It will give you nightmares forever.
Some directors have such strong personalities that their work becomes imbued with their unique voice. Often this coloration gives viewers a bias for or against the director's films. For example, most people either love or hate Oliver Stone's works as a package deal. If you dislike one of Stanley Kubrick's films, you're fighting uphill to appreciate his others. David Fincher's darkness either appeals to you or sends you scurrying for the exit.
Larry Cohen is one such director. He works staunchly within the independent B-movie horror milieu, so you might not be as familiar with his work. Most people tend to laugh at Cohen's audacious, unapologetic, and unfettered brand of creative quirkiness. Who would write about frozen yogurt that takes over your body and mind? About a Meso-American winged deity living in the Chrysler building? Or, in the case of God Told Me To, a blurry messiah figure with a vagina on his ribcage? This is the warped aesthetic of Larry Cohen, dark yet absurd.
You'll probably notice two things if you pay attention to Larry's films. The first is that his films violate standard tenets of storytelling that we've become accustomed to. Larry takes what he can get in his vigilante filmmaking, so continuity is often lacking. A person might walk into a building in broad daylight, but inside it is suddenly night. The narrative is going down one path—but the next cut deals with an entirely different subplot, forcing you to catch up. Cohen's films seem fractured, riddled with gaps in understanding with which we must constantly contend. This mental effort on the part of the viewer frustrates many people, but Cohen fans appreciate the lack of handholding.
You'll also notice that in spite of this disjointedness, or possibly because of it, Cohen's films contain a bewildering amount of subtext. Cohen's plots follow a general main story arc, but there are many other stories told between the opening and closing credits. For example, God Told Me To tells the story of a detective trying to solve a spate of mass murders. The film also deals with police corruption, religious zeal, non-traditional relationships, alien abduction, newfound superheroic powers, racism, corporate autonomy, and geriatric health care conditions. One could spin any of Cohen's story kernels into feature-length films. In fact, Cohen suggests that The X-Files and Unbreakable were inspired by God Told Me To. It is hard to discount that argument.
God Told Me To is one of Cohen's most cohesive and articulate works. Don't get me wrong, there are many moments of "what just happened?" syndrome. Yet the story maintains enough narrative steam to keep us involved throughout the fantastic journey. If you can sit through the gore in The X-Files, you can make it through this film. More disturbing are the concepts that Cohen weaves into a portrait of manipulative cruelty.
Facts of the Case
Several mass murders mar the peaceful cacophony of New York's streets. Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco, The French Connection) gets involved in the investigation and makes a startling discovery: each murderer claims that God told them to kill. Peter is a devout Catholic and a good cop, so he takes this case to heart. As his personal and professional life spiral out of control, Peter tracks down the golden-haired figure that spoke to each of the murderers before their violent sprees. When Peter learns the truth, it turns his entire life into chaos.
There is a reason why they call films such as this one "B Movies." Jump cuts, massive continuity errors, low budget effects, and poor pacing reveal the lack of studio backing. If you are looking to poke holes in God Told Me To, you'll find plenty of easy targets. The exercise is somewhat misplaced, however. Cohen works with minuscule budgets and without permission. Most of the people in his films don't know they are in his films, they just happened to walk into the scene. If continuity bothers you, or you have trouble absorbing a plot when traditional cues are absent, you may find this film a frustrating experience.
God Told Me To will reward those who hang on for the ride. The story works because it starts off realistically and ends so fantastically. As the narrative progresses, we must constantly reframe all of the previous information. God Told Me To leads you to believe something that isn't true, but never actually contradicts the prior evidence. We must fight to understand the truth along with Detective Nicholas. The line between normalcy and unfathomable strangeness blurs so subtly that we don't know the precise moment we cross into La-La Land. It is challenging and frustrating to absorb these paradigm shifts, but in the end you marvel at the twisted road that Cohen made you travel.
One sign of Cohen's storytelling prowess is that the creepiest part of the movie is a monologue. He gives us the gory killings and startling surprises you'd expect from the film, and they work well enough. But when a man calmly describes how he killed his entire family, it is both fascinating and revolting. There are no special effects, not even a hint of blood; just one man talking in a room to Detective Nicholas.
That such a scene works is a testament to the actors involved. One doesn't expect award-winning actors in a low budget horror flick, but that's precisely what we get. Supporting actors Sylvia Sidney and Sandy Dennis have a Golden Globe and an Oscar, respectively. Many of the other cast members have been nominated for Golden Globes or Oscars. (The sniper, Sammy Williams, won a Tony award.) Lead actor Tony Lo Bianco starred in The French Connection and The Honeymoon Killers before doing God Told Me To. Andy Kaufman makes a brief but important appearance in his first film role. Cohen has a way of gathering talented actors together into casts that shouldn't be possible.
There are some wooden moments to be sure. Often the story is moved along rapidly by poorly disguised exposition. At these times, the actors are merely vehicles for catching the viewer up. But certain moments of tension work because of the fear and malice projected by the actors. For example, Peter comes home to find his wife and mistress discussing him. This scene becomes intense even though little action occurs. Once again, words and acting are wholly responsible for the apprehension we feel.
What of The X-Files and Unbreakable? As I watched God Told Me To, I drew inescapable parallels between it and The X-Files. The tone is just too similar: a gritty cop tracks down paranormal events. A shadowy businessman from an executive board that's possibly under alien control interferes. There are more similarities, but I won't spoil it for you. It not only feels like one long X-Files episode, it makes a better The X-Files movie than The X-Files movie did. In the director's commentary, Larry mentions this widely held belief. He certainly won't refute the claim. In fact, he convincingly argues the similarities between God Told Me To and Unbreakable. That's the kind of guy Larry is, pushing the bounds and waiting for the world to catch up. As God Told Me To grows in popularity, it seems we may be ready for his stories.
Aside from the fascinating (if blustery) director's commentary, we get a trailer, seven TV spots, a stills gallery, and a bio on Larry Cohen (the same bio found on the DVDs of Q: The Winged Serpent and Bone). These extras are well done, though I am puzzled as to why the TV spots are in 1.85:1 aspect ratio when 1970s TVs were in 4:3.
As usual, Blue Underground has provided a stellar anamorphic transfer. There is hardly a shred of edge enhancement. The film heritage is plainly intact; grain and scratches make a noticeable but comfortable appearance. There are quality issues with the film itself, such as pronounced grain in interior scenes and abject shadow detail. Garish yellow and magenta lights are deeply saturated and seem to take over a scene or two. But the strange lighting really works in these scenes, enhancing the otherworldly tension.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In my review of Q: The Winged Serpent, I discussed the amazing transformation from mono to 6.1 DTS sound. God Told Me To has the same track options, but the source material is not up to the task. For my primary session, I listened in 6.1 DTS-ES, and I was not as impressed as I'd hoped to be after watching Q. Volume levels fluctuate wildly, particularly during important conversations. There are two snippets of vital conversation that I simply cannot decipher. So I tried to cheat with the subtitles, but there aren't any. The quiet conversations are followed by overloud street noise, which causes everyone in the room to grab their ears in pained agony. The surrounds were used effectively, but it hardly makes up for loss of conversational fidelity. There was at least one scene where the DTS mix paid off in a big way: the fire in God's apartment. This sequence had me taut with apprehension, and I jumped at the sudden dominance of bass and screeching treble.
The mono track is actually my favorite out of the other options because the conversation comes together just enough to be decipherable. After looping the faint words a few times in the mono track, I was able to fathom some mumbo jumbo about "I taught you that you could hurt." The other conversation remains a mystery. To reiterate, subtitles would be welcome.
One of the best sequences in God Told Me To doesn't come from God Told Me To at all, but from Space: 1999. Cohen bought some stock footage from England and worked it into his movie. I've never seen the TV show, so I was oohing and ahhing over Cohen's brilliant special effects. The opening credits are truly haunting, and the alien abductions with naked women writhing in mid air are disturbing as well. All of the above was bought and spliced in, as Cohen mentions in the commentary and Space: 1999 fans across the world condemn.
When I was a kid growing up in the '80s, The Stuff scared the stuff out of me. I remember cringing into the couch cushions wondering who was going to explode next. Now that I've grown up a little, I'm not terrified of Cohen's films (although they contain plenty of creepy moments). Today I fight the urge to laugh, until I am drawn into the imaginative stories. Once this film grabs you, you are swept into an alternate reality that is ludicrous but revealing in its commentary on society. As Cohen's work continues its unique voice, I look forward to seeing what else he has to say.
His honor has seen this defendant in the courtroom before. His crimes are petty and his ramblings make a strange sort of sense. Guilty of insanity? No. The defendant is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary With Writer/Director Larry Cohen and Bill Lustig
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