Anything can happen in a Larry Cohen film. His flick Q: The Winged Serpent’s best scene is a negotiation between Michael Moriarty’s character Jimmy Quin and New York City officials. Quinn insists that he be paid a million bucks in order to reveal the titular monster’s lair. Creatures rampage through New York City in hundreds of films, but how often do audiences get a glimpse at something like a small-time con man selling the location of the creature’s hive? The negotiation breathes new life into a familiar premise.
What’s maybe even more remarkable is that Cohen ties big, philosophical and social questions into these films as well. In a lot of ways, Q: The Winged Serpent is a movie about what life would be like if a Mayan god actually existed in our world. He treads similar ground in his most popular film, God Told Me To.
God Told Me To opens with a sniper on a water tower opening fire in New York City. Officer Peter J. Nicholas (Tony Lo Bianco) climbs up to try to talk the killer down. After a brief conversation, the man tells Nicholas his motive: “God told me to,” before diving off the tower. Nicholas investigates a subsequent series of murders—including Andy Kaufman opening fire at the St. Patrick’s Day parade and a knife attack at the San Gennaro festival—where each killer offers the same motive before their death: “God told me to.”
These confessions exacerbate Nicholas’ struggle with his own faith. While he goes to Mass every morning and has a shelf full of religious statues in his home, he’s cheating on his wife Martha (Sandy Dennis) with Casey (Deborah Raffin). His religion doesn’t allow divorce and Lo Bianco plays that internal struggle perfectly. Between the pressure of solving these murders and what these murders show about the nature of God and faith, Nicholas seems primed for a breakdown throughout the film.
Director-writer-producer Cohen draws excellent performances out of the rest of his cast, who Cohen describes as a group of Oscar Winners (Dennis) and old studio character actors in the audio commentary he recorded with the talented director William Lustig, who directed Cohen’s script for Maniac Cop. Lustig goes on to point out that Cohen is able to hire on so many of these great actors because Cohen’s script gives them meaty material. For example, Sandy Dennis’ Martha is only screen for about fifteen minutes, but in her final scene she delivers a killer speech about the deterioration of her marriage.
The commentary track is phenomenal, in large part because the making of God Told Me To might have been as suspenseful as the story in the film. Cohen relays anecdote after anecdote about the things that went wrong on set and the problems he ran into filming without a permit. His story about the shooting the St. Patrick’s Day parade is as funny as his story about shooting the San Gennaro festival is harrowing.
What might be the most fascinating part is hearing Cohen talk about his inspiration. Watching God Told Me To and Q: The Winged Serpent, I thought Cohen was thematically questioning the existence of God/gods. What would it be like if they really did exist, but Cohen doesn’t see his films that way. Rather, he interprets God Told Me To as a re-imagining of Superman in the real world.
Whether the film is about Superman or faith, the new Blue Underground 4k Ultra HD and Blu-ray is a must-own. In addition to the commentary track with Cohen and Lustig, there’s another commentary with film historians Steve Mitchell and Troy Howarth, two more interviews with Cohen, an interview with leading man Tony Lo Bianco, an interview with Special Effects Artist Steve Neill, as well as advertising material.
Gold Told Me To is Larry Cohen’s most famous film. It’s beautifully restored and comes with an excellent set of extras. You’d be remiss not to buy it.
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WICKED RATING – 9/10