Directed by: Larry Cohen.
Written by: Larry Cohen.
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco (Peter J. Nicholas), Deborah Raffin (Casey Forster), Sandy Dennis (Martha Nicholas), Sylvia Sidney (Elizabeth Mullin), Sam Levene (Everett Lukas), Robert Drivas (David Morten), Mike Kellin (Deputy Commissioner), Richard Lynch (Bernard Phillips), Sammy Williams (Harold Gorman), Jo Flores Chase (Mrs. Gorman), William Roerick (Richards).
At what point do a film’s fundamental flaws sink the whole enterprise, even if there is a lot of interesting things going on in the movie? This is the question I have been asking myself since I saw God Told Me To, Larry Cohen’s 1976 sci-fi/religious horror film that has a lot of interesting ideas running through pretty much every scene, and yet is undone by poor pacing, poor editing and an overbearing score, which makes some of the dialogue incomprehensible, which makes the already overly confusing plot even more so. I wanted to like the film – in many ways, it truly is a one of a kind horror film – but in the end, the flaws overwhelm everything else. You may well feel different – many do, as the film often makes lists of the greatest horror films ever made.
The film stars Tony Lo Bianco as Peter Nicholas – and police Detective, who from the beginning of the movie is thrust into the heart of a very strange case. A sniper sits atop a water tower, and picks off 14 innocent people. Nicholas arrives to try and talk him down – and fails – but before the sniper jumps to his death he confides that his motive was because “God Told Me To”. In the coming days and weeks, there are more and more mass killings – and the killers all tell Nicholas the same thing. God Told Me To. This becomes impossible for Nicholas to square in his mind – he is a devout Catholic. Yes, he is in the process of getting a divorce, but he doesn’t much like it – and is lying to his new girlfriend about why the divorce hasn’t gone through yet. He goes to Church every morning, and confesses everything. Why do all these people think God is telling them to kill? Could God actually be doing that?
The movie takes some very bizarre twists and turns – the biggest one basically turns the whole of Christianity into a weird joke at best, and at worst just another perverse plot twist in a movie full of them. Perhaps that it Cohen’s ultimate point here – he certainly doesn’t think all that much of religion throughout the film, which basically dooms the film’s “hero” from the start. The film ends with its most bizarre twist yet – a moment that seems like a precursor to at some of the body horror that was to come from David Cronenberg.
There are a lot of interesting moments in God Told Me To – including a confrontation between Nicholas and an older woman, played by screen legend Sylvia Sidney, that doesn’t quite go where we thought it would. There is also a bizarre scene that depending on how you choose to look at it, is either commenting on racism or else is just plain racist. The film has some interesting ideas on race, sexuality, masculinity and religion.
Why then do I find myself not much liking God Told Me To? This would seem to be right up my alley, and its influence on other filmmakers is fairly undeniable. But for me, God Told Me To just doesn’t end up working because its plot is just simply too incomprehensible. It requires the viewer to make some pretty big leaps in logic to get from point a to point b, and even then I don’t think it makes much sense. The plotting is confused, the writing is often on the nose, and the editing leaves much to be desired. When it gets right down to it, God Told Me To be a movie brimming with ideas, but has no idea how to say any of them. I wanted to like the film – I wanted to see the film that many see. But I can’t – all those interesting ideas are trapped behind a confused, confusing, muddled mess of a surface. Before a movie can work as subtext, it needs to work as text.