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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

God Told Me To (1976)

Written and directed by Larry Cohen

Tony LoBianco:  Peter J. Nicholas
Deborah Raffin:  Casey Forster
Sandy Dennis:  Martha Nicholas
Richard Lynch:  Bernard Phillips

You can count on one thing pretty reliably here in the second decade of the 21st century. When someone gets caught on tape saying something idiotic and bigoted they'll complain that America has become too "politically correct" to allow the full freedom of expression, and that we're on a slippery slope towards total fascism and Thought Police. They're wrong, of course; there's nothing in the Constitution that says Donald Sterling gets to own a basketball team until the day he dies. Free expression is guaranteed, but actions also have consequences and sometimes those consequences include other people using their right to free expression to respond to whatever moronic word salad someone dribbled out into a live microphone. And if you're, say, an employee of a television network instead of the owner of a television network, you don't have the final say over whether or not you keep a job after saying God needs to punish America for gay marriage in an interview. (And, parenthetically, if you're a media personality you can't claim ignorance of what a camera and a tape recorder do without looking like a complete moron. Not that it tends to stop these guys when their pathologies are manifested.)

So--you wanna talk politically incorrect art? Today's movie starts with a shooting spree committed by a polite, smiling, kinda nebbishy young man in New York City and he says God told him to murder all those people. That's about par for the course in America; we do have a lot of psychotics and we do have a lot of guns and bullets. What makes this movie--which is in the public domain, and therefore nobody has to be paid off to get remake rights--completely uncommercial is that the killer is right.

Minor-key organ chords and Latin vocals? Yup, it's a horror movie. It's a religious horror movie from the 70s, which probably gives you some expectations of something like The Omen or any of its ripoffs. The titles also identify this one as a New World picture, so you can expect 70s-era executive producer Roger Corman making sure his money is spent wisely and that the movie has its exploitation bona fides taken care of but still giving a damn about the finished product. But it's written and directed by Larry Cohen, and that's the best news of all. At this point in his career he was able to make his budgets look twice as big as they were through careful planning, a symbiotic love-hate relationship with dirty old New York City, and a fifty-pound economy bag of True Grit on the bottom rack of his metaphorical shopping cart.

We first get to see the noontime rush hour in New York City; traffic fills the streets (check out the gigantic mid-70s land yachts and taxi cabs!) and pedestrians are milling everywhere in the City That Never Sleeps But Could Certainly Go For Some Lunch Right About Now. It's quite similar to other sequences in Cohen's later Q, The Winged Serpent, down to the handheld cameras and live sound that give the viewer a more immersive view of the events as they unfold.

And unfold they promptly do--about fifty seconds into the establishing shots, a shot rings out and a bicylist collapses to the ground (and whoever did that stunt has just as much True Grit as the director--falling to the pavement in a tangle of limbs without padding or a helmet looks like it would hurt like hell; he holds perfectly still when he's on the ground, too). Several more people are shot down, and the impersonal horror of a sniper spree is shown in visceral detail. A crowd of human beings fills the frame; a shot rings out and one of them collapses to the ground. Also, given Cohen's penchant for guerilla filmmaking, it seems plausible to me that some of the people rushing up to help the "victims" didn't know a movie was being filmed. Kudos to the man who shields a child's body with his own, by the way. When death is raining down from above, not everyone would have the moral strength to try and protect someone rather than just flee.

This sequence is intercut with the police press conference in the aftermath of the massacre. The cop giving the statement to the press says that fifteen people were killed. The traffic gridlock delayed police arrival and kept ambulances away from the victims--he doesn't mention anyone wounded, only killed. This would seem to suggest an extremely skilled assailant, but it doesn't really look like that's the case. One of those lone-wolf cop-on-the-edge types shows up on the roof underneath the water tank that the sniper's using as his perch. And let's give Tony LoBianco's character some kudos:  It takes a lot of nerve to take off your gun and go approach a maniac that's already shot a dozen people. It might take even more to wear that hideous tablecloth-wide maroon and burnt gold paisley tie out in public.

There's the requisite appearance of the Stupid Chief yelling at our protagonist to stop putting himself at risk; when he gets to the top of the water-tower later the policeman gives his name as Peter Nicholas, namechecking an apostle and a saint. The shooter is Harold Gorman, namechecking guys named "Harold" and the jerkoff lieutenant from Aliens a decade early. There's another time-dislocated sequence cut into the main film here, with Gorman's mother giving a blackly funny interview where she says she can't understand why her son is such a great shot with a rifle, among other things.

Nicholas puts himself in almost incalculable danger climbing up to the roof of the water tank and standing in front of Harold, but might also be saving the shooter's life (that police helicopter sneaking into the frame has to have someone with a rifle in it). While talking with the shooter, we get a little bit of the lieutenant's background--an orphan, born and raised in New York City, with one year of college under his belt before he joined the police force. Gorman gives a chilling two-sentence bio of himself in return:  "I'll be twenty-two the second of July. I'll never be twenty-two, will I?" A little bit more conversation follows, with Gorman seeming to be a shy young man with absolutely no concept of what he's been doing. Nicholas asks why he decided to start shooting strangers, and the young man says the title of the film. Then he stretches his arms out wide and jumps to his death from the water tower, and the temporal dislocation of the opening scenes makes sense as we cut to Lieutenant Nicholas doing the woke-up-from-a-nightmare bolt upright sit and yell move that only ever happens in films.

His girlfriend Casey is next to him in bed, wearing the shirt he had on when he confronted the sniper, so it can't have been that long ago. Or maybe he can't afford too many clothes on the salary that an honest NYPD officer makes. We get two more tidbits of information in this sequence:  first, the murder weapon was a cheap piece of junk and the sights on the rifle weren't even set up correctly. Whatever was going on in Harold Gorman's head, he was making lethal shots every time he pulled the trigger--and that seems at first blush to be completely impossible.

Second, Peter's got a wife and a girlfriend; when he tells Casey that he's going to visit Martha later, there's a discussion that comes within a hair's breadth of becoming an argument about the ease or difficulty of getting a divorce under New York state law. Apparently Peter's been telling his girlfriend that his wife won't grant him a divorce, when it's really him preventing it from taking place. Martha Nicholas' place has some truly terrifying Catholic art in it; the film is suffused with specifically Catholic imagery. And that's fine because Catholicism gives us such better horror movies than the Protestants tend to generate. Another exposition bomb gets dropped--Nicholas goes to Mass every single morning, but doesn't tell Casey (or, presumably, any of his colleagues on the force). After a halting, painful, one-sided conversation with his wife, Nicholas stops off for a quick prayer at a dimly lit church with the altar candles and stained glass window providing the only illumination in the scene (and kudos to the cinematographer for capturing so much texture, light, darkness, color and shadow in this wordless scene).

And then there is an abrupt cut to the fluorescent lights and white hallways at a hospital. Nicholas is investigating something there, or rather someone. The pudgy middle-aged patrolman guarding the hospital door says that the man in the oxygen tent was reading a magazine, then stood up, went to a supermarket, and started stabbing people. He answers Nicholas' questions about motive with the film's title and immediately dies. Looks like there might be something of an epidemic in the making...

...Back at the police station, the lieutenant's partner takes a phone call from a nattily dressed man with a goatee who warns that another massacre is in the offing (fans of reprehensible 70s decor and design will love the five different shades of puke green on the walls, floor, furniture and telephones here). The mystery caller warns Nicholas and his partner that five more people are going to die at the St. Patrick's Day parade, and that a policeman will be the killer this time. The partner scoffs about the warning while Nicholas himself asks for more information. The caller hangs up and nervously walks away from the public phone. Or maybe he just realized that a pay phone in New York City in 1975 was crawling with so many diseases that he could actually hear them fighting each other for a chance to infect his eardrum.

The parade scene is the unquestionable standout sequence in the film (and I strongly suspect it's one of the influences on The Dark Knight when the Joker tries to assassinate the mayor of Gotham City). Realizing that his shooting schedule made it possible to film the parade, Larry Cohen printed up fake press credentials and sent his camera crews out to get as much footage of the authentic parade marchers and crowds as possible. Later on he got several dozen marchers and a couple hundred extras to line a block or two for the actual shooting sequence, but the parade footage gives this cheaply made horror flick production values that epics can't touch. Full marks to Cohen for having the gall to get the footage this way.

As one would expect, there is a shooting at the parade. The killer is played by Andy Kaufman in his film debut; Larry Cohen claimed in an interview that he knew someone was going to be the first person to put Kaufman in a film and he figured he'd do it before anyone else figured out that the comic was going to be a celebrity and a legend in the field of off-putting humor. The homicidal cop gets one line in the film, by the way, and I bet everyone reading this will be able to guess what it is. Nicholas tries like hell to get to the parade in time to stop the massacre, but even with an early warning all he winds up being able to do is hear the shooter's confession.

And now Nicholas is good and involved with the case--we see him interviewing people who saw the killers before any of the massacres took place. He puts things together nice and early, so the interviews go from finding out if the killers were talking to anyone unusual to confirming that they were pretty quickly. The detective deduces that there's a long-haired hippie that is out in New York City somewhere, but he's got no idea what the guy looks like (other than long hair and bare feet). Every single witness says that they can't remember what this mystery hippie looked like, even though they had to have seen his face. Harold Gorman's mom does happen to recall the name "Bernard Philips", but even that's a dead end--there's no files on the mystery man anywhere that the NYPD can see. He was never arrested, drafted, drawn a paycheck, been on welfare or hospitalized so even though they know who to look for, there's not really any way to find him quite yet. Nicholas' superior officer is more bemused at how that's even possible than frustrated or angry. Every other possibility to find a file on the guy comes up empty so Nicholas winds up looking for him at his place of birth, in Little Italy.

There's a street carnival for Saint Gennero going on when Nicholas arrives (which gives Cohen another chance to get a few hundred extras on screen for nothing as well as more shots of religious iconography); Mrs. Phillips buzzes him into the apartment building and then charges out of the darkness with a kitchen knife to kill him at the top of the stairs. Incidentally, Brian DePalma isn't the only person capable of pinching a scene from Hitchcock, as it turns out. Although in this case the attacker knocks her victim down the stairs and then falls down the same flight, landing on her knife and fatally injuring herself. Nicholas has an understandable breakdown here, shouting "Come on! SAY IT!" as Mrs. Phillips expires while trying to deliver the post-murder explanation that the detective has already heard three times.

Down at the morgue, the pathologist tells Nicholas to get some stitches put in so his hand won't heal with a hideous yet totally metal scar; the cop says it's the first time he can ever remember being hurt in his entire life. While the audience is pondering what that could mean in a religious horror film, a second bomb gets dropped--the pathologist also mentions that Phillips' mother was still a virgin at the time of her death, which would seem to be extremely unlikely, since she gave birth to a son in 1951 via caesarean section. Some more shoe leather gets expended as Nicholas interviews the doctor who performed the procedure; he says that out of literally thousands of deliveries, that was the only time he couldn't tell what sex the child was at birth. The doctor wound up putting "male" on the birth certificate for lack of any other alternatives.

While we're still digesting that piece of news, the film jumps to Nicholas interviewing another spree killer--this one a pleasant, smiling man who was reading the sports page when the idea entered his head that he should sacrifice his wife, son and daughter to the Lord. This scene is even more frightening than the parade assault, for my money; the actor portraying the father decides to underplay everything rather than go for foaming-at-the-mouth insanity. It seems chillingly realistic, especially when he politely corrects Nicholas about the exact order that he shot his family or when he offhandedly says he shot his wife "twice, I think". And, of course, God told him to. And he agreed, just as Abraham did (although this guy actually winds up going through with the deal). "He's given us everything and He asks for so little" is how he sums up his decision to butcher his entire family, saying that they're in Heaven now and happy because he killed them. (Again--can you fucking imagine someone trying to make this movie today? Never happen.)

Another visit to an old cop fixing motorcycles in the police station basement points Nicholas to another cop who found Mrs. Phillips back in 1951 after something terrible had happened to her--she wound up running down the side of a road in a torrential rainstorm, stark naked and babbling about something that probably was not as well-known before The X-Files: a medical-experiment style alien abduction (Larry Cohen made sure to put in the Corman-required nudity in his film, but it's about the farthest thing from titillating you can get in this sequence; the repurposed footage from Space: 1999 being used in an alien-insemination scene in an exploitation movie probably got someone in the TV production studio's licensing department yelled at ). And here's something completely impossible to go along with the abduction scene:  The woman was snagged from a beach in Cape Cod and picked up in a car in Jersey Sound about twenty minutes later; there's nothing on Earth that could have moved her that far in that short a time. The most realistic thing about this whole sequence is the way the relatively good Samaritan driver flat-out refuses to believe the woman's story. Sadly, it's probably also realistic that he takes a stab at a couple of smutty jokes about being probed by the aliens during the kidnapping. Nicholas, back in the present, keeps putting the pieces together and winds up getting the not-so-gentle suggestion from his boss that he's due some vacation time and should spend it in another time zone after talking about alien abductions, religiously-motivated homicides, faceless hippies and other things that even the NYPD doesn't openly consider (and this is apparently a motif that Larry Cohen likes working with; the homicide detective in Q, The Winged Serpent was told he was cruising for a psych evaluation if he submitted a report saying that a monster god had been prayed back into existence and was snagging its own sacrifices up off the tops of skyscrapers).

Stymied by the brass in the police department, Nicholas leaks the information that all the spree killers were acting under divine authority, or at least thought they were. He decides to tell the science editor at what is probably supposed to be the New York Times what's what, and he's the only one that's willing to print the story (it's implied that Nicholas has talked to multiple other editors at the paper, and they've all refused to run the story). The science editor deals in facts, and the fact is all the killers said God told them to do it. Whether or not that's true is up for debate, but that they said it is not. Lieutenant Nicholas also refers to stories run by this editor earlier about God being an ancient astronaut. It doesn't help that the dialogue here is as clunky as it gets in this movie, but hearing someone say that phrase out loud just provokes laughter if you don't know what he's talking about. So I must digress for a moment and tell my younger readers (or the ones who are my age but don't read stupid things from previous decades for fun) what the heck they're going on about. Erich von Daniken is a Swiss author who wrote a surprise best-seller in 1968 that claimed old art from ancient civilizations really showed aliens from other worlds who came down from the stars and taught them astronomy and architecture. Tellingly, he went on about the pyramids in Egypt and ruins in South America when claiming that stupid primitives needed extraterrestrial help to make impressive monuments but never said that stuff built by pre-modern white people was the result of alien contact. If you believe von Daniken,  ancient brown-skinned people were so dumb that a civilization that conquered light speed was needed in order to show them how to stack rocks in a big pile. Anyway, that book and its multiple sequels were massive best-sellers and helped usher in the golden age of bullshit presented with a straight face that the 1970s should be known for, rather than just heroin, disco, wide ties and cars that thought they were yachts.

The science editor, an open atheist, says he'll print the stories because they are the truth and because if God really is walking around New York City, it's possible that acknowledging the killings will bring them to an end. Or, possibly, the people running the churches in the city will have to placate an angry deity rather than just running bingo rackets and not paying property taxes. In most movies this would be front page news; in this one, it's the bottom of the page in the second section. Which is probably much more likely to be what would happen. The next thing we see is Nicholas' girlfriend being grilled about the detective's history; we learn that he took a police job in order to put his step-brothers through college when illness incapacitated his foster father. Casey (and the audience) learn that Nicholas hasn't spent a night with his wife in four solid years. The questioning starts to sound like the police (including Nicholas' partner) are fishing for reasons to kick him off the force or sue him, and Casey leaves in a huff. She also calls the proceedings an "inquisition", which is loaded language that fits perfectly with the Catholic themes in the movie.

So the tiny news story becomes a much, much bigger news story and there are protests in the streets that turn into brawls between groups of people who think the end is nigh and those who are afraid it might actually be too late to stop the end of the world. And some people learn to use the killings as a smoke screen for their own crimes, such as the drug lord that has been bribing Nicholas' partner into looking the other way in his investigations--but not often enough to keep things profitable in the smack trade. It turns out that it's a lot cheaper and easier to stab the crooked cop in the back and write GOD on the wall in his blood than to keep paying him off; Nicholas knows it's not a real God-inspired murder because the killer left the scene of the crime rather than confessing it to the world (it's also possible that he knows it wasn't a Bernard Phillips-linked killing because he's heard the confessions from all four of the people who did them).

Next up we see fourteen men in a wood-paneled conference room that has as many shades of brown as the police station had of avocado. They're Phillips' disciples, and the man talking to the others about how impressive Phillips' talents are also says the mystery man knows one of them has betrayed him to the police. And hey, what do you know, that guy with the goatee who made the St. Patrick's Day phone call to warn Nicholas is in the room. Phillips is aware of Nicholas, and views him as a threat. However, he isn't taking the steps that one might expect in dealing with the policeman. He wants Nicholas brought in to the group of fourteen, and without anyone hurting him. A driver picks up Nicholas and takes him to talk to one of the cabal of businessmen, who tries to give him a recruitment speech. About ninety seconds into the meeting the businessman has a massive heart attack, and Nicholas isn't able to save him.

The next contact with the group comes when the goateed man tries and fails to shove Nicholas in front of a subway train. The man is apologetic about his failed murder attempt ("I'm really not very good at it"), but I don't think he's talking to Nicholas when he says that. The cop uses the would-be killer to bring him to Bernard Phillips. After the most ominous elevator ride since the end credits of Angel Heart, Nicholas stays in the basement of an apartment building to talk to Phillips, and the failed assassin is compelled to lean his head out into the hallway while the elevator's going up, with predictably fatal results. The low budget kind of lets this confrontation down; Phillips' radiance overwhelms the film stock and looks tawdry and more than a little goofy. But during this sequence, Nicholas finally realizes that he's the one person that Phillips can't kill, because he's got the same kind of alien-divine power in him--although he didn't consciously know it until the moment they met. Phillips escapes while Nicholas is overwhelmed and disoriented.

The next step for the detective is to try and track down his own birth mother and try to learn where he came from (this goes disastrously--not just for the traumatized woman who has to relive the worst day of her life but for Nicholas, who has had an open wound in his soul related to his childhood as an orphan that never got treated). We also learn here that Nicholas is ten years older than Phillips; apparently whatever the aliens did to his mother didn't have as strong a result as the experiments performed on the villain's mother. The reunion features another flashback (with more non-titillating nudity, and surprisingly explicit for an R rated film) and ends in tears for both mother and child. Nicholas is frightened of whatever's happening next; he's lived his entire life not knowing what he truly is and terrified that he won't be up to the challenge of facing down Bernard Phillips.

Nicholas flees the nursing home where his mother was living and winds up at his wife's home, where his girlfriend has come looking for him. We learn that Martha had multiple miscarriages, and that Nicholas never seemed truly sad that he wasn't able to have children. The scene between Martha and Casey is interrupted by Nicholas' arrival, and we get to see Tony LoBianco underplay a little bit as he realizes that he loves both women but he's never seen them in the same room together. And, as his wife mentions, it makes saying goodbye easier. Nicholas tries to make amends (thankfully, the movie doesn't let him off the hook so easily) before he goes off to confront his enemy, and tells his wife and mistress that he doesn't have a choice in what he's going to do.

But before Lieutenant Nicholas can test his newly realized abilities against someone who's had weeks of practice, he's got to make sure they exist. And that means that fifteen minutes before the end of the film, we suddenly get a three minute blaxploitation sequence where Zero, the drug dealer who disguised the murder of Nicholas' partner earlier in the film, holds court at an underground pool hall and hassles a junkie for not having enough money. Nicholas walks through the door and accuses Zero of the murder; the next scene gets amazing mileage out of a lighting effect on Nicholas' eyes, some strings on the soundtrack and Tony LoBianco underplaying his part, standing immovably as Zero tries to stab him...and misses, over and over, from inches away. The cop mind-controls Zero into stabbing two of his lackeys to death and then cutting his own throat; apparently Nicholas is feeling pretty Old Testament that night.

For all its subversions of religious themes, the movie does have some love in its heart for a Christ figure; after his final confrontation with Bernard Phillips (which features both a horrible revelation of what caused his wife's failed pregnancies as well as a jaw-dropping Cronenbergian body horror reference to the spear wound in the risen Christ's side), Nicholas realizes that power corrupts and that he can't trust himself with the abilities he has. And after killing the antagonist, he realizes that four little words to the press at his perp walk guarantees that he'll never get out of the mental institution that he's assured he will be sent to.

I absolutely can't believe this one ever got made. Larry Cohen was the perfect choice for it, though--his obvious love for the people and the places in New York City means that there's more thought and characterization that you normally get in a grindhouse horror movie, and I'm always predisposed to enjoy a horror procedural. The actors all look like actual people--not a movie-handsome matinee idol or pinup queen in the bunch. The street scenes all look lived in, and the various social strata of the characters gets sketched vividly through Cohen's viewfinder. When was the last time you saw an apartment in a movie in New York City that wasn't the size of a barn? When did you see a hot-off-the-presses newspaper scene where the plot-relevant story was in a sidebar? For all its budgetary limitations, this film grounds itself in the real, so that its lapses into unreality and fantasy pack an ever harder punch.

I consider every religious story to be a horror story; if there really was a deity watching over the Earth it would have to be a monster. And to willingly worship a monster makes you a lesser monster, in my eyes (what was I saying earlier about politically incorrect statments? I'm betting that's one of them). It seems that Larry Cohen shares this opinion, or at least he did when he was making horror pictures in New York City in the 70s and 80s. If you're a skeptic, you owe it to yourself to check this one out and see what happens when the superevolved aliens from beyond time and space decide to give America a taste of that old time religion.


  1. Have you seen Frailty? Bill Paxton?

  2. I did, and the pointless twist ending made me retroactively hate the previous 97% of the movie, which was masterful. It's a damned shame, because horror through the eyes of a child character is INSANELY hard to do right and up until the last couple of minutes Paxton (who directed the movie too, I believe) played me like a Stradivarius.