Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Census Bloodbath: Murder On Line 1

Year: 1982
Director: Michael Anderson
Cast: Richard Chamberlain, John Houseman, Sara Botsford 
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The slasher genre had gone through a startlingly huge variety of murder weapons, even by 1982 when the subgenre was still in its infancy. We've gotten murders by ice pick, barbed wire, hammer, machete, spear... And that's just in Friday the 13th Part 2. But I can say with reasonable confidence that Murder by Phone (AKA Bells) is probably the first time the murderer commits their kills using an exploding telephone. That concept alone was enough to get me firmly on board with the film before ever pressing play, because there's only so many times one can watch a group of nubile young people assemble in one remote location all in a row.

And I'm well on my way to getting that particular Guinness World Record.

Murder by Phone tells the story of ecology PhD Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain), who travels to Anytown Canada for a big conference, where he is lodging with his old mentor Stanley Markowitz (John Houseman). As a favor to the parents of a former student of his, he promises to look into her recent death. He soon discovers that she was killed by an exploding pay phone in a subway station and begins to unlock the secrets of the hidden evil underbelly of the local phone company with the help of sexy artist Ridley Taylor (Sara Botsford), who has been painting a mural for the company and thus has access to all their blueprints and labs, as tends to happen.

Meanwhile, the mysterious killer, who has invented a machine that emits a frequency that paralyzes people then blows up their phone with an electrical surge, is seeking revenge on anyone who wrongs him. Nat and Ridley, with their constant meddling, are getting closer and closer to being on that list.

This movie is also notable for featuring the first slasher movie killer whose only weakness is the invention of speakerphone.

Obviously what I want to talk about here is the kills. When the killer has the exact same M.O. every time, a movie can suffer a little bit from the repetition, but when the M.O. is so off-the-wall and silly, it's hard to get tired of it. Plus, director Michael Anderson (of the original Around the World in 80 Days, weirdly) finds new fresh ways to stage them each time. There's pretty much always something glass behind the victims for them to go flying into spectacularly, but beyond that there are always new little flourishes and details that keep things going strong.

When these flourishes include things like a pencil being snapped between a man's clenching jaws, a pair of eyeglasses exploding off someone's face, and blood spattering over a Mickey Mouse telephone receiver, it's easy to imagine why one might not find the scenes too same-y. There's probably no matching the potency of the first kill, which has the live-wire editing of Hausu and harnesses the element of surprise because you don't yet know exactly how these moments are going to play out, but they are all tremendously fun and come at a reliably well-paced clip.

Unfortunately, the main plot of the movie doesn't quite reach the frivolous heights of the kills, because how could that possibly be the case? It suffers from the same disease as the scenes with humans talking in a Godzilla movie. The filmmakers know you just want to get to the good stuff, but they have to shove something in between the special effects mayhem to help those scenes stand out (and bring down their budget). And that's not to say that the plot is bad, it's just not as ecstatically bonkers as the motherfucking exploding phone.

I love my job.

All the material with Dr. Bridger's investigation is pleasant but generic, throwing him together with a beautiful woman so she can have sex with him and be imperiled (though her character is much stronger than the more misogynistic turns at this formula, like previous film Blood Link. Although come to think of it, she seems actively turned on by Nat's mansplaining and doesn't kick him in the nuts when he grabs her hair and pulls her into a kiss when she's trying to make him leave, so we truly are grading these on a curve). And at the very least, the filmmakers aren't desperate enough to keep our attention by dumping a bucket of naked breasts onscreen anytime the killer isn't doing his business. In fact, the most nudity we get is a post-shower shirtless Richard Chamberlain, which I for one was incredibly grateful for.

It doesn't count as exploitation if it's a white man. It's parity.

On top of it all, Murder by Phone does take it upon itself to even be suspenseful on occasion. There are several Hitchcockian moments like the scene where a victim's son is trying to listen in on the other line so you're not sure how it's going to shake out, and the way the killer slowly, deliberately, stabs each number into his rotary dialer provides a lot of tension as he gets nearer and nearer to placing his fatal calls. 

I will say though that I'm surprised and a little disappointed that the filmmakers never really take advantage of the paranoia of the fact that any time the phone rings, it might just be the killer calling. There is a feint in that direction when Nat gives Ridley a secret code to know when it's him calling, but immediately after that he tells her to wait by the phone in case the detective calls him back. The characters don't seem to remember that there's a killer blowing up phones until after they've already picked up. 

This is a definite missed opportunity, but the good thing about Murder by Phone is that this is pretty much the only opportunity it leaves on the table. Every other way you could express the log line of "killer phone" is milked to the fullest extent, and as such it's an entirely delightful, exciting piece of weirdo retro filmmaking. 

Killer: Noah Clayton (Robin Gammell of Deadly Lessons)
Final Girl: Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain)
Best Kill: Who could possibly pick? Well, I can. A business executive is launched out of a high rise window to the concrete below.
Sign of the Times: The tour guide waxes rhapsodic about how goddamn many landline phones will be all over the world by the year 2000.
Scariest Moment: Both Nat and the killer are trying to call Ridley at the same time, and we don't know whose call is going to go through.
Weirdest Moment: Ridley tells Nat about how her stepdad punched her in the face once, then they start making out.
Champion Dialogue: "I grew up on knuckles and booze, it gave me my terrific sense of humor."
Body Count: 6
  1. Sandra gets phone-sploded.
  2. Gordon Smith gets phone-sploded.
  3. Mrs. J. Anderson gets phone-sploded.
  4. Connie gets phone-sploded.
  5. Stan Markowitz gets phone-sploded.
  6. Noah Clayton gets super phone-sploded.
TL;DR: Murder by Phone isn't as consistently raucous as its best moments, but it's still a fun weirdo gem.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1201

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