God Told Me To (1976) - aka "Demon" (Some television distributors would not schedule the film under it's original name.)
A New World Pictures release that made it's way through the schlock/B-movie market of the time.
I have to admit my exploration into the cinema of Larry Cohen had been limited to one feature - It's Alive (1974), which the late Robin Wood programmed for his American Cinema class in my second year of film school. I seemed to remember finding that film worthwhile and was looking forward to throwing myself into this other Cohen pic.
Kind of safe to say God Told Me To is like the weather in Toronto - just when you think you've got a handle on it, there it goes and changes unexpectedly. Put away the shorts and get out the long johns. That's pretty much the way this film goes - what you thought you were watching twenty minutes ago doesn't seem to be there later on.
It's not possible to give too elaborate a synopsis on this one, with all of its twists and turns. The film starts with the random shooting of people on the streets of Manhattan. A sniper perched on a water tower is blasting away but not showing any emotion during the slaughter. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) manages to communicate with the individual, who tells him "God told me to" shoot the innocents below. Nicholas notices these strange random acts increasing and with the same, calm explanation from each killer..."God told me to".
All of these religious connotations weigh heavily on the devout Nicholas - well, he is devout in being a God-fearing man who sneeks away to mass when he isn't coming home to the bed of his babe girlfriend (Deborah Raffin). The gal-pal would like to know when Peter is going to have the balls to divorce his wife Martha (Sandy Dennis); trouble is, Pete and Martha actually get along fine when together and, being Catholic, he has no inclination to change his relationship(s) from where things stand.
As his investigation continues it becomes evident that the person inspiring the murderous actions in the populace is a mysterious character named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch who, when we finally meet him, has a very "interesting" appearance). The film shifts from crime drama to supernatural horror tale to sci-fi with ruminations on religion and personal identity...oh, and a different virgin birth on a Christmas Day...yeah, things get complicated.
There is nothing wrong with the acting in the film - in fact, the performances are far superior compared to usual B-movie fare. Lo Bianco is entirely convincing in portraying his frustrations with the investigation and, later, the anxiety he feels over questions concerning his own identity. I remember him in a fly-under-the-radar flic he did with Karen Black called Separate Ways where he was once again the pole that held up the cinematic tent. One day I'm going to write up a post on the most underrated actors and he'll be in it. A guy who has appeared in some paycheck type films but has never to my knowledge delivered a paycheck performance, he keeps this hectic storyline tied together.
Both Raffin and Dennis are nothing short of excellent in the execution of their roles. Sylvia Sidney shows up later and delivers a small but important spin on the tale very well. This is beyond the level of thespianism I expect to see in most New World Picture releases. But in some ways that's a problem. The four aforementioned actors are so good that they look out of place amongst the shaky camerawork, cheap FX and slapdash look of the film.
The balance between keeping things interesting and exasperating is increasingly challenged as the tale goes on into every which direction. Corporate manipulation, social unrest and even the true identities of Jesus/God come into question, with a little pre X-files speculation about how alien beings may really be running the show coming into the mix. Hello?...what's going on?...where am I?...what's happening now?
All of this is interesting and worthwhile stuff but it's one thing to come up with the ideas and another to execute them. Cohen's film is not suffering from a dearth of concepts. Apparently he hasn't heard that less is often more.
God Told Me To is not a write-off but it requires a lot of patience. Many of the issues it deals with - especially following religious orthodoxies without question and the manipulations in and of our society in general- are welcome explorations. It's because they are important that I wish they were examined in a more considerate manner. Just because your doing a B-film dealing with A-issues doesn't excuse sloppiness and clumsy approaches. Involving your audience is one thing but this reviewer felt like he went through an hour and a half workout from a fitness instructor who kept changing my exercise program unannounced. Phew!
Cohen certainly has his fans and I know many have really gotten into this flic but...
I say this film tastes - SLOPPY.
(If you do decide to give this a viewing, look for Andy Kaufman in a cop-turned-murderer bit role.)