GOD TOLD ME TO (DEMON)(director/writer/producer: Larry Cohen; cinematographer: Paul Glickman; editors: Mike Corey/Chris Lebenzon/Artie Mandelberg/J. William Waters; music: Frank Cordell; cast: Sylvia Sidney (Elizabeth Mullin), Richard Lynch (Bernard Phillips), Tony Lo Bianco (Peter Nicholas), Robert Nichols (Fletcher), Sandy Dennis (Martha Nicholas), Deborah Raffin (Casey, Mistress), Andy Kaufman (Cop); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: R; Larco/New World; 1976)
“An upsetting film not meant for the timid.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Larry Cohen (“Bone”) directs and writes a weird B-movie cult film that is a blend of sci-fi, occultism, pseudo-religion, crime mystery and a horror thriller. It has a strange power that cuts through its outlandish plot that involves aliens, a Jesus Christ figure and genetics. It leads to a bizarre conclusion with overtones of sexual perversity. It is most effective in uncovering layers of guilt in American society that have been repressed and exposes a modern culture that has become soulless. An upsetting film not meant for the timid.
In the film’s first 20 minutes a sniper set atop a New York City water tower randomly kills as many as 14 pedestrians. The motiveless crime is investigated by veteran detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), a guilt-ridden Catholic and regular attendee of confession who is morally caught in a dilemma between an estranged wife (Sandy Dennis) he won’t divorce and a mistress (Deborah Raffin) he lives with. His crime investigation leads him into even more bizarre territory, as a devoted father murders his entire family for no apparent reason and a cop (Andy Kaufman), also, for no apparent reason opens fire on the crowd during a St. Patrick’s Day parade. When the suspects are apprehended they don’t try and escape or deny the charges but in a zombie-like trance utter “God told me to.”
It leads the detective to no less a figure than Jesus Christ, who is named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch). He appeared to each of the killers before the incidents, innocent people who are suddenly called on to kill. The detective visits Bernard’s mother (Sylvia Sidney), who attacks him with a knife before suddenly dying. An autopsy reveals her to be a virgin, and the detective tracks the possibility of her kidnapping and impregnation by aliens years earlier in a tabloid story. This leads the detective to go back and trace his own adoption records, which leaves him to believe he has the same roots as Bernard Phillips. From here on everything is cluttered and confused, as the mystery leads to an ambiguous climax that can be read in many different ways. The film is loaded with all kinds of subversive notions that have been buried by poor editing and mediocre camerawork and an overblown FX rendition of special effects, nevertheless the film’s unique qualities shines through its all too violent finale and its demonic possession theme reaches out for loftier heights. I found it to be a gem that could have been a masterpiece if it weren’t ruined by its muddled efforts.
Lo Bianco is compelling as the existential hero questioning himself, his values and his religion, and he does it for the first time in a way that strips him bare and makes him vulnerable and finally insane. It’s easy to identify him as one of those who takes religion as a matter of blind faith and doesn’t question what he believes in the same way he might question everyday events in his life.
REVIEWED ON 2/13/2003 GRADE: A
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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