“Now, horror has a brand new number.”
Director: Robert Englund
Cast: Stephen Geoffreys, Patrick O’Bryan, Sandy Dennis
Synopsis: People who dial 976-EVIL receive supernatural powers and turn into satanic killers.
Like any movie genre aimed primarily at teens, the explosion of horror movies in the eighties contained a disproportionate share of appalling dogs that now rarely find — or deserve to see — the light of day. Even the marginally better entries quickly descended into self-derivative rubbish as their producers cynically attempted to cash in on their success by simply recycling the same tired old story over and over. By the early nineties, the formula was so stale that the genre had effectively destroyed itself as a mainstream money-maker, and returned to the cheap B-movie roots from which it came (and where it undoubtedly belongs).
976-EVIL, directed by Freddy Kreuger (Robert Englund — 2001 Maniacs, Strippers vs Werewolves) himself, is an example of a film that tries to give something a little extra to the genre, but whose zero budget and poorly structured — and, once again, over-derivative – storyline relegate it to the overused status of what-might-have-been. Shame, because the basic concept is a good one.
Stephen Geoffreys puts in an effective performance as Hoax, a nerdy teenage loser who stumbles across a card advertising a ‘horrorscope’ service on the eponymous phone number. Quickly succumbing to the prospect of easy revenge promised by the demon-possessed phone line after being humiliated by his peers and fighting with his mad mother, Hoax wages a bloody revenge on the usual stereotypical cast of twenty-something teens.
Sound familiar? Revisiting a familiar theme doesn’t necessarily mean a movie has to be bad: The Shining (1980) is nothing more than a haunted house story on a grand scale, after all, and Jaws (1975) is a monster movie, pure and simple. So the fact that the story 976-EVIL tells is one we’ve all seen countless times before doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t bring something new to the table. Unfortunately, while Englund makes nice use of colour and evokes a nicely dark and seedy atmosphere (everywhere is festooned with graffiti, and the school loos have to be the grungiest school loos in movie history), he has nothing new to offer. The horror is strictly by the book, the characters are under-developed, and yet, despite this, the movie takes a good forty-five minutes to even get started, and you’re left wondering what — if you still know so little about the characters at the end of the movie — was actually going on in the first half? Watching 976-EVIL, you get the impression that, for whatever reason, vast swathes of film were left on the cutting room floor. Some scenes seem to have been inserted almost arbitrarily, as if they are all that have survived of much longer sequences, and there is absolutely no logical continuity to the sequence of events. One girl dies after Hoax turns her TV dinner into a nest of spiders, and yet there is no police involvement — and barely any mention of her at all after the incident. For all its other-worldliness, horror has to be rooted in reality to be effective, and yet once the killings start, 976-EVIL too often eschews realism in favour of simply reaching its conclusion. It’s almost as if everyone involved — cast, writer, director — just want to get the whole thing over and done with.
The best performances in the movie come from Geoffreys and veteran actress Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), who is wonderfully over-the-top as his zealously religious, big-wig-wearing, cat-loving mother. Their relationship is a direct rip-off of the Sissy Spacek/Piper Laurie double act in Carrie (1976), but at least their scenes together — and Dennis’s scene with the instantly forgettable Patrick O’Bryan — inject a little life into the proceedings. It’s sad, therefore, that this was to be Dennis’s penultimate performance before her early death in 1992, and that within five years of this movie being released, Geoffreys would be reduced to performing in gay skin flicks under the name of Sam Ritter.
(Reviewed 26th October 2006)