The telephone has always held sinister connotations for me. I grew up in a time before mobile phones, when everyone had a landline and telephone systems were positively archaic. This primitive system meant that calls couldn’t be traced easily. This was perfect for every nutjob, crank or serial killer to call you. And this happened to people a lot! These kind of calls were a regular occurrence in our neighbourhood and indeed everywhere.
I also remember reading as a kid an article in Reader’s Digest about how everyday and seemingly innocuous appliances had traumatic effects on a few unfortunate select people. One involved a woman who always went into panic on hearing a telephone ring. This was because on answering the phone years before at her home she could hear her kidnapped husband being tortured.
Its interesting how this phenomenon of different kinds of telephone terror manifests itself in the horror films of the time. This is a further example of art imitating life and vice versa.
One prime example of telephone trauma in the horror genre occurs in the film Black Christmas. This film is seen as a forerunner of the slasher film as it was made in 1974 and concerns a group of sorority girls who are bumped off one by one in the sorority house they are having a party in before they all leave the next day for Christmas.
Prior to this they receive a series of threatening and disturbing phone calls from the killer. In fact to call these calls disturbing is a massive understatement. These calls are so horrific that in the original UK cinema release of the film these calls were cut out of the film. Heres one example.
Another great example of the telephone used to get use is in the masterpiece Halloween by director John Carpenter.
Carpenter lovingly depicts a quintessential small town in America called Haddonfield in Illinois. Everything seems to be completely normal here in an almost Norman Rockwell type way. However the town holds a dark secret. Years before an 8 year old boy called Michael Myers killed his sister Judith with a butcher knife. And on Halloween in 1978 he has escaped and is returning home. And not to go trick or treating.
The telephone establishes the normality painted by Carpenter regarding the town. Teenage girls call their friends to gossip and idle away the time. They also call their boyfriends like the character Annie does. Whilst their conversation turns to carnal delights the threat posed by the returning killer is unseen by Annie as she too busy planning an evening of hide the salami to notice the pale faced boogeyman who lurks at windows and to the side of open doors.
Here Carpenter subverts the quintessential everyday activity of calling a friend or boyfriend. Just as the character Dr Sam Loomis (who presided over Myers during his time in a mental asylum and is now in hot pursuit of him) chillingly tells the town sheriff ‘death has come to your little town’. After this the viewer sees how the idyllic small town charm of atypical Haddonfield is once again about to be shattered and the viewer is made privy to this. The spectator can see the killer lurking behind Annie as she in engrossed in her phone conversation. We are watching the prelude to a massacre whilst the characters are blissfully unaware.
The telephone later becomes an actual tool of murder later on in the film. As Lynda’s boyfriend has begun to act very strange indeed whilst dressed in a sheet like a ghost on reentering their bedroom she calls her friend Laurie. What she doesn’t know is that the person (or should that be entity) hidden from view is actually Myers. Just as she is about to speak to her friend she is strangled with the telephone cord. Laurie interprets this as at first a joke (she had received a call earlier from Annie which she had misinterpreted as an obscene call when all she could hear was chewing) but then decides to investigate further and heads on over to the house opposite where the call has come from thinking that this is another gag by Annie. Here the telephone has directly led to a characters murder by being used as a weapon and has also led another character to curiously enter the house where the murder has just taken place. Two birds, one stone. Almost. Heres Lynda’s demise. ‘See anything you like?!’
When A Stranger Calls was released shortly after Halloween and is based on the ultimate telephone based urban legend- a young babysitter receives a series of blood curdling obscene phone calls that get worse as the night progresses. She calls the police who try and fail to trace the calls to a precise location. As the teenager is close to becoming catatonic with fear she receives one more phone call. It isn’t the nutter whos been making her night of babysitting almost intolerable. Its the police. And they are calling to say that they have discovered that the calls are coming from inside the house!
Whilst this plot device seems cliched these days, back in 1979 this was still pretty fresh as a film plot twist. It was handled by director Fred Walton with noticeable aplomb as the scene builds and builds with palbable tension which eventually erupts into one of the most tense scenes in horror history. In this clip the killer elaborates what he wants with his victim. And the result is utterly chilling.
This scene is interesting as the police are shown as condescending and just a little bit stupid. The fact that they don’t take the victim seriously only adds to the tension. The fact that they can’t trace the call quickly also gives the killer another advantage. The killer has a plan and is in complete control. He uses the telephone as an instrument with which to first destroy his victim emotionally and psychologically and then finish her off when he comes down the stairs. Two out of three isn’t bad.
The filmmakers knew that the ‘calls are coming from inside the house’ was so well known amongst American teenagers that they even used this plot device as central to the films advertising. They reckoned if audiences knew what was a major part of the film they’d flock to see the film rather than thinking that a huge plot twist was being divulged and stay away in droves. The filmmakers were right as the film was a huge success and rightly so. Heres a TV spot for the film.
Whilst this film seems to revolve around the scenes involving the telephone there is plenty more to love it. Its not just the first and last scenes that are remarkable. The killer is played with unhinged brilliance by Tony Beckley who passed away just after the films release. Watch the scene in which his character stands naked in a public restroom and gazes into the mirror. This is one of those performances which really does go the extra five miles. Unhinged, psychotic and utterly brilliant.
Watch also the performance of esteemed actress Colleen Dewhurst as the barfly who has more than a passing air of Bette Davis about her. After witnessing a bar room brawl she remarks ‘I ask myself why I still come to this dump!’ This film is a treat from start to finish and is a masterclass in tension both in the direction and the acting. High five to the location scout too- those shots of the tunnel being built which are part of Tracey’s walk home are so striking and beautiful.
A slasher movie that was made in the wake of Halloween was Prom Night (1980). This film features the great Jamie Lee Curtis and whilst not being as brilliant as Halloween its still an amazing movie. The film is like a heady mix of Carrie, Saturday Night Fever (or should that be Roller Boogie) and yes, Halloween.
There is a sequence in this film that is truly nightmarish as the killer (who could it be?!) calls each of the teenage characters who are preparing for that nights prom. The killer is in a sparse room with just a telephone, a list of each of the kids he wants to call and some gritty mood lighting. Add to this a stern and truly frightening music piece for this scene and you have one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Part of this scene is in one of the film’s tv spots.
1982 spawned a low key and little known oddity in the shape of Murder By Phone (aka Bells). A phone can actually kill people just by them answering it. A madman has perfected a certain frequency that can actually kill people just by listening to it. This movie is camp but also a prime slice of cansploitation that looks great and is played straight. Yes, it was never going to win any Academy Awards for that year but thats a mark of excellence, right?
The kills in this film are really something to experience and here they are.
As the 80s progressed telephone companies began to invest more in being able to track where a call was coming from. A major device used by horror movie directors was now gone. I actually learnt about how phone calls could now be traced from personal experience. It was 1987 and I was 12 years old. Whenever my father went out at night (which was a lot as he had just divorced our mother and was going through a second adolescence if you will) my brother and I surrounded by his friends would scour the local paper for ads placed by readers. We’d then ring the unlucky people with (what we thought were) hilarious results. An example would be people who had placed an ad about a pet that was missing.
Me: ‘Hi. Have you lost a dog?’
Person who placed the ad: ‘Yes I have.’
Me: ‘Is he an Alsatian?’
Ad owner: ‘Yes it is.’
Me: ‘Does he have a red collar?’
Ad owner (now getting excited) ‘Yes he does!’
Me: ‘And he’s called Rover?’
Ad owner (now beside themselves with joy): ‘Yes! Have you seen him?!’
Me: ‘Yes! He tasted lovely’
And this point I’d slam down the phone. Myself, my brother and all of his friends would dissolve into laughter.
I was on a Saturday afternoon not long after that my father spoke to my brother and I. Someone from British Telecom had called. They had traced dozens of prank calls to our number and would be monitoring the phone line for the foreseeable future. If the abusive phone calls continued then they would ban us from having a phone line. We had been rumbled. My father bought a phone lock (we had one of those bright red telephones with a dial where the lock would be fitted) and used it whenever he wasn’t in the house.
Leave it to fellow lunatic John Waters to revive the nuisance call on film. His film Serial Mom contains a sequence in which loving mother and psychopath Beverly Sutphin calls a neighbour, Dottie Hinckley who she hates for being domestically inferior in her eyes. Waters rightly captures the mixture of hatred, dark humour and distress involved to making nuisance calls and receiving them. This is probably the most infamous scene within an already impeccable movie. This scene is like a lovingly sick tribute to the art of the malicious phone call. I understand your love, John.
There have been other horror films about obscene phone calls that were made in recent years but most feel contrived and somehow unauthentic. I prefer the horror films involving telephone terrorism which were made when the threat of such an intrusive and foul act was still a reality for many people.
I’ll ask you again- have you checked the children?!