Filmmaker Larry Cohen is a well-regarded figure in the horror film community, mainly because of the weird ups-and-downs of his varied career. Cohen started out with raw exploitation dramas like BONE, and eventually worked his way through a few horror cheapies like Q: THE WINGED SERPENT, the three amazing IT’S ALIVE movies, and the outrageous killer yogurt film THE STUFF. He also directed the pseudo-sequel A RETURN TO ‘SALEM’S LOT, and is the man behind Bette Davis’s final film, the mind-boggling WICKED STEPMOTHER. He’s also worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for many years, having penned innumerable episodes of your favorite ’60s and ’70s TV shows, the MANIAC COP movies, and more recently, films like CAPTIVITY and PHONE BOOTH (a screenplay that has a drama unto itself, and was originally pitched to Alfred Hitchcock).
Cohen’s ideas have always had a toe just beyond the fringe, frequently pushing the envelope in terms of where cinema ought to take us. Killer snack food from beneath the Earth’s surface? Why not? A killer monster baby in a tropical setting? Sure. Elisha Cuthbert being force fed blended eyeballs? Haven’t seen that one before.
But none of Cohen’s out-there ideas can compete with what is easily the man’s strangest film — 1976’s GOD TOLD ME TO.
Staged as a police procedural, GOD TOLD ME TO is a phantasmagoria of cults, brainwashing, alien-imbued psychic powers, and God knows what else. It follows the investigation of a Catholic police detective named Peter (Tony Lo Bianco from THE FRENCH CONNECTION), who apprehends a sniper. When asked his motivation, the sniper only replies that “God told him to” commit murder. He then throws himself off a building. This will be but the first in a string of local murders wherein the assailants claim that God commanded them to kill.
GOD TOLD ME TO, like many horror films of the late 1970s, clearly drew a lot of inspiration from the success of THE EXORCIST — so the religious themes and Catholic iconography on display were a common sight in the genre, perhaps ensuring that “bigger ideas” were being discussed.
The first third of GOD TOLD ME TO is played straight and seriously, bringing subtle themes of religious doubt and cult-like hysteria to the fore. Whether or not one believes in God or in Catholic dogma, one can be shaken by the notion of a group of random strangers all suddenly finding God to be their central inspiration to kill.
But that serious tone of religious exploration soon spins upward into a hazy other-realm of utter bugnuts insanity.
Peter soon discovers — via talk of alien abductions and virgin birth — that all the murders are linked by the psychic bonds of a creepy cult leader named Bernard Phillips, played by the indispensable Richard Lynch. Barnard, all white robes and portent, explains to Peter how there are larger forces at work in the world, and that his cultists — all unknowingly inducted into an unexplained messianic alien plot — are under his direct psychic control. He also reveals that Peter is somehow personally involved in Bernard’s prophecies as well.
Peter eventually finds his long lost birth mother, and discovers that his father was perhaps a glowing orb of white light sent from deep space, or Heaven or Hell… or something. I don’t want to give away too much beyond that, but at least one character in this story will have a vagina on their abdomen.
Oh yes, and in what might be a hint to the audience about the film’s potential meta-textuality, surrealist comedian Andy Kaufman has a cameo appearance as a possessed cop.
Many of Cohen’s screenplays are, as I indicated above, ambitious. Clearly familiar with well-worn Hollywood screenwriting tropes, Cohen starts with the familiar — or at least the popular — and uses it as a jumping-off point to explore something new and unusual and markedly his.
THE STUFF, for instance, starts with a known idea — essentially INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS — and blends it with yuppie-influenced food crazes of the mid 1980s, or perhaps just the trend-happy mindset in general. IT’S ALIVE was a more exploitative rendition of ROSEMARY’S BABY, complete with more monster attacks and gore, that would be more acceptable, perhaps, to a grindhouse audience.
GOD TOLD ME TO took many thematic and visual cues from THE EXORCIST and the hard-boiled detective films of the era (DIRTY HARRY came out five years previous), and started along a path toward what might resemble a very good religious-themed police procedural that could have perhaps been directed by Sidney Lumet: A Catholic cop must track down an ultra-violent Christian sect, casting a shadow across his faith. By extension, then, the film is making, perhaps, a cynical comment on how hope has transformed into blind desperation, and how that desperation has come to twist the actions of modern, secular, urban America.
Is this film about a crisis of spirituality? Yes. It is about the fall of modern man? Sure. Is it about the way hucksters and cult leaders can easily lead those seeking a release for their pent-up cultural frustrations? Indeed. Does it ask the chilling question of whether or not the cult leaders are 100% correct? Stirringly so.
But is the film cogent or enjoyable? That’s a separate issue with GOD TOLD ME TO. It’s most certainly enjoyable, but largely because it lacks cogency. It seeks to draw the viewer in with large ideas, without first bothering to ask if those large ideas connect to any sort of natural human mindset.
Philosophically, it may have a lot on its mind… but it’s about as good at communicating its philosophy as your overwhelmingly stoned college dorm-mate who just got done skimming Sartre and Heidegger and is going to make darn sure you know, like, exactly what’s going on in the world, man. We’re all just asleep, man… we’re under the control of The Man, man… and wait, wait… what if “The Man” was actually a godlike alien being, hellbent on incest-laced utopia? ALIENS, bruh!
Looking starkly into the mind of Larry Cohen is an exhilarating, dizzying experience — and as a B-movie filmmaker, he’s often in a unique place to observe, trace, and imitate cinematic trends. But also unwilling, unable, or uninterested in simply ripping off what came before, Cohen has been keen on folding his own ideas about religion, obsession, surrealism, and violence into his movies — often giving them a unique, psychedelic edge (ask me about WICKED STEMPMOTHER sometime). GOD TOLD ME TO is Cohen at his most gloriously unhinged, and watching it — especially with a crowd of tittering ruffians — is a transformative experience.
GOD TOLD ME TO enjoys a modest cult following to this day, and screens at midnight movie houses from time to time. It’s a wonder, though, that its following is not more widespread — the film is a rip-snorting good time, imminently watchable, and in the final act, pinwheelingly baffling. Seek it, take it in, and then tell me what the heck was going on…