Saturday, July 22, 2017
DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE (1980)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
I confess that my only interest in reviewing DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE-- the only film produced by writer-director Robert Hammer-- lay in deciding whether or not it was an uncanny horror-film, given that it focuses on a serial killer preying on women in Los Angeles. My verdict is that it is not a horror film at all, but a thriller with horrific elements, more or less in the vein of NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY.
PHONE became a minor cult-film thanks to the vibrant performance of Nicholas Worth as the killer, Vietnam vet and pornographic photographer Kirk Smith. The "phone" angle implied by the title actually involves little of the story. When Smith begins his crime spree, strangling women while roaming the streets of L.A., he begins calling a talk-show hosted by a female psychologist, Doctor Gale. Even by 1980 I would say this motif-- that of the psycho who announces his crimes to a talk-show host-- was pretty common, as was the trope that the host is usually female, and is ultimately the psycho's ultimate target. It's as if the madman has to work himself up through the ranks of "common women" before he aspires to slay an upper-class female, who also happens to be his "mother confessor." Hammer's script doesn't really do much with the cat-and-mouse relationship of Smith and Gale, though. The writer-director's main concern seems to be with detailing the seamy world in which Smith dwells, which Hammer managed to capture via "guerilla filmmaking"-- i.e., filming sites in L.A. without express permission.
The character of Smith is probably influenced by that of Travis Bickle in Scorcese's 1976 TAXI DRIVER. Both Hammer and Scorcese seek to give the viewer an anatomy of a disaffected loner, though Hammer is usually content to do no more than allude to the culture that made Smith, as opposed to analyzing its sociological content. Nor does Hammer draw upon the "slasher-film" conventions that were being formulated in this period. Smith wears a stocking-mask during a couple of his murders, but there's nothing uncanny about the killer or his methods. There's a lot of violence and hard language during the slayings, and the psycho dies in a bloody fashion, but it's all very six-o'-clock-news.
There's one odd moment in the film, when the cops pursuing the stalker have to interview a psychic who claims he can help find the psycho. The psychic does seem to know things that he should not know, but he only exists for comedy relief, in that the cops arrest him on suspicion. There's no firm evidence that the psychic has faked his feats, but given that this possibility is left open by the script, this part of the film conforms to the naturalistic trope of "phantasmal figurations," The character's a little like "the robe of Christ" as it's presented in DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, which addresses the question "does the robe have special powers" with more of a "probably not" than was the case in THE ROBE.