Michael D. Castle
Pamela Jean Bryant
Deborah Leah Land
Horror / Thriller
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Don't Answer The Phone (1980)
26th Oct 05
A big porker of a nutcase is strangling women in Los Angeles.
Welcome to the unpleasant, sordid, depraved, vile, and downright seedy world of Don’t Answer the Phone, a product of the 80’s trend for mindlessly cashing in on the video-renting public’s appetite for unimaginatively titled horror films. ‘Unimaginative’ may not be the appropriate word in this case, because this particular film has very little to do with the perils of answering the phone. It concerns an overweight Vietnam vet (don’t get excited - he doesn’t get flashbacks) called Kirk Smith who, acting on no identifiable motive besides his crazed misogyny, strangles women in Los Angeles. It also concerns the local law enforcement team’s attempts to catch him. That, as they say, is it.
Throughout the course of the film, Kirk’s vague religious beliefs are visually implied but one gets the impression that the filmmakers believed that by placing him topless in a darkened room beside a huge crucifix and grunting like an idiot, this would lend the story some degree of emotional density. Well, it doesn’t. It looks like he’s grunting like an idiot with a crucifix placed beside him for effect. He’s obviously a disturbed man and is, alarmingly, perhaps the most convincing character in the entire film. His lack of competition almost makes this piece of celluloid trash worth seeing. More on that later.
Like Romero’s Martin, Kirk (credited in the opening titles as “The Killer” and on the closing credits as “The Strangler” - don’t ask me, I just work here) likes to make regular calls to the local radio station where psychologist Dr Lindsay Gail hosts her helpline show, but not to confess his crimes. Rather, he pretends to be ‘Ramone’, a fictional Latino character who suffers from disabling headaches. In perhaps the film’s most disturbing scene, Kirk hires Denise, a hooker, who takes him to her room, but instead of getting down with conventional etiquette, Kirk asks her to phone the radio station. This chilling sequence sees Denise tell Dr Gail that her patient, Ramone, is beside her, but before she gets much further Kirk slowly strangles her so that the screams are broadcast citywide through Dr Gail’s show.
When Dr Gail reports this to the police, she is not taken seriously. This is because the police, or rather, these two particular policemen - Hatch and McCabe - are complete dickheads, particularly McCabe, the ‘hero’ of the film - a poor man’s James Garner. (James Westmoreland as McCabe is bad. Really bad - there is nothing whatsoever likeable about him or his sub-Garner looks, in fact you’ll probably actively dislike him with a passion). Working as part of ‘The Strangler Task Force’, Hatch and McCabe manage to secure a significant amount of script / screen time in Don’t Answer The Phone, the results of which are mostly head-scratchingly inane. It is the subplot depicting the duo’s ‘investigation’ which makes this film feel like a completely different flick to the one about the fat strangler.
For reference, see:
The First Crime Scene: a young nurse has been strangled and raped. A cop asks the police photographer, “Did you get a shot of that breast?” “Which one?” “The one that got bitten off.” Yeah, I know.
The Strangler Task Force in action: an unbelievably pointless (and pretty long) montage of office-bound police men and women doing their job (i.e. talking on the phone), accompanied by a loud helping of groovy funk music. Totally inconsequential. Nothing happens. Pointless.
The Brothel Scene: while the not-so-dynamic duo arrive at a brothel, the staff mistake their unrelated investigation for a bust and all hell breaks loose. Cue an unwholesome variety of sex freaks and brothel weirdos running around in next-to-nothing while a poor man’s Steely Dan is playing a comedy funk number on the soundtrack. Hatch and McCabe, being true professionals, stop to take a good look at the skimpily attired patrons, having a good laugh in the process before gunning down a passing drug dealer. What? Pointless. Help me.
And those are just a few examples. This bizarre humour is clumsily humped alongside some genuinely nasty violence, making Don’t Answer the Phone feel like a lesson in how to make uneven horror-thrillers. The violence intermittently comes across as shocking, perhaps due to the lack of blood or gore, while Nicholas Worth’s performance as Kirk Smith lies somewhere between sporadically convincing and laughably OTT. Little touches like his trademark wheezing work nicely; his sweaty presence almost leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth - in this respect, something's working the way it should. If it wasn’t for the rest of the film being so abominably awful and hence impossible to take seriously, we might be able to suspend disbelief when it comes to Kirk. While his scenes plainly suffer from being spliced alongside meaningless, baffling comedy and hence may suffer as a consequence, it’s important to point out that this guy is no Robert de Niro. Robert Hammer’s film does have Taxi Driver-esque aspirations. Yes, it’s a poor man’s Taxi Driver - complete with mirror monologues, weight training and social isolation.
Some argue that Don’t Answer the Phone is so bad, it’s just plain bad. I disagree. In the right environment (yes, Zombie Club), this one would go down a storm. Alas however, Hammer’s attempt at comedy is so incredibly misfiring that in the end, the comedy itself isn’t funny. What’s funny is that he was obviously stupid enough to think it would work. The 80’s will never cease to amaze me. A poor man’s horror film.
To add insult to injury, the Anchor Bay Region 2 DVD is cut, and in full screen.
8th Jun 04 The film opens with a very similar voiceover narration to the original (see Trivia) but with different footage as we tour the furnace room, all fingernail scratches and blood-clotted hair, of the Hewitt residence.