What a sure-footed little flick this is. Larry Cohen certainly knows how to create exactly the vibe his script needs. Told from the point of view of a New York City detective, Lt. Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), God Told Me To begins as a mystery about a mass rampage of murderers all killing in the name of divine order. The scenes detailing these attacks are fast and furious, with Cohen relying heavily on rapid editing and shaky POV camera work. A particularly tense set-piece occurs early in the film during the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade through the streets of NYC, for which Cohen (ever the maverick) did not obtain permission to shoot. The police are informed that a uniformed police officer marching in the parade is going to kill five people, only they don’t know who the targets are and which police officer will be “chosen” to carry out this deed.
Scenarios like these require a sense of urgency to fully extract the hysteria and immediacy of the set-up, which Cohen does extremely well. The opening of the film involves a murderous sniper picking citizens off one-by-one on the busy city streets below his elevated location. While it excels at igniting the paranoia this film needs to succeed, it also offers up some of the most genuinely silly “deaths” committed to film. Those falling victim to the sniper’s deadly accuracy comically spin their bodies in shock, throw their hands up wildly, fall before the gunshot is heard, crash into walls, and mostly just look very ridiculous in their attempt to portray what amounts to be a frighteningly possible scenario.
After the shooting stops, Peter confronts the killer atop his tower and learns the motivation for the spree: “God told me to”. Soon a series of these occurrences take place, all with the same reasoning behind them. The most chilling scene is one of the quietest in the film. Peter interviews a man who calmly recollects the ease with which he killed his wife and two children, including tricking his young daughter into believing he was only playing a joke when he killed her mother and brother. He recounts the happiness and serenity he felt after the deed was done, despite having no animosity towards his family, because he was fulfilling his duty to God. Moments like these bring to mind the very real threat of religious extremism.
Eventually Peter informs the press of the homicidal motives, which creates a whirlwind of chaos in the streets of New York. The vocally religious turn up in droves with biblical signs and posters prophesizing the end of days while the criminal element sees a new scapegoat for their disreputable deeds. At this point the film takes a turn from the hysteria and leans into the mystery. Who is telling these people to kill in the name of God? How? Why?
At a brisk 91 minutes, Cohen really saps every bit of life out of the story, which he also wrote. Eventually the mystery turns toward Peter and his murky past, which may or may not reveal some secrets pertaining to the recent murders. A few of these concepts fail to hit the mark within the framework already in place, particularly some flashbacks involving extraterrestrial involvement and a bit of Cronenberg-ian body horror.
By the time we reach the climax, the immediacy of the early stages of the film has slowed down to a less frantic pace, which is good and bad. Those formative scenes set the table for a tense thriller that is reminiscent of films such as The French Connection or even one as religiously loaded like The Exorcist, but the direction the story goes in leaves much of that behind for a low-budget supernatural/horror/mystery hybrid. Which I’m here for, even if the final confrontation is lackluster and the “villain” emanates yellow light. Rest assured, the final moment of the film is somehow both easily predictable and also bone-chillingly true to the events that came before it.
I definitely have to give kudos to the uncredited composer, Frank Cordell. I don’t have much background on this film but I read Larry Cohen brought in legendary composer Bernard Hermann to score the film but sadly Hermann passed away shortly after screening the film without a score. That being said, I found myself caught up in the suspenseful elements of the film because of the Psycho-esque violins accompanying the tense scenes. I imagined these scenes without the score or supplemented by a different instrument and I think it would come off as a boring, borderline silly film. And that’s all you can ask of a successful musical score.
This was another excellent outing from Larry Cohen, who always manages to tackle otherworldly subjects with just the right tone. I’ll be re-visiting his wonderful take on consumerism, The Stuff (1985), for another project I’m working on in the next week or so and this was just the right way to get back into his style. Great film.