Iconoclastic New York-based filmmaker Larry Cohen has always stood apart from the Hollywood crowd, inventing new subgenres of exploitation that are invariably bizarre, unpredictable, and clever, even when they don't quite work. The hugely entertaining GOD TOLD ME TO, a supernatural
psychological thriller that's almost horror, sort of science fiction, is among his very strongest works.
NYC cop Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) is obsessed with a string of seemingly unrelated mass murders, all perpetrated by nondescript people claiming that God told them to do it. Discovering that each of the murderers apparently knew a Bernard Phillips, he visits Bernard's mother, who attacks him
with a knife and promptly drops dead. When an autopsy reveals her to be a virgin, Peter tracks her story back to a reputed kidnapping and impregnation by aliens years earlier.
Peter is then led to a meeting with Bernard (Richard Lynch), who glows eerily, by a corporate executive from a conglomerate that is controlled telepathically by Bernard; the exec kills himself immediately afterward. In the course of their discussion it becomes apparent that Bernard can't control
Peter like he can normal people because Peter isn't like normal people, and Peter follows up by tracking his own history back through adoption records to his real mother, another virgin impregnated by aliens. When the two supranormals meet again, Bernard explains that Peter was a failed experiment
and Bernard the successful culmination; together they can spawn a new race. Instead Peter kills him and is committed to an asylum, explaining that God made him do it.
Much smarter than its "X-Files" plot sounds in synopsis, the film is nonetheless riddled with holes the size of the Holland Tunnel. Bernard is said to shun the public and clearly has no trouble controlling people from a distance, yet Peter interviews countless people who have met him. The purpose
of the murders is never adequately explained, nor that of the Wall Street conglomerate. Chronologically, Peter essentially hops a subway from a multiple murder during the St. Patrick's Day parade in March, to September's annual San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy. But the glaring inconsistencies
fade before the overall drive of the film, which begins as a distanced documentary complete with TV news reports, and rapidly becomes an internalized quest by one deeply troubled individual.
Larry Cohen started out as a writer for 1950s television, eventually creating subversive shows like "Branded" and "The Invaders" before moving on to helm some of the landmark classics of blaxploitation film. GOD TOLD ME TO, his first movie since the popular killer-baby feature IT'S ALIVE (1974),
was inspired by the bloody iconography of much religious artwork, and the plethora of violence filling the Bible. Postulating an alien growing up with no knowledge of its origin but powers vastly beyond normal humans, Cohen imagines it might naturally assume itself Jesus reborn. The film is rich
in theological themes and philosophical subtexts regarding Peters's faith and subconscious guilt, his ingrained religious beliefs (challenged by the virgin births and murderous assignations by "God") and his complicated personal life (a mistress who desires marriage and a wife he adores from a
distance), climaxing with asexual (pansexual? omnisexual?) Bernard ultimately offering to bear Peter's child and revealing a proto-vagina in his belly that corresponds to the wound of Jesus while presaging VIDEODROME (1983) by David Cronenberg--another cinematic auteur who rebuilt exploitation in
his own image. Smartly written and directed, with multi textured relationships and characterizations, GOD TOLD ME TO recalls KISS ME DEADLY (1955) in its flashback to a hitchhiker picking up a nude Mrs. Phillips on the road following her kidnapping by the aliens, and PSYCHO (1960) in her knife
attack of Peter on the stairs, as well as the closing shot of the convicted murderer glancing conspiratorially at the camera.
The terrific supporting cast includes Sylvia Sidney as Peter's alien-impregnated mom (two decades before she helped destroy another set of invaders in MARS ATTACKS, 1996), along with anarchic performance-art comedian Andy Kaufman in his debut role, as a grinning looneytune--talk about typecasting.
Kaufman plays the policeman who receives Bernard's message and begins killing strangers during the St. Patrick's Day parade. Cohen conceived of the sequence while the film was already in production, and acquired a newsreel permit to shoot scenes of the actual parade, sneaking his own actors into
the scene and causing unexpected commotion. Later he added shots of gunfire, mayhem and panic filmed at a restaged parade in Los Angeles. Released as GOD TOLD ME TO by New World, the film was quickly yanked, retitled DEMON, and rereleased. (Cohen claims the first title was hard for people to
remember, but more to the point, TV stations refused to carry the original ads.) Initially scheduled to be scored by Bernard Herrmann (who died during production), the film is dedicated to his memory and includes very Herrmannesque music from composer Frank Cordell. (Violence, adult situations,profanity.)
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