God Told Me To is a low-budget horror thriller from 1976, written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen. The film opens with the sound of a choir and the Gregorian vocals along with an organ makes for a dark and ominous mood. There’s low camera angles showing the viewer an authentic New York with the camera moving between real people on the street. Suddenly a cyclist is shot, a sniper who is perched on a water tower on the rooftop of a building then takes aim at other people shooting several pedestrians as they walk the street. Victims include someone crossing the road and someone shopping, as people begin to realise they’re being targeted, panic ensues.
We see the shooter with his telescopic rifle targeting the people below. It’s reported that 1 person is killed and 14 are wounded. A cop, Lieutenant Peter Nicolas climbs up to talk to the shooter, to “find out who you are, why you’ve done this” he says. The shooter is identified as Harold Gorman, Peter asks him “people are gonna wanna know why you did this… you mad at somebody?”. The sniper responds “God told me to”, he then stands up and jumps off the building to his death.
Peter’s next case is a man who has stabbed random people in a shop. He’s now lying in a hyperbaric chamber in a hospital and his dying words are also “God told me to”. These crimes although completely unconnected are related in their motive, the perpetrators don’t know each other but their rationale is the same, before they die they are both adamant that God made them kill.
In bed with his partner, Peter muses over the sniper case. “How [can] his aim be so accurate? The sight wasn’t even properly calibrated” he ponders. His partner replies “insane people seem to be graced with unexplainable powers”. He starts to ask further questions about Harold Gorman; “I wonder what guided his hand?” he says, his girlfriend asks sceptically “Are you telling me all those people were meant to die?”. This not only makes for an interesting conversation about murder, fate, and destiny, but it begins a unique storyline which intertwines religion, deity, immaculate conception, aliens, the Anti-Christ and the second-coming. With all these topics coming together to form a single film, I think you’ll agree that this makes for one hell of a unique plot.
This being a Larry Cohen film, there is of course the incorporation of real people with the actors. There’s real bystanders on the streets of New York in the background of a few scenes and a few real people are even asked to read some lines (there’s a real cop and also a real grocer talking to Peter during his investigation). There’s also the scene where Harold’s mother talks to a journalist in the style of a news report or the scene where a Policeman gives a summation of events directly to the camera. All this makes for a typical Cohen aesthetic, the look of guerilla filmmaking (although Larry most likely got permission to film, correct me if I’m wrong).
The movie has a superb cast considering the low-budget. There’s Tony Lo Bianco (The French Connection) who plays Peter J. Nicholas. The cast also includes Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?), Richard Lynch (The Seven-Ups), and the late, great Sylvia Sydney (Sabotage, Beetlejuice) in a small but important part. Pretty much all the cast are adept at acting especially Robert Drivas who plays the character of David Morten, a man who has shot and killed his daughter and wife (again, because “God told him to”). Drivas convincingly plays a calm killer who’s been told to butcher his family by God himself. He says to Peter “He wouldn’t ask me to do something that wasn’t right” adding “He’s given us so much and asks for so little”. He then likens his crime to the Bible story; “God asked Abraham to kill his son” adding “None of this matters”, life isn’t sacred he says (making for a thought-provoking conversation).
As Peter investigates these cases further, it transpires that a man with long hair described as “a hippy type” was talking to all the killers before they committed acts of random violence. But all the witnesses can’t remember the man’s face, it was a “blur” they all say. I won’t spoil the rest of the plot, but the story mixes tales of rape, hermaphrodites, ancient astronaut aliens, and virgin births.
There’s also a secret group of rich men who are privy to the inner workings of God’s plan which makes a point about secret societies and pre-empts films like The Devil’s Advocate. There’s some great lines from this board, for instance one of them asks about God “Why can’t he perform miracles, cure a few thousand people. Wouldn’t that be more impressive?”. The Board Chairman replies “The only way the Lord has successfully disciplined us is through fear. Cure a man and you’ll impress a few people who already believe anyway, kill a multitude and you can convince a nation”. Simply brilliant. There’s another great line spoken by Mr. Richards (another member of the board), he says to Peter “The last time a living God came to this Earth, he was the one who got murdered”.
At one point in the film an anonymous man (Logan, The Board Chairman played by Lester Rawlins) calls the police alerting them to the fact that there will be another killing that day. “He has willed it” he says, “5 more will die” in a parade, adding that the killer may be a cop. When this particular scene takes place, you can’t help but notice the similarities with the parade scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight; a group of policemen in a procession and one of them is a secret killer (plagiarism or affectionate reference from Nolan? You decide). In this film Andy Kaufman (Taxi) plays the police assassin, he shoots someone in the crowd and when he’s finally killed by one of the detectives he says in his dying breaths “God Told Me To”.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the movie explores the idea of the second coming of Jesus and the Anti-Christ. Logan from the board leads Peter to the basement of a building towards the end of the film. In the basement there’s a warm glow, a man with long hair resides there, a bright light obscures his face. This scene is quite scary the first time you view it, with the man prancing around in a playful way. Is this the second coming of Christ or something stranger and more formidable? When Peter strikes the man and says “you’ve never felt pain!” this becomes a hair-raising scene and a chilling idea.
I’ll acknowledge that the movie gets a bit slow towards the end (from around the time Peter meets his mother) but it’s still a very enjoyable watch. There’s a slight plot twist regarding the lead character and when Peter Nicolas is “Committed to Hospital For The Criminally Insane” he poetically speaks the same line “God told me to”. There’s also another great line from Peter during the end of the picture; “All my life I felt close to God… but it wasn’t him after all”.
What makes this film unique is the storyline. Mass murder, murder-suicide, and terrorism aren’t exactly topics that Hollywood would dare explore these days, especially if a film makes some kind of point about the purpose of religion and God. Having said that, God Told Me To could easily be re-made today but only by people with balls (and by people who aren’t prejudiced I might add). If you avoid the obvious singling out of one religion, you could ask this dangerous question once more; when serial killers or terrorists kill because they say God told them to, is that some form of mental illness, or is it real? What if people aren’t insane and they’re actually doing “God’s work” (something explored a little in the late Bill Paxton’s Frailty but not in such a subversive way). Is there a creator, a God, and if so, is he or she good or bad? Does God actually speak to certain people and if he or she did, what would he or she ask us to do? To do good or to do bad? And what is “bad” anyway? Why do we assume that the work of God would look coherent, peaceful, and loving to us humans? God is supposed to “work in mysterious ways”, maybe there’s some grand plan and certain people need to be killed for a greater good. Save to say this kind of philosophical question is so far from the bland state of contemporary cinema that it’s sometimes refreshing to watch a classic film such as this from back in the day.
God Told Me To is a great blend of genres, it possesses the horror of something like The Sentinel and mixes it with the thrills of something like The Taking Of Pelham 123 (the original of course). The end result is a New York-based horror-thriller with tonnes of atmosphere and mood. If you’ve never seen God Told Me To I urge you to seek it out. This is a very unique movie, and for me, this is Larry Cohen‘s best film.
God Told Me To Watch.
I just watched the movie…I loved it!
And I loved your article..well written summation.
Thanks. Such an underrated movie.
Without sounding like Amazon’s recommendation system, if you enjoyed this film, there’s a few more Larry Cohen movies you might like.