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 kinds of calls were a regular occurrence in our neighbourhood, and indeed, everywhere.
I also remember as a kid reading an article in Reader’s Digest about how everyday and seemingly innocuous appliances had traumatic effects on a few unfortunate people. One involved a woman who would become traumatised 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.
It’s 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 young women 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 they were cut out completely. Here’s one example.
Another example of the telephone being used to horrifying effect 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 their 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 is 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.
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 is 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 re-entering 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 actual cord of the telephone. 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. This is quickly dispelled when she hangs up in fright and Annie calls back to ask why she hung up on her) 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 character’s murder by being used as an actual weapon and has also led another character to curiously enter the house where the murder has just taken place. Two birds, one stone. Almost.
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 who’s been making her night of babysitting almost intolerable. It’s 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 palpable tension which eventually erupts into one of the tensest scenes in horror history. In this clip, the killer elaborates on 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 film’s advertising. They reckoned that if audiences knew this urban legend was a major part of the film they’d flock to see it 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. Here’s a TV spot for the film.
Whilst this film seems to revolve around the scenes involving the telephone there is still plenty more to love about it. It’s 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 film’s 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 barroom 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, sinister 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 it’s 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 that is truly nightmarish as the killer (who could it be?!) calls each of the teenage characters who are preparing for that night’s 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 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 because of a madman perfecting a frequency that can result in a grisly death for the recipient. This movie is camp but also a prime slice of Canuxploitation that looks great and is played straight. Yes, it was never going to win any Academy Awards for that year but that’s 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 me, 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 he 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’
At this point, I’d slam down the phone. Myself, my brother and all of his friends would dissolve into laughter. We did this sooo many times.
Then one day my father sat my brother and me down. He looked very serious (never a good sign). 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. British Telecom doesn’t exist as a company anymore. I’d like to think that’s karma for ruining our fun.
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 in making nuisance calls and receiving them. This is probably the most infamous scene within an already impeccable movie. This sequence 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?!