GOD TOLD ME TO — a great title, and a film that actually stands behind that title! Which I hadn’t expected, to be honest, since it’s a Larry Cohen picture, and experience has taught me that Cohen’s films generally fall down on craft, even as they struggle to put over interesting story ideas. THE STUFF is such a nice high-concept, political sci-fi horror movie in principle, that it’s a shock to see how badly made it is. THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER is so ahead of its time in the way it portrays its subject, you can almost overlook the fact that they’ve got sixty-six-year-old Broderick Crawford playing Hoover in his twenties. But still, I don’t suppose he’s any less convincing than Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover in his sixties.
Cohen works cheap, and shoots on location without permits — this kind of guerrilla film-making has aesthetic consequences, which is fine. A certain necessary roughness in some way suits Cohen’s authorial personality. But he’s never worked out a way to create a consistent feel out of the practical constraints he operates under. So he shoots with a tripod when he can, then goes handheld when circumstances dictate it, resulting in a patchy look, where a wholly vérité style might have worked.
BUT — Cohen has great taste in subjects (who else would plant a Mexican winged serpent god in Manhattan, swooping down to decapitate window cleaners?) and in actors — here he scoops Sylvia Sidney, waiting in a nursing home from whence she would eventually defeat the invading Martians in MARS ATTACKS! His leading man, Tony LoBianco (from THE HONEYMOON KILLERS) makes a convincing cop, which I guess is why he plays one so often, he also gets one of the most chilling final looks I’ve ever seen.
And this is a very scary room.
Cohen still has his camera placement set on random, so visually things are a bit frustrating at times, but the few effects shots are satisfactory, the location shooting (with accompanying sound problems) does add grit, and the searing orange glow in certain key scenes anticipates CLOSE ENCOUNTERS. Gaspar Noe wants to remake this… I sort of doubt he could improve it.
So, people are going on killing sprees, announcing “God told me to,” with their dying breaths. Andy Kaufman plays a cop at the St Patrick Day’s Parade who starts plugging bystanders with his revolver. This is not only startling to see, it also seems like the kind of thing Andy might do, if pressed. He could always claim afterwards he was extending the bounds of comedy.
Just like in JAWS, the hero tries to stop the disaster, but is told he can’t interfere with the celebrations: “The Irish have been looking forward to this all year!” Because that’s all they have to do, seemingly.
This intriguing set-up is exactly the kind of ball I’d expect Cohen to drop, but instead he passes it — the killers are connected to some hippy messiah kid, who may have been a virgin birth, may have been born intersex, and may be the child of an alien abductee — Cohen gets into the kind of alien abduction scenario, complete with tractor beams, lost time, and intrusive medical procedures, that have been widely reported but hadn’t made it into movies yet (did the movie cause a spike in UFO reports?). And it keeps getting weirder — there are enough crazy plot twists for three conventional films. And it doesn’t wrap up into a neat little bundle, it sprawls out, spreading tendrils all over the place. Don’t get any on you!
Richard Lynch plays the space messiah. “I know who that is!” said Fiona. “It’s that guy! He’s in lots of stuff!” Don’t you just hate that? But then she was able to be more specific: “He’s that guy with the I’ve-been-in-a-fire face.”
The other strange thing about this film (well, one of them) is the space Jesus’s vagina. We first see this, in big latex close-up, during Sylvia Sidney’s alien encounter flashback (a younger actress plays the naked twenty-something Sylvia, which seems inconsistent with the sensibility that gave us Broderick Crawford as a boy detective, but let’s not carp). He just cuts to it. It’s impossible to tell where it is or why Cohen is showing it to us at this point. It’s a bit like the closeups of Marilyn Chambers’ armpit penis in RABID (which this predates) — no context, just an ECU of a rubbery thing quietly doing stuff.
“It’s a c- It’s a FANNY!” declared Fiona, strangely impressed.
In another scene, space Jesus lifts his robe and shows off the mangina, so we know it’s his. But we don’t know where it is. I thought maybe it was on his side, like Christ’s spear-wound. “That makes sense,” said Fiona, tolerantly. But maybe I was just resisting the idea that it was exactly what it appeared to be. How did Cohen get this image into a commercial release? By arguing that, since it’s an alien genital, it can’t be obscene? It’s like Rin Tin Tin’s penis. And nobody would dream of censoring that. On the other hand, nobody would ever think of shooting a giant ECU of it, either.
No one but Larry Cohen.