Catholic Guilt Hits Hard In Larry Cohen’s 1976 Stylish Horror Classic “God Told Me To”

Standard
god-told-me-to-08-500x390

Alien Abduction In Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To

Earlier this year my wife Lily and I got to meet director Larry Cohen between a double feature screening of his seldom seen 1984 film, Special Effects, and his uneven yet wildly entertaining 1990 thriller, Ambulance, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. Sadly, there was only a small crowd for those Thursday night screenings at the cavernous theater on Sunset Blvd., a theater where anything less than a sellout always feels dramatically under attended.

I especially felt a bit badly about the low turnout as I have long admired Cohen’s films, an admiration that began after my friend Ron and I got our hands on a VHS copy of his 1974 newborn baby that rips up everyone classic, It’s Alive. That horror film that set our standard for “batshit crazy” which we would use for every phantasmagorical film that we saw afterwards during our teen years.  Besides ranking It’s Alive against other horror films of late 1970s and early 1980s, we also hunted down any movie that Cohen directed, with many being to our delight like Perfect Strangers in 1984 and Q in 1982. You remember Q don’t you? That was the one with giant flying lizard that had a thing for eating New Yorkers, which as young Philadelphians who hated the Mets and their fans was more enjoyable than perhaps originally intended, but of all of the films that Cohen had directed post-It’s Alive, we really loved his 1976 film, God Told Me To, a visually stunning science fiction horror film that centered on Catholic guilt, which we had seen not too long after Scorsese’s Mean Streets, which for us had set the gold standard of dealing with our own Catholic guilt.

Cohen wrote, produced, and directed God Told Me To, which is centered on Catholic NYC Police Detective Peter Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco), a well intentioned, sad sack cop who is investigating a series of random murders where the only constant is that the killers’ last utterance, which is the title of this film. If this supposedly God-inspired bloodbath doesn’t play with his Catholic guilt enough, Peter is in a severely dysfunctional open relationship between his wife of many years, Martha (the always sullen, Sandy Dennis), and his younger girlfriend, Casey (Deborah Raffin). The setup is good for a classic Italian Roman Catholic meltdown, which brings up a point that I have wondered about for years and regretfully neglected to ask Cohen that night at the Egyptian: “Why would you cast Italian-American actor Tony Lo Bianco to play essentially an Italian-American archetype but named that character Peter Nicholas?” Nicholas’s self-tormenting persona is quite similar to Mean Streets’ Roman Catholic repressed Charlie (Harvey Keitel), but as Mean Streets was released only a few years earlier,  perhaps Cohen changed the character’s nationality to avoid comparison, which is almost unavoidable given the Catholic setup and its NYC location. It doesn’t change how much I appreciate this film in any way, but it does need mentioning if not for the one chance that I can face Cohen in the future without turning into a thirteen year old fan.

Through a bit of clever detective work, Peter finds out that all of the killers have been influenced by a religious cult leader named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), a Christ-like figure from space whose alien race convinces these white, earth men to turn their arms on other white people, who historically had more authority and voting power in New York City. This subplot is commonplace as issues of race and social status have always been a part of most of Larry Cohen’s films since his debut dark comedy Bone in 1972 and his subsequent blaxploitation films Black Caesar and Hell Up In Harlem. Peter fittingly meets Bernard in the hell-like basement of a slum apartment building, and it’s here that Cohen creates his contrasting image of God, a hermaphroditic figure who argues with Peter about a possible revolution of minorities to bring them to the level of ruling class while still preaching hate like a dictator. It is the contrasting nature of the film that becomes God Told Me To’s strongest mechanism as it fills the narrative with a state similar to that which is occurring inside of Peter, the Madonna/whore complex that rules not only his romantic relationships but his familial relationships as we find out that the many of Bernard’s disciples may have been born out of interstellar virgin birth to make the whole guilt thing more than any Catholic can handle. In fact, all of the extraterrestrial/religious/racial themes of God Told Me To only serve to stress the real erupting urban landscape of a desperate 1970s New York that was experiencing the latter stages of white flight-inspired urban decay. Perhaps Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, which would be released a few years later in 1981, defined Larry Cohen’s intentions with God Told Me To in a way that now makes complete sense: that this late 1970s New York was in fact some sort of sociological experiment or worse some sort of penal colony where the guards are actually the prisoners that never saw the kind of revolution that Bernard suggests, leaving the town in an unsatisfying malaise.

Considering the low budget of God Told Me To, Cohen leaves a lot of the money on the screen, as this may be the most visually striking piece of his career. Most impressive are the sessions between Bernard and Peter that take place in the gold-lit bathed boiler room of the apartment building. The schlock is at a minimum here as we not only feel the frenzy so present in Cohen’s work but also a state of awe that needed to be present so that the audience could empathize as to how Bernard could convince his disciples to go out and kill on his behalf. The scenes of the alien abduction of virgin brides also gets the first class sci-fi treatment here as does the score by Frank Cordell, who filled in for legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, who had scored Cohen’s It’s Alive and had agreed to score God Told Me To but passed away shortly after accepting the contract. Cordell’s score, much in the mold of Hermann’s music for It’s Alive, does a fantastic job in driving the overall creepiness of the narrative.

Original Trailer For God Told Me To

As messy as all of this sounds, God Told Me To’s science fiction/horror/sexual structure keeps the viewer off kilter for the entire ninety minutes while never losing its protagonist Peter Nicholas in the process in the same way that Scorsese’s Mean Streets‘ over the top realism and violence never loses its hero, Charlie. Both men looking to keep the peace but neither realizing that the only peace they need cannot come solely from saving those around them but by saving themselves. So, whether Cohen saw Mean Streets and decided to give it the Cohen touch or if it is a totally original concept, only Larry knows, but either way, it brings home the damage that years of getting smacked in the hand by rulers held by potentially alien women wearing capes can do to a good Catholic boy who is only trying to do the right thing.

 

Yaphet Kotto Gets More Than Whitey In Larry Cohen’s 1972 Debut Film, “Bone”

Standard
Bone-Housewife poster

One of the Many Titles of 1972’s “Bone”

OK, I admit it; I am a closeted Larry Cohen fan. I got my first taste of Larry Cohen’s handiwork when my friend Sam and I scored a VHS copy of the then notorious 1974 baby-killing-everyone-in-its-way film, “It’s Alive.” A film where a baby is born deformed and when the obstetrician tries to kill it, it goes all rip and tear on all who threaten it. Despite its bizarre concept, “Its Alive” was a sharp piece of satire on the abortion movement (Roe v. Wade was only a year earlier) and remains as Cohen’s most popular film as it did spawn (no pun intended) two more sequels. “It’s Alive” is not Cohen’s first attempt at directing a satire on the current state of American culture, his debut film “Bone,” would be Cohen’s opening and comedic salvo at an America rotting from the top down.

“Bone” begins with super car salesman, Bill Lennox (Andrew Duggan) pitching his wares which consist of mauled bodies in trashed cars during a fantasy television commercial sequence that clearly eludes to Godard’s 1967 classic, “Weekend.” I say this because reality kicks in soon afterwards, as we soon see a bourgeois Bill with his luxurious wife Bernadette (Joyce Van Patten) going through the motions in a faux paradise while Bill secretly knows that it is all a façade. And to make things worse, there is a rat in pool’s filter, a big black rat, and Bill isn’t going to fish it out and neither will Bernadette. What is there to do? Here enters our “hero,” Bone (Yaphet Kotto).

Bone first comes off as what Spike Lee would call, “a magical negro,” you know, helpful with a dash of subservience, like Harry Belafone in 1970’s “The Angel Levine,” but that doesn’t last long. Soon, “Bone” gets down to business as he has been spying on the Lennox’s lavish home and he makes the natural but incorrect assumption that there is a lot of cash waiting inside which is soon finds is not there.  Yes, the Lennox’s are mired in debt but after rifling through the Lennox’s home, Bone finds a bankbook and it seems that Bill has stashed away five grand without Bernadette’s knowledge.    Now Bill must go out and get the money from the bank or else Bone would take out his rage on Bernadette in a not too pleasant threat of rape and beheading.

For the rest of the film, Bill and Bernadette are apart and experience two different kinds of journeys. Bill is offered a loan from his bank as opposed to full cash withdrawal. Being that he now has this option, Bill doesn’t seem too anxious to get home and wanders through Los Angeles until he finds a bar where he meets the dentally obsessed boozehound, Brett Somers, of TV’s “Match Game” fame. They share a drink and a view at her ex-husband’s dental records until he tires and flees into the company of a random kleptomaniac, played by the biggest name actress in the film, Jeannie Berlin, who had just received massive kudos from her role in “The Heartbreak Kid.” They plunder a supermarket and Bill eats a stolen steak with our klepto at her fabulous pad as she goes on about her many schemes to get free products and money. Bill quickly learns that she is no less the conman than himself and they go at it quickly before Bill decides to split.

Bernadette meanwhile has the daunting task of entertaining Bone, and first she tries to do so with her best upper class whiles which do not sit well. She offers to cook for him and after that fails, Bone’s thoughts turn to sexual assault which at first repels Bernadette, but then after putting up a small fight, she agrees to the rape which immediately deflates Bone’s imposing mojo and he seems defeated. After a bit of talking out of Bone’s loss of “nigger mystique,” they both have consensual sex and team up to go after Bill, who they feel has done them both wrong. There is a lot in this segment that will not sit well with the political correctness of this era, but it doesn’t make its overall message wrong by any means.

Bill and Bernadette’s individual dystopian journeys in “Bone” are what set it apart from so many of the well-intentioned but flawed racial films of its era. “Bone” is mean and quite funny at times, but unlike films like “Watermelon Man,” it pulls no punches and really gets at white America’s fear of the scary, uncontrollable black man and its own decaying class imperative. It’s 1972 after all, and racial issues are still on the forefront of the press coverage, as is the war in Vietnam, which is handled here in another one of the Lennox’s lies as they claim that their son is a helicopter pilot in Vietnam who we eventually find out is just another rich white kid who skipped out on the draft and is serving time in Spain for smuggling hash.

“Bone” did not fare well at the theaters. It was originally distributed in suburban markets as a tawdry expose and titled “Beverley Hills Nightmare.” After that failure, it was repackaged for black audiences as “Dial Rat For Murder” and “Bone” which also didn’t work, so they splattered the poster with an image of the film’s only big name, Jeannie Berlin, and renamed it “Housewife” for a chance to cash in on her fame in the arthouse circuit, which unfortunately did not work either.

Don’t Let The Title Fool You, It’s “BONE”

This would hardly be the end of Larry Cohen, who would direct two fairly popular films in 1973 with blaxpolitation film legend Fred Williamson, entitled “Black Caesar” and “Hell Up in Harlem” before scoring his biggest hit with the aforementioned “It’s Alive.” Cohen’s critical masterpiece “God Told Me To” about a deranged serial killer who receives divine inspiration to murder would be a couple of years later. Most of Cohen’s later efforts would be less on satire and more on the pure horror side with films like “Q” and “The Stuff.”

Sometimes entertaining and always audacious, Larry Cohen is the kind of exploitation film writer and director that is so sorely missing from today’s films. The kind of nasty, uncompromising filmmaker who is needed to get out the true message of an America rotting from the head down.