10/15/2017 – Horror Titles: 976-EVIL (1988)
Directed by Robert Englund
As I was thinking about a topic for 976-EVIL, two things sprung immediately to mind and incidentally were the two reasons I chose to even watch this movie. One of those is the director. Robert Englund was a classically trained actor who was considered for Star Wars, got Mark Hamill to audition for Star Wars, and had his first break in 1983 with the miniseries V. He later appeared in both the lackluster sequel and was a regular on the series itself.
But that’s not what you know in for. A year after the original V, he played the villain for acclaimed horror director Wes Craven who was coming off the DC comics adaptation Swamp Thing. That movie, A Nightmare on Elm Street would define both their careers and Englund’s role of Freddy Krueger became a horror icon and for good reason. He was menacing and especially starting with the third movie, funny as hell. The series saw diminishing returns (that first sequel not counting since it is rushed, scarcely connected garbage) but Englund basically singlehandedly kept them entertaining throughout even when he got saddled with sharing the screen with his lesser slasher counterpart Jason Vorhees. Englund never was able to escape that association and for the most part has been relegated to fairly low budget horror movies trading on his name (Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon probably being the highlight) and some animated roles. He deserved a far better career than what he got but he sure had one heck of a role. 976-EVIL is his debut directing work but aside from two episodes of Freddy’s Nightmares and the largely ignored (aside from association with his name) and two decades later made Killer Pad, this would only prove to be a diversion for him.
What I wanted to talk about most though was the other reason I watch this. Just look at that title. 976-EVIL is a profoundly silly title standing on its own and while it hasn’t aged well (the telephone code 976 falling out of favor after the 80s in favor of 900) it can’t help but make me giggle. Low budget take whatever they can get to get you into the theater but no genre has come close to the level horror has reached. Horror is more than happy to try to get you in with creative posters, controversies both real and imagined, all those bizarre William Castle gimmicks, lots of gore and nudity, attaching themselves to barely if at all connected films, and of course crazy titling.
My love of horror allows me to watch a lot of crap and I can safely say that I have watched films entirely for their title. Sometimes it’s because of a really nifty title and other times because it is such a horrible one, but really the lines between those two blur quick. I mean how do you rate things like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, I Walked with a Zombie, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (or anything AIP did), Chopping Mall, Killdozer, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, or any one of hundreds of other crazy titles. It’s not even a practice that has died either as this millennium has seen both film titles that I’m pretty sure are done without irony such as Cry_Wolf, Feardotcom and #Horror and films that are almost certainly the spiritual successors of those grindhouse titling in how shameless they are Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, Sharknado (okay, really everything Asylum touches), Evil Bong, Snakes on a Plane, or in fact Killer Pad.
The only real comparison I can make is to band names and the delight in just knowing they exist is real. Sure few of those live up to their title and they generally suck (and rarely in a fun way) but I like that they keep the genre from taking itself too serious. It’s a hard balance between wanting people to take a genre seriously when a large portion of the time it doesn’t take itself serious. Horror is the punk of film genres and sadly it means that the great performances, effects, and directing often get overlooked as a result. I’ll take being critically overlooked (sure they can get good reviews but just scan year end top 10 lists for horror) and being the underdog over horror becoming a pretentious genre though.
I don’t think anyone is going to 976-EVIL pretentious, especially as it opens with a man answering a pay phone and exploding into flames. The full line of the title is 666-976-EVIL because of course it is and it masquerades as a horoscope line spewing fortune cookie bullshit. But this is no novelty phone, it’s a phone SPOILERS straight to hell (kinda). END OF SPOILERS The center of the story focuses on a family of three. The mom has some downright ridiculous wigs and raises her very grown and dorky teenage son (named Hoax for some reason) like he is a little kid and yells practically all her lines like she an Evangelist minister (which she probably thinks she is). Her nephew who goes to school with her son has mullet which he keeps it in a ponytail to show just how much of a rebel he is. There is some ridiculous 80s hairstyle all around especially with Spike’s (now that’s a perfect 80s rebel name) gang of delinquents who seem to have been cut from a Death Wish movie.
Spike calls the hotline a couple times (raining fish after one time) but after refusing to follow even after some vague threats, I guess SPOILERS the devil END OF SPOILERS mostly forgets about him. I think the film wants us to think it’s because he’s secretly good inside but I think the more likely explanation is that it is really lame and only a complete dweeb for actually doing what it told you. Speaking of, the dorky kid calls too and starts to follow the advice on the calls, quickly working his way up to SPOILERS performing a Satanic ritual in order to scare his cousin’s girlfriend but it succeeds only in killing her when he cuts the ceremony short (or maybe that was the intent, it’s a bit unclear on timing).
This escalates to growing claws to slice a bully with and defend himself, with the claws get more and more pronounced as the movie continues. What he starts to turn into is really a Freddy Krueger knockoff one-liner machine but most of them are really uninspired and lack Englund’s ability to deliver even the worst lines. He even gets a sort of messed up face to go with it. The kid receives “The Power” which is delivered in the form of an 80s music video glowing effect and makes his hair gets a bit stringy and starts growing out, claws sprouting from his feet too, and pointy ears. END OF SPOILERS I will give the film credit for the line “Would it be possible to enter the game with a pair of hearts” with a very obvious sight gag which was prime cheese. Following it up closely with “That’s the Dead Man’s Hand” got a mild chuckle too but that’s about it.
We get a pointless sideplot featuring a PI who starts to pursue the line but it’s completely extraneous and seems to exist purely to introduce Robert Picardo (of Star Trek: Voyager and China Beach) as the owner of a bunch of 976 numbers including the title one. He claims to have deactivated the line and it appears to just be hooked up to a simple recording device SPOILERS but cmon, you all know the twist here. He’s basically the devil as the ending drives home lamely and by an early incident of a woman burning one of those cards with the number on it before receiving a call telling her she made a deal (oh and the minor point that is ends with someone getting drawn straight down into hell). The whole final set piece where the house freezes for seemingly no reason seems merely to up a punchline that took at least 10 minutes too long to happen. END OF SPOILERS
It’s got all the 80s stuff you suspect with lots of cheesy musical stings, some blood, laughable styles, lame dialogue, etc. It’s exactly what you’d expect out of a bad horror movie from the devil. The kills all suck SPOILERS though when he backhands his mom to death it definitely reminded me of a pimp slap. END OF SPOILERS I could blame the actors for not rising above the material since it feels like the film cast a bunch of supporting characters and forgot to make a compelling lead or villain (the design of the villain is especially poor) but I think this is a purely writing thing. It’s like Englund wanted to direct so a studio gave him a script which really wanted to be the next Nightmare on Elm Street thinking it would be a perfect match. Instead it’s just a comedy-horror which commits the cardinal sin of being neither.
Next up: Inspired by another request from the damn fine DoU, I take a look at Eden Lake and those damn meddlesome youts who keep walking on our grass, skateboarding on the sidewalks, and terrorizing us normals.