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 blaxsploitation market. Blaxsploitation movies were often brutal and exploitative views (hence the name) of the African-Americans in New York during the ‘70s, but it was also a celebration, however unscrupulous, of working-class black America. Blaxsploitation movies presented themselves as pure entertainment, which made them popular with middle-class white Americans, but many held major social messages beneath their surface.
Cohen understood the methodology of these tactics and how to apply them a larger audience demographic, specifically in his follow-up, genre-centric 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 and Basket Case – 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, 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. 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. Here, Cohen sometimes seems lost in his ideas and his experimentation, whereas, in later films (specifically Q and The Stuff), he was able to anchor himself on Michael Moriarty’s comedic charms.
For the most part, the disoriented narrative actually works in Cohen’s favor, because the story 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 jostle the momentum of an otherwise sharply edited story. Even brief time away from Nicholas’ 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, these marriage difficulties are important to Nicholas’ construction and deconstruction, but the pimp subplot is unnecessary.
As I mentioned in my Q review, Cohen was never the technical artisan John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper was and, like Q, God Told Me To was shot on the cheap. Low on funds, Cohen and his crew were forced to steal shots and the look is definitely rough, but he also understood how to make the cinéma vérité style work in his favor. In both films, he tends to cut the narrative to its very marrow and flips between locations and across relatively long expanses of time with little warning. This jagged editing fuses well with the handheld cameras and source-lit locations, creating a constant flow of visual information that is quite sophisticated, considering the film’s limited means. The vérité ‘normalcy’ also contrasts beautifully with the surreal scenes 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 was rare on VHS until Anchor Bay put out a collector’s edition (I believe under the supervision of Bill Lustig) and released three times on DVD. The UK got a VHS-quality, 1.33:1 version via Vipco, while stateside fans had a slightly better non-anamorphic, 1.85:1 version via the grey-market hucksters at Brentwood and Catcom Home Video, who only included it as part of multi-movie sets. Blue Underground released its first remastered, anamorphic 1.85:1 DVD version soon after and it became the best buying option. This new 1.85:1, 1080p Blu-ray (and its DVD special edition counterpart) represents not only an HD upgrade, but a brand new 4K transfer from original negative elements (probably from Cohen’s personal stash). The old DVD was plenty impressive – possibly even one of Blue Underground’s better B-movie transfers – but this remaster leads to substantial uptakes in detail, clarity, and color quality.
As mentioned in this review, Cohen and cinematographer Paul Glickman stole many of their shots from New York City streets, so a rough look is expected, but the image here is crisp and relatively consistent. Grain levels increase and decrease, depending on location/lighting (the police precinct sequences are constantly the grainiest) and some locations are so dark that even a digital scrubbing can’t fix the problem (a scene where Nicholas is attacked in a stairwell is still encased in heavy black shadows, rendering it almost impossible to make out anything onscreen. There is minor discoloration in the heavier grain, but no real signs of CRT noise or DNR scrubbing. The increased sharpness helps to deepen the wide-angle street shots and tightens up the fine textures and patterns in close-up. Colors are natural and eclectic, except, of course, the searing yellows of the scenes featuring Space Jesus.
Blue Underground’s first crack DVD release featured a DTS-ES 6.1 remix of God Told Me To’s original mono soundtrack. This Blu-ray has adjusted that 6.1 track to 7.1 and presents it here in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio sound. Traditionalists can rest easy, because the original mono has also been included in 2.0 DTS-HD MA. I’m not a huge fan of this particular remix, because too many of the mono track effects have been awkwardly spread to the stereo and surround channels to create the illusion of directional movement. This creates volume inconsistencies throughout, specifically weird empty spots in the center. The 7.1 version has advantages in terms of the ‘roundness’ of the more heavily layered sequences, as long as the sound designers aren’t trying to move things around too much. The music, which is sometimes absorbed by the effects and dialogue on the mono track, also sounds substantially better during the remix. 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.
Commentary with Larry Cohen – This is the lone holdover from Blue Underground’s DVD release. A charming and informative track from a charming and informative man.
Heaven & Hell On Earth (11:30, 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 (9:10, 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 (21:10, SD) – Q&A with Cohen following a showing of God Told Me To and Bone at the New Beverly Cinema.
Lincoln Center Q&A with Larry Cohen (8:10, 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
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