God Told Me To (1976)
Although he had been writing and producing for quite a long time, Larry Cohen's first major hits as a director in the 1970s were Black Caesar and its sequel, Hell Up in Harlem. Both starred Fred Williamson and became cornerstones of the blaxploitation genre. In 1974 Cohen tried something different with the horror film It's Alive, a tale of a couple who have a mutant killer baby, and suddenly became a big name in the horror business as well.
Since the blaxploitation craze started to fade by the mid-1970s Cohen wisely continued to focus on horror films. His next such effort was God Told Me To, jumping on board the controversy of the time that some criminals were seemingly getting off with light sentences in mental health facilities by claiming to have heard voices telling them to kill. In typical exploitation style, Cohen decided to see explore the what-if scenario that they were telling the truth.
Lieutenant Peter Nichols (Tony Lo Bianco) is a New York police officer and devout Catholic, although he hides the latter from his girlfriend Casey (Deborah Raffin). When a sniper climbs a water tower and begins firing on random people, Nichols confronts him to talk him down and find out why he did what he did. His answer is simply that God told him to.
This kicks off a series of murders with the same explanation, including a police officer (Andy Kaufman) murdering fellow officers during the St. Patrick's Day Parade and another man calmly murdering his entire family. Further investigation leads to a woman named Evelyn Phillips who had a strange child after claiming to have become pregnant as a virgin. This child, Bernard (Richard Lynch), is now grown and able to control people using his mind. As New York panics once word gets out about what is happening Nichols realizes that the mysteries of his own origin may tie him to Bernard.
This is one of those films that straddles the line when it comes to being a horror film, as it also has many science fiction elements as well. Still, it has enough of the genre tropes, from mind control to cult-like conspiracies, that it could be argued to be similar to many of the classic monster films, even if the monster isn't a giant radioactive lizard. It's definitely a lot more serious than It's Alive, presenting both the gritty New York of the 1970s combined the apparent arrival of a messiah that is not exactly what was promised.
As usual Cohen does a great job of making the movie look a lot more expensive than it is, from guerilla filmmaking for the sniper episode and the attack on the parade to recycling props from the televisions show Space: 1999. This is typical of Cohen, who wouldn't pay for a permit if he didn't have to, and wasn't afraid of filming in sketchy locations. It even has a throwback to his blaxploitation films when Nichols enters a pool hall to get revenge for a colleague's death.
There are still some clumsy edits here and there, although much of the film is expertly filmed and cut. The only big problem is that sometimes it goes off on tangents, either for running time or dramatic effect, that make the movie feel a bit more of a mess than it actually is. I have always felt that the reveal of Bernard as being at the center of everything was a bit disappointing, although it has a bit of a disgusting aspect to give it some oomph, even if it is something modern audiences might not appreciate too much. That doesn't take away from the fact that Gold Told Me To is a unique thriller with a number of disparate elements that Cohen still manages to bring together for a satisfying conclusion.
Gold Told Me To (1976)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Tony Lo Bianco, Deborah Raffin, Richard Lynch
Director: Larry Cohen