God Told Me To/Demon (1976) ***
The earlier and more disjointed of Larry Cohen’s evil god movies, God Told Me To/Demon is by no means an easy film to watch. You literally must pay attention during every second of its 91-minute running time, and even then, the movie leaves a number of blanks for you to fill in. Many people will probably scratch their heads in wonderment at the three-star rating with which I have favored it. That’s okay, though, ‘cause you know what? This is my damn movie review.
A rash of bizarre murders has swept over New York City. First, a young man named Harold Gorman (Sammy Williams) perches on a water tower and slays fifteen pedestrians with a .22-caliber rifle. Another man goes berserk and stabs to death a number of random strangers. A happily married man shoots his wife and children one afternoon without warning or apparent motive. A low-ranking policeman opens fire on the crowd while marching in the St. Patrick’s Day parade. What all these unlikely killers have in common is an excuse, “God told me to,” which most of them utter just before they die themselves.
Lieutenant Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco, from The Honeymoon Killers) is a police detective who was at the scene when Gorman went on his shooting spree. It was Nicholas that made contact with the sniper, climbing up the water tower in an attempt to talk him down. And it was to Nicholas that Gorman confessed his motive, just before he leaped to his death from the tower. In fact, Nicholas is present to hear all four of the aforementioned killers say that they murdered on God’s command. Nicholas himself could be called a closet Catholic. He is extremely devout, but he seems to regard his religion as somehow shameful, going so far as to conceal it from his girlfriend, a substitute teacher named Casey (The Sentinel’s Deborah Raffin). But his convictions are strong enough that he cannot bring himself to divorce his wife (Sandy Dennis, who appeared later in 976-EVIL), from whom he has been separated for months. Given this aspect of his character, it is little surprise that he finds this seeming epidemic of “God told me to” murders most disturbing.
The more he investigates, the more it seems as though the killers may be telling the truth, that God-- through a mysterious intermediary named Bernard Philips (Richard Lynch, of Deathsport and The Barbarians), whose mother appears to have been a virgin at the time of his birth-- really has been instructing randomly selected New Yorkers to kill. As Nicholas digs deeper, the story becomes even more outlandish. He learns of a secret society of wealthy and powerful men who consider themselves disciples of this Philips, he discovers evidence that Philips’s mother had been abducted by extraterrestrials on the night that her son was conceived, and when at last he meets the man in person, Nicholas learns that his own ancestry may be less than fully human.
With this movie, the less I say about the story, the better. A detailed discussion is only going to make it sound stupid, and maybe it is a little bit. But God Told Me To is a surprisingly ambitious film, and its greatest weaknesses all stem from writer/director Cohen biting off more than he could chew. There are too many implications and insinuations for one movie to handle, and no one angle is pursued as far as it ought to be. But there is no sign here of the usual marks of the cheaply made independent movie. The acting is solid, especially considering how little time the movie spends on character development, there is nothing slipshod about the production values, and some of the scenes-- particularly the shootout at the parade-- are simply ingenious. Much of the footage in the latter scene really was shot in the middle of New York’s gala St. Patrick’s Day parade. The cast and crew infiltrated the real parade to shoot the sequences in which Nicholas and the other detectives scan the marchers looking for the gunman (played, incidentally, by the notorious Andy Kaufman, who has all of one line in this movie-- just guess what it is). These sequences were pieced together with film shot a few days later, when Cohen staged a small-scale re-creation of the parade, which Kaufman could disrupt with gunfire without landing the entire cast and crew in jail. In the final assessment, this probably should not be the first Larry Cohen movie you see-- start with the more accessible Q or It’s Alive-- but it definitely is worth an hour and a half of your time.