Sunday, August 9, 2009

God Told Me To Tell You To See This Movie

Few things are more frightening than everyday people committing heinous acts of violence. It's part of why I recently found myself explaining how haunting Gus Van Sant's Elephant is. For 90 minutes, you meander through high school walls and eavesdrop on its 'real life' teenaged conversations. Then, right between the afternoon sun and the lunch bell, a pair of 16 year olds march inside and open fire on everyone from the head cheerleader to the shy library aide. Yes, it's disturbing for being so close to the actual Columbine massacre, but it's also the non-Hollywood look and sound of amateur actors role playing a situation that hardly seems forced.

The great Larry Cohen's God Told Me To begins with a scene of almost documentary-esque violence, setting viewers up in a recognizable universe where general rules of safety and conduct are no longer guaranteed. For the first half or so, this is the terrifying environment we find ourselves in. Once plot points are revealed, Cohen takes us in an equally interesting, if slightly less primal place. The end result is memorable and will make you think; the opening is unsettling and will give you nightmares.

Quick Plot: A typical workday in NYC comes to a bloody halt when a rifleman perched on a water tower starts gunning down passing strangers. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) attempts to talk the shooter down face to face. Not surprisingly, he’s unsuccessful, but this strict Catholic cop does get an answer when he inquires about the motive: “God told me to.”

Later that week, Manhattan preps itself for the annual beerfest--I mean, St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A phoned warning hints that one of NY’s own Finest will open fire on 5th Avenue, but being as “The Irish have waited all year for this!”, the march continues and none other than a fresh-faced Andy Kaufman in uniform goes postal before the world knew what city employees were capable of. Dying words? See title.

To continue with a plot description leads me into dangerously spoiler filled terrain I dare not enter. There’s a lot of directions you’d expect this film to take, but I’m fairly certain most viewers will be surprised by where God Told Me To goes and how it gets there. Cohen wisely grounds his story in Lo Bianco’s Catholic detective, a Catholic struggling with his own decisions who ends up on a journey far more terrifying and weird than one would expect.

God Told Me To is not an explicit horror film along the lines of It’s Alive, nor is it a fluffier piece of satirical insanity like the Dolls House favorite The Stuff. This early Cohen piece has, not surprisingly, its own unique mood aided by the gritty beauty of NYC in its glorious gritty 70sness. The action, however, is hardly limited to 42nd St sleaze. I'm biting my tongue to not give away the force behind the lordly commands, but let's just say it's transcends the Tri-State area in ways only a restrained Larry Cohen could conjure.

High Points
An early scene wherein a murderous father calmly explains how and why he slaughtered his family is one of the most quietly disturbing monolgues I’ve heard on film

Likewise, Sylvia Sydney turns in a strong one-scene performance that succeeds in revealing a surprising, potentially laughable plot point and making it into something sad and scary

The relationship between Pete's two loves plays out in an intriguing and honest way, avoiding the cliches we'd expect from a mistress/ex-wife meetup. Their discussion is well-acted and reveals a few more chilling details

Low Points
Perhaps there’s a better DVD out there (more about that later), but much of the dialogue was muffled. This was especially frustrating since my Netflix’d copy lacked any subtitles

I imagine the low budget had some say here, but it would have been nice to get a liitle more of how the rash of killings were affecting the city of New York

Just as it’s hard to watch any John Carpenter movie and not wish for a dose of Kurt Russell, any Cohen flick without the weirdly charismatic presence of Michael Moriarity also feels a tad incomplete

Lessons Learned
Never let your son hang out with a dirty long-haired hippie...particularly if said bad influence possesses an angelic glow and oddly placed vaginal opening

It’s easy to sweet talk a nun

Speaking to God will make you rapidly age ten years before your 22nd birthday; other side effects include going on a killing spree

When a man calls in a serious terrorism threat and begins his warning with “Don’t ask who I am,” the first thing you should not do is ask who’s speaking

Never date a married Catholic. Soooooo much guilt there

Like most of Larry Cohen’s work, God Told Me To is rich in ideas and a little less wealthy in execution. Still, the central themes about faith and free will combined with fairly wacky (yet somehow very grounded) story twists overcome some of the awkward plotting and low budget restraints. The performances are top notch all around and most of the early scenes are truly frightening in how they depict random violence hitting everyday urbanites.

A note on the DVD: It seems as though there are a few versions of this film floating about on those fragile little discs, and should you purchase this film (which you should), be sure to get the right release. My Netflix edition was disappointingly bare bones and the transfer was messy and muddled. Look for the Blue Underground edition which features a Cohen/Bill Lustig commentary (yes, that is the team that gave us the sadly inferior, yet gleefully patriotic Uncle Sam). Be sure to tell ‘em God sent ya.


  1. Excellent film. Cohen is amazing. Also, Andy Kaufmann cameos? What the hell?

  2. I know! There's rarely a dull performance or plot thread in a Cohen film. Kaufmann caught me offguard, but not nearly as much as the wackiness that is Paul Sorvino in The Stuff. Discovering his work has been incredibly exciting for me over the past few years. I'm saving Q The Winged Serpent for a special occasion.

    Thanks for the comment!