Filmmakers working in the exploitation film arena found themselves up against a number of adversaries: tight budgets, limited time, the disapproval of the mainstream, etc. However, the smartest filmmakers discovered that these limitations led to a lowering of expectations that allowed them to use their work as a vehicle for personalized thoughts and opinions that could transcend their genre material. One of the best and sadly most underappreciated examples of such a filmmaker is Larry Cohen. And the classic among classics in his filmography is God Told Me To.
Like its title, God Told Me To immediately grabs you by the lapels. New York finds itself suddenly beset by an array of previously normal people who go off the rails and commit multiple murders before offing themselves. The most outré of these is when a cop – played by a young Andy Kaufman(!) – opens fire on his fellow officers during the St. Patrick’s Day parade. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony LoBianco) promptly notices they all offer the same motivation before death: “God told me to.”
Nicholas discovers all these slaughter sprees lead back to Bernard (Richard Lynch), a creepy Manson-esque hippie. His quest to find this elusive messiah is beset with many obstacles. First off, the police brass want it all swept under the carpet. He’s also dealing with problems on the homefront: namely, trying to reconcile his new free-thinking collegiate mistress (Deborah Raffin) with the need for the emotional support of his estranged, religious wife (Sandy Dennis). He also discovers mysterious things about his own past that take things in a darker direction than he could imagine.
God Told Me To is the prototypical Larry Cohen opus, a wild ride that travels through all kinds of intriguing thematic territory as it hits all the required genre movie beats. It delivers the mayhem promised by its premise but also rewards the ambitious viewer with all kinds of thematic detours as well. Here’s a short checklist of a few notable ideas and themes this film touches on in less than 90 minutes: our gods might really be aliens, God might be as vengeful as the average human, religion might be useless in modern society and religious faith might just be a polite euphemism for insanity.
As the aforementioned list suggests, the film offers up one heady witches’ brew of ideas. Cohen deals with it in his usual way: he dives in head-first and barrels right through it, daring the viewer to keep up with his mental flights of fancy. He gives the film a rough-and-tumble documentary look, thus placing the material’s wilder edges in a flesh-and-blood milieu that doesn’t allow the viewer to establish a distance from them.
Cohen also gets convincing performances from his core trio of actors to enhance the film’s verite edge: Raffin and Dennis respectively give the movie some needed logical weight and emotional warmth but its LoBianco’s show all the way. He grounds the film with palpable emotion and a sincere desire to end the madness, making Nicholas likable despite his shortcomings. As the plot’s circumstances push his grip on reality to the brink, we sympathetically share the pain of his journey into a place beyond logic and reason. It’s also worth mentioning that Lynch draws on his gift for creepiness to visceral effect, particularly in the film’s climactic scenes.
Some critics – even those who like it – complain that God Told Me To suffers due to Larry Cohen’s quick & dirty approach. To these eyes, it’s a legitimate aesthetic: Cohen has always rushed through his narratives by the skin of his teeth, preferring to raise ideas and let the viewer chew on them instead of issuing a didactic decree. His films move at the same speed as his thought process and last as long as the inspiration itself. That’s what makes his style so distinctive and it’s also what makes Cohen one of the great b-movie auteurs.