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Pajiba’s Twisted Masterpieces

Bullets for Christ

God Told Me To / Ranylt Richildis

Twisted Masterpieces | June 19, 2008 | Comments (30)


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 Blue Underground, Redemption, or Shriek Show. To better guide readers, we’ve decided to launch a new retrospectives catalogue called Pajiba’s Twisted Masterpieces. These are the underappreciated gems that come with a viewer discretion (something like Suspiria, with its bad 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 catalogue 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. 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 bag.

Ranylt Richildis lives in Ottawa, Canada. She can be found sneezing in college libraries or dropping chalk in lecture halls, but she’s somehow managed to squeeze in a film or two a day for the last decade.









Onion Movie | Pajiba Love 06/19/08













Comments

Blue Underground releases a lot of the grindhouse films I rent. I love browsing the video store for that stuff! I fantasize that someday I will be in the video store looking in the horror section, and some guy (who will undoubtably be my future husband) will be standing next to me browsing the movies as well... and we'll reach for the same low-budget zombie flick!! *sigh* It's kismet. So now there's gonna be a pajiba category of Twisted Masterpieces??

I think I just came.

Posted by: Mistress Violet at June 19, 2008 2:49 PM

Twisted Masterpieces? I think this is going to be my new favourite Pajiba feature. I assume the question should be when, not if, Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS will be included.
But this movie, I haven't even heard of. Is that shameful?

Posted by: Lannie at June 19, 2008 2:53 PM

What an interesting and engaging review! I lo-ho-hove movies like this--imperfect and flawed, but powerful. Sounds like a great flick for me.

And KUDOS! to the new feature. This twisted sister can appreciate it.

Posted by: boo at June 19, 2008 2:57 PM

I have to see this. Is it a hard find?

Netflix should have a copy, and better independent video stores (Cockbuster, not so much, although they've been known to carry cult classics). --RR

Posted by: jM at June 19, 2008 3:20 PM

I'm with Lannie, this is going to be an excellent new Pajiba topic. And Ranylt, I hope you make the most contributions- your impressive background in 'these kinds of films' (i.e., 'I Spit on your Grave', 'Suspiria') makes you about the coolest chick I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Posted by: TMax at June 19, 2008 3:44 PM

"...Cohen's mad chorus of hermaphrodites, virgin births, alien abductions, Catholic cabals and prosthetic vaginas sang in tune this time around..."

Oh man, am I going to have the weirdest dreams tonight...

Posted by: Sawchuk at June 19, 2008 4:01 PM

Certainly sounds interesting. I just recently got on the Tony Lo Bianco train after watching The Honeymoon Killers, so I could give this a shot.

Posted by: Todd at June 19, 2008 4:19 PM

One step closer to Pajiba reviewing every film ever made, with most of the holes filled by R.R. Great stuff.

Posted by: Kevin Longrie at June 19, 2008 4:24 PM

it's traditionally suspicious of female anatomy (vis. the vagina as object of horror)

This is just the truth. Ask any 5th grade boy.

Posted by: jM at June 19, 2008 4:35 PM

Gold Told Me To ?

Oops, fixed (points for creativity?) -- RR

Posted by: BWeaves at June 19, 2008 4:47 PM

I love these sorts of movies. Larry Cohen is a god among directors and writers for two films: Black Caesar and Q. Anything else is just gravy.

Posted by: Adam C at June 19, 2008 7:20 PM

"mad chorus of hermaphrodites, virgin births, alien abductions, Catholic cabals and prosthetic vaginas sang in tune this time around..."

That's not impressive. That sounds like an average pajiba comment thread.

I kid, I kid, I've already put it on the que. You people own me in so many ways.

Posted by: lilianna28 at June 19, 2008 7:58 PM

I love this new feature!
I want to see this for the simple fact that Sandy Dennis alone scares the shit outta me.

Posted by: a at June 19, 2008 8:13 PM

"I have to see this. Is it a hard find?"

Netflix should have a copy, and better independent video stores (Cockbuster, not so much, although they've been known to carry cult classics). --RR


For my fellow Canadians, Zip.ca has it as well. Of course, I just added it to my Ziplist, so I got dibs.

Posted by: Groundloop at June 19, 2008 8:22 PM

Zip.ca?! How had I not heard of this? Here I was envying our neighbours to the south for Netflix. I am going to sign up for this so fast. I can't tell by your gender-nonspecific name if you're male or female, Groundloop, but either way you deserve a hearty kiss on the mouth.

Posted by: Lannie at June 19, 2008 8:44 PM

liliann28,

You're one of the reasons that I'M owned here, too. When we have our first PajibaFest, I claim a slow dance with you if you'll have me.

(Also hoping to make Julie, Bethy, samantha t & the rest of you babes very jealous of me - I don't have spell-check for 'jealous', hope it's right)

Ch eck meout on Dumb_fuck dot/com for mor ofsexy sp amshit

Sorry, 2 much wine & not enough inspiration. Please forgive my ramblings tonight, Friday can't get here soon enough.

But let me emphathize once again, Ranylt, YOU ARE THE SHIT!! (And I mean that in the positive way, understand me now)

Posted by: TMax at June 19, 2008 10:12 PM

Man, I have no source of income at the moment, and so I cancelled my Netflix and you do this to me?!? WHY?!?!

*sigh* I'm gonna have to start a list... Y'all just make all these strange little movies sound so GOOD.

Posted by: Genny (also Rusty) at June 19, 2008 10:22 PM

I love this movie so much, but can never get anyone to watch it.

Just try to convince someone who has no idea what the film is by saying "It's kind of a slasher, and kind of an Easter film, and might be about Jesus, but it feels kind of sci-fi, and has a great cameo by Andy Kaufman as an Irish cop in the St Patrick's Day Parade..." I never get to finish. Their eyes glaze over and they never want to go to the movies with me anymore.

I only get a worse reaction out of people when I talk about my favorite raped by the devil/satirical abortion politics movie Pro-Life from Masters of Horror. My family's banned me from uttering the phrase "great raped by the devil flick" in the house. But it is.

Posted by: Robert at June 19, 2008 10:40 PM

ranylt,

i know i clashed with you somewhat on your review of "the mist", but this review, as well as your reviews of "suspiria" and "mother of tears" have proved you have what it takes to headline pajiba's new column.

cohen is awesome in the sense that he takes what is bad and makes it guiltily good, and "god told me to" is a masterpiece in this regard.

where the fuck has richard lynch been lately (i'm too lazy to hit IMDB)? last i remember he was in "bad dreams" as an undead hippie cult leader--man, he's stretching his acting chops!!

anyway, great review for an underappreciated movie, and keep 'em coming...

Posted by: idiot dentist at June 19, 2008 10:57 PM

George Patterson, as Zero the homicidal pimp

Well, consider me sold

and TMax...NOT. COOL.

lilianna28 and I had a date to go stalk Julie later tonight.
but if you think you can break the bond of illegal vouyerism between two people, go ahead and try

(and I have still have not figured out how to spell jealous [is that right?], so you are not alone)

Posted by: Bethy at June 20, 2008 12:04 PM

Envaginated?? I hate to be the snide voice of Grammar Supremacy here, but I believe the term you're looking for is bevaginated.

If you'll excuse me, I have imaginary acclaimed novels to write.

Ahem.

*chapter one*

You am flip flops. I like funny. Make haha!

Posted by: Mella at June 20, 2008 1:00 PM

Did anybody know it's Grindhouse Month on IFC? Last night they showed "Dead Alive." Gotta love that!

I think one the the Twisted Masterpieces should be "Jack Frost: Killer Mutant Snowman." It's so cheesily fantastic!!

Posted by: Mistress Violet at June 20, 2008 1:22 PM

Nice new feature. I am going to have lots of fun tracking these down!

My (first) recommendation: Motorama. It's not really that gory, but it's extremely dark and weird. And I love it.

Posted by: frumpiefox at June 20, 2008 1:43 PM

ICHI THE KILLER?

There's got to be a couple of Takashi Miike films that should make it on this list...

I can't wait to see what the future holds.

Posted by: GAZ at June 20, 2008 5:50 PM

Uh, Suspiria's dubbing is top-notch.

Posted by: Agnes at June 24, 2008 3:19 PM

Wow. I just realized that this is here... Woo-hoo!!! I'm with everybody, I can't wait to see what else makes it in here too! I'm both excited and nervous!! (I second the Jack Frost motion, btw.) And I can't wait to read RR's review of Suspiria... great reviews, RR! I always look forward to reading you.

Well, I'm off to join Netflix, and while I wait for my mailbox to give me exciting new treats, I shall re-watch both Suspiria and Jack Frost, both of which I am the proud owner of on DVD. I love this planet.

P.S. Mella, I would totally read any novel that begins with "You am flip flops."

Posted by: Anastasia Beaverhausen at June 24, 2008 3:30 PM

I feel like *such* a failure - I've _never_ seen _Suspiria_.
OK, really, I'm just trying to learn how to do bold and italics like the cool kids. Horror movies make me cringe.

Posted by: Fork at June 25, 2008 10:58 PM

Well, pajiba, that didn't work.

Posted by: Fork at June 25, 2008 10:59 PM

Daily show.
Daily Show.

Posted by: Fork at June 25, 2008 11:06 PM

It worked! Hello, biggest accomplishment of the day.

Posted by: Fork at June 25, 2008 11:07 PM