November 9, 2017
A while back, Cinema Fearité celebrated horror movies that urge audience to not do things, like Don’t Look in the Basement, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Don’t Look Now, and even Don’t Open Till Christmas. This week, we’ve got another movie that’s bossing you around, this time with an exclamation point à la mother! and Bloodlust!, called Don’t Answer the Phone!
Don’t Answer the Phone! is about a serial killer (Nicholas Worth from Swamp Thing and Invitation to Hell) who is strangling young women all over Los Angeles. The detectives assigned to the case, Lieutenant McCabe (James Westmoreland from The Undertaker and His Pals) and Sergeant Hatcher (Terrified’s Ben Frank), believe they get a break when they discover that the strangler has been calling in to the radio show of a psychologist named Dr. Lindsay Gale (Flo Lawrence from Lords of Salem and Schizoid) and hinting about his crimes. With the help of Dr. Gale, the two cops try to track down the murderer before he strikes again…and again.
Loosely inspired by the 1970s true-crime case of the Hillside Strangler, Don’t Answer the Phone! was based on the novel Nightline by Michael Curtis, who never had another book turned into a film. Director Robert Hammer never made another film, either, but he did build himself a concise little career writing for television shows like “Mannix” and “Hawkins.” Interestingly enough, the screenwriter of Don’t Answer the Phone!, Michael D. Castle, also never wrote anything else that was produced, but had some minor success as an actor in such flicks as Galaxina and The Beach Girls. So, an author optioned it, a writer directed it, and an actor wrote it, and none of them ever did it again. “Don’t” indeed.
Don’t Answer the Phone! was released in 1980, and it is an absolute product of the early eighties. It utilizes a similar opening POV shot as audiences saw in Halloween a couple of years earlier, but takes it to the same heavy breathing/maniacal laughing extreme as Student Bodies did the next year. The crime investigation element is reminiscent to that of The Dark, while the radio show angle recalls Play Misty for Me. And, although it’s not nearly as graphic, Don’t Answer the Phone! has a certain Herschell Gordon Lewis/William Lustig vibe to it (it actually was investigated, but not tagged, as one of Britain’s notoriously banned Video Nasties). It’s pure eighties.
Speaking of William Lustig, the killer in Don’t Answer the Phone! has a lot in common with the antagonist in Lustig’s classic Maniac from the same year. Like Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito, Nicholas Worth’s misogynistic murderer is known to the audience from the very first scene, so the mystery is all onscreen and not in the seats. Although the guilty party is known, he’s still ambiguous, referred to as “The Killer” in the opening credits, “The Strangler” in the closing credits, and alternately known as “Kirk Smith” and “Ramon” over the course of the movie. Character-wise, he’s a Vietnam vet who suffers from PTSD, a professional photographer who works in both the glamour and porn worlds, and an amateur bodybuilder who is all power (meaning he’s fat but strong). And, he’s an all-around creep who gets the lion’s share of the screen time. If it weren’t for the strangling women thing, he’d be the hero of the film, in a Patrick Bateman-in-American Psycho kind of way.
The other big star of Don’t Answer the Phone! is Los Angeles itself. The killer’s roaming and stalking function as a fun time capsule of seventies Los Angeles. One scene shows a long shot of a Universal Studios Tour billboard. Another shows a movie theater marquee that advertises Alien. The strangler steps on Richard Dix’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And, in true low-budget filmmaking fashion, the L.A. streets shots were all done guerilla-style by Robert Hammer and cinematographer James L. Carter (Spaced Invaders, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) without any permits, just a handheld camera and their actors. It makes Don’t Answer the Phone! a cool snapshot of the Hollywood street scene.
The musical score to Don’t Answer the Phone!, composed by Byron Allred (his only score, but he did write songs that appeared in both Night of the Comet and Baby Driver), is an awesomely frantic synthesizer soundtrack full of chainsaw-pitched buzzing and aggressive, heavily distorted square waves. There’s actual music in there, too – ominous and suspenseful stings and vamps echoing around with barely a hint of melody peeking through the dynamic soundscape. But the real fun is the sonic cacophony that Allred syncs up with the Killer’s on-screen madness. Although it’s all electronic, the score for Don’t Answer the Phone! is way more than just a typical eighties synth horror score.
In the grand scheme of “Don’t” movies, Don’t Answer the Phone! is a minor league player. It’s not really going to convince anyone to not pick up a ringing telephone, but look at the bright side. At least it’s not telling anyone to “Don’t Breathe.”