Sunday, October 23, 2016

God Told Me To

If good ideas made for great movies, then God Told Me To (1976) would be a masterpiece. Here's a police procedural with an undeniably creepy premise, and in a post-9/11, post-Andrea Yates world, in the era of the mass shooter, it has arguably only grown more relevant and prescient. Unfortunately, the movie writer-director Larry Cohen constructs around the central idea is a muddled mess.

A sniper perched on a water tower in New York City kills fifteen people. A loving father murders his family. During the St. Patrick's Day Parade, a marching patrolman opens fire, taking out five people before he's subdued. Another man attacks several people in a grocery store. What do all these criminals have in common? When questioned by police, they respond identically: "God told me to."

Police Lt. Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) believes these cases are all connected. His investigation leads to a mysterious, messianic figure named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch) who does seem to have some kind of supernatural power. The truth about Phillips, and Nicholas' own past, is even more scandalous.

Belief can be a frightening thing, and God Told Me To builds its early creepiness and dread around that notion. Peter interrogates the man who killed his family, and he is horrified as the man, practically beaming, explains how he shot his wife and son and tricked his daughter into thinking it was all a game before shooting her. The man is blissful, explaining how God has given humanity so much and asks for so little in return. Peter is shocked and angered, but the man shakes his head. "You just don't love God the way I do."

Faith is why suicide bombers blow themselves up in crowds, why terrorists fly airplanes into buildings, and why fundamentalists bomb abortion clinics, and in modern society, it's relatively easy to acquire the means to kill a lot of people very quickly. Well executed, God Told Me To could have been a terrifying motion picture.

Unfortunately, God Told Me To is not well executed. Cohen, the low-budget wunderkind who has used shlocky monsters to tell socially conscious films, shows little grasp of plotting, transitions, or even coherence. Cohen throws in so much, and everything feels shortchanged as a result: the investigation, Peter's wife and girlfriend, Peter's family history, the cabal of businessmen who serve Phillips, the corrupt cop, the pimp, the police trying to suppress the God elements of the crimes, the newspaper man, the public panic that ensues, it all feels jumbled. Every time something new is introduced, it feels like Cohen going, "Oh by the way," almost as if he was making it up as he went along (which he may have been doing).

At times, the movie feels out of order; characters and plot details are introduced, not to be mentioned again for a long time, by which point we've forgotten about them. Several scenes conveying important information seem to be missing. The police talk about plot elements before they've been introduced, and we're left wondering how they learned about this and that.

Visually, God Told Me To is drab. Cohen deserves credit as a guerrilla filmmaker, getting authentic New York locations and gritty street details, but too often, the characters are just standing around talking about things we haven't heard about yet but the movie acts as if we should have. Cohen also throws in random interludes that feel out of place, like Peter's boss talking straight to the camera, explaining what Peter did during the sniper incident; this bit feels like it's coming after the fact, but then the movie cuts back to show what Peter did. Not only is it unnecessary, it's confusing because never again does the boss address the camera like this.

Worse is the explanation for Phillips. Phillips turns out to be the result of alien insemination, and the plausible, real-world terror of the movie gives way to Chariots of the Gods nonsense, making the movie impossible to take seriously. Peter learns he too was the product of an alien abduction and rape, and this leads to a bizarre confrontation in the end where Phillips offers to mate with Peter, revealing a vaginal slit in his abdomen. One question: what the hell is going on?

The one consistent strength of the movie is Tony Lo Bianco, who gives a sincere performance that anchors the film. Even as the movie goes off the rails and becomes increasingly wacky and incoherent, Lo Bianco keeps it grounded. Peter is a devout Catholic living in sin with his girlfriend because he won't divorce his wife. He goes to daily mass and is really shook up by the murderous fervor of the Phillips' followers. But he's a good, dedicated cop, too, tough and compassionate.

The elements are there for a great, searing thriller, but Cohen lets them get away from him. This is one movie I would like to see remade. With better craftsmanship and a clearer focus, this material could really be intense. As is, it feels like a missed opportunity.

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