976-EVIL (1989) 976-EVIL (1989) *

     It’s been a long time since I’ve had occasion to watch late-night broadcast television— do they even have 976 numbers anymore? I assume the phone sex industry is still going strong (in fact, I know a girl who used to work as an operator for one such enterprise), but I have a hard time imagining how the 976 prefix specifically could have survived the transition to nearly universal ten-digit dialing. In the late 80’s, though, most companies dedicated to parting you from your money at extortionate telephone billing rates used those three digits as their calling card. Nor was it just phone sex in those days. While middle-aged housewives posing as teenaged nymphets and talking dirty to lonely, horny men were naturally the primary business model, other 976 numbers offered astrological readings, live consultations with supposed psychics, and the occasional oddball service like 976-DEAD’s bizarre promise to put you in touch with actual flesh-eating zombies. There were a couple of other horror-themed phone lines, too, and I rather suspect that 976-EVIL owes its existence to screenwriters Rhet Topham and Brian Helgeland seeing a commercial for one of them, and having approximately the same “What the fuck?!” reaction as I did. I mean, just what would the Powers of Ultimate Darkness have to say to you that might be worth two dollars for the first minute, 95 cents each additional minute? Unfortunately, it turns out Topham and Helgeland have nothing to say to us that was worth $6.50 at the box office in 1989, or even $3.15 for a present-day rental fee.

     We start off with a guy running all over town in the dead of night, fleeing from insistently ringing telephones. Yeah, it’s about as scary as that sounds. Eventually, the man finds himself in a blind alley with a pay phone booth at the far end. Naturally, the phone starts ringing the instant he lays eyes on it, only this time we notice that the ring tone has been electronically filtered and distorted— either that, or they’ve hired Mercedes McCambridge to dub the ring tone’s dialogue. The man reluctantly picks up the handset, and the phone booth explodes into a gigantic ball of hellfire. Believe it or not, that’s far from being the dumbest thing that will happen between one set of credits and the other.

     Elsewhere, Leonard Wilmouth (Patrick O’Bryan, from Relentless and the 80’s TV remake of I Saw What You Did)— known to his friends as Spike— is playing poker with Marcus (J. J. Cohen), Jeff (Darren E. Burrows, from Natural Selection and Class of 1999), Rags (Jim Thiebaud), and Airhead (Gunther Jensen) in the projection room of the movie theater where Marcus apparently works. Spike is tapped out, but he can’t resist the temptation to play one more hand; Marcus (who is winning big-time) talks him into anteing up with the title to his restored 1948 Harley Davidson. Marcus wins this hand, too, and tells Spike to bring the papers for the bike with him to school tomorrow. Spike says he’ll do so only in the event that he is unable to come up with the equivalent sum in cash by then. (And with this, we ascertain that nobody involved in 976-EVIL’s creation has the faintest clue what the going rate for a restored vintage motorcycle might be.)

     Now it just so happens that Spike is, in a sense, a pretty well-off young man. His late mother left him a respectable amount of money in her will, but the funds are held in trust by his shallowly albeit noisily religious Aunt Lucy (Sandy Dennis, of God Told Me To and Parents), who openly regards Spike’s inheritance as hers to spend until he turns 21. The obvious solution to the boy’s present debt problem would be to swing by his aunt’s house and raid the necessary sum from his bequest (which Lucy keeps hidden in one of the kitchen cabinets, of all places), but Spike doesn’t initially think of that. Instead, it crosses his mind only after he calls the 976 number on an advertising insert that falls out of the magazine he sat down to read after returning home to the apartment he has apparently converted from his aunt’s garage. The ad insert offers “horrorscopes” from the King of All Darkness; I confess that I can’t see the appeal in such a service, nor can I see any reason why Spike would not merely call it, but also take its cryptic advice to heart as an exhortation to dip into his inheritance money. Regardless, that is exactly what he does. Aunt Lucy catches him in the act, however, but the ensuing confrontation is cut short when fish begin raining from the sky. Apparently we’re supposed to take it for a miracle just like Lucy does, and accept it uncritically when she’s too distracted by the falling fish to continue scolding her nephew. We’ll hear a great deal about the curious incident throughout the next hour or so, but it never amounts to anything beyond one of 976-EVIL’s more glaring loose ends.

     Marcus is not happy to see Spike handing him a wad of cash instead of the deed to an antique Harley when the latter boy catches up to the former in the bathroom at school the next morning. Spike, for his part, is not happy to see Jeff and Rags roughing up Lucy’s socially retarded son, Hoax (Fright Night’s Stephen Geoffreys, seen here on the very eve of his transformation into gay porn star Sam Ritter), when he goes to hand over the money. Spike pummels all three of Marcus’s cretinous cronies (Airhead foolishly intervenes in his friends’ defense), and drags Hoax to safety. It now becomes plainly apparent that Hoax idolizes his older, worldlier cousin, and would make himself over in Spike’s image if only Lucy would let him and if only he knew how. This desire for emulation extends even to Spike’s girlfriend, Suzie (Lezlie Deane, of Girlfriend from Hell and Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare), on whom Hoax has an enormous crush. Spike seems to think it’s more or less harmless when his cousin does things like spying on him and Suzie having sex (Hoax’s bedroom window lines up nicely with that of Spike’s garage apartment, and his telescope enables him to observe every sweaty detail), but that seems rather overly optimistic to me.

     Meanwhile, a private detective named Marty Palmer (Jim Metzler, from Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat) comes to town, posing as a reporter for Modern Miracle magazine— or maybe a Modern Miracle reporter named Marty Palmer comes to town posing as a private detective. Since neither of the pretexts Palmer offers makes any sense in light of his actual behavior, and since nothing he does has any impact on the story anyway, it’s sort of hard to say what his deal really is. In any event, his first stop is Lucy’s house, where he apparently interviews her on the subject of last night’s rain of fish. Then he goes looking for Spike, with whom he catches up just in time to save him from the consequences of disregarding a piece of advice from 976-EVIL. Spike, you see, has been tempted by a pair of leather gloves he can’t quite afford. He calls the number from a phone booth across the street from the shop in which he found them, and— gee, go figure— the operator at 976-EVIL recommends that he steal the gloves. Spike has known the proprietor for many years, though, and while they aren’t exactly friends, they certainly do have a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Spike overcomes his temptation, and almost immediately thereafter is nearly run over by a Camaro with windows so heavily tinted as to be almost opaque. (Like so much else in 976-EVIL, the demonic Camaro is a one-shot plot device that never goes anywhere.) Palmer sees the car coming, and manages to push the boy to safety at the last possible second. That doesn’t mean Spike wants to talk about fish falling from the sky, however. He’s late enough for his date with Suzie as it is.

     It’s going to be a very bad night for Suzie, as it happens. Spike, like I said, is way late in meeting her, and whatever the two of them had planned gets sidetracked when they drive by Marcus’s movie theater, and Spike gets a lucky feeling. He leaves the girl outside to wait while he goes up to the projection room to reclaim from Marcus and his boys every penny they’ve ever won from him in their periodic poker games. And of substantially greater importance, Hoax back home goes snooping around in his cousin’s room and finds both the 976-EVIL ad and the pair of panties Suzie left behind the last time she came over. Hoax, too, unaccountably calls the number, and is told that he’ll meet the “girl of his dreams” if he goes to the movies tonight. Pocketing both the ad and the underwear, Hoax heads out to the theater, where he naturally encounters an extremely pissed-off Suzie out in front of the box office. Suzie decides to ditch Spike, and go get some pizza with Hoax instead. The two kids have a great time, but things turn sour when Marcus, Airhead, Rags, and Jeff put in an appearance at the pizzeria. They’re all in an exceedingly foul mood after the fleecing Spike just gave them, and they take it out on Hoax. Worse still, one of the bullies finds Suzie’s underpants in their victim’s back pocket, leading Suzie herself to reevaluate her perception of the boy. Hoax places another call to 976-EVIL once he finally drags himself home, and this time the operator fills him in on how to place a deadly curse on Suzie. Intoxicated with this first taste of power, Hoax happily hands over his soul in exchange for more of it, eventually transforming into an extremely unimpressive wise-cracking demon— picture the vampire version of Fright Night’s Evil Ed, crossbred with the latter-day Freddy Krueger. Of course, since they’ve already killed off our only sympathetic character, Topham and Helgeland must resort to introducing a new damsel in distress in the form of high school guidance counselor Angela Martinez (Maria Rubell). Angela inexplicably becomes involved in Marty Palmer’s increasingly unfocused investigation, giving Palmer some vague excuse to be present for the finale, when Hoax abducts her after Voorheesing his way through Marcus and his gang at school.

     You know your script is sorely in need of tightening up when the subplot concerning your top-billed actor is so poorly thought out and so flimsily attached to the rest of the film that a fairly experienced reviewer can think of no way to mention it in a 1500-word synopsis without losing the through-line of the story. That top-billed actor is Robert Picardo (The Howling, Legend), and his character, Mark Dark, is the proprietor of 976-EVIL’s parent company. Palmer meets up with him when he leaves off looking into the falling fish to go sniffing after the Satanic horoscope line for no apparent reason, and he exists solely in order to serve as the centerpiece of one of the most purely ritualistic twist endings I’ve ever seen. Although he appears to be nothing more than a smarmy and not terribly successful businessman when Palmer comes by the office to question him, the final scene reveals Dark to be— you’ll never guess— the Devil! It’s tired, it’s hackneyed, it’s drearily obvious, and worse than any of that, it doesn’t even affect anything. Not a single one of the characters ever figures out Dark’s secret identity, nor does it make any difference in terms of the main plot who or what Mark Dark, specifically, is. He could be the Devil, a devil-worshipper, or the Devil’s unwitting dupe, and it wouldn’t change the outcome of the Wilmouth boys’ story in the slightest. Either way, 976-EVIL is an automated soul-harvesting operation for hell, and either way, none of the protagonists see fit to try to do anything about it once the immediate problem of Hoax’s demonic possession has been addressed. Maybe I’m just a stuffy old grouch, but I really do think that a movie’s main villain ought to have something to do beyond showing up in the final scene to set up an undeserved sequel in which he isn’t even going to appear anyway.

     Of course, both Topham and Helgeland were novice screenwriters in 1989, their only previous credits being for Trick or Treat and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, respectively— both of them films with more loose ends than a fringed buckskin jacket. We probably shouldn’t have expected all that much of them anyway. And while I rather doubt it, I suppose it’s possible that a capable, experienced director might have managed to salvage something from their unfinished doodle of a script. Unfortunately, 976-EVIL’s director had even less experience than its writers did. This was Robert Englund’s first stab at directing a feature film, and it was justly also his last until 2007. Englund displays no recognizable style in 976-EVIL, and with a story so devoid of substance, style was the only chance this movie had. Instead, though, it looks and feels approximately like an unusually well-funded episode of the contemporary “Freddy’s Nightmares” TV series (for which Englund also directed a couple of times), enhanced, if you want to call it that, with some extra gore and a quick flash of Lezlie Deane’s breasts. That isn’t anywhere near enhancement enough, I’m afraid.



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