LARRY COHEN WEEK: God Told Me To (1976)

According to Larry Cohen, God is one of the most violent characters in literature. Take that insight, toss in some Chariots of the Gods, a little police procedural and a gradually involving drama that ends up taking over the life of the hero and you have God Told Me To.

New York City in the 1970s. It’s a horrible place to be. And now, with a gunman atop a water tower shooting into a crowd below, it’s a deadly place. 15 pedestrians are already dead before Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco, The French Connection, TV’s Law & Order) climbs the tower to speak with him. Tony’s skilled at getting crazy people to back down and his technique is to communicate with them. He tells the killer everything — his age, what he’s doing, even the fact that he’s a devout Catholic — in the hopes that he can stop his rampage. Then, the killer looks Tony in the eye and says, “God told me to,” before he leaps to his death.

Attack after attack follows, all seemingly unconnected except for those words: “God told me to.”

There’s a stabbing in a supermarket. A cop (Andy Kaufman!) shooting into the St. Patrick’s Day crowd (there were no permits for this scene, which blows my mind. Also, while Cohen was organizing the crew to set up the shot, Kaufman antagonized the crowd by making faces, leading to people jumping the barricades to fight him, requiring Cohen to get in between the actor/comedian/force of nature and angry New Yorkers). And a man who kills his wife and children because God has always asked people to sacrifice their children since Abraham. This sends Tony over the edge and he attacks the man.

One of the killers says that his orders came from Bernard Phillips. Tony visits the address but is attacked by Phillips’ knife-wielding mother. She falls down the stairs as Tony dodges her attack and before she dies, she tells him that she was a virgin who was taken by aliens and given a pregnancy without taking her virginity, much like the conception of Jesus.

When Tony brings this information to his superiors, they tell him to put a lid on it. There’s no need for more religious panic. He leaks the story to the press anyway with the expected results.

That’s when Tony meets Bernard Phillips’ cult, who he contacts and controls with his psychic powers. He tells them when each murder will happen and now wants Tony to join them. Instead, Tony asks about Phillips’ mother, which causes a follower to drop dead. Another tries to kill him by pushing him in front of a subway train, but Tony defeats him and uses the man to come to Phillips’ underground lair. That follower — upset that he has come so close to his god — decapitates himself.

Upon meeting the glowing, ethereal and hermaphroditic Phillips, Tony realizes that the self-styled god cannot and will not kill him. Therefore, Tony realizes that he is special and has a purpose. Tony’s girlfriend and wife (look, it was the 70’s) come together to try and save him, but numerous revelations come out — Tony’s estranged wife had numerous pregnancies that her husband seemed to will into stillbirth, afraid of what his children would become.

Tony finds his adoption records, finally meeting his birth mother, who gave up her child — another divine birth — after being impregnated by an orb of light at the 1941 Worlds Fair. The footage accompanying this scene is digital manipulated stock footage from Space:1999! This meeting nearly gives both a nervous breakdown and ruins Tony’s sense of self.

Tony decides to meet his brother/sister one more time and learns the truth: they are alien messiahs, children of an entity of light. Tony’s human side is dominant while Phillips is more like the alien that gave them life. Phillips reveals his true sex — a mixture of sex organs on his side and asks his brother to impregnate him so that they can create new life. Tony refuses and attacks his sibling, who retaliates by bringing the building down on both of them.

Only Tony survives and he is arrested for the murder of Phillips. As the police lead him away, a reporter asks him why he committed the crime. He answers simply, “God told me to.”

God Told Me To did not do well upon original release, but time has proven to be quite kind. Watching it forty plus years later, I was amazed by how prescient it is, with killers opening fire for no reason, with the schism between sexes being seen as divine and by a public and leaders who are ill-equipped to deal with a true crisis of faith in their midst. It’s a brutal little film and a real triumph in the way that it starts as a simple police story and unravels not just the plot but the way the main character perceives himself. Even his multiple times a day shows of Catholic worship cannot protect him from the knowledge that he very well could be the Messiah — but not in the way that anyone expected.

Good news — you can watch this on Shudder!

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