976-EVIL

Gotta whole lotta homo
★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1988
Director: 
Robert Englund
Starring: 
Stephen Goeffreys, Patrick O'Bryan, Sandy Dennis, Jim Metzler
The Setup: 
Teens connect to satanic trouble when calling the titular phone number.
Discussion: 

A reader recommended this, and I can see why, as it is bizarrely exaggerated to the point of knowing camp, and there is more than a touch of the homoerotic to it. This is the only feature film directed by Robert Englund, and the script is co-written by Brian Hegeland, who went on to write prestigious pictures such as L.A. Confidential and Mystic River.

We open with a man running through the streets, haunted by ringing phones. Everywhere he goes, there's a phone ringing. Then he thinks "I know! I'll just go down this dark, dingy alley from which there is no escape!" There's a pay phone there, and when the guy grabs it to pick it up, he is electrocuted, bursts into flames, then the whole box explodes, throwing him several feet. Sense the terror!

Then we meet our hero, Spike, who is a Tough Teen. He wears leather jackets, smokes, and ties his hair back into a little tail! Then we meet his cousin, Hoax [that's right], who is seen living in his mother's house, furniture covered by plastic, cats everywhere. Then his mother comes in, under this gargantuan ratty wig and pointy 50s-style glasses. She looks like one of those tacky housewives as portrayed in the comic The Far Side. She catches Hoax looking at native breasts in a National Geographic, and smacks him upside the head. And we at home say "Okay, so there's this whole aspect here that's trying to be funny and satirical." It would seem that Spike is the nephew of Mom, and that cousin Hoax, uber-nerd, is obsessed with him. They live right next to each other, and have a pneumatic tube that delivers notes from one bedroom into another. That's the situation, okay? I can't say I understand it.

So Spike is sitting around wanting to do something subversive, so he takes out this flyer [didn't catch where he got ahold of it] for 976-EVIL, which promises him his "horror scope." He calls, and gets an ominous, yet vague, message. Then he goes downstairs [are they in the same house? Yet somehow the bedrooms are next door? I don't get it] and Mom tells him what a bad influence he is and how he has to get right with the lord and they go outside--and suddenly there is a rain of fish! That's something you don't see in movies every day--in fact, I've only ever seen anything like it once before. Mom takes it as further evidence that she is in touch with the will of the lord, then they all go inside and forget about it. Rains of fish are just so common nowadays. The next day Marty Palmer from Modern Miracle Magazine shows up to get the story. He'll continue wandering in and out of the film, essentially doing nothing.

Meanwhile it would seem that this high school is ruled by gangs led by Markus, this guy with a bleached-blond puff of hair in front and a hat that makes him look like a former Culture Club member. In the first of our "Woah, this is really homo!" moments, Markus' thugs are shoving Hoax's head in the toilet. Then Spike comes in and saves Hoax, leading to the shot below, which looks to me like the cover of a novel called Bad Boys' Bulge, and then Hoax goes on like a puppy about how he just wants to hang out with Spike and do cool-guy stuff together. Spike ignores him and hangs with his girlfriend Suzie, who is an 80s Madonna clone. Spike drives a motorcycle, while Hoax drives a moped, and poor Hoax is under the impression that he and Spike are going on a cross-country motorcycle/moped trip. That night Spike gets a call from the evil phone number, but hangs up on it, which causes a near-miss from a car, at which point he is saved by Marty Palmer, who promptly vanishes again.

Then there is an unusually explicit sex scene between Spike and Suzie, in which he all but ignores her while they're doing it. Hoax is watching them from across the way, and once it's over, sneaks into Spike's room, steals Suzie's panties and gets the 976-EVIL number. He calls.

Later that night Hoax is out on his moped when he runs into Suzie, and as often happens, the hot girl and mega-nerd end up having pizza and growing to like each other. Suzie reveals that she's afriad of spiders, and Hoax reveals that he loves them, and in fact owns a poisonous one. Then more thugs come in and it is soon revealed that Hoax has her panties, at which point it seems that their burgeoning friendship comes to an abrupt end.

So Hoax goes home and calls the number, which tells him to take the woman. All of a sudden we see him make a pentagram in his room--and we're like WOAH, I had no idea this dude dabbled in Satanism--and put his spider in it. Meanwhile we are cutting to Suzie at home, making a TV dinner in her microwave. There seems to be a spider in her meal, and when she finally removes the cover it's a spider s'plosion. At home, Hoax starts to feel bad, so he crushes his spider, at which time Suzie drops dead. It all totally makes sense.

Now, by this time I have started to think "HOW are all these completely separate strands going to be brought together?" which proves to be a very pertinent question, as the movie is just going to continue to grow looser and looser until it reaches near-incoherence.

Hoax's mom has found the phone bill, and takes his phone away. The next day Hoax makes no bones about the fact that he killed Suzie, which Spike seems only marginally concerned about, and the local police take no interest in. Meanwhile, Marty finds the address of the phone number, and finds a warehouse rented to all sorts of people running different call-in lines, like a fat older woman posing as a young hottie on a phone sex line. Stinging satire, I'm sure you can see. Marty finds the machine that runs the evil number, but is told that it was shut off months ago! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Anyway, Hoax is slowly changing. One of the threads left dangling is why Spike abruptly just dropped use of the number. Hoax is made fun of by bullies, and suddenly his hand grows claws and he slashes the face of one. Meanwhile, Marty goes to see the school principal, who turns out to be an attractive woman in her 20s. By now the movie is just flying apart, evidenced by the fact that we just see Marty meet the woman, then suddenly she shows up out of the blue in the middle of the night to save him after he revisits the site of the phone number. I guess their relationship developed rather quickly.

Then Hoax goes to the movie theater where the gang of thugs hangs out, and kills them all. Then he goes home and kills his mother, a scene I thought deserved a lot more attention, both for the massive build-up she received as a character, and also the rather large thematic element of killing one's own mother. But no. Later the principal, who suddenly becomes a major character, finds Mom's beloved cats eating her body. When she goes back downstairs, the whole place is inexplicably frozen. Then chasms to hell [presumably, I mean maybe they lead to Taco Bell] open up in the floor. An example of how this movie has been reduced to editing confetti occurs here as we see the principal hanging off the precipice, then Marty a few rooms over, then suddenly in the next shot Marty is pulling the principal to safety, without having first entered the room.

Then Marty and the principal try to escape over the pneumatic tube, while beneath them a huge chasm leading to the 99-Cent Store opens beneath them. Then Spike distracts Hoax, and tells him that they can be together, and go on their motorcycle trip, and enjoy sleeping bag frottage, but--it's all a trick! Spike throws Hoax out the window and in the chasm to Filene's Basement and--there ya go, problem solved!

For the first half, it was decent fun, what with all the over-the-top satirical grotesqueries mixed with silly horror fun and homo vibe, but after a while you start to think "How are all these separate strands going to tie together?" and eventually realize that they won't. And that's when things really fall apart, and in several key ways it doesn't even make sense as a basic story. It kind of wants to be a nerd revenge film and kind of wants to be an outrageous social satire and kind of wants to be a straight-up teen horror film, and ends up not being enough of anything. Not to mention that the whole satanic phone number angle--the main focus of the film--is never fully explained and remains obscure and rather senseless right to the end.

So, the homo vibe. You have Spike, the hot bad boy, and Hoax, with a puppyish, out-of-control worship of him. He continually talks about them going away together, and seems especially jealous of Spike's girlfriend, who ends up being his first victim. When Hoax smells Suzie's panties after she has been with Spike, one gets the impression that he isn't trying to discern HER scent. Then there are just the proliferation of homoerotic images, such as the nerdy Hoax forced to his knees by the bad rebel teens in the bathroom stall, his aw-gee admiration as he stands next to big, leather-clad Spike, and the threat he later faces from two menacing shirtless teens. And the fact that he is only defeated after Spike promises that they'll run away together on their motorcycle trip. But it doesn't congeal into anything, and what it does convey is not on the gay-positive end: Hoax is presented as undeveloped more than anything, which makes him grasp for manly encouragement from this satanic phone service and to draw his power from this false source, which straight Spike had the sense to drop fairly early on. Then he's pathetic enough to be tricked by the thought of running away with Spike, who drops him into the hell pit without much of a thought, considering this was a relative he has grown up with. So ultimately Hoax is presented as homo, and that is presented as pathetic and underdeveloped socially. Not all gay interest is positive gay interest.

You should also know that Stephen Geoffreys also starred in Fright Night and At Close Range, before becoming a gay porn star and performing as Sam Ritter, whose work includes such evocative titles as Virtual Stud, Hunk Hotel, Latin Crotch Rockets, Butt Blazer and Leather Intrusion 4: Down to the Wire. Below you will see a comparison of his two film identities. Oooookay, then.

I can't say it's not worth watching, because the first half is fun and it does sustain a genial teen horror vibe, but eventually you start to want it to come together and that's precisely when it's falling apart. And when it's over you start to wonder if there wasn't something more productive you could have done with your time. And then you think: "Nah."

Should you watch it: 

If you like lame-but-fun 80s horror and homo undercurrent. Although there really is no reason in the world you can't miss it.

Comments

Just watched this the other day.

Brian Hegeland also wrote the early 90's cult horror flick "Highway To Hell", which stars a post-'Deadly Friend' pre-'Buffy' Kristy Swanson, Rob Lowe's less famous brother, and Patrick Bergin, coming to my attention due to my post-'Mountains Of The Moon' crush, so it may be relevant to your interests. Bonus weirdness: the writer is not the only academy award winner, as Richard Farnsworth is on hand as the "You kids better turn around if you know what's good for you" cliché.

There's a lot of interesting ideas in it that aren't fully-explored, so the rushed execution strikes me as a missed opportunity. Still, any movie with Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler can't be all bad.

Hahahaa, yes, it's hard not to have a crush on Bergin after Mountains of the Moon [as I did as well], but... he's pretty disappointing in everything else. Too bad.

I'll look out for Highway to Hell, thanks.

He's disappointing in 'Highway' too. My crush began and ended with MOTM.