Today’s feature is a surreal and somewhat obscure feature by b-movie icon Larry Cohen: “God Told Me To.”
“God Told Me To” was written and directed by Larry Cohen, one of my favorite figures in the b-movie world. He is probably best known for “It’s Alive,” but is also responsible for “The Stuff,” the “Maniac Cop” franchise, “Phone Booth,” and the blaxploitation classic “Black Caesar,” among many others.
The effects on “God Told Me To” were provided by first-timer Steve Neill, who went on to work special effects on movies like “Puppet Master,” “The Stuff,” “Saturday the 14th,” and “Laserblast.”
“God Told Me To” was photographed by a man named Paul Glickman, who worked with Larry Cohen again in the 1980s on a handful of later films (“The Stuff,” “Perfect Strangers,” and “Special Effects”).
The music for “God Told Me To” was provided by Frank Cordell, and was his last film composition before his death in 1980. The music was initially slated to be provided by the legendary Bernard Hermann after he finished on “Taxi Driver,” but he tragically died of a heart attack immediately after completing that film’s score.
The cast of “God Told Me To” was led by Tony Lo Bianco, Richard Lynch, Sylvia Sidney, Sandy Dennis, Deborah Raffin, and Robert Drivas. Interestingly, Andy Kaufman briefly appears in his first film role, surprisingly as one of the killers.
The story of “God Told Me To” centers around an investigation into a series of perplexing murders, in which the killers all claim to have been instructed by God. A particularly religious detective attempts to dig up the bizarre roots of what he convinces himself are cult-motivated murders, in an attempt to prevent any more killings.
“God Told Me To” was also released under a couple of alternate titles, including “Demon” and “God Told Me To Kill,” though it is most widely known and recognized by the original title. I personally prefer “God Told Me To Kill,” but I am willing to bet that that title wasn’t going to fly for the theatrical release.
One particularly surreal sequence of “God Told Me To” depicting an alien abduction (yes, the plot involves aliens by the end) features footage pulled from the 1970s British Sci-Fi series “Space: 1999.”
“God Told Me To” was clearly made on a minimal budget, but it looks pretty impressive considering. I wasn’t able to dig up any box office or budget information on the film, but apparently it was not financially successful or well-received upon its initial release. However, it has certainly gained a good deal of cult popularity over the years, particularly within the horror community. It was recently named as #94 on list of the 100 greatest horror movies on TimeOut.com, based on voting from an assortment of horror professionals (including Simon Pegg and Roger Corman, reportedly).
“God Told Me To” was, as mentioned, not well received when it was initially released in theaters. It currently holds Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 55% (audience) and 75% (critic), as well as an IMDb score of 6.3.
“God Told Me To” is without a doubt a very weird movie that goes in odd directions, and is anything but predictable. Reviews I have seen almost always cite the ending and various revelations as confusing, but nonetheless inventive. It seems like only a very particular niche of viewers are going to enjoy this film, just because of where the surreal plot ultimately goes.
Roger Ebert wrote a particularly scathing review that took shots at both the screenplay and the editing on “God Told Me To”:
“This is the most confused feature-length film I’ve ever seen…There were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order…a sort of 52-card pick-up of cinema.”
I personally think that the way the film is put together fits with the way the story becomes increasingly surreal as the plot goes on, and that Ebert was a bit more than unfair with his treatment of the film. The review is brief, but it is clear from the outset that he went in expecting to hate the movie, and that the experimental aspects of its construction didn’t work for him. I agree about his assessment of the cult leader character though, and thought they could have done a better job with him. He should have been something more than “a hippie who glowed yellow,” which I didn’t think carried the gravity that it should have.
For fans of Larry Cohen’s earlier works, it is easy to see little bits of influence from his blaxsploitation movies in the details of “God Told Me To,” particularly in the inclusion of a flamboyant, extortionist gangster. Cohen’s films “Black Caesar” and “Hell Up In Harlem” are seen as near-essentials of the sub-genre, and are certainly worth looking into.
The opening sniper sequence of “God Told Me To” reminded me of another movie called “Targets,” Peter Bogdanovich’s first film made in 1968. The movie similarly centers around a spree killing, and features some similar shots of sniping. It has been on my radar for a while now, and may very well pop up on the blog for a review sooner or later.
Overall, I liked “God Told Me To,” though not as much as I thought I would going into it. The movie loses most of its coherence towards the end, which doesn’t necessarily have to happen with a surreal storyline if you ask me, but usually does. The film also loses some steam after a really strong opening hook and first act, but I thought that the ending was ultimately satisfying after a little bit of dragging in the middle.
I can definitely recommend “God Told Me To” for fans of Larry Cohen’s other works, as well as for hardcore horror folks in general. I will say that it may be a bit weird for general audiences, and it is also a bit of a slow burn pacing-wise, with an atmospheric style that won’t resonate with a lot of people. I see this movie as a curiosity that is understandably obscure, and it is certainly not as fun or light-hearted as some of the later, more memorable Cohen movies. That said, it is arguably Cohen’s best film. If the bizarre plot doesn’t turn you off, I recommend giving it a shot.