God Told Me To (1976)

(aka Demon)

This one is almost impossible to sum up.

This is partly because any attempt is going to carry even the most circumspect summary into spoiler territory.  However, it is also because this is a film that starts in one place and then moves into stranger and stranger places which seem to have little to do with the film we thought we were watching.

This one was written and directed by Larry Cohen, who is a bit of a horror legend despite the fact that he really never made that many horror films.  He’s best remembered for It’s Alive (and its sequels), with its murderous babies bursting out of their mothers’ bellies but he also made Q, which involves a flying serpent loose in New York City, and The Stuff, a horror comedy about a dessert that eats people.

But this is perhaps his most highly regarded film — even if it is also one of the least known — and by far his most controversial.  Even its title caused a lot of trouble for him, and it appeared in the US as “Demon” at various times (and this was in fact the VHS title).  Supposedly Roger Corman (whose New World Productions handled the release) made the change to cash in on the success of The Omen.

Not that there’s any actual similarity between the two films, of course.

In fact, God Told Me To starts out like a Seventies Police Procedural, with a rooftop sniper firing on a crowd in New York City.  When Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) tries to talk him down, the shooter tells him”God told me to” and leaps to his death.

Several other random mass killings follow, and the killers all tell Peter the same thing, even the young Policeman who attacks the St. Patrick’s Day Parade (a young Andy Kaufman in his first onscreen role).

However, the film quickly takes an increasingly strange series of turns as Peter uncovers a strange conspiracy, flying saucer stories and a touch of the old Von Daniken/Chariots of the Gods nonsense (with some stock footage lifted from Space 1999) before ending up like an entirely different sort of late-Seventies movie.

This is a clever, well-made and entertaining film, although many people will be uncomfortable with its anti-religious bias.  Ironically, as happens a lot in these sorts of films, it weakens its own assertions so much that they hardly seem worth getting excited about:  as blasphemous as it may be to suggest that great religious leaders like Moses or Christ were half-alien hybrids, we can shrug and ignore it because the claim is made by someone who would have no way of knowing whether it might be true or not.

Larry Cohen has said that one of his themes was the danger of strong religious beliefs (another, less obvious one is that this is his take on the Superman story!), although, again, this goes a little astray as mind control and telepathy plays such a major part.  I’ll confess to being a bit amused by the suspicion directed towards Peter by his superiors because he is too religious:  I suspect that Larry would have been shocked if he knew how many New York City cops went to daily Mass back in the Seventies.

And, of course, Peter is living with his girlfriend.    His reluctance to divorce his wife doesn’t really change things that much. 

In the end, the sheer outrageousness of his story wins the day, as Larry takes what seems to be a familiar story in a very familiar setting and yanks the rug out from under us.  Yes, it may go spiralling off into the absurd, goofy, and utterly bizarre at times, but in the end it is one hell of a story and Larry tells it well.

Unless he really intended this primarily as some sort of commentary on religion.  Then he didn’t do so well.

But that may just be because Larry Cohen was a very talented storyteller, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice a great story for the sake of making a point.

And that, unfortunately, is something far too few filmmakers are willing to do these days.

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