Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen
I’m going to spend a lot of time on this blog writing about the films of writer/producer/director Larry Cohen. Unfairly brushed aside by mainstream critics and many film historians as merely a cheesy B-movie director, his output has been admittedly uneven, but the highs far outnumber the lows and he tackles controversial subject matter in a fearless manner that most filmmakers have to secretly admire.
God Told Me To definitely doesn’t shy away from controversy.
Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) is a detective with the New York City Police department. He’s a devout Catholic, tortured by his failed marriage to the barely sane Martha (Sandy Dennis) and his love affair with a younger woman, Casey (Deborah Raffin). This religious guilt already weighs on him like a thousand-pound burden hanging around his neck before a string of random murders begin plaguing the city.
First, a young man climbs a rooftop water tower with a rifle and kills random pedestrians. Next, a man stabs several people in a grocery store. By the time a cop (Andy Kaufman!) in the St. Patrick’s Day parade kills five people, the city is in a panic. But what the residents don’t know is what the police are hiding from them: After capture (or just before their deaths), the murderers all say the same thing: ‘God told me to.’
Peter knows this fact and it bothers him on a different level than his fellow police officers because of the depth of his religious faith. Oddly ashamed of this fact, he sneaks away from Casey every morning to attend Mass and confess his sins. His rigid belief in the Church is what keeps him from divorcing Martha, despite her insistence that he do so and let her go. His faith leads him to not only be appalled by the claims of the murderers, but to actively fear them. Why? Because deep down, Peter knows there’s something to their claims. He can’t explain how he knows, but it’s something more than a hunch that leads him to question how a man with an inferior rifle and a bad scope could hit a moving cyclist in the temple. That’s strange enough, but why do the people stay after their crimes to be captured or killed by the police? And how do they all know to offer up the same excuse?
The slightly hysterical view that Cohen takes toward Catholicism (and religion in general) is enough to anger the majority of people in America, so you can only imagine the can of worms he opens when he connects aliens to the story of Jesus Christ in the loopy second act. By the time we meet Bernard (Richard Lynch), a mysterious young man who may be orchestrating the killings, it makes perfect sense that cinematographer Paul Glickman uses yellow gels and over-lighting to blow out the image, turning him into a walking ball of angelic light. It’s far from subtle, but it’s a striking moment, especially when contrasted with the vérité style that Cohen employs for the rest of the film.
I wanted to kick off The Cohen Case Files with God Told Me To because it’s the perfect example of a great Larry Cohen film, while not as well known as something like It’s Alive. It has the hand-held camera work (much of the film was shot on the streets of New York without permits, including placing actors in actual parades and street festivals) that gives it the previously mentioned vérité look that is used in the majority of the films he directed. Combined with his sometimes frantic cutting, this style could make his films look threadbare and amateurish. In the hands of a director with a less adept touch with actors, this might be the case. But in the best of his films, Cohen not only casts well, he draws consistently great performances from his actors.
This brings me to the cast of God Told Me To. The film has scene after scene of old pro character actors nailing their small performances. Actors like Lynch, Dennis, Sam Levene, Sylvia Sidney, John Heffernan, Mason Adams (you haven’t lived until you’ve heard the actor known as the Smucker’s voice-over man describe the birth of a hermaphrodite), and Cohen regular James Dixon all lend depth and legitimacy to a story that threatens to fly off the rails at any second.
And of course, there’s Tony Lo Bianco.
As you’ll know, if you’ve seen even a few Larry Cohen films, he writes great, nuanced male leads and then he gets an intense, uncomfortably intimate performance out of a great character actor in that lead role, as opposed to a star. Lo Bianco falls perfectly into that description. Sporting a constant grimace that projects a man haunted by a terrible truth that he doesn’t understand, Lo Bianco plays Peter as a man who is slowly unravelling. His descent from upstanding police officer to a shattered martyr allows him to employ a slow-burn approach to the character that matches Cohen’s handling of the story and the consistent ramping up of tension. If Lo Bianco wasn’t so gritty and realistic as Peter, the ridiculous plot twists could have been pure cheese.
The fact that he’s so good in the role is actually surprising. It’s not that Lo Bianco isn’t a good actor. You need look no further than his work in The Honeymoon Killers to see that the man has boatloads of talent. What makes his work in God Told Me To so impressive is the fact that he wasn’t the first actor cast in the role. Robert Forster was Cohen’s original choice and actually shot for a few days before being fired. Lo Bianco came in without any preparation for the role and carried the film.
The other thing that makes God Told Me To such a perfect example of a Larry Cohen film is the presence of a heavy dose of social commentary. No matter the goofy subject matter, Cohen’s best films have an underlying message to them that is sometimes preachy, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but always welcome, giving his genre exercises more depth than slicker, studio-produced material. Here, he takes on the taboo subject of doing terrible things in the name of God–or in this case, in the name of a man who might be an alien who believes he’s God. This makes the film relevant today, 35 years after its release. There’s not much difference between the serenely murderous disciples in the film and a terrorist, supremely confident in the belief that killing innocent people is looked upon with favor by God. For as controversial as the film was when it was initially released, it would probably be even more so today.
The film was distributed by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, and while the teaming of the two legendary independent filmmakers sounds like a good idea, the film suffered. Corman tried to cash in on the “satanic panic” craze of ‘70s genre cinema. He retitled the film Demon in some markets and issued posters that were very reminiscent of the posters for The Omen. The problem with this attempt to piggyback off the success of The Omen is that film was a “good vs. evil” story that reaffirmed traditional Christian values through a literal presentation of an actual Antichrist. God Told Me To is about questioning blind faith in religion. While the film never comes down strictly on the side of doing away with religion, it does take harsh aim at blind faith with a tricky central question that asks, “What if there is a higher power in the universe and it’s not so benevolent?” Between the controversial subject matter and the confusion caused by the film playing different parts of the country under two different titles, it was a commercial disappointment.
But the years have been kind to God Told Me To. Audiences have found it on home video and it has gained a cult following that extends beyond Cohen’s fan base. Some of the ideas and themes in the film found their way into The X-Files, twenty years later, so someone was paying attention. It’s a great piece of storytelling that asks some very compelling questions at the same time that it entertains. You can’t ask for much more than that from a movie.
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