dennis, Sylvia Sidney, Sam Levene, Robert Drivas, Mike Kellin, Richard Lynch, Sammy Williams, Jo Flores Chase, William Roerick, Lester Rawlins, Harry Bellaver, George Patterson
(out of 4)
WARNING: SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD
Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To is a fascinating little oddity that is typical of his filmography in that it builds from current events while covering certain broad themes – in this case, it’s the science-versus-religion debate, and the nature of man’s relationship with God. The picture has a lot of ideas in it, and while Cohen’s reputation at this point in ’76 was that of an exploitation filmmaker (he directed the blaxpolitation films Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem, followed by the killer-mutant-baby flick It’s Alive), his movies are full of satire and black humor if you look closely. But God Told Me To is probably one of Cohen’s darkest and serious films, focusing as it does on the topic of religious extremism leading to violence and a religous man’s crisis of faith, not to mention bizarre interpretations of the Biblical Messiah, Chariots of the Gods, alien abductions, and Charles Whitman, of all things.
The film stars Tony LoBianco as Peter Nicholas, a New York City police detective who tries to talk down a sniper who just shot 14 people in Manhattan. In a strange, calm manner, the killer says “God told me to” before throwing himself off the tower. Soon after, Peter encounters other killers who were seemingly normal people before suddenly murdering strangers and family alike – saying that God told them to do the deed (one is a policeman – played by Andy Kaufman – who kills five people at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade). The sniper’s mom, who previously was seen doubting that her boy could have done all that killing from such a distance (evoking the memory of Lee Harvey Oswald), tells Peter that a strange man with long blonde hair may have influenced her son. Tracking down this mysterious man leads our hero to some rather uncomfortable facts, like the story that the guy was supposedly born without any genitalia, that nobody who sees him can remember his face, and that he may have supernatural powers. But that’s just the beginning.
In the midst of all this is Peter’s strained relationship with his wife (Sandy Dennis) who he won’t divorce, and his city girlfriend (Deborah Raffin), who doesn’t know the extent of Peter’s Catholic devotion. While the murders test Peter’s faith, Cohen throws a curveball in the middle of the film, suggesting that not only is this strange blonde man (played by Richard Lynch) a possible Messiah, but Peter may be one as well. Pretty soon we are neck deep in 1950s era alien abductions, virgin births, and rather sacrilegious notions of Jesus being an extraterrestrial (sort-of touched on by John Carpenter in Prince of Darkness). It’s pretty absurd, but wait till you see Lynch’s “Jesus” character exposing a vagina-like orifice to his “brother” offering to start a new species. (Notice the strange resemblance to Christ’s side wound when he was on the cross). Who but Cohen would take this road, except maybe Cronenberg?
The faults of God Told Me To are mostly the consequence of an ultra-low budget, which results in a muted, hard-to-decipher soundtrack in some scenes, and haphazard editing on others. The other problem is that perhaps Cohen is too ambitious for his ability to deliver – he throws in so many different concepts that the film lacks a certain focus. However, the raw scenes of NYC, including real scenes from the St. Patty’s Day parade, along with Cohen’s “guerilla” style give a grittiness and authenticity to the movie. Some scenes seem slightly out of place, like the pimp murder subplot, which comes out of nowhere and feels like it only serves to offer up meatbags for Peter later in the film when he decides to test some newfound abilities. Those scenes have the feel of his earlier blaxploitation flicks, which is slightly weird sitting next to other surprisingly emotional scenes between Peter and the two women in his life. Cohen does his best to flesh out the main character, and it helps that there are strong female leads courtesy of Sandy Dennis, Deborah Raffin, and the late Sylvia Sidney. There are nice little touches too, like the clever effects in the alien abduction scenes (one woman is pulled through the air by an unseen force which immediately made me think of the 2004 flick The Forgotten) and the amusing reaction of one of the victims who can’t wait to talk about her experience in detail to a total stranger.
How you respond to this film probably depends on both your open-mindedness on religion and your tolerance of guerilla filmmaking. The film asks questions but leaves lots of them unanswered (the motive of an alien race trying to influence the evolution of humanity through genetic tampering remains unknown). But then again, God works in mysterious ways, does he not? Of course, you could forget all that religious nonsense and just enjoy God Told Me To for it’s eccentricity and it’s place in history as perhaps another influence on Chris Carter’s X-Files. I did.
- Bill Gordon