When a sniper guns down 14 pedestrians at random on the streets of New York City, cop with a troubled personal life, Peter Nicholas, is up for the job of reasoning with him. Though he doesn’t manage to talk him down from his killing spot atop the water tower, he does elicit a reason from him before he throws himself to his death. As Nicholas investigates further killings across the city it becomes apparent that something connects them all; the killer’s dying confessions reveal that “God told me to.” As the investigation takes shape, the common ground for each killer is having met an elusive long-haired stranger shortly before their crimes, but who is this ubiquitous being and what will Detective Nicholas’s connection to them be? Find out in Larry Cohen’s genre-busting cult classic.
New York City in the 70’s had a tendency to be portrayed in the movies and the seemingly endless cop shows of the same era as the perfect site of public paranoia; a sprawling concrete metropolis breeding suspicion and uncertainty where anything could be possible, and usually was, egged on by the media to fuel the almost palpable air of unrest that floated around the dirty streets. Writer/director Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To is certainly no exception and exploits this feeling well with his bizarre mix of the strange and the serious in this detective/mystery/horror/sci-fi hybrid that is as compelling as it is peculiar.
God Told Me To, despite being a mixed bag generically, belongs for the most part, particularly tonally, to the detective/mystery genres. With the opening scenes of a nauseatingly claustrophobic New York, our troubled detective has to act fast when a sniper opens fire, causing hysteria in the streets below. Reminiscent of the earlier Dirty Harry, God Told Me To uses the detective figure as an urban hero, combating one of the city’s most feared attackers; the sniper. This kind of crime perfectly utilises the self-perpetuating urban fear; a crime which preys on the city but which the city conversely and simultaneously conceals in safety. And if you are thinking there’s nothing too strange or unusual about this, well then you’d be right, but it is as the investigation gets underway that we gain the bizarre turn that has earned Cohen (Q The Winged Serpent and It’s Alive!) his rightful cult status.
Indeed, it’s only as the story develops that the bizarre horror/sci-fi elements begin to enter the arena. As we learn more about the tangled personal life of our hero, of his devout Catholicism, the parallel mystery similarly unravels. But don’t be fooled by Cohen’s crazy generic mix for it masks some grave undertones. There are some serious and still very relevant ideas about religion at play here, which helps to make this film timeless. Cohen presents some surprisingly open ideas about religion which won’t be to everyone’s taste; “You got all the blessing’s who needs religion?!” points to a false and almost greedy human search in desperation for a higher power which, as Cohen rather aptly presents, won’t necessarily be a good one.
Whilst there is some bloodshed in this film it is more a horror of ideas with some creepy and genuinely unpleasant and difficult scenes made only the more so as it is so plausible. As we discover that religion has a hand in the city hiding something more deadly, invested with the power of destruction more precise than a sniper, it is truly chilling. It is an idea even more relevant now than when Cohen wrote it; that the more modernised society becomes the more we search for some lost meaning and the more we open ourselves up to religion, fanaticism and the need to feel the presence of a deity to restore the human purpose (it is no accident that the sniper opens fire above the icon of modern American consumerism that is Bloomingdales). But fear not, if this all sounds a little heavy you can still relax and enjoy the bizarre story, direction and generic mix that make it peculiarly entertaining as this, after all, is what makes this a Cohen Classic; a strange film with intelligent undertones, and who can say fairer than that?
Part warning for modern society, part bizarre generic mix, but all-round Cult Classic.