Alt Screen Presents: God Told Me To (1976)

by on October 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun Oct 23 at 7:00* [Program & Tix]
*Followed by Skype Q&A with director Larry Cohen


Alt Screen has a lot of love for B-movie vigilante Larry Cohen, whom Andy McCarthy interviewed in-depth for the site about The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover.


We are pleased to co-present the incomparable God Told Me To (“the ne plus ultra classic of confusion,” according to Elvis Mitchell; “the freaked-out cult cousin of Taxi Driver” says Total Film) in conjunction with the Doomsday Film Festival & Symposium, complete with Skype interview with the captivating raconteur himself. An outlandish sci-fi thriller and essential New York utterly without precedent in American cinema, it’s a can’t miss event. And did we mention (a debuting) Andy Kauffmann plays a homicidal cop?


Time Out (London):

A delirious mix of sci-fi, pseudo-religious fantasy and horror detective thriller, with Tony Lo Bianco as the perfect existential anti-hero – a New York cop and closet Catholic, guiltily trapped between wife and mistress. His investigations into a bizarre spate of mass murders lead right to the top: Jesus Christ, no less, is provoking innocent citizens to go on a murderous rampage. The wonderfully insane plot – involving spaceships, genetics and police corruption – builds to an ambiguous climax: a ‘gay’ confrontation which suggests an outrageous alternative to anal intercourse. God Told Me To overflows with such perverse and subversive notions that no amount of shoddy editing and substandard camerawork can conceal the film’s unusual qualities. Digging deep into the psyche of American manhood, it lays bare the guilt-ridden oppressions of a soulless society.


Cohen offers commentary at Trailers from Hell.

Elvis Mitchell for the New York Times:

Mr. Cohen’s ideas have a B-picture power surge; they exist in a world where character is defined by physical action, shoving brusquely past middlebrow questions and speeches. At his best, he creates projects that center on stripping away skin, nerve endings and, ultimately, pretense. For more than 30 years, Mr. Cohen has mined a career out of one simple question — what’s the worst that could happen? — which he answers with the stinging, compelling heat of the exploitation thriller.


In 1976, Mr. Cohen delivered his crowning achievement, the ne plus ultra classic of confusion, ”God Told Me To.” Awash in fear and dissolution, ”God” is rendered with the coarse-grained urgency that’s also Mr. Cohen’s own version of brio. Haggard, haunted detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) shows up as a sniper is taking lives in Manhattan, which is pictured at its rundown worst. (On-the-fly hand-held camera work catches the panicked crowd dispersing as if lives really were at stake.) Nicholas works to reason with the killer, asking why he went berserk with a rifle; the sniper frames the cop with his suffering stares and mutters, ”God told me to,” before flinging himself to his death. This distraught confession seizes Nicholas like a virus, and the movie follows the detective as he investigates other murders that may be linked to the sniper’s delusion. The cases melt into an ugly course of self-discovery that ends with his becoming consumed with the same insanity. The driven, quick Mr. Lo Bianco gives the performance of a career, though ”God” is undone by Richard Lynch’s portrayal of the malevolent mystery man who may be behind all the crimes — he’s less an actor than a telegrapher. But the bare bones of ”God Told Me To” are so striking that the picture deserves to be remade. Mr. Cohen can find entertainment in the belief that ignorance and insanity go hand in hand. The road back from degradation begins with self-awareness.


Mitchell’s prophecy may come true, care of gonzo auteur Gaspar Noe. The recent issue of Film Comment spotlights a very interesting rumor:

Speaking of weird hookups: one of FCs editorial staffers recently ran into Larry Cohen during one of the legendary writer-director’s stopovers in New York. The 70-year-old Cohen mentioned that he had just come from a meeting with an interesting young Frenchman who was seeking the rights to remake God Told Me To. “What’s his name?” inquired the staffer.”! don’t remember, but he gave me some DVDs of his films.” The director rummaged in a bag and produced copies of Irreversible and Enter the Void.


Fernando Croce for Cinepassion:

Divine sacrilege, tabloid illumination. It opens on a note adduced from the Charles Whitman shooting spree (bullets raining down on New Yorkers from a water tower), and builds to a gutty transmutation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Holy Family” (Fantasia of the Subconscious). The rampages kick off with a sniper picking off the pedestrians below, followed by a sudden massacre on St. Patrick’s Day parade and a milquetoast’s slaughter of his own family — lost in tranquil elation, every murderer gives the film’s piously sinister title as his reason. Trying to track down the urban Mabuse behind the killings is Tony Lo Bianco, a police detective who, as a devout Catholic juggling sex, divorce, masculinity and guilt, embodies more tensions than the case he’s investigating. Forgetting things is the next best thing to explaining them, one character boasts, but Larry Cohen is all about blowing lids off, his guerilla derangement of the Gospel leaves absolutely no anxiety unprodded. From the Nativity to It’s Alive is one step, Mary here is one of “the last two virgins,” Sylvia Sidney in a retirement home remembering extraterrestrial rape and insemination. If the detective turns out to be the Messiah, does that make his solarized, insinuatingly hermaphroditical brother (Richard Lynch) the Antichrist or something far more threatening to him, a forbidden liberator? On the sidelines of the Christian spectacle, newsroom veteran Sam Levene lends a tinge of Jewish acerbity: “Out of chaos, reason.” The Chariots of the Gods?, Watergate and Wall Street, the quivering labia of order, salvation and Egyptian curses, helter-skelter eyes on Andy Kaufman’s doughy face. A work of genius, in other words, possibly the Cohen joint that brims with the most all-pervasive invention and danger, as radical a Seventies “incoherent text” as Taxi Driver and a clear linchpin of The X-Files.



Bryan Lane talks to Cohen for Films in Review:

B.L.: How about your film GOD TOLD ME TO? That’s a great film. What inspired that story and film?

L.C.: I have no idea. That was one of those films that I just sat down and wrote from scratch. I didn’t really ever know where it was going or what I was going to do next with the story.


B.L.: It is a unique film.

L.C.: Yes, it was very different and special. We used documentary production values to tell a kind of science fiction fantasy story and nobody else did that before us. I guess things like THE X-FILES owe a little bit to that picture when it comes down to the style we used.


B.L.: That film is also well-known for featuring comic Andy Kaufman in a bit role. I have to ask you about his involvement.

L.C.: Andy Kaufman was a performing comic at The Improv in New York and I went in one night to see him. I thought, “This kid is terrific.” I wanted him to be in my movie because I could just tell that someday he was going to be a star. I offered him the role of a cop at a St. Patrick’s Day parade and Andy was anxious to do it. I remember saying to him, “I’ve got to get you a policeman’s uniform, so tell me what size shirt and jacket you wear.” He said, “I don’t know. I wear my father’s old clothes.” I figured he was probably about my size, so we got stuff that would fit me and we directed him down to the St. Patrick’s Day parade on 5th Avenue. We got him dressed as the cop in a bathroom of one of the luncheonettes that was right off the street there. Then we put him into the parade. He was thrown into the ranks of the actual cops that were marching. We just moved him into formation with all of the other officers. They all thought we had permission to be there with all of the cameras. There were four crews covering the parade like a news event. We were actually just winging it and didn’t have any permission to be there at all. Today, with Homeland Security, we’d all be thrown in jail for doing something like that.


Andy only had one line of dialogue at the end of the movie. We didn’t have any microphones or sound recording equipment at the parade. So, there wasn’t any way to record his voice and he just mouthed his line. Later on, when we got into the mix, I did the line myself. That’s actually my voice coming out of him. Andy saw the picture and he said, “How did you get my voice?’ I told him that it wasn’t his voice and he said, “No, I know my own voice when I hear it. Don’t tell me that. That’s me.” I said, “Andy, how could it be you? We didn’t have any microphones.” He said, “Well, I don’t know how you did it, but that’s me.” For years after that, every time we’d run into each other, he’d get into an argument with me again about whether it was him or me that did that line in GOD TOLD ME TO. I did speak with him a few weeks before he died and he was still demanding to know how I got his voice.


The blogger known as Spank the Monkey would be a Cohen fan:

Like the best of Cohen’s work, it’s a full-on New York movie – he’s up there with Woody Allen and Spike Lee as a filmmaker who uses the whole city as his backlot. In this movie, the Big Apple is in a state of panic, as law and order seem to be on the brink of collapse.


The biggest surprise for a modern audience is the debut appearance of Andy Kaufman, who plays the nutso cop in the St Patrick’s Day parade sequence. That scene’s become emblematic of Cohen’s work, because it was done entirely without the co-operation of the New York authorities. In a stunning act of one-chance-only bravado, he snuck Kaufman into the actual parade (in the middle of five thousand real cops), and had three film crews running around him filming as much of a shootout as they could without anyone noticing (barring a couple of reshoots in LA for the scenes involving actual bullet hits). It makes for a glorious set of stories – Cohen himself stood behind the real-life NY mayor and fell over at a key moment, dubbing in the gunshot later – but the sheer energy and ambition makes it electrifying to watch, too.


It’s also a surprise that what you’d imagine to be the major plot twist – the one implied by the title – is somewhat squandered in the opening half hour. Rather than it being the subject of a big reveal, it simply becomes accepted by everyone as the main reason for the mayhem. That’s because Cohen has even bigger and more ludicrous surprises up his sleeve – this isn’t just about blasphemy, it takes in a couple of other key obsessions of the seventies and combines them all into one glorious gumbo of a plot. “Who were Christ and Moses really?” asks one character at the climax: and you’ll have to see the film to find out the answer to that one. Cohen, always on the lookout for an opportunity, insists to this day that he may eventually make God Told Me To 2, for the title if nothing else.


Roger Ebert was amusingly befuddled, for the Chicago Sun-Times:

The movie does achieve greatness in another way: This is the most confused feature-length film I’ve ever seen.


There were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order, as a quiet joke on the hapless audience. But, no, apparently the movie WAS supposed to be put together this way, as a sort of 52-card pick-up of cinema.

The blogger paulhd properly interprets this positively:

If I was a proper reviewer and had been making notes as I watched ‘God Told Me To’ the only intelligible words I’d have scribbled would be ‘wow!’ and ‘huh?’ over and over again like some Jack Torrance outtake.


A mind boggling mix of horror, thriller and scifi with religion and genre ambiguity as it’s key themes I’m not kidding when I say I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it. ‘God Told Me To’ is shot with lots of handheld camera work around New York making it look as fresh as anything you might see in modern US cop shows. Another plus in terms of feeling fresh and realistic (important in a film with such an outlandish plot) is Cohen’s love of old character actors, he clearly loves unique expressive faces and they repay him with memorable performances.



Robin Wood for Film Comment (Sept/Oct 1978) (spoilers ahead!):

For me, God Told Me To is Cohen’s most fascinating film to date, and the most ambitious in theme (while characteristically modest in budget and treatment). Its subject is no less than the repression of bisexuality within Christian patriarchal culture. The god is conceived as both beautiful and vicious. Like the snake of D.H. Lawrence’s famous poem, he is associated with danger, energy, and firewith forces that society cannot encompass and therefore decrees must be destroyed. His disruption of the social order is arbitrary, involving a series of meaningless sniper-killings, the devastating of the St. Patrick’s Day parade, and the annihilation of a family by its father; yet the imagery associated with him (the dance of light and flame) gives him stronger positive connotations than any other manifestation of the return of the repressed in Cohen’s work, or indeed in any other contemporary horror film.


Crucial to the film is the god’s dissolution of sexual differentiation: apparently male, he has a vagina, and invites the protagonist to father their child. The new world he envisages is, by implication, a world in which the division of sexual roles will cease to exist. What is proposed is no less than the overthrow of the entire structure of patriarchal ideology. The two god-inspired assassins whom the film presents in any detail are strongly characterized in terms of sexual ambiguity: the first (played by the actor who originated the role of the homosexual in A Chorus Line) is clearly meant to be taken as gay; the other (the young father who has murdered his wife and children) is also given culturally recognizable signifie rs of gayness. Against all this is set the tangle and misery of the protagonist’s sexual life under Christian culture, characterized by possessiveness, secrecy, deception, and denial. Significantly, what first arouses him to open violence is the young father’s sense of release and happiness after he has destroyed his family.


Like Cohen’s other films, God Told Me To proposes no “solution.” If its god was ever pure, his purity has been corrupted through his incarnation in human flesh and the agents he is forced to use (the disciples are businessmen and bureaucrats, the possessed executants are merely destructive). Yet, unlike the use of Catholicism in The Exorcist, the restoration of repression at the end of the film is not allowed to carry any positive force, uplift, or satisfactiononly a wry irony. It is not even certain that the god is dead: the narrative says he is; the images, editing, and implications question it. We last see him (after he appears to have been buried in the collapse of a derelict building) rising up in flames, his native element. Nothing clearly connects the protagonist to the god’s destruction, so we must assume that his conviction for murder rests on his own confession; we may infer that he has confessed in order to reassure himself that his antagonist-brother double is really dead. In fact, the ending is left sufficiently open for one to wonder whether, had the film achieved any commercial success, Cohen would have written and directed a sequel to it rather than to It’s Alive. Certainly, the issues it opens up are both immense and profound, and absolutely central to our culture and its future development.



Patrick McGilligan proclaims God Told Me To “different from the rest of the American cinema,” in his interview with Cohen, for Film International:

FI Wasn’t it hard to raise money for a picture like that?

LC I finally got the money from a couple of television producers, who gave me a minimal amount of money. Generally, I’ve found the best way to get money is to allow people to take tremendous advantage of you. If they give you short money, and can get a lot in return for it, they have a tendency to do the deal. You’re being screwed, but you get to make the movie.


I saw God Told Me To in Paris, where it was being advertised in big letters on the marquees as “un film de Larry Cohen,” and, even though the version I saw was dubbed in French, I was blown away. Judging by the crowds, it was a big hit overseas. But my understanding is that it didn’t do well in America, perhaps because of poor distribution. It was picked up by Roger Corman’s company, New World, and it played in most major markets. But they never came up with a good ad campaign or TV spots in order to sell it. They didn’t know how to market the picture. Over the years it acquired its own following. It has a tremendous number of fans, and I get more requests for that movie from film festivals, than anything else. That’s the one they’re always asking for, all over the world.

FI Do you work hard, especially on a grim, horrifying subject like that, to come up with a hopeful or meaningful thematic statement at the end?

LC Most of my pictures do have that. There’s something more than the basic A-B-C’s of a story. There’s an over-all resonance. But I start with the characters and the situation. I put the characters in a gripping situation, and learn where the story is going through self-discovery of the characters. And I wasn’t sure where the leading character in God Told Me To was going to go, when I started writing, that he would discover who he was, and that he was not going to be entirely human.


I don’t consciously provide a theme or moral at the end. If that happens, then it happens. I don’t go out of my way to set that up. I allow the story to tell itself. The subconscious takes over. It’s automatic writing. The characters start to say their own lines and start to do what they want to do. I just let them go. Even if they don’t want to do what you originally thought they might do, let them alone and see where they take you. It’s amazing how little rewriting I do, after it’s all done. Sure, I have to clean it up a little, but, generally, in terms of the major beats of the story, it’s done.


– Compiled by Brynn White

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →