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Larry Cohen's best movie allows him to express his strong personal opinions about organized religion. He begins in 'dangerous content' mode and proceeds directly to subject matter guaranteed to offend: the nature of God. That's not exactly the natural province of exploitation horror, even though Friedkin's The Exorcist had recently played the blasphemy/rotten taste game and got away with it. The commitment of Cohen to his story is such that we can't help but be pulled in -- the director knows that his story is hard to ignore. 1976's God Told Me To has the courage of its convictions. Cohen's impressive cast obviously liked Cohen's concept. As in his equally eccentric Q - The Winged Serpent, the performances are far more polished than one would expect in an independent fantasy -- especially one sold by the exploitative New World Pictures.
Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) feels a strong connection to a wave of insane killings committed by otherwise benign people claiming that 'God told them to do it.' A devout Catholic, Peter has always felt something spiritually amiss in his life, and is further disturbed when relatives of the perpetrators lead him to search for a mysterious fellow named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), a long-haired barefoot hippie. Bernard appears to be influencing not only the random killers, but also a group of businessmen compelled to serve as modern disciples. Investigation leads Peter to two bizarre discoveries. The origin of Bernard may have frightening implications... that Peter may share in common.
In the 1970s it was still unthinkable (at least here in the U.S.) for the shooting of innocent strangers to be a common occurrence. The multiple slayings that open God Told Me To make us uncomfortable; we wonder if the breaking of the taboo may inspire already disturbed audience members. Peter is aghast when a father explains how he was quite happy to slaughter his whole family, as he's only done what God has asked him to do. It's scary -- we rarely understand how people can do such bad things, perhaps because we really don't want to know. 1
Writer Cohen sets up his Peter character extremely well, as a devout Catholic personally invested in his faith. Almost like a character from Robert Bresson, Peter puts his body and soul into his work, risking his neck to talk to one of the first of the 'God told me' mass killers. Peter's personal life is a mess. Sensing something wrong with his background -- he was adopted -- he didn't want children. This has left him separated and childless from his wife (Sandy Dennis) and unable to properly commit to his lover (Deborah Raffin).
Comic Andy Kaufmann plays an NYPD cop who becomes one of the crazies, in a famous scene mostly stolen by Cohen right in the middle of a St. Patrick's Day parade. Kaufmann's childlike face is perfect. Sam Levene (The Killers) is the newspaperman Peter goes to when he decides to break the bizarre story to the press. The great Sylvia Sydney plays a rest home patient of frightening personal significance for Peter. Ms. Sydney and Ms. Dennis have barely more than an isolated scene apiece, but they contribute importantly to Cohen's narrative thesis.
When God Told Me To takes the next step and explains what's going on, it's both exciting and something of a disappointment. The story becomes a science fiction tale about a new species come to Earth through a pair of 'virgin' births. By way of Chariots of the Gods and Quatermass and the Pit we arrive at a false Messiah who seeks to rule by terror. This setup allows Cohen to air his anticlerical ideas, such as, "If God made his presence known the atheists would rejoice, because all the church apparatus would cease to exist." Peter the repressed Catholic and Bernard the demonic demi-god are brothers from the stars, and Peter realizes that his destiny is to play the part of Judas, or Cain.
Cohen quickly establishes the superhuman being's reign of psychic terror, and in just a few scenes more makes us feel what it might be like to discover that one is directly related to the problem. Peter tests his newly suspected ability to will terrible things to happen, but is too human to continue on that road. Cohen has a deep distrust of belief systems yet revels in the willpower of a man invested with moral faith. And yes, it's a surefire path to martyrdom.
Tony Lo Bianco's commitment anchors everything -- his performance makes the difference, holding together the science fiction scenes and even the yellow-blasted faceoff between brothers from the sky. The only aspect of the film that seems a little thin is the round table of important men (no women) compelled to convene in New York and do "His" bidding. For a minute I thought God might turn out to be a sinister guy with a cat in his lap, like 007's Blofeld.
In his 1970s films Larry Cohen was as accomplished as any 'run and gun, shoot & scoot' filmmaker working in New York. God Told Me To looks professional at all times, with an excellent feel for the streets of New York. Cohen attracted good actors even in small parts: Mike Kellin, Robert Drivas, Harry Bellaver and even Robert Nichols from The Thing from Another World and This Island Earth. Richard Lynch makes an iconic appearance, to say the least; we don't know if we're looking at a glowing yellow Messiah or a supernatural Charles Manson. Playing a cop friend is Randy Jurgensen, who Cohen must have learned about from William Friedkin. An active NYPD detective, Jurgensen cleared the way for the crazy filming behaviors indulged by Friedkin in The French Connection and Cruising. I can imagine Jurgensen telling his fellow cops in Cohen's parade scene, "Kaufman is going to pull a toy gun, so everybody grab his arm when he does!"
Blue Underground's Blu-ray of God Told Me To is a real beauty, obviously obtained from excellent elements. There isn't a mark on the picture. The clarity of the image restores what was murky and indistinct on old VHS tapes, all but one scene filmed on a dark staircase, that director Cohen knew was going to be hard to see. In other words, the show now looks impressively professional. We even appreciate the fine handheld camerawork, before SteadiCam. Bernard Herrman had scored an earlier Cohen film but died before he could begin the music for this one. Frank Cordell's effective soundtrack is a worthy substitute, insinuating the sci-fi themes but not insisting on them.
Blue Underground doesn't scrimp on the extras; watching it feels like we're back in the DVD heyday ten years ago. A Bill Lustig - Larry Cohen commentary is repeated from 2003, but we also have what I think are new featurettes with actor Tony Lo Bianco and effects man Steve Niell. Lo Bianco comes off as a really nice guy who knows this is still one of his top career titles. He got along with his director all the way until the gross vagina scene. Makeup specialist Neill was the one to fabricate the strange torso, which predates David Cronenberg's by several years. I guess true visionaries think alike, giving male characters fantasy vaginas. 2
Cohen also appears in good form for two audience Q&A's at Los Angeles' New Beverly and New York's Lincoln Center. His favorite opener is his story about Andy Kaufman and the St. Paddy's Day parade scene. Another gallery has trailers, ad art and other GTMT artifacts.
The cover art is the New World original. It makes the movie look like pure trash... but I'm not sure I could come up with anything better.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
God Told Me To Blu-ray
1. I am sure there are others, but the show that takes this unthinkable idea further is Joe Dante and Sam Hamm's The Screwfly Solution. We become very disturbed when the people around us behave even a little abnormally.
2. The gynecological horror reveal is A Bridge Too Far that ushers God Told Me To out of the mainstream even as it guarantees the film special cult status. It's odd that Cohen scoops David Cronenberg on two of his later shock ideas -- the notion of polymorphous reproduction (any sex can play, I guess), plus the idea from Cronenberg's reboot of The Fly, that two unique alien specimens can encourage dominant genetics by mating and having offspring that will be more 'pure' than they are. I guess Cohen felt that sticking one more bizarro concept in there couldn't hurt.
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