A.J.’s Solid ’70s Horrorthon #5: “God Told Me To” (1976)

by A.J. Hakari

"God Told Me To" poster

I wasn’t certain if Larry Cohen would be able to handle as high of a concept as the one he cooked up for God Told Me To. The filmmaker has always had trouble with the whole subtlety thing, as evidenced by the blunt-force social commentary delivered amidst the goofiness of The Stuff and A Return to Salem’s Lot. But color me surprised that not only does God Told Me To start out on a stark and thought-provoking note, it sticks to it as the plot progresses. This film is one of a scant few that both presents an irresistible hook and can back it up with a fascinating mystery that, as crazy as it gets, still holds your undivided attention.

On a bright, sunshiny day in New York City, a lone gunman launches a campaign of terror. After several innocent bystanders are picked off one by one, the police finally manage to locate the sniper and send in world-weary Detective Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) to talk him down. When asked what his motivation behind the massacre was, the killer takes his own life…but not before cryptically replying, “God told me to.” Already caught in a personal crisis due to troubles with his wife (Sandy Dennis) and mistress (Deborah Raffin), the detective is hurled into further despair when more brutal murders take place, with each perpetrator calmly proclaiming that they were just doing the Almighty’s bidding. Something definitely doesn’t sit right with Nicholas, and at the possible cost of his own sanity, he follows a trail of bloody bread crumbs to uncover the horrible truth behind the deaths.

God Told Me To could only have been pulled off with the craftsmanship of a genre pro and the showmanship of a cigar-chomping movie exec with an office in a strip mall. It’s made well, and it’s refreshingly unconcerned with who it offends (which it probably did and does still), as long as that controversy puts butts in seats. The film is unabashedly sensational (you kinda have to be, to come up with a title like that), but it has the added benefits of a swift pace, a perfect tone, and a cast that’s game to take on whatever nutso turns the story makes. Cohen’s predeliction for police procedurals works well here, relating viewers to Lo Bianco’s character right off the bat and making them as astonished as he is with each new clue he sniffs out. The detective’s wavering faith makes the discovery of an honest-to-God (no pun intended) supernatural presence in our world all the more foundation-rattling to him…especially when he finds out there’s a reason why he’s being kept alive.

Although the movie threatens on many occasions to teeter into exploitation, Cohen seemed to realize that God Told Me To would’ve been better off played straight. There’s little humor to be found here (even a jive-talking drug dealer is used for dramatic effect), which only adds to the oppressive atmosphere that the plot gradually adopts. The screenplay has its missed opportunities, such as the goings-on with Nicholas’ love life, which relegates Dennis to frumping about in a five-minute cameo (to be fair, this subplot does pay off, but only in the last fifteen minutes and after you’ve basically forgotten that there are even women in this thing). But one doesn’t mind the missteps all that much, mostly because Lo Bianco’s performance is so commanding in the meantime. He sells the hell out of his role, suited like a glove to play a grizzled Big Apple gumshoe just trying to wrap his head around how and why divine intervention could tie into so much senseless killing.

Though it feels like the stuff gimmicky best-selling paperbacks are made of, God Told Me To makes good on its boasts. It’s cheap enough to not overdo the seriousness, yet it has the class to distract audiences from yukking it up at the outrageous premise. Cohen’s pictures left me rolling my eyes countless time, but the jarring God Told Me To cuts through any cynical barriers with impressive precision.