Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy
Dial B for Boredom
My love affair with Michael Anderson is proving to have as many ups and downs as a candy dish at Matthew Perry’s beach house. First, we have Logan’s Run, which is really not all that interesting, in my book (it's really just a waste of a lot of great hair). But then we have the scandalously competent Orca, which brilliantly serves both as a touching morality play about man’s struggle against his own nature, and as a de facto advertisement for Sea World. Next in my Anderson experience was the monumentally disappointing Second Time Lucky, which – despite earning points for displaying ample buns (mostly attached to the yummy Roger Wilson, of Porky’s fame) – is pretty unwatchable. But then came another blip on the Michael Anderson White-Hotness Scale: the overlooked Canadian thriller Murder by Phone. Could this renew my love for Anderson and send us skipping into the sunset, with the ghost of Dominique kicked to the curb forever?
Well, yes and no. See, if given forty whacks with a hefty cleaver, Murder by Phone could be just about the most amazing film ever made. True, I have a pre-existing condition that causes me to glean an inordinate amount of pleasure from movies where people are harassed on the telephone. I have no idea where I got this, but it would take some serious therapy to dig it out, and it probably accounts for the fact that I do not even have a telephone at home. At any rate, if the series of murders in Murder by Phone were simply tacked together, it would probably be the most amazing and mind-altering 12 minutes ever committed to film. I just may try it myself. But padded with another 68 minutes of boring investigation, stilted love scenes, and an overwhelming dose of brown (the production design is straight out of a social services office), it skids over the finish line, barely breathing and deserving of a few hefty wallops, which I am of course more than ready to provide.
Picture it: Canada, 1981. A beautiful young girl gets off the subway under a museum, bright-eyed and full of life. She helps a poor crippled man who has tripped over his cane, while the other, less considerate folks (likely Americans on a tax-free vacation) stomp right past. In the distance, a pay phone rings on the platform. The girl moves to step onto the escalator, and pauses... that phone...shouldn't someone answer it? This is a good, considerate girl -- a model citizen. She doesn't let little old crippled men lie in the gutter to wet themselves, and she doesn't let pay phones ring unanswered -- it just wouldn't be right. She steps away from the escalator, moves to the pay phone, and takes the call -- the last call she'll ever take.
The comely lass picks up the receiver, and within seconds she begins shaking uncontrollably. A strange beeping noise grows in the distance -- like someone is watching an episode of Doctor Who at full volume on the other end. Blood starts pouring out of her eyes, her nose, her ears. She thrashes violently, her grip on the receiver a death-rictus. Suddenly, lightening strikes inside the subway station, blue light sears across her face, and with the sound of clapping thunder, the little lady is blown clear across the platform and lands a good 30 feet away, on the escalator. Her body arrives on the upper platform, bloodied and lifeless.
Cue opening titles.
Now, if this isn't one of the hottest fucking opening scenes ever filmed, I'll eat my cat. Bizarre, well-crafted, and completely ridiculous, the scene sets up the premise, introduces the first victim (which will propel the investigation that makes up the rest of the story), and lets the audience know that the filmmakers have absolutely no grasp on reality whatsoever. Lightening? Coming out of a telephone?! Fantastic. Next thing you know, you'll tell me that homosexuals can be college professors.
Cut to Richard Chamberlain, playing Nat Bridger, an ecologist and teacher at a Canadian University. Let's pause here to bask in my excitement: though his character may be straight, in Tricky Dick we have a full-fledged gay actor playing the lead role in a horror movie (although he was not, of course, out at the time). Believe it or not, these are not terribly common (Rupert Everett in Cemetary Man is the only confirmed sissy hero that comes to mind), and to find one that was made before the actor (a very well-known actor, I might add) came out very publicly about his homosexuality is a specimen worthy of close scrutiny and study.
Or, at least, on would think it would be. But in an act of flagrant defiance (fagrant defiance?), Chambermaid plays the role completely straight, and with very little effort. There are no knowing glances or humiliatingly bad butch moments -- Kildare is just Kildare, only sporting a beard that might suggest that he's been watching his fair share of Colt videos. Speaking of beard...
Bridger meets artist Ridley Taylor (Sarah Botsford of Deadly Eyes), and a perfunctory and entirely unconvincing romance ensues, which is really par for the course in these films, homo or no. I guess the only thing less romantic than a gay lead is an entire cast of Canadians. Anyway, Bridger is at the phone company (where Ridley is painting a godawful mural) investigating the death of the little lady from the opening scene, for which he thinks the phone company may be responsible (although the phone comany isn't his first stop -- he's already annoyed some other people, including Gary Reineke as the bitchy Leutenant Meara and a poor homeless European woman). There's some plot development here and there, but it's not nearly as interesting as...
Phone murder #2!
In this gorgeous scene, an old white man sits in his office in some building somewhere -- I really have no idea who this man is, even now -- and his phone rings. He answers it, and whaddaya know -- beep beep BEEP BEEP BEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEPBEEP!! -- blood starts pouring out of his eyes, his nose, his ears, and WHAM! Lightening strikes in his office, sending him flying -- on the castors of his $25 office chair -- across the office, through a plateglass window, and down 5 stories, onto a car in the parking lot -- all without falling out of his chair. This is sheer brilliance, because the only thing funnier than an old white man get dropped 5 stories onto a car is an old white man get dropped 5 stories onto a car while in the seated position. There's some more plot, and then another phone murder -- sure, there's absolutely no rhyme or reason to the murders and no way of understanding who the hell these people are or why someone is killing them, but it's just too delicious to question. This murder involved a trashy mom who answers the phone while washing dishes (her son tries to eavesdrop, but she makes him hang up, much to my chagrin). This of course sets up a wonderful dish-basin explosion come showtime, and the dear lady is blown into a highboy full of dishes, likely Franklin Mint collectibles.
Unfortunately, once these murders are over, we have to slog through a heck of a lot of boring shit. There's a "gotta trace the call" kind of thing (remember Black Christmas? These Canadians love their phone traces...) that's pretty standard, and the lovely Sarah Botsford is almost nuked (there's a neat moment where we see both Chamberpot and the killer dialing her number at the same time and have to guess which one got through -- pretty neat, actually), but nothing could prepare us for the hotness that is in store when it comes time to kill off Old Fart Traitor John Houseman. Yes, the John Houseman -- the one from the Smith Barney commercials. After answering the phone, John does the standard shake-n-bake for a minute or two, and then his eyes explode, shattering his spectacles. Now, the previous murders have established that the victim should be in close proximity to something large and breakable so that when they are launched from their spots at the thunderclap, it's more enjoyable for the audience. And sure enough, dear old Housey gets sent tumbling through a set of stained glass library doors, and ends up on the floor in a heap, bloody and eyeless.
Not since Maureen Stapleton had her face slashed with a razor in the subway in The Fan has a great film actor suffered such an indignity. In a word... genius.
In the end, the killer is revealed to be the tour guide at the phone company (I can't even remember why -- and I wasn't even drinking when I watched this), and all ends up well for Bridger, Riley, and Ma Bell. In a strange freeze frame at the close of the film, Chamberlain holds up the phone, grinning like a madman, and as we zoom into the frozen phone, the killer beeping noise kicks in -- is that supposed to mean that he gets nuked at the end? If not, what a stupid way to end the movie! And herein lies the problem -- although it boasts some of the awesomest death scenes ever (the lovely Lenora Zann of Happy Birthday to Me and Visiting Hours also gets to appear and then die -- just tell me she's not Canada's early-eighties Chloe Sevigny...), there's nothing in-between to make the film really any good. This makes it hard to recommend, really -- I guess I just have to advise that you watch with the remote in hand and keep rewinding to re-watch the hot thunder-crack phone explosions. In all, trashy, kind of dull, and a waste of a good homo.