Thursday, September 28, 2023

976-EVIL (1988)

... aka: Dial the Devil
... aka: Força Demoníaca (Demonic Force)
... aka: Horrorscope
... aka: La ligne du diable (The Line of the Devil)
... aka: Llamada siniestra (Sinister Call)
... aka: Maníaco nocturno (Night Maniac)
... aka: 976: Chiamata per il diavolo (976: Call for the Devil)
... aka: Puhelu helvetistä (A Call from Hell)
... aka: Super Evil

Directed by:
Robert Englund

Talk about titles that didn't age well. Actually I'm not sure if this was ever a good title. Though I may be mistaken, I believe the exchange code 976 (just like 900) was only used in North America and only for additional pay telephone calls. Since 976 had no real significance to most international audiences, that meant this film basically had to change its title to something else in nearly every other country it was ever released in. The working title was the much snappier sounding Horrorscope, a moniker it retained for its Japanese release, and probably one it ultimately should have stuck with. Apparently this was also called Dial the Devil at some point, which isn't as good a title as Horrorscope, but still better than 976-EVIL.

The title is perhaps even more problematic these days since almost nobody still uses these lines. I can see some Millennials and the entirety of Gen Z looking at this title and being like "Huh?" So, for some of our younger folks in the audience, dialing 1-900 or 1-976 for certain services offered could really set you back. We're talking 3, 4, 5 or even more dollars per minute here. Imagine talking, or even just listening to someone else talk, for twenty minutes and then being slapped with an additional 100 dollars on your phone bill. Now imagine staying on the phone for an hour. And doing it a couple of times a month. Now that I'm thinking about it, and remembering how much phone companies also charged for long distance calls, even ones within the same state, this really was insane! How did people even afford to keep their phones turned on back then?

The most popular of these pay lines were undoubtedly the phone sex / dating lines and psychic hotlines. What these companies were really doing was exploiting and preying upon lonely, vulnerable people who were desperate enough to run up a huge phone bill just to have someone to talk to or confide in. The predatory nature of these pay lines also extended to teens and children. Commercials were frequently aired during children's programming to entice kiddies to talk to their favorite celebrity, or teen idol, or cartoon character, or Santa Claus, followed by a quick disclaimer to "Ask your parents permission..." How many children do you think ignored that and just called anyway, to hell with the consequences? Millions!

976-EVIL does get a few things right just with its general concept. It features lonely and / or desperate people using a pay phone service... only this time it's a Satanic "horrorscope" line and there are some major consequences for using it outside of getting a 1000 dollar phone bill at the end of the month.

"Out of the darkness and into the light comes your horrorscope on this dark and stormy night. Push 666 for your horoscope now."

Lucy Wilmoth (Sandy Dennis), a religious fanatic, child abuser, cat collector, televangelist junkie and all-around hypocrite, heads a very dysfunctional, very unpleasant family. It's obvious this role was meant as a tribute to Piper Laurie's psycho mama in Carrie (though given a Tammy Faye aesthetic with a bunch of crazy wigs), but it's done entirely wrong here. Dennis, who can act, and has Oscar and Tony awards to prove it, gives a grotesquely unrestrained performance here that can only be described as incredibly annoying. She's loud, shrill, overwrought, spits her lines out very awkwardly and there's zero positive to say about this awful part. Dennis has clearly been coached to just let 'er rip by Englund and (I think) she's supposed to come off as funny and campy but her mean-spirited, venomous dialogue and delivery of said lines is anything but. Sadly, this would be one of her final screen performances before he death from ovarian cancer four years later. On the bright side, she left behind a strong well of earlier performances to draw from so what she does here can be forgotten.

The poor teenagers forced to live with this hideous woman are her son, Arthur aka Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), and her nephew, Leonard aka Spike (Patrick O'Bryan); two polar opposites. Hoax is nerdy, awkward, idolizes his cooler cousin and has been smothered and controlled to the point of still acting like a little boy. He wears child-like pajamas to bed and thinks eating on the sofa when he's not supposed to is the epitome of rebellion. Spike, on the other hand, actually is a rebel in that cliché movie way the includes wearing a leather jacket, riding a motorcycle, drinking, smoking, gambling, hanging out with a bad crowd and flunking out of school and not really giving a damn about any of that. The only reason he hasn't taken off yet is that Lucy is controlling the purse strings. Though he's been left an inheritance by his late mother, auntie's been put in charge of it and won't be forking it over until he turns 21... granted there's anything left by that point.

While everyone's outside bickering one evening, Lucy starts shrieking to the heavens and it suddenly starts raining fish (?!) Curiously showing up on their doorstep the following morning is Marty Palmer (Jim Metzler), who claims to be a writer for "Modern Miracle Magazine" and wants to do an article about the strange phenomenon they experienced. Little does he or anyone else know but the fish-storm wasn't a sign from above; quite the opposite actually! After finding an advertisement tucked away in a magazine, Spike has been using the demonic 976-EVIL line for advice about what to do with his life. After he almost gets himself killed in the process when a driverless car attempts to run him over, he stops calling. Good thing too because up to this point we've already seen a guy go up in flames and a woman killed by shattered glass for calling one too many times.

While snooping around in his cousin's room, Hoax stumbles upon the number and decides to give it a call himself. It immediately recommends he go to a movie theater, where he'll meet the woman of his dreams. The woman? Spike's pseudo-girlfriend Suzie (Lezlie Deane), who's frustrated he prefers gambling with punks over spending time with her. The two go out for pizza and, surprisingly enough, hit it off, but the evening is spoiled when the punks, led by ringleader Marcus (J.J. Cohen), show up to humiliate him. After his evening is topped off by getting thrown into a dumpster, a defeated Hoax returns home and calls the number again and again. Next thing we know he's drawing pentagrams on the floor and plotting his supernatural revenge.

The more Hoax calls the number, the more crazed and evil he becomes, and there are physical changes to go along with that. Soars form all over his body, hair starts sprouting from his face, he grows long black fingernails and eventually changes into something that looks less than human. He also becomes saddled with some rather unfortunate one-liners because 80s. As the bodies start piling up, it's revealed that Marty isn't really a writer at all, but instead a private investigator who's looking into recent deaths tied into the hotline's parent company, After Dark Enterprises, which is owned by the enigmatic Mark Dark (Robert Picardo). Marty eventually teams up with school guidance counselor Angela Martinez (Maria Rubell) to get to the bottom of things.

I'm not sure how the inexperienced Englund, who'd been on countless film and TV sets but never written, produced or directed anything prior, was handed this assignment aside from the fact he was hugely popular at the time and probably just asked for it. Unsurprisingly, he proves to not be up to the task. While this has acceptable production values and some well-done sequences, it's also a structural mess. I'm not sure what part the screenplay, co-written by Brian Helgeland, who also co-wrote A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 prior to moving on to bigger things (1998's L.A. Confidential), may have had to do with that, but I doubt what ended up on screen was the completed script as written. There are just too many obvious flaws.

Characters are severely underdeveloped or unnecessary, and sometimes disappear for long intervals, which causes the lack of a central focal point and thus dramatic indifference. Spike is set up early on as the hero but then disappears for most of the second half. And what exactly was the point of wasting so much of the first half hour showing Spike using the telephone line, only for him to just say "Not for me!" and be done with it. That wasted time should have been spent on Hoax's transition from wimpy nerd to full-fledged, super-strong demon instead, which happens far too abruptly.

The detective character Metzler is stuck playing doesn't even need to be in the movie since he reveals no important information and this opts to keep the origins of the phone line pretty ambiguous. They did have something good with Deane, who's charming while she's around. Sadly, she's not around for very long and they kill her off way too soon. It feels like the only reason the poorly-written guidance counselor character was thrown into the works was because they killed off Deane and still needed a female to put in jeopardy at the finale. Other than that, the poor actress has almost nothing to do! Much of my time watching this was spent picking out the various things that should have never been in the movie to begin with.

Though clearly riddled with issues, this does at least have a few good things going on. The Kevin Yagher make-up effects, with assist from Howard Berger, Robert Kurtzman and others, are pretty solid. Aside from the Hoax transformation, we get hearts ripped out, a hand cut off, death by electrocution, a cat eating a corpse, death by spiders and more. There are quite a few visual effects as well, especially toward the end when gateways to hell (one icy and one fiery) open in and outside the home, and these are also well executed. There's some handsome photography, nice use of color and neon, a few good stunts and intentionally ugly art direction filled with so much dirt, grime, graffiti and garbage it makes Rob Zombie's white trash cinematic universe look cheery by comparison.

The biggest plus here turns out to be the star, who didn't even have to audition and was just offered the lead thanks to his scene stealing performance in Fright Night (1985). Even though he can be manic, cloying and irritating at times, Geoffreys turned out to be a wise casting decision because his offbeat presence and animated facial expressions have a way of commanding your attention. And, when it comes time to be intense and scary, he can do that, too. One thing he's not able to do is generate much sympathy for this character (who's basically an annoying perv), but that's more on the script than on him.

After playing select theaters in late 1988, this had its wide release in March 1989. The reviews were mostly poor but the film did fair business, matching its 3 million production budget in grosses. It then made even more money on home video and TV. There have been many DVD and Blu-ray releases over the years from companies like Columbia TriStar and Sony, but it's the 2020 Blu-ray release from UK label Eureka Classics that has the most special features. It comes with a commentary track from Englund and set decorator Nancy Booth (who met on this set, got married and remain a couple to this day) and interviews with Yagher, Berger and producer Lisa M. Hansen. Two cuts of the film are included, the original theatrical release version and the longer, extended home video version, which runs 14 minutes longer and is mostly dialogue (scenes with Dennis, Metzler and Rubell primarily).

O'Bryan returned in the Jim Wynorski directed 976-EVIL II: THE ASTRAL FACTOR (1991), which was much cheaper, much schlockier and has nowhere near the same polished production quality of the original... yet is actually still more enjoyable to watch.

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