God Told Me To (aka Demon)

Director: Larry Cohen
Screenplay: Larry Cohen
Stars: Tony Lo Bianco (Peter Nicholas), Deborah Raffin (Casey Forster), Sandy Dennis (Martha Nicholas), Sylvia Sidney (Elizabeth Mullin), Sam Levene (Everett Lukas), Robert Drivas (David Morten), Mike Kellin (Deputy Commissioner)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1976
Country: U.S.
God Told Me To Blu-ray
God Told Me ToOne could say many things about writer/director Larry Cohen, but that he lacked ambition is certainly not one of them. Nor could you say that he was conventional, nor could you say he was predictable. Although he earned a reputation as a B-movie monster auteur with an avid cult following in the 1970s and early ’80s, Cohen dabbled in numerous genres, with each of his films taking a hard turn from the one before it, suggesting that his ideas were ultimately more important than the genres in which they were encased.

Despite being a chameleon, Cohen, much like his contemporaries George A. Romero and David Cronenberg, found particularly fertile results in embracing the traditions of the low-budget horror and fantasy genres as a means of exploring a myriad of boundary-pushing ideas, many of which were frankly more than his movies could actually handle. A prolific television screenwriter and series creator who graduated to feature film writer/director during the Blaxploitation era of the early 1970s (he had a memorable one-two punch in 1973 with Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem), Cohen first made himself truly known with It’s Alive (1974), a cult favorite about murderous mutant babies. He polished his technique and raised his production levels in the ensuing years, but his subsequent efforts, including two It’s Alive sequels, Q (1982), The Stuff (1985), and his screenplay for Maniac Cop (1988), are all schlocky drive-in movie material at heart, which is perhaps why he never quite graduated to the next level.

One of Cohen’s most intriguing and ambitious early efforts is God Told Me To, a fanatic-religion-meets-alien-abduction thriller that takes to task the very existence of God, as well as the nature of religion and deification in the modern world. The movie is cynical at best and sacrilegious at worst, considering that the explanation of the particular God in this film would fit neatly in an episode of The X-Files, although only the super-religious would have any cause to be offended. Like Cohen’s other early efforts, its low-budget nature certainly shows at times, but he makes the most of what he has on hand and manages to convey a sense of genuine weirdness that sticks with you. He also displays all manner of resource-strapped ingenuity, including the creative use of stock footage and stealing shots of an actual St. Patrick’s Day parade to give the movie a sense of scale and scope its actual budget couldn’t possibly provide.

Following the opening credits, which unspool over a genuinely creepy Omen-esque chant composed by Frank Cordell (who stepped in when the original composer, Hitchcock favorite Bernard Herrmann, passed away), the movie opens with a series of randomly violent incidents in New York City: a sniper (Tony winner Sammy Williams) perched on a water tower shoots and kills 14 people in the street below; a police officer (an early role for comedian Andy Kaufman) walking in the aforementioned St. Patty’s Day parade suddenly opens fire on the crowd; a man in a supermarket begins attacking people with a knife; and so on. When police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) begins investigating the incidents, he quickly discovers a link connecting all the violence: Whenever asked what made them do it, the attackers, in calm rational voices, always respond, “God told me to.”

This deeply affects Nicholas because of his own strong Catholic background. He never misses confession and he won’t divorce his wife Martha (Sandy Dennis) even though they haven’t slept in the same house for four years and he is actively courting another girlfriend (Deborah Raffin), from whom he hides his faith. Nicholas is convinced that there is someone or something controlling the actions of these people, all of whom have no criminal histories to suggest they are capable of such violence. Why else would they be so serene and collected after their atrocious killing sprees, especially a husband who sits in his own living room, coolly explaining how he massacred his entire family, all because God told him to. “He’s done so much for us,” the husband says. “I just thought it was time I did something for Him.”

Nicholas’s pursuit of the case takes a turn when he finds out that a young man with long blond hair was seen talking to each of the men before they erupted in unexplained violence. As he tracks down this man, Nicholas begins to learn things about himself while answering questions he never thought to ask. The case involves many people who are somehow connected, including several women who gave mysterious “virgin” births. As the explanation of the film’s strange events begins to take shape, the action becomes more and more disjointed, until it climaxes in an otherworldly fistfight bathed in visceral golden light that has nothing less at stake than the complete overthrow of the current social order.

This ending, with all its hyperkinetic violence, is something of a letdown, despite Cohen’s success at setting up such an intriguing mystery and seeing it through to the end (he also gets excellent performances from his cast, especially tough character actor Tony Lo Bianco in the lead role and Sylvia Sidney, who plays a mysterious elderly woman who holds an important key to Nicholas’s past). The letdown at the end is partially the result of Cohen’s refusal to offer any kind of solution to the complex issues he brings up, and the final moments are ambiguous in a way that is both intriguing and maddening. It has shock value, yes, but it feels empty of real meaning. One gets the feeling that Cohen tangled long and hard with some grandiose ideas and finally just gave in to their ultimate incoherence, thus leaving us with a film that is fascinating, but unsatisfying, which may have been his goal all along.

God Told Me To Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital EX 5.1 surround
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/producer/director Larry Cohen
  • “Heaven & Hell On Earth”: Interview with star Tony Lo Bianco
  • “Bloody Good Times: Interview with special effects artist Steve Neill
  • “God Told Me To Bone”: New Beverly Q&A with Larry Cohen
  • Lincoln Center Q&A with Larry Cohen
  • Theatrical trailers
  • TV Spots
  • Poster & still gallery
  • DistributorBlue Underground
    SRP$29.95
    Release DateFebruary 24, 2015

    VIDEO
    One couldn’t ask much more from Blue Underground’s new 4K restoration of God Told Me To. The transfer is exceptionally clean and boasts an impressive level of detail and depth while maintaining the inherent look and grain structure of the 35mm celluloid. Colors look good throughout, although they tend to be just a tad muted in keeping with the look of low-budget ’70s cinema. Darker scenes fare very well, with the one exception of a fight in a stairwell that is muddy and confusing, although said muddiness looks to be inherent to the source material. Blue Underground has also done bang-up work on the soundtrack, remixing the original monaural into an impressively immersive 7.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix (a 5.1-channel Dolby Digital EX mix and the original monaural soundtrack are available, as well). Frank Cordell’s creepy score benefits the most, although the science-fiction scenes involving abduction and spacecraft make great use of the surround channels.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Blue Underground has kept all of the supplements from their 2004 DVD, including a fun-as-hell audio commentary by the always entertaining Larry Cohen, who is interviews by William Lustig; nine trailers and TV spots (under both its original title and the re-release title Demon); and a stills gallery of poster and home video art, lobby cards, and production stills. There are two new video interviews, one with star Tony Lo Bianco (12 min.), who discusses how he came to work on the film, his views on his character, and what it’s like working with Cohen, and one with special effects artist Steve Neill (9 min.), who talks about how he got into his career and his work on not just God Told Me To, but several of Cohen’s other films, as well. Also included is video footage of Cohen introducing and then taking questions following a screening of God Told Me To at the New Beverly Theater and a Q&A session following a screening at the Lincoln Center emceed by film critic Armond White. Both of these look like they were recorded some time in the mid-2000s, and each is a highly entertaining look into Cohen’s imagination and low-budget ingenuity.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Blue Underground

    Overall Rating: (2.5)




    James Kendrick

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