God Told Me To aka God Told Me to Kill (1976)
Dir. Larry Cohen
Starring Tony Lo Bianco, Sandy Dennis, Richard Lynch
Man, you gotta hand it to Larry Cohen. The guy is just endlessly ambitious, never satisfied that it's enough, even when maybe he ought to be. It's not enough to make a police procedural/horror flick, it's also got to be a sci-fi, AND a serial killer flick, AND a secret-identity story, AND a domestic drama, AND challenge everything you take for granted about religion. So yeah, God Told Me To is an overstuffed film, but it kind of works. It's so wild and ambitious that you forgive its occasional awkward bits and simply sit back and wonder where in God's name Cohen is going with this.
Cohen's MO, as you are no doubt aware, is taking schlocky genre stuff (THE-BLOB-Meets-SOYLENT-GREEN in THE STUFF, WOLFEN-from-above in Q: THE WINGED SERPENT) and stubbornly cramming that framework full of interesting ideas, detail, and performances. He has fun with his genre conventions, but absolutely never treats them as jokes, even when its something as inherently hilarious as the evil killer baby in IT'S ALIVE! Treating the subject seriously means that it's even funnier, but can also win you over into legitimately invested territory with his inventive horror sequences and solid cinematic construction. GOD TOLD ME TO is less of a fun ride than some of his other fare, but that's due to its intentionally serious subject matter. Not everyone is going to be able to accept something this crazy as a serious philosophical horror film, but to the film's credit it strives for and generally earns a heavier tone for anyone who can suspend disbelief enough to follow it where it wants to go.
Tony Lo Bianco (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE SEVEN-UPS) stars as detective Peter Nicholas, who arrives on the scene of several apparently unmotivated random killings to hear the perpetrator explain that "God told me to." The cops try to surpress this information because they (rightly, as it turns out) think releasing it to the public will create a crisis of faith which leads to widespread anarchy, but Nicholas thinks it may be the only way to figure out what's really happening. Turns out, all the killers had come into contact with a mysterious young man (Richard Lynch, who would also portray a scary messianic figure in BAD DREAMS) who holds the key to the mystery and may just be the return of Jesus Christ. Into this respectably ballsy premise enter a secret society, a mysterious virgin birth, an inexplicable subplot about Nicholas' wife and girlfriend, another inexplicable subplot about a corrupt coworker, and a whole bunch of crazy twists that you have to see for yourself.
As wild as the thing gets, Cohen deserves credit for keeping things serious and surprisingly emotionally weighty. Lo Bianco gives a painful and nuanced performance as the Catholic Nicholas, who finds himself pushed to the brink of his beliefs as it appears that a returned Jesus is engaged in mass killings. He's believable as a tough, skeptical detective, but allows the horror of his shattered worldview to simmer just below the surface. It's unusual to see a guy who is so emotionally destroyed but can still get on with his job, but Lo Bianco sells it beautifully and as such adds real depth to Nicholas' journey down the rabbit hole. Even when things get pulpy, Cohen forces us to see the emotional damage it's doing to the people involved and as such never gets swept away in the pulpier aspects of the story. There's an old lady (Sylvia Sidney) who appears in the final act to tell this absurd story (complemented by some not-so-fantastic special effects) which strains credulity even in this movie -- and then, just as you're about to be forced to transition into ironic enjoyment, she breaks down and starts crying pitiably. The more Lo Bianco tries to comfort her, the more hysterical she gets. This could turn into a complete disaster, but the two actors sell it with such conviction that its genuinely upsetting. They make stock footage of a rubber-legged lady getting sucked into the sky believable as a genuinely traumatic experience which left deep emotional scars.
The horror is surprisingly effective too. As fun as IT'S ALIVE is, I don't know that its ever genuinely scary. GOD TOLD ME TO is only intermittently a horror film, but its moments of horror are unique and genuinely spooky. There's a knife attack early on as frighteningly savage and shocking as anything comparable I've seem, and a great sequence with one of the secret society guys which takes place in a creepy apartment which would not look out of place in a David Lynch film. And who can fault a film which makes Jesus into a genuinely unsettling apparition without cheating and changing his appearance? And as well as those sequences and images work, the film's concepts are in themselves fraught with dread which lingers over everything. Even when the film lurches into exposition or melodrama, there's an unsettling feeling that random violence could erupt at any moment. Unfathomable and merciless forces are always lurking just below the surface of the ordinary, and Cohen makes you feel that tension even when he's not drowning you in blood.
Not all of it works, of course; the film was shot for cheap and it frequently looks cheap, the sound is poorly recorded (even on the DVD its quite difficult to hear the dialogue at times), the shifts between genres are sometimes a little clunky, and unless I missed some key dialogue I'm not 100% the film entirely explains everything it raises. A mystery this wild can almost never have a satisfying explanation -- this one makes a valiant and fascinating attempt, but of course the mystery is always going to be more enjoyable. The truth isn't exactly a letdown, it just changes the tone of the film somewhat (it has a pretty great climax, though).
As a side note, I know that Cohen is deeply concerned with civil rights and makes a special effort to include good roles for African-Americans in his films (in fact, he started his career with some classic blaxploitation with strong black heroes) -- but its hard not to notice in this one that all the black characters are villainous criminals. There's a sequence near the end which is a little uncomfortable as major protagonist murders a bunch of admittedly assholish Black gangsters basically to test a theory. I think at the time he was trying to actively include roles for black actors but in hindsight their incorporation into this film might not be quite as progressive as one might hope (I'm not implying Cohen is a racist, just that this film and its idea of roles for black actors are products of its time).
Those complaints aside, however, this is a devilishly impressive and bold creation which may well represent Cohen's definitive vision of marrying genre exploitation with serious philosophical musings. This cheapie horror film asks no less than what our responsibility to the divine is. If Jesus returns and he's an asshole, are we still morally obligated to commit murder for him? Can a balance of power as great as the one between the creator of the universe and his myriad of mortal children ever resist the potential for abuse? And if Jesus became mortal as a reflection of our mortal fallibilities, could he also come to represent our darkest follies as well as our loftiest aspirations? Power is the basis of God's ability to represent the ultimate moral authority -- if we can become powerful enough to rival God, does that authority erode? Do we perhaps even have a responsibility to challenge him(/her)?
These are powerful questions, and Cohen asks them firmly but with subtlety. Even when the film doesn't quite live up to its lofty goals, you've got to be kind of awed at his steadfast belief that these things are worthy of inclusion in an exploitation film, as well as his faith in an audience which can appreciate both. Cohen hasn't directed much in the past decade, and although he continues to write sharp, enjoyable genre stuff like 2002's PHONE BOOTH, this one may represent the peak of his ambition to merge pulp thrills with genuine substance. I'd love to see him try something this ambitious again (he did return to the director's chair with a Master of Horror episode in 2006) but even if he doesn't, this stands as a landmark of his particular vision which I doubt anyone else will top anytime soon.
PS: Oh yeah, watch for Andy Fucking Kaufman in his first film role as one of the killers. IMBD says he antagonized the St. Patrick's Day crowd in his police costume and Cohen had to physically restrain the crowd. Awesome. Also Bernard Herrmann was going to score it (as he did with ITS ALIVE) but died hours after watching it. They should have played that up, promoted it as "The Film That Killed Bernard Herrmann!" or something. Opportunity missed, but not as cheekily as the opportunity missed by the second composer Cohen approached, who quipped "God told me not to."