Halloween Havoc!: GOD TOLD ME TO (New World 1976)

God Told Me To (1976) aka Demon Directed by Larry Cohen Shown: Poster Art

Last year during “Halloween Havoc!”, I took a look at writer/director/producer Larry Cohen’s cult classic IT’S ALIVE . This time around, it’s GOD TOLD ME TO, a  creepily twisted tale tackling mass murder, aliens, Catholicism, and the nature of God himself that could’ve only been made in the paranoiac 70’s, and may be Cohen’s best film.

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There’s a sniper on a rampage in New York City perched atop a water tower. Fourteen people are dead, and police have the scene surrounded. Det. Lt. Peter Nicholas, a devout Catholic who was orphaned as a child and goes to confession daily,  climbs the ladder in hopes of engaging the shooter before he kills again. When Nicholas asks the killer why he’s caused all this carnage, the man simply replies, “God told me to”, then jumps off the tower, plunging to his doom.

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This sets the stage for more bizarre mayhem, starting with a young cop wreaking havoc at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, same results, same statement. Nicholas follows a lead on a young, long-haired man named Bernard Phillips, and tracks him to his mother’s apartment house, where he’s attacked by the woman on the staircase (in an obvious homage to Hitchcock’s PSYCHO). Further investigation leads Nicholas to discover Mrs. Phillips was a virgin who mysteriously gave birth to a child of “undetermined sex”. A witness who encountered Mrs. Phillips two decades ago states he came upon her stark naked, in a rainstorm, babbling about being abducted by aliens.

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Meanwhile, the killings continue, including a man who guns down his wife and children while claiming, “God told me to”. Nicholas gets the science editor at one of the major papers to write a column about the divine-inspired murders, and when the story hits the streets, panic and riots ensue. The police board stages an inquiry, trying to paint Nicholas as an overzealous religious nut. The cop is taken to a Mr. Richards, one of Phillips’s “chosen”. Nicholas starts talking about Phillips’ mother, and Richards is overtaken by what looks like a heart attack, but is actually the handiwork of Phillips.

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After another disciple tries to push Nicholas in front of a subway car, he’s led to Phillips’ hideout. The long-haired, robe clad Phillips is bathed in an eerie yellow light, and asks Nicholas to accept him, “no questions”, suggesting they have something in common. The detective researches his own background, and to his horror finds out he was “born fatherless” to a woman named Elizabeth Mullin. Tracking her down to a retirement home, Nicholas learns she too claims to have once been abducted by aliens, resulting in a virgin birth… his!

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I’m not going to spoil the nightmarish ending, you’ll have to watch for yourselves. And I encourage you to do so, for GOD TOLD ME TO is an unheralded gem of a horror flick, with plenty of twists and turns. The judicial use of religious iconography and location shooting in NYC aid greatly to the movie’s unsettling atmosphere. The juxtaposition of 70’s New York with the otherworldly goings-on make this a sure-fire winner for horror lovers. You definatley will not be disappointed.

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The cast is lead by Tony LoBianco  as Nicholas, an actor who should’ve had a much bigger career. He appeared in the thriller THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, and films like MEAN FRANK AND CRAZY TONY and BLOODBROTHERS, but never quite crossed the threshold to major stardom. Sandy Dennis and Deborah Raffin, both of whom I usually find annoying, play his estranged wife and current girlfriend respectively. Fortunately, their roles are small. A pair of veterans also show up in small roles; Sam Levene  as the science writer and Sylvia Sidney   as Nicholas’ mother. The Familiar Faces have a decidedly New York flavor: Mike Kellin,  Robert Drivas, Dan Resin, and in his feature film debut, Andy Kaufman as the young killer cop at the St. Pat’s parade.

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The eccentric character actor Richard Lynch has the pivotal part of Bernard Phillips, and puts his unique stamp on it. Lynch was featured in tons of movies from the 70’s up to his death in 2012.  His scarred visage was the result of setting himself on fire in a drug-fueled haze during the 60’s, and after getting clean he began his acting career, appearing in (among others) THE HAPPY HOOKER, THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER, LITTLE NIKITA, TRANCERS II, CYBORG 3, and an incredible amount of episodic TV.

GOD TOLD ME TO is “dedicated to the memory of Mr. Bernard Herrmann”, the veteran Hollywood composer who scored Cohen’s IT’S ALIVE! Herrmann was scheduled to do this one but, after completing work on Martin Scorcese’s TAXI DRIVER, he passed away at age 64. Frank Cordell filled in admirably, his score influenced tremendously by Herrmann’s work. This movie deserves to be rediscovered by horror fans, a deviously dark and demented tale by the underrated Larry Cohen that I highly recommend for this Halloween season.

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