Saturday, August 17, 2013

Census Bloodbath: Sexual Hangups

If you're new to Census Bloodbath, click here.
Year: 1980
Director: Robert Hammer
Cast: Nicholas Worth, Ben Frank, Flo Gerrish
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Here we are! My first official Census Bloodbath post! We're really cooking with gas now! Now, it's true that Don't Answer the Phone has a lot more in common with the 70's grindhouse trend than the 80's slasher genre but it's a clear transitionary film - one of the missing links in the evolutionary chain, if you will. And who can blame it? After all, it came out months before Friday the 13th burst onto the scene.

The film declares itself a Hammer/Castle production, but don't get too excited. That just happens to be the last names of the men who wrote the movie, although I'm sure they appreciated the accidental brand tie-in.

Let me tell you, Don't Answer the Phone was not a good introduction to this slasher retrospective, oh nosiree bob. Following a psychotic photographer who murders and rapes beautiful women and uses their corpses for pornographic photo shoots, there is very little pleasantness to be had. Not that I'm asking for my slasher films to be pleasant, but rape is a huge no-no if you're not going to say something about it. We'll let this one slide (only barely) because it's a cheap ripoff of the highly exploitative grindhouse genre, but man oh man is it hard to watch.

My thoughts on rape in cinema can and have filled much longer articles than this one, so I won't get into it now, but this film does not earn the badge of brutality it wears so proudly.

Nor its title - there's not a lot of phones involved.

In Hollywood, California Dr. Lindsay Gale (Gerrish) runs a radio show where she practices "abnormal psychology" for free. Maybe it's just because I was born in the 90's but this doesn't feel like it's a real thing. She's been receiving calls from a disturbing man who calls himself "Rrrrrrrramon" and suffers from headaches, but apparently he's recently found a nurse who is helping him with his problem.

It turns out the man is Kirk Smith (Worth), the photographer, and the nurse is a candy striper he murdered last night in her home by strangling her with a coin wrapped in pantyhose in the manner of the Viet Cong (apparently). He believes he is some sort of religious avenger

And Bruce Willis impersonator

and he "cleanses" women to purify their souls. This involves pulling down their tops and dripping candle wax on them and laughing like a lunatic. 

It's very hard to like this movie.

Meanwhile Dr. Gale continues to be the worst psychologist ever, telling a debilitatingly shy woman to learn to assert herself but not telling her how (it all works out in the end, she gets murdered) and explaining to a drug addict how awesome heroin is. Kirk keeps calling her show in a series of escalatingly creepy messages, and eventually she joins the detective team trying to track him down.

In her capacity as team psychologist she fails to talk a woman down from the edge in a suicide attempt and fails to talk the killer out of untying her. You'd basically be better off trying to get psychiatric advice from a Zoltar machine. For all this movie's reliance on the psychology of a murderer, its exceedingly loose grasp of the subject systematically destroys any strengths the film might have had.

Also there is a botched romantic subplot where the doctor and the lieutenant bone because while not all the scenes should have to feature women being strangled, apparently five minutes couldn't go by without showing us boobs. 

Don't Answer the Phone is a murder mystery written by a twelve-year-old and doesn't deserve any more credit than that.

Guess whose boobs we get to see. Did you guess both of them? Congratulations, you win! Your prize is never having to watch this movie.

While this movie is a colossal waste of time, it is a curious artifact, hanging on a precipice between a dying 70's genre and a burgeoning 80's one. Most of the grindhouse elements - mountains of naked breasts, rape, and murders perpetrated with sadistic glee - are present, but the slasher elements are starting to poke their little heads out of the shell.

The rape is thankfully mostly offscreen, there is a main girl who survives, and the focus is more on quantity of bodies rather than what is done to them. Not that we can thank Don't Answer the Phone for inventing any of these tropes, but it just goes to show that they were already starting to form in the vacuum of time between 1978's Halloween and 1980's Friday the 13th.

Before I sign off, allow me to give a little bit of credit to the film - the kill sequences are more terrifying than your average slasher because of their pure hard-to-watchiness (Don't pull out your dictionaries on me now) and Worth's grunting, sweaty performance as a truly disgusting and depraved man.

Some may be confused by my relatively high rating for this film considering my generally nasty review, but the movie is at least competently shot and lit, and I know I should leave room for a steep decline in overall quality. Aren't y'all excited? I know I am.

Killer: Kirk "The Strangler" Smith (Nicholas Worth)

Final Girl: Dr. Lindsay Gale (Flo Gerrish)
Best Kill: N/A - all had the same M.O. and all were too upsetting to take any pleasure in.
Sign of the Times: The score sounds something like the Seinfeld theme played on a lightsaber by the bassist from Bon Jovi. For a porno.
Scariest Moment: Kirk kills a prostitute while she's an on-air caller to Dr. Gale's radio show.
Weirdest Moment: A massage parlor is busted by the cops and among the patrons running out is what appears to be Whoopi Golberg in a graduation cap.
Champion Dialogue: "There's enough porn pictures here to sink a battleship."
Body Count: 7; 6 girls raped and murdered, one pimp accidentally shot by the police.
  1. A woman is raped and strangled.
  2. A woman is raped and strangled.
  3. A woman is raped and strangled.
  4. A woman is raped and strangled.
  5. A pimp is shot by the police.
  6. A woman is raped and strangled.
  7. A woman is raped and strangled.
TL;DR: Don't Answer the Phone is cheap, exploitative, and its presence at the beginning of the slasher Golden Age is of historical interest, but nevertheless an embarrassment.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1096

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