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Friday
Oct012010

976-EVIL (1989)

Just Let it Ring!

It’s fitting that the first review coming in from the request line is about an evil telephone number (Thanks, Alexa).  In 976-EVIL, a nerdy, picked-on teenager discovers a “horrorscope” hotline that can direct future events and endow people with the powers of the Devil.  He uses these newfound dark abilities to talk to girls and get revenge on a pack of bullies, and in the end his too-cool-for-school best friend must kill him in order save the world.  Yes, it’s Christine without the car.

That’s not a bad thing, though.  While this isn’t a good movie, it’s enjoyably corny and has an incredible pedigree.  If one were to make a whole film following the people who created 976-EVIL, they’d have one of the coolest-ever genre documentaries on their hands.

Let’s start with the obvious: The film was directed by Robert Englund, “Freddy” from the Nightmare on Elm Street series.  It’s a shame he didn’t helm more movies, because this is a promising debut.  He falls short in delivering real scares, but you can tell he’s madly in love with both the project and the horror genre.  Englund’s surfer-punk roots are everywhere; from the gritty urban landscape where every inch of wall space is covered in graffiti to the weird camera angles and smoky haze that form almost every shot, you can tell he was aiming for the look of a self-published 80s comic-book; even when there are no neon signs in the shot, there are scenes that look like they were filmed underneath a cheap motel marquee.  I also love that a good portion of the movie takes place in a dingy theatre projection booth, where the bullies have nightly card games; the place is wallpapered in classic movie posters, and I’m sure someone has pictures of Englund surveying the set with a ridiculously wide kid’s smile.

976-EVIL’s big selling point is Stephen Geoffreys, who plays the aforementioned nerd.  Geoffrey’s became a cult icon following his turn as “Evil Ed” in Fright Night, and here he plays a variation on that character.  The difference is that he’s not playing third banana; he’s practically the whole show.  Geoffreys does Eccentric Outcast like nobody’s business, switching from earnest, socially awkward freak to powerful, damned creature with such ease that he makes you believe the demons were gestating all along.  Even when his character, Hoax, goes full-on monster in questionable scaly face makeup, Geoffreys pours on the gleeful menace nice and thick.

The movie’s secret weapon, though, is co-screenwriter Brian Helgeland.  This was his second film, after A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, and the screenplay—derivative as it is of Stephen King’s killer car story—has a lot going for it.  From the eerie fish-falling-from-the-sky omen at the beginning, to the epic end battle where hell seeps into reality (a frozen wasteland, reminiscent of the deepest level of Dante’s Inferno), there’s plenty of imagination on display—sadly, a good deal of it is undone by the year 1989, which was notorious for jaw-droppingly bad matte paintings.  It may surprise you to know that Helgeland went on to write tons of acclaimed, mainstream films like L.A. Confidential, A Knight’s Tale, and Mystic River; but the seeds are right here, if you know what to look for.

Speaking of surprises, there’s a mid-movie development that threw me for a loop.  Way before Wes Craven paid homage to Psycho by killing off Drew Barrymore in the opening of Scream, Helgeland and Englund dispatched the heroine of their movie in a bold and shocking twist.  Hoax’s evil powers first manifest as a plague of deadly spiders that attacks the girl he’s crushing on, Suzie (Lezlie Dean).  When they pour out of the foil-covered TV dinner on her kitchen table, I figured it for a terrible prank; and it was, because Suzie ends up dead.

The only problem with this is that the film drifts along without a compelling female lead, subbing in a bland, out-of-nowhere FBI agent (Maria Rubell) as the Survivor Girl.  I would’ve rather seen 976-EVIL plow through with an all-male cast rather than shoehorn a weak part just to meet the boob quotient—but I’m a stickler for story.

This is the perfect movie for a Halloween movie marathon—it’d go nicely with Creepshow and Night of the Demons.  If you’re looking for an odd-ball horror flick that drips equal parts atmosphere and processed cheese, you could do worse than to call up this one.

Note: I'd be remiss if I didn't point out two more of the film's gems.  Look for the Fright Night movie poster in the projection booth, and relish every moment that Robert Picardo is on screen, playing the proprietor of the hotline.

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