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Often, when I read about a movie in a book or on a website, I think to myself, “That sounds like it might be interesting”, or, “That seems pretty cool, I should check it out.” But rarely, if ever, have I read a synopsis so striking that, sight-unseen (i.e., without having also viewed a clip or photo), I felt an absolute need to see the film. And yet that’s just what happened when I came upon a passage in Kim Newman’s book, “Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide To Contemporary Horror Films”, regarding “God Told Me To” (http://imdb.com/title/tt0075930/).

The setting is 1970s New York City. While homicide may be an everyday occurrence in the Big Apple, something strange is happening: seemingly normal people are suddenly deciding to go on murderous rampages. A crack-shot sniper (with a gun that, by rights, shouldn’t be able to shoot straight) picks off unsuspecting citizens from his perch on top of a water tower. A husband & father cheerily speaks in grisly detail about how he slaughtered his wife & children. A policeman marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade (Andy Kaufman!) pulls out his gun & begins firing into the crowd for no apparent reason.

And each of them has the same explanation for doing it: “God told me to.”

The case is put in the hands of Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony LoBianco), a broody Catholic so staunchly attached to his faith that he not only goes to Mass every day, but refuses to get a divorce from his wife, Martha (Sandy Dennis), because the Church doesn’t believe in it (although there are moments, particularly toward the end of the film, when we see that he still cares for her & remains deeply connected to her). Yet he also maintains a relationship with Casey, a modern, women’s lib-ish gal (Deborah Raffin, who played Charles Bronson’s ill-fated paramour in “Death Wish 3”), who may or may not be a psychologist (she comes off a bit like one).

After some rigorous investigating, Peter finds a link - many of the perpetrators were seen in the company of a young, blonde hippie, whose face no one can describe as anything but an indistinct blur. The sniper’s mom identifies the mystery man as Bernard Phillips. But there is no criminal record on file, nor is there much in the way of documented history. So Peter tracks down Phillips’ mother...who promptly attacks him. Why?

Got it in one.

Things get a little freaky after that. Turns out Mrs. Phillips wasn’t ‘Mrs.’ anybody. Hospital records indicate she was a virgin who delivered a pseudo-hermaphroditic child via c-section twenty-odd years earlier. Further inquires lead Peter to a gentleman who found Mrs. Phillips one night those many years ago, on the side of a road in New Jersey, naked & rambling about being abducted by aliens while she was walking near her Massachusetts home.

What does this all mean?

Only one of the most promising & provocative cinematic concepts ever.

Preying on people’s deepest spiritual beliefs, Phillips (Richard Lynch) uses his power to manipulate the human mind, touting himself as a sort of Second Coming so the faithful will commit these ghastly crimes. When Peter finally comes face-to-face with Phillips (in a surreal moment that proves Newman wasn’t just talking about Phillips’ personality when he called him a “luminous hippie”), he does, indeed, find a Christ-like figure, whose lair - & this is a pretty ingenious visual device - more closely resembles one of the outer circles of Hell than anything divine.

Just why, apart from the obvious alien conquest, Phillips is doing all this becomes almost secondary. Like “Shikoku”, the overwhelming potential ramifications of these events are kept to an intimate minimum - specifically, their effect on Peter, whose connection to the case runs far deeper than he ever could have imagined.

“God Told Me To” is an engrossing tale, with some very well-played, emotional scenes, especially those between Peter & his mother (the late Sylvia Sidney), & the moment where the two women in his life meet. The conclusion begins powerfully, though right at the end it leans a little toward the anticipated. This in itself is to be expected, however, as writer-director Larry Cohen’s films have long been known for being more ambitious in their ideas than their executions; ergo, “God Told Me To” is a wee bit jumbled. One gets the sense that the people Phillips exploits are picked at random - I would liked to have had more of an organized-cult-a-la-Manson-Family vibe there. And the group of well-dressed, highly educated, semi-powerful-looking men who serve Phillips, in the belief that he really is something special, don’t appear to have that much in the way of either influence or intimidation.

Still, Cohen always gives us moments that are unforgettable (remember the delivery room scene from “It’s Alive”?), & attempts to make a culturally relevant statement with each project (“The Stuff”, for example, was an often blatant attack on consumerism & advertising), & there are plenty of both in this picture. The opening shot of the city, for instance, at once gritty & breathtaking, is an immediate hook. The underlying theme of religion, its origins, its true nature, & the easy manipulation of faith for either good or evil purposes, is something hotly debated outside the cinematic arena, & only daring filmmakers even try & address such notions. Why more people weren’t up in arms about “God Told Me To” at the time it was made, I couldn’t say. You certainly couldn’t release such a film today, given its suggestion that Jesus is (& I have to use Newman’s words here) “a bisexual psycho from outer space”.

I think Nate Yapp put it best, in his review at classic-horror.com: “’God Told Me To’ was filmed, it exists, & it's damn weird. That simple fact should be enough to get you to see it.” I can only add that you’ll know, once you’ve watched it, that you’ve seen something fairly profound, not only within the context of the story but outside of it, as well...& yet, like the finer details of Phillips’ face, you’ll find you can’t quite describe it.

Stuff I stole from el_jefe59 - we keep getting the same answers. )

August 2017

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