Murder by Phone (1982)

Director: Michael Anderson
R | 1h 35min | Horror, Thriller, Slasher

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The horror-through appliances sub-genre was all the rage back in the early 1980s. Once again Steven Spielberg was at the heart of it with Poltergeist, a wildly successful supernatural horror directed by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s Tobe Hooper. Spielberg would write and produce Poltergeist, a movie so imbued with his style that many conspiracists believed Hooper was brought in as a dummy director to swerve Director’s Guild rules. That theory has since been debunked, but you have to believe there was an element of auteurism involved in what was Hooper’s first major studio outing, Spielberg glued to the set for his production debut as Hollywood’s most formidable presence looked to expand his horizons beyond those of mere director. Whatever the reality, Poltergeist led to an explosion of copycat outings that included the ugly, evil-through-Walkman sequel Amityville II: The Possession, Stephen King’s delirious directorial debacle Maximum Overdrive and Paul Golding’s late-to-the-party Pulse, which saw the entire electrical grid system of Los Angeles hijacked by an aggressive paranormal intelligence.

One horror-through-appliances effort that I hadn’t had the pleasure of experiencing, beyond a tantalisingly silly trailer included on 2017’s must-see Trailer Trauma 3: 80s Horrorthon, was 1982’s Murder by Phone, mainly because there was no way of seeing it. Not only is there still no Blu-Ray release for Michael Anderson’s conspiracy-thriller-come-supernatural slasher, there is no DVD in existence, the movie banished to the grainy obsolescence of VHS purgatory seemingly forever. In a retro-obsessed era when any old claptrap seems to qualify for sparkling new prints, it seems somewhat strange that this particular film is yet to materialise, particularly since it falls firmly and clearly against its intentions into the hugely popular ‘so bad it’s good category’, one cherished by ironic cinephiles and inanely giggling stoners across the globe. Put succinctly, Murder by Phone needs a lovely crisp 4k release right fucking now! It’s a total gem.

I can see why Murder by Phone, now available on Youtube in its sublimely coarse, uncut form, was heartlessly disregarded along with reams of low-budget, stale-concept duds. For one thing, the film is a tonal catastrophe, daubing itself in the guise of post-Watergate conspiracy but quickly buckling under the weight of its own absurdity. For a movie that taps into the hugely popular slasher with a series of fairly gruesome murders, it presents and markets itself as a more traditional thriller, a fact that is reflected in not one, but two creatively moribund titles: the excruciatingly obvious Murder by Phone and the utterly baffling alternate title Bells. The first is too tepid to appeal to the slasher crowd, the latter more suited to a wholesome church drama about sexual conservatism. It’s certainly no Poltergeist.

What cult B-movie distributors are yet to discover is Murder by Phone‘s capacity for accidental hilarity, the majority of which hinging on Richard Chamberlain’s play-it-straight performance and a series of ludicrously over the top death scenes that juxtapose so deliciously he must have watched them back filled with horror of an altogether different variety, if indeed he bothered to watch it at all. If Chamberlain had in fact neglected to read the entire script in the spirit of a quick payday, his sobering, comparatively muted scenes, most involving an honest-to-goodness conspiratorial investigation, must have seemed completely at odds with scenes in which electrocuted victims spectacularly crash through skyscraper windows in their roller chairs, plummeting hundreds of feet to their dummy-infused deaths. The fact that James Bond legend John Barry, here composing his first synthesiser-exclusive score, was involved with the project, tells us that this movie wasn’t supposed to be ridiculous whatsoever, which of course makes the whole affair that much sillier.

The movie’s laughable set-up occurs through the washed-out filter of a dubiously barren subway, one redolent of the iconic opening to Edward Woodward’s cult 80s TV smash The Equalizer, and features the film’s least extravagant but still gobsmackingly preposterous murder (by phone). The young victim happens to be the former student of university professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Chamberlain), who turns private investigator in his ceaseless, alienating quest to uncover a phone company cover-up that sees unlucky citizens electrocuted to death thanks to a Bond-esque contraption that can assassinate any subject by means of a bog-standard household receiver.

Technology has always been a double-edged sword, with the capacity to control and liberate, which means it possesses an uncanny knack for making people, particularly older generations, deeply sceptical. I can understand television’s capacity as a conduit for horror at the turn of the 80s, particularly during an era of video nasty censorship (see David Cronenberg’s Videodrome), but a regular household telephone?! It worked in movies such as Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls for more traditional reasons, but we’re not hitting people over the head with phones here, and passing off such a primitive device as a tool of deadly destruction is tough going. It’s all so implausible. Let’s just say I won’t hesitate to answer my next call for fear of being struck by death-inducing volts of electricity so powerful they leave victims bleeding from every orifice.

The movie’s telephone-based scientific explanations are understandably (and mercifully) anorexic, a fact helped by yet another dismissive horror detective whose initial rationalisations are so obtuse he insists that the cause of Bridger’s student’s death was in fact a common heart attack, despite the fact that she’s barely into her 20s, was clearly electrocuted as if chewing on a powerline, and bled from every hole imaginable before being launched twenty feet through the air with a melted phone receiver laying conspicuously nearby. I mean, I’ve heard of massive heart attacks, but just look at the evidence! Isn’t there the slightest chance that something else is at play here?

Multiple reports of lightning shooting out of telephone receivers, relayed by an actor who really should have taken such lines as fair warning, hardly help matters, the smugly cynical Lieutenant Meara (Gary Reineke) becoming increasingly condescending, calling Bridger ‘cowboy’ before insisting that the persistent PI ‘leave the investigations to the grown-ups’. Despite Bridger’s protestations, the coroner’s medical report also has heart attack as the probable cause of death, which according to the detective means that the victim wasn’t raped, stabbed, shot, bludgeoned, strangled or cut into little pieces,’ a deliciously morbid retort that proves uncharacteristically thorough on his part. Luckily, and quite unavoidably, Meara is won over in the end, so in the annals of contemptuous horror cops, you have to give credit where credit is due.

Bridger’s investigations play out with an earnestness that sometimes fools you into believing that what you are watching is a plausible thriller in the traditions of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 classic The Conversation, with a hint of Cronenberg’s deeply nihilistic Scanners at play, but a relentless gallery of death and destruction, dished out with the whimsicality of delirious B-movie fodder, consistently launches you headlong into the throes of renewed perspective. That, and an outrageous premise that negates all notions of serious storytelling. I’m not criticising the director here. It’s hard to imagine anyone pulling off such dissonant tonal aspirations. And that includes the likes of Spielberg, Hooper and Coppola, all three of whom would surely raise a smile at the fundamental absurdity of Murder by Phone — particularly the film’s cop-out reveal, which completely crushes the credibility of Bridger’s pursuit.

For such an act of ingenious supervillainy on our murderer’s part, his uncovered identity is something of a damp squib, but an irresistibly silly one. Not only is our culprit a regular, visually nondescript phone company employee, there’s no real merit to his motives. He’s not targeting sinners who deserve a taste of their own medicine or avenging the death of a loved one. He’s offing folk, described by our demented purveyor of death as ‘the world’s real garbage’, for minor inconveniences incurred in his daily life, like the pretty, young bank clerk whose brain he fries because she refuses to serve him after closing time. There’s also some thinly sketched claptrap about fibre optics and stolen lives. Again, it only adds to the amusing nature of the queerly earnest drama unfolding. The fact that the phone company is intent on covering up the whole mess at the expense of numerous innocents is probably the most realistic notion on offer.

Released during the Cronenberg-led Canuxploitation era of the late 70s/early 80s, Murder by Phone, which benefits from an insanely talented and largely wasted cast that includes Oscar winner John Houseman (The Paper Chase), is arguably the least notable, failing to achieve the belated cult status of similarly marginalised freakout efforts such as 1981’s The Pit. It certainly lacks the perverse allure of such wretched outliers, with stretches of whodunnit mystery that serve to alienate both fans of traditional thrillers and deadhead horror junkies, but Anderson, a director most famous for second-rate Jaws rip-off Orca: The Killer Whale, delivers where it counts for B-movie parasites looking for their next fix, a series of fairly tense, wholly preposterous death sequences managing to project a genuinely haunting quality in their catatonic aftermath. As a kid, some of those images would have seriously freaked me out. Today, I consume them through a veil of tears. And not the sad kind.

Fire with Fire

So Bridger and Lieutenant Meara have finally realised that there’s a crazed genius out there frazzling citizens through their phone receivers (so much for the heart attack theory), which leads to a tracing technique with less-than-traditional goals.

Since a trace took 5 to 6 minutes to complete back in 1982 (according to this movie), and since no one is stupid enough, or even has enough to say to stay on the line for such an extended period, especially given the circumstances, a quite ingenious MacGyver-style plan is concocted involving electrical flashback that redirects sound and voltage to the point of origin, turning the murder weapon back on our killer, which after electrocuting and crushing him removes his eyeballs for some reason.

Sounds like a murder conspiracy from where I’m sitting.

Dishing Out the Pain

Murder by Phone may lack credibility in the conspiracy thriller department, but it does feature some of the most overblown horror deaths I’ve seen in some time, the kind that fit snugly into bad movie heaven.

The aforementioned roller-chair-through-a-skyscraper-window takes some beating, but a scene involving a mother killed while doing the dishes gives it a run for its money, an explosion of dish water sending the poor woman crashing through a glass cabinet on the other side of the room.

Again, her lifeless corpse in the murder’s aftermath is weirdly distressing.

Bad Weather

Following a slew of murders, the formally dismissive Lieutenant Meara finally concedes to Bridger’s ‘lightning theory’ in the most unequivocal way imaginable.

Bridger: (answering the phone) Stan?
Lieutenant Meara: [Stan] Markowitz is dead, Bridger. Get your ass down to the station.
Bridger: Jesus, what happened?
Lieutenant Meara: Lightning! Goddamn Lightning!

A messy concoction of earnest conspiracy thriller, technophobe horror and cheap-thrills slasher, misses its intended mark almost entirely, but a series of must-see death scenes prove both genuinely gruesome and laugh-out loud funny in a film that has underseen cult classic written all over it.

Edison Smith

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