Every so often, a movie grabs you from the opening sequence with immersive atmosphere and a ripe premise. When these films go south—as they often do—it disappoints. But sometimes, only sometimes, these films save themselves by leaning into the bad. God Told Me To is such a film. Spoilers follow.
The film opens on a bustling downtown New York City street awash in pedestrians. A shot rings out and a man falls to the ground, dead. Another shot, and a woman drops. Another. And Another. The camera finds the culprit, a man atop a rooftop water tower armed with a rifle. The police arrive. Our hero, a police detective and devout Catholic, ascends the water tower to talk to the shooter. Before jumping to his death, the shooter explains why he did it. “God told me to,” he says. More random acts of violence follow. A man murders his family. A police officer opens fire during a parade. All normal folks with no connection, yet each explains, “God told me to.”
So much potential. The film even taps a prescient vein with a sequence featuring one perpetrator’s mother insisting to reporters that the whole thing must be a conspiracy. But it proves for naught, as the film soon pivots from existential horror to a trite alien abduction story. The “God” in question is a half-alien with mind-control powers born to a woman impregnated via UFO abduction. But wait—our hero turns out to be half-alien too! The sequence where he confronts his estranged birth mother proves a turning point, overflowing with atrocious exposition and cringe-worthy emoting.
The film gets weird from here. So weird, I admired its bonkers approach. The “bad” alien is an androgynous The Man Who Sold the World-era David Bowie look-alike down to the heterochromatic eyes. The UFO abduction flashbacks include repeated shots of a sideways vagina… thing? When our hero discovers he too can control minds, he puts his new powers to the test via vigilante justice tinged with overt racism. And the abrupt finale sees the two mind-controlling alien hybrids meet in a collapsing building where our hero beats up his half-brother.
What to make of writer/director Larry Cohen’s promising police procedural tinged with existential horror grafted onto a schlocky, comic-book style science fiction B-Movie? It disappoints, but in a novel manner. An acquired taste some will love, and I can respect.
And speaking of comic books, consider the through-line to Unbreakable. Both feature stories where the protagonist discovers his true nature, both feature a moment of self-discovery where the hero realizes he’s never been hurt, both involve a villain whose scheme entails drawing out his opposite number, and both feature a freeze-frame title ending.