Monday 24 December 2007

Dial: Help

Somebody stop me buying cheap horror videos on eBay. I can’t help myself... Is there a number I can call? Can I perhaps Dial: Help?

What’s that? There’s a cheap horror video with that name? What am I waiting for?! Buy! BUY!!

No Italian horror film from those long-ago 1980s is complete without a tie-in pop song, and this silly effort from Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato is no exception. “Baby, don’t answer... Baby, don’t answer the telephone,” warns the catchy chorus, as a spooky voice mumbles something about not being safe on the phone and/or your own. As it happens, our heroine Jenny (played by English model Charlotte Lewis) is neither; for several days now, she’s been trying to get through to her long-distance lover, Marco, to no avail. Now, sneaking into a cafe late at night to use the telephone, she gets a crossed line with a long-deserted helpline number and, before long, finds herself plagued at home by sinister calls and strange messages.

At least, I think they’re supposed to be strange. The sound was so muffled on the ancient video cassette I saw, that everything sounded a bit strange, but this may have had as much to do with the quality of the script as the sound levels. Take, for example, a top scientist’s explanation of the unfurling events: “The energies of love and hate circulate throughout the universe. Under the right conditions, they condense and concentrate themselves within a room, and those deposits of energy seek a way out. They can be so powerful as to magnify and seduce the person who’s liberated them.” Pretty scary, huh? Especially coming from, as one character puts it, “the world’s greatest expert on unidentified energy”.

Matters aren’t helped by the fact that Jenny – poor, unwitting victim of the 1980s as she is – already owns several of the scariest-looking “fashion” phones in existence, including a black contraption with pulsing lights straight out of Knight Rider, and a lilac neon-filled number that looks like it could electrocute a fly at fifty paces... Hardly the likeliest conduits for a quiet conversation with your mum! Anyway, soon the supernatural telephonic forces have graduated from leaving creepy messages to causing the mysterious deaths of everyone Jenny knows. How does a phone kill anyone, you ask? Try these on for size:
  • Watch out! Telephones may attempt to strangle you with their cables!
  • You may receive phone calls compelling you to jump off a building whilst in a trance!

  • The high-pitch squeaking tones they emit are enough to kill a whole tank of fish!

  • When cornered, a phone will fling its dial at you like a deadly discus!

  • Don’t forget, phones have been known to levitate and stalk you around your apartment!

  • You are at particular risk when bathing. The phone will leap into the bath and burst into flames!

  • Take care if you wear a pacemaker. Phones may cause it to burst through your chest!

  • Payphones are particularly dangerous, as they can shoot out lethal coins at bullet-speed!

Well, if that’s not enough to put you off calling those premium-rate numbers for good, I don’t know what is. By the end of this film, you may well be telephonophobic. Or something.

With its surprisingly well thought-out premise, Dial: Help remains engaging (geddit?) throughout. There are enough wacky details to please any connoisseur of eighties cheese, from the decor of Jenny’s apartment (giant photos of lips eating spaghetti) to the delights of the local nightclub (jazz flute and a mime-artist-cum-disco dancer). But there’s also a lack of urgency, not to mention anything even bordering on scary. Props to the film for really trying to turn the telephone into an object of fear – there’s even an attempted shock moment where a telephone LUNGES into shot, only to be revealed as a toy phone in the hands of an overly eager toddler – but the problem is, no matter how quickly they LUNGE, phones just aren’t that frightening.

Charlotte Lewis’s laidback performance works both for and against the film: on the one hand, her breezy delivery gives some of the sillier dialogue an almost naturalistic credibility; on the other, seeing her calmly approach a policeman after a night of terror-phone chaos, only to utter the line, “Excuse me, I’d like to report some deaths,” is just flat-out laughable. It’s also never made completely clear whether the phones are out to harm Jenny, protect her, or something else entirely... In fact, one scene has her rolling around the carpet, apparently being gently caressed into orgasm by gusts of wind coming out of her handset. I had to wonder what the girl would make of a hairdryer.

Dial: Help isn’t a direct line to disaster, then, but don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t manage to push many of your buttons. I’m dialling D for Disappointing.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday 16 December 2007


Remind me never to get a job writing the obituary column for a local newspaper in a non-specific American town. Not only do you have to work 16-hour days – six days a week – but they stick you in a windowless basement with a computer that shouts “Click here! Click here! Click here!” whenever it encounters a pop-up. And, although they obviously pay you enough to live in a nice apartment full of modern art, you’re always getting passed over for that big promotion to head news reporter. (What? Like it’s too much of a step up?)

As if that weren’t enough, it’s highly likely that you’ll become the target of a serial killer who places obituary notices in the paper before murdering his victims. That’s what’s happening to Denise Wilcox, heroine of the 2006 TV movie Obituary. Look, here she is:

And here’s one of her obituaries:

I have to admit I’m not surprised she keeps losing out on that reporter job, what with sentences like: “Her love for theatrical plays was endless and being social with her closest dear friends, was something that she truly loved” [sic]. I hope she’s leaving that piece out of her portfolio, to be honest. Anyway, it’s not long before a pop-up ad appears and thankfully obscures Denise’s rather dire copy:

Swiftly followed by another:

Eek! That’s not an advert – it’s another one of those messages from the serial killer! Luckily, Denise doesn’t have her pop-up blocker switched on or she never would’ve received it. Now she’ll have to phone Lorna Woods and warn her that she’s in danger from a killer! But will Lorna believe her? You bet she won’t... What a terrifying TV movie quandary!

Obituary isn’t a terrifying TV movie, however. In fact, it’s only really mildly suspenseful (and, even then, only towards the end). Denise manages to completely neglect her 16-hours-a-day job to investigate the murders – and, by “investigate”, I mean she spreads out lots of newspapers on the floor and goes through them with a highlighter pen colouring in any handy clues she comes across (she’s obviously been inspired by Suzanne Somers’ research techniques in Exclusive):

Oh yeah, that’s Denise’s pet iguana in the photo there. Isn’t she kooky? (Denise, that is.) And yet somehow lonely... If only the right man would come along and – oh wait, that’s right: her ex-boyfriend just got that promotion she was after and has come to work at the newspaper. How, like, conflicted she must be feeling about that. Let’s just hope he doesn’t turn out to be the killer, anyway!

As is unfortunately the case with many movies of this type, what starts out fairly engaging gets a bit tiresome after an hour or so. Obituary is vaguely stylish with a likeable enough heroine, but isn’t quite demented enough to pay out on its outlandish premise. Denise’s opening narration works quite well, and it’s a shame it’s not picked up on because it provides Obituary with a spark of personality that’s absent elsewhere.

And no iguana-boiling scene? Lazy!

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday 12 December 2007

The Night Stalker

There were several reasons why The Night Stalker looked like the Best Film Ever to my ten-year-old mind... and by that I mean my mind when I was actually aged ten, not as it is now. Back then (1988 if you must know) there was no internet, so I read all my film reviews in Leonard Maltin’s awkwardly titled TV Movies and Video Guide, which described The Night Stalker as a “near-brilliant mixture of double-edged horror and comedy”. The only other modern horror film Mr Maltin seemed to actually like was Fright Night – which I lived for – so it looked like this 1972 classic would be another sure thing.

This was also at a time when I spent every Tuesday afternoon after school scanning the freshly bought TV Times and Radio Times (ITV and BBC had separate listings magazines then) for late-night horror films. I seem to remember The Night Stalker getting four out of five TV Times-approved stars – another remarkable feat for something with vampires in it. Add in the fact that I was sooo into the Hammer Dracula films at the time, and surely The Night Stalker was set to be my New Favourite Movie!

Well, it wasn’t. In fact, as a kid, I didn’t really get it at all. Sure, the story was about a vampire stalking Las Vegas – but somehow it didn’t really seem to be about a vampire stalking Las Vegas. Little did my ten-year-old mind realise at the time how accurate this notion was; The Night Stalker features dead dancing girls, multiple murders, a spooky mansion and, yes, a bona fide vampire – but really it’s about the reporter covering the case, and what the authorities will do to make sure the truth never gets out.

That reporter is rumpled, straw-hatted Carl Kolchak, played – in one of those perfect alignments of character and actor – by Darren McGavin. Kolchak is called back from a holiday to report on the discovery of a dead casino employee found dumped in a dustbin. She’s been drained of blood and sports a nasty little bite wound to the neck, but it’s a while before Kolchak is prepared to cry vampire – specifically, not until three more young women have been found exsanguinated in similar fashion, and our reporter hero has survived a one-on-one tussle with the superhuman villain responsible.

But it soon becomes clear that Kolchak’s problem isn’t going to be convincing the authorities that an undead monster is behind the murders (after all, it’s hard to refute the testimonies of thirty cops who’ve shot the perpetrator at close range without killing him), it’s going to be hacking through enough red tape to get something done about it. What’s the correct protocol for arresting a 100-year-old vampire? And can taking to the streets with a wooden stake be classed as premeditated murder?

Original, influential and a big success in its day, The Night Stalker arguably kicked off the boom in TV-movie horror that lasted for the remainder of the decade, producing cult classics like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) and Trilogy of Terror (1975). Its surprising violence (check out that brutal opening murder) and sly tone mean that it’s dated pretty well without losing that all-important seventies charm. While not quite as seventies-sational as the same year’s Hammer offering Dracula A.D. 1972 (I mean, when was the last time you saw Christopher Lee and hotpants in the same movie?) there’s still plenty of casual sexism, period Vegas detail, and gratuitous knitting in public:

Director John Llewellyn Moxey offsets the urban setting with a genuine gothic feel – from the vampire’s red silk-lined suit to a terrific haunted house – that pays off with a straight-up horror climax. Short of the caricatured bloodsuckers of From Dusk Till Dawn, I can’t think of a vampire more physically vicious than Janos Skorzeny here, and his human-but-not-human appearance is quite chilling.

I’m glad I revisited The Night Stalker, and got a lot more out of it than when I went in expecting 75 minutes of monster mayhem twenty years ago. Don’t get me wrong, there is ample mayhem (thanks to Skorzeny’s violent rampages) but the movie’s concerned with more than just fang-baring thrills.

Next up, I’ll be rewatching the Seattle-set sequel, The Night Strangler, which in contrast I loved as a kid. But first I need my copy of Maltin’s, a TV Times and a highlighter pen... Bliss!

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Door Into Darkness: The Doll

Theories abound as to why Dario Argento decided to save The Doll for the fourth and final episode of his 1973 TV series, Door Into Darkness. Some say it’s due to the experimental nature of the story; others point out it’s the episode that Dario had the least involvement in. Me, I think they put it last because it’s a bit rubbish. Would anyone have tuned in the following week after this?

Let’s see why The Doll doesn’t really work as a mini suspense movie. Two reasons:

  1. It’s padded... Boy, is it padded. If I’d had to sit through one more scene of someone walking down a street, I swear I would have flicked off the TV and gone outside to play Frisbee. With the DVD. In traffic. The Doll could easily have made a half-hour Tales of the Unexpected episode, rather than the 60-minute slog here.

  2. It cheats... Boy, does it cheat! And not like the forgivably amusing, clever-clever misdirections of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, either. This story cheats so bad it gets caught cheating, lies to cover up its indiscretions, gets caught lying, then buys you a bunch of flowers to throw you off the scent... but none of that changes the fact that it cheats. Shamelessly. To the point that it barely makes sense when it’s all over.

Our story starts with that trusted cliché: the mental hospital break-out. Someone with a handheld camera and wobbly POV has escaped from the Rome Home for the Criminally Deranged to become, as Dario Argento himself puts it in his introduction, “a sick mind wandering a small town, apparently normal, in matter of fact incandescent... Its aim: to kill.”

Soon after, we’re introduced to a moustached stranger-in-town (played by Robert Hoffman) who’s checking into a local hotel along with his mysterious attaché case. While he’s out roaming the streets a little later, a redheaded fashion designer meets a sticky end when, after some enjoyably giallo-esque spooky stuff involving multicoloured mannequin heads, she’s killed by an unseen assailant.

Back on the street, Moustache Man spots another redhead (Mara Venier) in a doll shop and decides to make her acquaintance by embroiling her in a bit of unwitting shoplifting à la Twisted Nerve. Not only that, but he manages to invite himself round to her house... and that’s where the nastiness begins.

And it’s about time, too, seeing as how we’re over halfway through The Doll and much of the running time so far has been taken up by people just walking along. What follows is fairly tense – although you’ll likely find it a little hard to swallow that our heroine not only lets Creepy Moustache into her home, but quickly agrees to get changed and go to the movies with him. Still, that’s nothing compared to the ending, which is harder to swallow than a saucepan full of wasps.

As with some other gialli, the problem with The Doll isn’t the way it’s made, it’s the way the plot’s contrived. There’s plenty of intriguing camerawork and the basic idea is sound, but I’m all for renaming it “The Dull”... The Cheating, Lying Dull!

Rating: 2/5

Monday 3 December 2007

Picture post

Here's a nice screenshot from Eyewitness that I couldn't quite shoehorn into yesterday's review:

It occurs as Roberta and her husband drive the stretch of road where Roberta claims to have witnessed the murder.

Is it me, or have the Human League based two album covers on this image?

Okay, you can go back to work now.

Door Into Darkness: Eyewitness

Well, I did promise I’d be having a look at Dario Argento’s TV anthology series Door Into Darkness, but I never said I’d be watching the episodes in order. (Please, I’m not that organised.) So here we go with episode 3 of the DVD set, which actually aired second according to some sources... Anyhow, no matter – it’s not like Lost, where as long as you watch it all in order it all makes perfect sense. No, Door Into Darkness presents four different stories, and this one’s called Eyewitness.

Straight off, let me point out that many of Eyewitness’s plot elements probably seemed a lot fresher back in 1973, before three decades’ worth of TV actresses played murder witnesses in three decades’ worth of TV movies, and subsequently found themselves in various degrees of TV movie-permitting peril. Here, it’s Marilù Tolo playing housewife Roberta Leoni, whose life is so dull and empty she spends most of her time dressing up in outfits that match her stylishly mod furnishings:

All that’s about to change, however, because soon Roberta will be on high terror alert after a woman runs out in front of her car in the middle of the night and drops down dead in the road. When Roberta gets out to help – being careful not to get any of that icky blood on her new orange flares (well, they do go lovely with the futon) – Mystery Woman turns out to have a bullet wound in her back. But that’s not all: Mystery Murderer is waiting in the bushes beside the road with a gun in his black-gloved hand... Run, Roberta, Run!

Luckily, there’s a diner nearby and Roberta has soon ordered a nice cup of coffee. Oh, and summoned the police. But when she takes the detective back to the scene of the crime, the body has disappeared – along with any trace of blood and, indeed, anything out of the ordinary. Has Roberta imagined it all? The police and her husband (Riccardo Salvino – sort of a better-looking version of Dario Argento, although with the same tombstone forehead and lanky hair) seem to think so, but we’re left in no doubt when a cutaway reveals someone suspiciously burning a pile of bloodstained clothes...

Ah, sweet, naïve, innocent Eyewitness, you had me gripped up until about this point, when you decided to turn into a decidedly mediocre stalker thriller. Roberta returns home to the now-ubiquitous ominous phone calls and half-hearted attempts on her life, while events slow-burn to a rather predictable conclusion. I know it’s not your fault, Eyewitness. You were probably once the hottest thing since open plan interiors:

But now you’re more like this clock – dated and slightly pointless:

I mean, can you tell the time on that? Anyway, the plot of Eyewitness has become so standard that it really doesn’t offer much in the way of suspense or excitement any longer, despite the fact that it’s well staged and particularly nicely scored (by Giorgio Gaslini – Deep Red). I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a worthless waste of time – I’d recommend it unreservedly to giallo/Argento fans – but time hasn’t left Eyewitness with much to remark upon. Except, of course, those fabulous interiors.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday 2 December 2007


Would you look at that DVD cover for Lucio Fulci’s Aenigma? And they wonder why Italian horror hasn’t made it big in the UK. There’s just something about snails crawling all over a person’s lips that many people just don’t find very, well... appealing. Anyhoo, I certainly found the film itself pretty appealing, largely thanks to that hilarious Italian-to-English script translation that peps up many a Euro-horror outing. And Aenigma really takes some beating in that respect. Read on, slugface!

“Put on your make-up, your eyes are blue enough, tonight is special for you... You’re gonna see that dream come true...” So intones the delightful synth-pop number that opens this late entry in Fulci’s career. But if any dreams are coming true tonight, they certainly won’t be those of Kathy (played by Milijana Zirojevic), a bullied student at St. Mary’s College, Boston (played by the Yugoslavian countryside). Poor Kathy ends up under the wheels of a speeding car when a prank pulled by her classmates – in league with her not-terribly-professional gym teacher – goes tragically wrong.

Of course, Kathy’s still alive and, if not quite kicking, then at least comatose in a hospital bed surrounded by heart monitors (I counted at least three) and under the supervision of dishy Dr Anderson. From here, her spirit flies up out of her body to whoosh away over a model of the hospital and take possession of Eva, a new student just arriving at St. Mary’s. There’s barely time to unpack her collection of spandex bodystockings before Eva/Kathy is off on a vengeful supernatural killing spree (talk about getting off on the wrong foot!). And, before long, Kathy’s former frenemies are dying in all kinds of hilarious mysterious ways – including suffocation by snails whilst inexplicably paralysed; strangulation by one’s own reflection; and, most cruelly of all, terrorism via a poster of Tom Cruise... What an aenigma! as they say in Italy. Or possibly Yugoslavia.

Lucio Fulci was that most paradoxical of things: a director who was as likely to copycat the latest trend in American cinema as he was to create something staggeringly original – often at the same time. Aenigma, however, finds him doing something he’d almost never be accused of anywhere else – namely, aping that other Italian fave, Dario Argento. It’s not just the girls’ school setting or telepathy-with-invertebrates plot thread (Phenomena anyone?) but the whole style of the thing – with its floaty camerawork and close-quarters bitching – that recalls Argento. (Although, to be fair, Dario never did quite match the pure Fulci-envisaged terror that is... snails! Snails on your face!)

Nevertheless, Fulci comes into his own here with a fantastic sequence set in an empty museum at midnight. Severed limbs fall from paintings, statues come to murderous life... you could almost be watching The House by the Cemetery (in fact, if you switch this off and swap DVDs, you really could be watching The House by the Cemetery, which might not be an entirely bad idea). The scene is classic Fulci, and by far the least goofy scare sequence in this relatively light-hearted piece.

In terms of sheer entertainment, however, the film simply flies by, feeling half the length of even some arguably better lesser Fulci efforts like Manhattan Baby. Its blend of eighties silliness and off-the-wall nastiness make Aenigma prime late-night viewing for Italian horror fans. As for the script, it’s rather aenchanting too. Here are some of my favouritest quotes:

  • Doctor: How does a young girl who’s braindead experience a violent emotion?

  • Student: We can spend the night together tomorrow... Love! Oh lovely!
    Doctor: That’s enough. My lips are numb and my patients are waiting.

  • Coroner (examining body): These macho types never know when to stop... It was the same with the man who invented jogging.

  • Girl: Give me the address again.
    Friend: Number 28, the second on the right. It’s hard to miss... he’s got a picture of the Incredible Hulk on the door.
    Girl: That’s a good start.

  • Student: Fred... he’s dead!

  • Doctor: There’s something strange about that girl. She has a total recall of another person’s memories...

  • Gym student (to teacher): I may have a fat ass, but if you slap it one more time, I’ll slap your face!

Rating: 3/5