Thursday 9 February 2017

Don't Answer The Phone! (Robert Hammer, 1980) DVD Review

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“RUN – if you must. HIDE – if you can. SCREAM, but … He'll Know You're Alone!” Conceived of before John Carpenter's Halloween blew the doors wide open for the slasher movie craze that swept the horror genre during the 1980s, Robert Hammer's one and only film – Don't Answer The Phone! – is a curious schism between disturbing realism, dark humour, and jumping aboard the killer thriller bandwagon...

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“Excuse me, Doctor, we can't rely on all this mumbo-jumbo psycho crap.” A Nurse returns home at night, an unseen infiltrator creeps around in the dark inside her home – and we the audience watch her undress through the voyeur's point of view before she is brutally murdered – so far, it's like any one of a countless number of slashers that formed the tidal wave of such films to spill out of the American psyche at the time. Wounded from the horrors of Vietnam and a spate of high profile serial killers  – from Ted Bundy to The Hillside Strangler – who terrorised the populace in real life, America took inspiration from the lurid murder mysteries of Italy's giallo cycle and early American slashers (e.g. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas) to exorcise their very real demons.

“Truthfully, I think it's people with the mentality like yours that are responsible for creating troubled people like the strangler.” What sets Don't Answer The Phone! apart from most of the other similar films of the era is its commitment to lacing its six murders with disturbing realism and psychological weight – not just to ground the killer's Modus Operandi, but to flesh out (some of) his victims as well as those left behind in the wake. Nowhere in the film is this more clear than with Carol (Paula Werner) – the killer's second victim – whom we first meet in a session with her psychologist Dr Lindsay Gale (Flo Gerrish). In a sober scene we become privy to her history of childhood abuse at the hands of her father, and the impact it has had upon her own sense of self-worth, happiness, and well-being (both emotionally and sexually). Considering the opening murder, this scene comes as somewhat of a jagged tonal shift, but what's more disturbing is what happens next. Stalked to her home, Carol is killed – but not before the serial strangler tortures her both physically and emotionally. He somehow eavesdropped on her session and uses her deepest, darkest fears and anxieties against her. It's a devastating moment – the sheer sickness and hatred of the act – driven home by Werner's portrayal of true, paralysing terror.

“You're a very funny man, but the last thing I need in my life right now is a comedian, okay?” However, while Carol's murder displays the film's intentions to explore the deeper psychological aspects of serial murder, the scene also proves problematic. Naturally, the juxtaposition of sex and death – two extreme experiences in the human condition – is common to the slasher genre. Throughout the film the victims fancy changing into something more comfortable (sometimes justifiably – e.g. just back from work – but also sometimes not), and the killer routinely exposes his victims' breasts (almost to the point of ritual – part of his M.O., one could argue), but combined with the darker tones of the film these exploitation elements sit somewhat uneasily. It can be argued that – according to Hammer's intention to illustrate the realism of violence – that these things must be shown, but considering that the film was marketed according to the burgeoning (and highly profitable) slasher craze, relatively noble intentions clash with the realities of the bottom line and the almighty dollar. Is it ever possible to explore territory on film that is also being exploited?

“You know, that was a good time to have a strangler on the streets. I could really use the money this month!” Indeed, it is fair to say that the tone of the film is unsure. Prior to Carol's harrowing demise, a decidedly sardonic forensic pathologist boasts through 'superior intellect' that the people of the city will be safe tonight – comedy cut to the killer kicking through Carol's door. However, the peculiar humour doesn't always sit so awkwardly. It is true that among the many who work in the professions that deal with the worst aspects of humanity there exists a dark sense of humour, a shield that is used to cope with the harsh realities of the job. Tasked with nailing the strangler, Lieutenant McCabe (James Westmoreland) and Sergeant Hatcher (Ben Frank) are sickened by what they see. Their reaction to the state of the Nurse's body (unseen by we the viewer) links to their hard line attitude – the no nonsense politics of Dirty Harry – while their dark sense of humour confounds those around them who aren't in law enforcement. Dr Gale's complex compassion as a psychologist thumps head-on into McCabe's tough-but-simple resolve to destroy the menace on the loose. Talk is all well and good, but when push comes to shove it is action that will save lives in the immediate term.

“A murderer? You know, this'll give the whole fucking business a bad name.” The Killer (aka Kirk Smith), played by character actor Nicholas Worth (Swamp Thing, Dark Man, Barb Wire), is a power-lifting Vietnam veteran with a history of parental abuse and religious ferocity, and is undoubtedly a misogynist. His victims are exclusively women (although he does go toe-to-toe with two powerful men during the film), but does this make the film itself misogynist? Ultimately, the film is about a misogynist killer, rather than misogynist in itself – but the trappings of the genre, and exploitation cinema in general, do tend to frustrate that argument. Indeed, many slashers (and horror flicks in general) of the period were slammed as being “misogynist” by protesters, moral guardians, and folks who never actually watch (or read, or listen to, or critically evaluate) the things that they complain about so fervently. Surely, a film which aims to honestly portray the harrowing ramifications of a misogynist's actions is unlikely to actually be misogynist. However, yet again, the exploitative elements – sex, violence, the burgeoning slasher genre money machine – cloud the issue in a fog.

As an aside, Maniac (William Lustig, 1980) became the poster boy for censorious crusaders, hounded as it was in the sensationalist news media. It is a gritty, dirty, nasty film and here, too, the killer's main obsession is with women – in this case as a result of childhood trauma inflicted by his own mother. That said, men also die in Maniac, too. How many protesters were truly concerned by the sight of a man being garroted on the beach, or the most notorious scene in which another man has his head obliterated by the blast of a double barrelled shotgun in excruciatingly graphic slow motion? Violence is violence is violence – no matter who it is committed against. But the target audience is also capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong, real and fake, and it is up to parents and guardians to do what they realistically can to keep childish eyes away from adult-oriented material while maintaining the right of sensible grown ups to choose what they want to watch whenever they wish. Far better for the violence to be faked on the screen – an illusion created by actors, film-makers, and make-up effects artists – than be real, perpetrated in real streets and homes upon real people. Those capable of actually killing or inflicting pain upon others are like that through a combination of nature (e.g. their brain chemistry, or an innate defect) and nurture (e.g. an abusive upbringing, or personal insecurities, or other things). A film cannot create a killer. If they could then there would be countless millions of serial murderers roaming the globe - but that is not the case. Want to take umbrage with media violence? Surely the 24 hours news media which revels in true, real-life crimes and violence – turning serial killers and spree shooters into brand names and celebrities – is more deserving of your ire?

“This case is making me nuts – I can't sleep at night.” Long-winded side-line and bout of sexual politics aside, what is Don't Answer The Phone! like as a piece of entertainment? The pace flags in the middle section, and a half-explored sub-plot involving Lisa never really ties in with the main story – so wastes screen time and slackens the pace – while the aforementioned tonal issues shift viewers from lurid nastiness to comedy and back again. A scene in which McCabe and Hatcher try and track down a witness turns into a slapstick farce as drug dealers, pimps, massage parlour girls, and their clients flee a 'police raid' in a variety of kinky costumes. Stylistically the film is solid. The stolen shots driving and walking around Hollywood lend an added air of subversion, while the synth soundtrack hunts down killer thrills (albeit furthering the tonal wobbliness of the picture as a whole).

“Well, Dad, are you proud of me now? Do I measure up?” The title of the film – Don't Answer The Phone! – makes little sense. Sure, there's plenty of scenes of people talking on the phone (e.g. the killer calling in to Dr Gale's radio show under the pseudonym 'Ramon'), but no peril results from picking up the receiver. It fits in with a procession of other films marketed with “Don't” in the title – Don't Go In The Woods … Alone! and Don't Go In The House are two justified titles, while Don't Open The Window (better known as The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue, or Let Sleeping Corpses Lie) contains no negative ramifications caused by letting in some fresh air. However, it looks good in the trailer and on the poster – it's a marketing hook, nothing more, and in some ways works against the higher intentions of the film. Nicholas Worth, somewhat unimpressed by the original script, improvised portions of his dialogue to add subtext and used his own experiences in Vietnam to flesh out his character, lending the movie added weight. In an interview on the DVD, he states that he also insisted on the removal of some sleazier moments – which works both with and against the original intentions of the film-makers, as hinted at by the director. It seems as if the movie can't quite decide what it wants to be – how funny does it want to be? How violent does it want to be? How sleazy does it want to be? In trying to mix jarringly different tones and intents, none of them totally convince on their individual merits because they are all compromised.

“You are the great prize.” The Scorpion Releasing DVD features an interview with Worth from 2006 as well as some added snippets, an audio interview with James Westmoreland, an audio commentary with the Director, a trailer, and “Katarina's Nightmare Theatre” (an intro and outro with a host). Video and Audio isn't stellar, but is generally pretty good and in the original widescreen aspect ratio, while maintaining a bit of that old school grain. As an interesting aside, look out for Chuck Mitchell (the titular brothel owner in the Porky's films) who plays a particularly sleazy, cigar-chomping pornographer by the name of Sam.

“No attempt to conceal the body – it's almost like he wanted it to be discovered.” Like a West Coast counterpart to William Lustig's Maniac, Don't Answer The Phone! is ultimately a picture of compromise and juxtaposition. Concluding with a slow motion, blood-splattering shoot out (the only real use of blood in the film) and silence as the credits roll, Robert Hammer's film is fairly successful at achieving the raw depiction of violence that the Director had aimed for. Meanwhile, Nicholas Worth's committed performance as the killer proves to be bold, but not entirely prosperous in traversing the tightrope line. The damaged psyche he brandishes works, but certain moments as Kirk Smith bares his deluded soul to the absent spirit of his abusive father (and we the viewer) occasionally become over-the-top. The main issue with the film, though, ultimately comes down to the marketing and its placement among the more obviously exploitative fare of the late 70s and early 80s. Easily offended? Likely to blurt the first offended thought that pops into your head on Social Media without a moment's consideration? Do you take issue with the slasher genre in general? Then why on earth would you watch this movie? However, if you're a connoisseur of Michael, Jason, Freddy, Leatherface, and their brethren – but want to see a slasher that focuses more on psychological damage than gore, a slasher that can at times be quite disturbing – then Don't Answer The Phone! is worth viewing.

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