Every Friday, we’re recommending an older movie that’s available to stream or download and worth seeing again through the lens of our current moment. We’re calling the series “Revisiting Hours” — consider this Rolling Stone’s unofficial film club. This week, a.k.a. the Halloween edition: Noel Murray on one of the greatest, most unnerving B movies of the Seventies, God Told Me To.
What if you stared straight into the face of evil, and it looked just like your next-door neighbor?
In writer-director Larry Cohen’s deliriously eccentric God Told Me To, a good cop protects a New York City that goes from crumbling and crime-ridden to absolutely bonkers, seemingly overnight. A clean-cut young man takes a rifle up a water-tower, and guns down over a dozen pedestrians. An affable dad slaughters his wife and kids. A uniformed patrolman pulls out his service revolver in the middle of a St. Patrick’s Day parade, and starts shooting into the crowd. When asked what made them snap, they all answer the same way. It was God, of course. He commanded them to kill.
The details of any murder are horrifying, but the fear in this 1976 B-movie classic runs deeper, because the killers are so … ordinary. They show zero remorse. They follow orders. They’re satisfied with the outcome.
Can you imagine living in a world like this, where the basics of right and wrong become a matter of opinion? It’d be like waking up one day to find Neo-Nazis marching in the streets, dressed in plain polos and khakis, while large swaths of the population shrug and say, “This is fine.”
God Told Me To usually gets classified as horror, which is accurate, but only to a point. It’s also a police procedural, following NYPD Detective Lieutenant Peter Nicholas (played by Tony Lo Bianco) as he becomes obsessed with this sudden case of mass psychosis. And it’s spiced with science-fiction elements, as Pete digs deeper and discovers the killers may have been psychically controlled by a long-haired spiritualist named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch). The mystery man’s medical records show that he was born of a virgin and had indeterminate sexual characteristics as an infant. When witnesses try to describe him, they say his face is “a blur.” He’s an old-school God, commanding fealty through raw wrath.
All of the genre-bending baffled some critics. (“There were times when I thought the projectionist was showing the reels in random order, as a quiet joke on the hapless audience,” complained Roger Ebert.) But not being able to nail down exactly what’s going on here is a big part of what makes this movie great. It opens with milky fluid spurting through inky blackness, like cosmic ejaculate; it ends with Phillips lifting a shirt to reveal a vaginal torso-orifice. There’s a persistent, visceral kinkiness here that would make David Lynch and David Cronenberg proud, especially in two flashback sequences: one in black-and-white, detailing the night a passerby found Phillips’ future mother running naked down a country road; and the other in over-saturated color, from the perspective of another woman (played by Hollywood great Sylvia Sidney), who remembers being abducted and probed by extraterrestrials.
Those oddly beautiful special-effects sequences are sprinkled sparingly throughout the story, just as an occasional reminder that there’s something fantastical going on. For the most part, however, this is very much a 1970s New York movie, about the darkness curling around the heart of a city. And it resonates even now, for how it depicts a culture rapidly cracking. God Told Me To was released in the year of the USA’s bicentennial celebration, which could have something to do with its despairing take on America. Like its post-Watergate peers (Network, Nashville, Taxi Driver), this is a dispatch from a rotting country, sullied by everything from dirty cops to rude service industry employees.
In the recent biographical documentary King Cohen, the director defines his favorite bit of schtick as “taking something which is considered benevolent and turning it into some kind of monstrosity.” Here, that not-so-cuddly beast is religion. The movie’s main villain has a cult following, but what’s scariest about the guru is the lack of ideology. People follow Phillips because … well, just because. There’s no way to use reasoning to appeal to these disciples. There’s no logic to argue against. They’re all just on his team, mindlessly, until they die.
This is all maddening to the detective — and unsettling too, because if he ever stops to examine his own beliefs, he might question whether the only reason he’s a devout Catholic is because of how he was raised. One of Phillips’ mind-controlled assassins even says as much to him, “both sides”-ing the policeman by reminding him about the biblical story of God telling Abraham to sacrifice a son. (Friend and fan Joe Dante noted the irony that one of the ballsiest movies ever made about Catholic guilt was written and directed by a Jew.)
It’s best not to say too much about the secrets our policeman hero uncovers during his investigation into this cult leader, or about their final showdown. One of the big reasons why God Told Me To has played so well across the decades — and feels more relevant than ever — is that its suggestions of shadowy cabals and alien conspiracies sit side-by-side with its chilling truths about human nature. There’s a reason, for example, why Cohen cuts away from the tense sniper scene that begins the film to show the shooter’s mother, skeptical that her boy could actually do such a thing. We all have our biases and blind spots; even when we can see that the streets are littered with the dead, some of us immediately ask who’s really responsible.
Det. Lt. Nicholas even tries to exploit this idea of personal loyalty, when he scales the water tower to talk to the gunman, and tells the kid some personal details about his own life. “I want you to know me,” he says. “We don’t kill people we know, do we?”
But what if we do now? That’s the question as things keep getting stranger and bloodier. When he interrogates the gentlemen who killed his whole family, the perp dispassionately describes how he shot his son and later, his wife. Then he coaxed his daughter out of hiding by telling her that he was just playing a game — before shooting her too, as they laughed together. The man says he wasn’t even religious before that morning, when he heard the voice of “God.”
It’s like a switch suddenly flipped inside this guy. And if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone. What’s most terrifying about this movie is that Cohen proposes we might not recognize any change … until everyone we meet is “off.”
Previously: Lost in America