God Told Me To 4K UHD Review
Blu-ray Release: June 21, 2022
Video: 1.85:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color
Audio: English Dolby Atmos, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and 1.0 Mono; French Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Run Time: 89:41
Director: Larry Cohen
Note: I'm recycling the majority of my older Blu-ray review. If you're only reading this to get my opinion on the new 4K UHD transfer, skip to the Video and Audio sections.
A rooftop sniper guns down 14 pedestrians on the streets of New York City. A mild-mannered dad takes a shotgun and blows away his wife and children. A cop goes on a sudden shooting spree at the St. Patrick's Day Parade. And each of these unlikely killers makes the same dying confession: "God told me to." Now, a repressed Catholic NYPD detective Peter J. Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) must uncover a netherworld of deranged faith, alien insemination and his own unholy connection to a homicidal messiah with a perverse plan for the soul of mankind. (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, New York City was a hub location for horror films, thrillers, and psychological dramas. Filmmakers like Roman Polanski, Michael Winner, and Martin Scorsese built a new gothic mythology around the five boroughs that has endured throughout the decades. The unsung chronicler of New York’s less extravagant side was Larry Cohen, who cut his teeth writing and directing Bone (aka: Dial Rat, 1972), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), and Black Caesar (aka: The Godfather of Harlem, 1973) for the blaxploitation market. Blaxploitation movies often took a brutal and exploitative perspective of the African-American life during the ‘70s, but films like Cohen’s (who was white) were also a celebration, however unscrupulous, of working-class Black America. Blaxploitation movies presented themselves as pure entertainment, which made them popular with middle-class white Americans, who were then susceptible to social messages beneath the surface.
Cohen understood the methodology of messaging in exploitation films and this can be seen in his genre-centric follow-ups to his blaxploitation films – two of which would become quintessential New York City stories. For decades, he worked exclusively with modest budgets and tight schedules, which is not particularly conducive to quality, but even his weakest movies share a distinctive flavor. Cohen’s best and most personalized horror movies are often anchored in a gritty, 1970s/’80s and populated by natural and disarmingly charming people that counteract the strangeness of his supernatural concepts. Despite his weirdo inclusions, like monster babies and killer yogurt, most of these films feel like they could share their universe with the likes of Taxi Driver (1976) and Basket Case (1982) – though Cohen rarely dabbles in the same level of nihilism as Scorsese or Frank Henenlotter. He acknowledges the ridiculous nature of his high concepts and finds a unique comedic tone in the characters’ reactions without robbing his monsters of the dangers they pose. This balance between straight-faced genre elements and ironic comedy is probably the most defining element of the director’s most ‘essential’ features.
Cohen made two New York-set movies that played with/poked fun at modern concepts of religion. The more Cohen-esque and sophisticated one was Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), the story of an ancient Aztec god – the dinosaur-like Quetzalcoatl – set loose on the city. But the first and more challenging of these two movies was God Told Me To (1976). The real beauty of these movies is Cohen’s ability to maintain a precious balance between his ridiculous B-movie ideas and more naturalistic character studies that would feel at home in a Scorsese picture. God Told Me To doesn’t have a concentrated concept, nor the ‘monster movie meets cop drama meets criminal comedy’ themes that help hold Q together throughout the extraordinary moments that might otherwise strain audience acceptance. God Told Me To is the more ambitious of the two films in terms of the weight of its ideological questions, all leading to a fascinating and truly disturbing shocker twist that steps over the weird shit line very late in the film. Whereas in later films, specifically Q and The Stuff (1986), Cohen was able to anchor himself on actor Michael Moriarty’s ample comedic charms, God Told Me To sometimes seems lost in its lofty ideas.
For the most part, the disoriented narrative works in Cohen’s favor, because God Told Me To thrives on disorientation. But there are still some odds and ends that could’ve been trimmed to serve the ferocious forward momentum. The interactions and emotional struggles are all naturally acted and this goes a long way in terms of normalizing the completely out of this world story elements. Cohen never gets enough credit for his dramatic work with actors, which I believe matches what David Cronenberg was capable of around the same time. The problem in God Told Me To’s case is that the otherwise well-executed character beats end up jostling the momentum of an otherwise sharply edited story. Even brief time away from the murder investigation – including his marital troubles and the investigation of a corrupt cop who is murdered by a pimp/dealer using the religious crimes as a cover – feels like an extraneous detour in the tight fabric of the film. Ultimately, being patient with the film’s weird rhythms pays off, as the marriage difficulties and pimp subplot prove important to Nicholas’ spiritual deconstruction.
Cohen was never the technical artisan that John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper were and God Told Me To was shot on the cheap. Low on funds and time, Cohen and his crew were forced to steal their shots. Fortunately, he understood how to incorporate such cinéma vérité style into high concept science fiction, beginning with the script. As in the case of Q , he cuts the narrative to its very marrow and flips between locations and across relatively long expanses of time with little warning. This jagged style of storytelling and editing couples perfectly with the handheld cameras and source-lit locations, creating a constant flow of visual information that is quite sophisticated, considering the filmmakers’ limited means. The vérité ‘normalcy’ then contrasts wonderfully with surrealistic sequences of Nicholas confronting Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), the supposed cult leader responsible for the murders, who is actually an extra-terrestrial half-breed that glows yellow.
God Told Me To originally hit North American VHS via Charter Entertainment, followed by Anchor Bay’s 1997 collector’s edition tape, then was released three times on DVD. The UK had a VHS-quality, 1.33:1 version via Vipco, while stateside fans had a slightly better non-anamorphic, 1.85:1 version via the gray-market hucksters at Brentwood and Catcom Home Video, who only included it as part of various multi-movie sets. Blue Underground released its first remastered, anamorphic 1.85:1 DVD version soon after and it became the best buying option, followed by a 1080p Blu-ray (and its DVD special edition counterpart) developed using a new 4K scan of the original negative elements. This new UHD was also restored in 4K from the original camera negative, which made me assume it was just an uncompressed version of the previous transfer, but there are considerable differences. I am unable to get screencaps from the UHD, but the included Blu-ray features a 1080p version of the new 2160p transfer, so I’ve included a couple of comparison sliders to illustrate the differences. Just keep in mind that you are not looking at full resolution caps, nor do the images on this page have Dolby Vision HDR capabilities.
The new UHD and accompanying Blu-ray have slightly more detail and slightly different grain structure. Despite similar inconsistencies in the amount of grain depending on the location, there are fewer signs of digital scrubbing. The bigger changes are seen in brightness, contrast, and overall color quality. Beginning with brightness and contrast, most scenes are close to how they looked on Blu-ray and DVD, though the black levels have been punched up in service of the HDR enhancement. What will probably prove controversial is the softening of highlights, which is, again, probably in service of HDR. This is easy to overlook when actually viewing the transfer with HDR (except for some particularly dark interiors), but is pretty obvious when you directly compare the scenes where Nicolas confronts Phillips. On the old Blu-ray, ol’ Space Jesus’ powers blow out all the light sources into searing yellow blooms. On the new UHD, these blooms have been cranked down, which allows for more detail, but looks ‘different.’ On the other hand, I like the color changes. The sickly yellow/green hues are augmented by additional oranges and reds and the darker, naturalistic scenes feature warmer skin tones and neutral hues.
Blue Underground has included three uncompressed English language audio options on this disc, alongside a lossy French dub. The main draw is a brand new Dolby Atmos upgrade of the 7.1 remix included on the Blu-ray. This track was initially created for the old DVD, where it was presented in DTS-ES 6.1. As is the case with most of Blue Underground’s audio surround remixes, the effort is commendable, but ultimately unnecessary in this writer’s opinion, though it should be noted that these recent UHD Atmos tracks have, in generally, better respected the spirit of the original sound design than those early mono-to-5.1 tracks heard on old Anchor Bay and Blue Underground DVDs. If you want the stereo/surround enhancements, but don’t have Atmos capabilities, there is also a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. I spent most of my viewing time sticking to the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mix, which is clean and crisp, but considerably quieter than the Atmos track and its multi-channel advantages. The music is the remix’s biggest advantage, because it is sometimes hidden behind effects and dialogue on the mono track. Composer Frank Cordell replaced Bernard Herrmann at the last minute when the veteran died unexpectedly. His score is a potent, vastly underrated mix of romantic horror cues, shocking synth sounds, and church-themed choral/organ motifs.
Disc One (4K UHD)
Commentary with Larry Cohen – This is the lone holdover from Blue Underground’s 2003 DVD release. A charming and informative track from a charming and informative man.
Commentary by film historians Steve Mitchell and Troy Howarth – The one exclusive new extra features Mitchell, the director of King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen (2017), and Howarth, author of Assault on the System: The Nonconformist Cinema of John Carpenter (independently published, 2020), among others. Howarth has plenty to add to the discussion, but also acts as a moderator, prompting Mitchell for info about the late writer/director’s career and influence, the making of God Told Me To, Cohen’s favorite themes and guerrilla techniques, and the cast (apparently, Robert Forester was originally cast as the lead).
Trailers and TV spots under both the God Told Me To and alternate Demon titles
Disc Two (Blu-ray)
Heaven & Hell On Earth (11:31, HD) – An interview with star Tony Lo Bianco, who recalls his casting and fond memories of his acting peers. He didn’t like the vagina shot, though.
Bloody Good Times (9:12, HD) – An interview with special effects artist Steve Neill, who worked with Cohen on God Told Me To, Full Moon High, The Stuff, Island of the Alive, and Return to Salem’s Lot.
God Told Me To Bone (21:20, SD) – Q&A with Cohen following a showing of God Told Me To and Bone at the New Beverly Cinema.
2002 Lincoln Center Q&A with Larry Cohen (8:08, SD) – Another, much older post-viewing Q&A session.
Trailers and TV spots under both the God Told Me To and alternate Demon titles
Poster & still gallery
The images on this page are taken from the remastered Blue Underground Blu-ray, NOT the 4K UHD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.