Today I wanted to tackle one of the weirder American horror flicks from the 1970s, one that I’d seen pop up on a lot of people’s “best underrated 70s horror” lists but had only recently got around to seeing.
Larry Cohen is probably best known to horrorphiles as the director of the It’s Alive killer baby series, as well as a few other cult classics like The Stuff and Q: The Winged Serpent (and, it must be said, one of the better episodes of Mick Garris’s “Masters of Horror” series, the Fairuza Balk-starring “Pick Me Up”). But the film I want to discuss today is one of his stranger and more subversive ones, a film that actually had some pretty complex things to say about religious belief, violence, racial tensions, and gender fluidity. I’m speaking, of course, of 1976’s God Told Me To (also known as Demon, for some unfathomable reason).
The movie centers around New York City police detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), who is investigating a bizarre series of crimes in which seemingly random people suddenly snap and go on mass killing sprees around the city, always giving the excuse that “God told me to,” right before they meet their own ends. You would think that this film, then, would progress something like a thriller or police procedural, and you’d be partially right, but honestly, if you’ve never seen it, I don’t think you could ever imagine the batshit directions this thing wanders off into. If you’d like to approach this movie cold, though, I suggest you not read any further here, as I’m inevitably going to spoil some key aspects of the plot. You have been warned.
Detective Nicholas lives with his girlfriend Casey (Deborah Raffin), telling her that his devout wife Martha (Sandy Dennis) will not let him divorce her, even though in reality it’s his own Catholic guilt that prevents him. It is his very conflicted faith that causes him to obsess about the ostensibly religion-motivated mass murders occurring regularly around New York, but as he delves deeper into the crimes, he discovers some mightily disturbing facts about the motives of the killers, and also that he himself might somehow be involved in what appears to be some mass hysteria or conspiracy.
It turns out that all of the murderers had fallen under the spell of a mysterious, androgynous cult figure known as Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), who seems to have the power of mind control over his subjects. As Nicholas digs into Phillips’ murky past, he finds that Phillips’ mother was supposedly a virgin when she bore him, and further, that she had reported being abducted by a ball of light and subsequently impregnated by what amounted to extraterrestrials. After Nicholas locates the elusive Phillips in a dark basement ringed with flames (obviously a stand-in for Hell), he finds that Phillips wants to control him most of all, but cannot do it, for some reason he can’t fathom.
As the investigation goes on, Nicholas finds that Phillips’s history mirrors his own; the detective’s own mother was also knocked up by visitors from beyond the stars, and the only reason that Nicholas wasn’t aware of it was that his human genes turned out to be more dominant than the alien ones. In the final battle between the half-alien “siblings,” Phillips attempts to persuade Nicholas to impregnate him via a pulsating vagina in his abdomen, but Nicholas ain’t having none of that freaky extraterrestrial action and kills the being, repeating the mantra that “God told me to” when he is later arrested for murder.
I have to say that this is probably the strangest of all the religion-themed horror flicks of the decade, and I haven’t even really scratched the surface of all the insane shit that goes on in this movie. The weirdest thing about it is that it isn’t lurid or funny at all; it’s played completely straight and serious, and is all the more unsettling because of it. God Told Me To is almost like a whacked-out mashup of Dog Day Afternoon, Rosemary’s Baby, Xtro, and the book Chariots of the Gods, and as such, it has many layers of satirical social commentary that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. For example, what is the nature of religious belief, and is it detrimental to the individual and to society as a whole? What is God, and if God supposedly speaks to someone, who’s to say that what God says is right or moral? Where is the line between male and female, and does it even matter? These may seem pretty heavy questions for a little B-horror movie to be tackling, but God Told Me To does so with a surprisingly deft hand. The entire feeling the film evokes is one of a society teetering on the edge of chaos as conflicting forces—of good and evil, masculine and feminine, black and white—all clash in one enormous and yet insidious paroxysm of violence.
It also has some wonderfully frightening scenes, from the fantastic opener as a lone sniper atop a water tower calmly picks off random pedestrians on a city street; to Nicholas’ harrowing visit to Phillips’ mother, who suddenly attacks him in a knife-wielding frenzy; to the movie’s best and most chilling sequence, where Nicholas questions a man who has just massacred his entire family in cold blood at Phillips’ psychic behest. The lucid, almost beatific way the man describes the murders is disturbing in the extreme.
So if you’re a fan of religion-themed and/or gritty urban horror from the 1970s that’s cross-pollinated with a hint of sci-fi, then God Told Me To should definitely be added to your must-see list. Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.