As tight-knit a community as we have here, and as much as we collectively love film, we don’t all want to be pushing the envelop every time we spin a disc. Some people can’t stomach outrageous violence or cloying weirdness, which is understandable. But some of the older films we’d love to tout are exactly that: bizarre, off-putting, and sometimes quite flawed. They’re not the kind of movies we can blanket recommend to a general audience — even one as sophisticated as ours — and calling them gems is bound to be controversial. Many worthy films set out to offend or disturb; they can lack glossy production values; they can lack political correctness; they can even lack sense. They’re often published by arcane labels like The Blue Underground, Redemption, or Shriek Show. To better guide readers, we’ve decided to launch a new retrospectives catalog called Pajiba’s Twisted Masterpieces. These are the underappreciated gems that come with a viewer discretion (something like Suspiria, with its invasive dubbing and hyper-violence, properly belongs under this new category). If you hate exploitation gore, roll your eyes at the eccentric, or have no patience for low budgets, our Underappreciated Gems catalog will continue to recommend movies with firmer production values and (relative) wider appeal. Meanwhile, readers who delight in the abnormal have a new playground, where we can make our more perverted recommendations with impunity (I expect big things from Phillip, TK, and Brian).
Who better to celebrate in our inaugural entry than Larry Cohen, a bargain-bin director with a curiously film-savvy following? In the interest of disclosure, I’m a Cohen latecomer. Like the reverse effect of our recent Fall From Grace diversion, Cohen makes movies I used to pity, but It’s Alive grew on me, and I push God Told Me To (1976) on random strangers, now, after giving it a grudging re-watch this year. Something clicked, and Cohen’s mad chorus of hermaphrodites, virgin births, alien abductions, Catholic cabals and prosthetic vaginas sang in tune this time around. I also noticed how well New York City was used in nearly every scene, how naturalistic the acting was (when it wasn’t being competently handled by pros), and how pristine the composition was in every shot. I don’t know whether to credit Cohen or his cinematographer, Paul Glickman, for the movie’s perfect framing, but God Told Me To benefits from a wide-angle lens, in parts, capitalizes on every last inch of its screen ratio, and gives us those great geometric vistas common in films of the 1970s. In fact, the movie’s only serious production glitch is poor sound quality, which gives the film a tinny, B-movie faintness that doesn’t match the amplitude of its images, and which probably contributes to Cohen’s reputation as a cheap-ass director. Perhaps his use of a hand-held camera in certain scenes also contributed to that impression until recently, when the hand-held was vaunted by the Danes, then by come-lately Hollywood. Nowadays, Cohen’s use of a hand-held camera in the chaotic parade sequence seems like a reasonable stylistic choice — one he borrowed directly from Mean Streets. His whiplash editing in the hermaphrodite scenes compounds our disorientation. Even the grainy film stock lends the movie a Mean Streets aspect which, given how the city and its population are depicted, was either deliberate or a lucky result.
Mean Streets and another great American film of 1973, The Exorcist, must have been at the back of Cohen’s mind when he blended the gritty NYC police procedural with Catholic occult horror. This impression is reinforced by the movie’s lead, Tony Lo Bianco, who looks like the lovechild of Robert De Niro and Jason Miller, and who runs around the city having a crisis of faith and identity à la Father Karras. Lo Bianco plays Peter Nicholas, a detective who attends daily mass and confession, and who refuses to divorce his wife (Sandy Dennis) so he can make an honest woman out of his live-in girlfriend (Deborah Raffin, the only main actor in the movie whose performance matches film budget). His hypocritical routine is shattered when a sniper kills 15 pedestrians outside of Bloomingdale’s, tells Nicholas in a placid voice that God told him to do it, then swan-dives off a water-tower. In coming days, Nicholas meets other citizens who turn on family or strangers and name God as the inspiration for their violence (watch for Andy Kaufman as a cop who rains bullets on a St. Patrick Day’s parade). Nicholas tracks the epidemic to a youth named Bernard Phillips (Richard Lynch), a barefoot hippy with long blond hair who was seen with each killer shortly before the murder sprees. Phillips’ face blurs in everyone’s memory, and he has no official records, and he was born with the reproductive organs of both sexes; he was the product, Nicholas learns, of an immaculate conception, which possibly explains the involvement of a sinister Catholic league, and which is eventually linked to Nicholas’ own adoption as a child.
There’s only an illusion of logic to the story, and Cohen — like many mimic-directors — throws everything he can at the screen in his quest to unsettle the audience. God Told Me To isn’t meant to be particularly scary, though, and the disturbing effects are few and far between. Believe it or not, the film turns on the characterization of Nicholas and of New York City itself. Cohen populates the bureaucratic boroughs of cop shops and news offices with actors so naturalistic, they feel as real as the room you’re sitting in; one old retired cop, in particular, who gives Nicholas advice in a machine shop, deserves special props — too bad I never caught a character name, so I can’t credit the actor for making it feel like I was watching 1970s documentary footage. Only a handful of the minor actors are B-movie clunkers; most of them deliver relaxed, real-life spontaneity. Lo Bianco himself comes off honestly, and Sylvia Sidney flexes her silver-screen chops as Nicholas’ elderly birth-mother in one brief but critical scene. Sidney’s a born crowd-pleaser (who doesn’t love “WKRP”s Mama Carlson, or Fury’s Katherine Grant?), and she’s haunting here as a senior indignant about her pariah status because she bore a child out of wedlock in the bad old days.
Subtle commentary about the branding of sexually active — and inactive — women chatters through the film. The subtext is embodied in a senior’s home nurse (Leila Martin), who makes snide remarks about her wards to total strangers. Martin’s character is only a flash onscreen, but she’s breezy and memorable, funny and shocking, and a walking representation of society’s infantilization of women and the elderly. Cohen’s movie is a strange hybrid: it’s traditionally suspicious of female anatomy (vis. the vagina as object of horror) but also critical of patriarchal fetters, and the limitations and labels they place on women. One of the women impregnated against her will is presented as grotesque; the other (played by Sidney) is framed by sympathy. The presence of an androgyne as weakling, monster and sadist is a typical “feminized” male whose destruction restores order, but the presence of Catholicism, painted negatively or — at best— neutrally, refracts that traditional line of gender-sight and complicates our first impressions. You can’t have a good B-movie without some kind of metaphorical backdrop, and Cohen provides one, opening up questions about religion, sexuality, origins, and duty, and letting viewers find their own answers.
That’s not to say that God Told Me To doesn’t participate in the silly, or have its failing moments. It’s a Cohen picture, after all, and there’s a reason we’re lodging it in a special section of our board. Some of the death-throes choreographed by the sniper’s victims in the opening scene are … inspired. Sidney’s performance is equal parts convincing and outrageous (as per an equally convincing and outrageous script). George Patterson, as Zero the homicidal pimp, has great platform shoes but isn’t much of an actor, unable to improve a couple of scenes that desperately want to be early Scorsese but are more reminiscent of Jack Hill (not that some of us don’t appreciate Hill on his own bruised terms). The film’s premise is drive-in preposterous and has more in common with the 1950s sci-fi tradition than the real-life grit Cohen plasters onscreen as a top layer.
But reality is a red-herring managed with unexpected flair, and perhaps that’s why the more fantastical scenes seem so jarring and out-of-place. Cohen, who wrote the screenplay, produces some decently scripted moments, like the bedroom dialogue between Nicholas and his girlfriend, and the surreal conversations he has with murderers. The stronger, naturalistic scenes are cut with images of utter absurdity, but those images are startling, like the confrontation between Nicholas and the Christ-figure hermaphrodite in a boiler-room (insert screaming metaphor here), which is laced with unusual heat effects and Phillip’s eerie, reverberating voice. The whole thing is a fabulous hash of awesome and laughable, seasoned with lunacy and served up steaming weird — it’s a recipe that may even offend a few noses, what with its malevolent, en-vaginated Jesus type. Our first Twisted Masterpiece is just the sort of paradox our category advertises, on all levels, and it deserves your eyes if paradox is your poison. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s Twisted Masterpieces series, on June 19, 2008.)