Every Thursday throughout 2014, we’ll be looking at a film from 1989 that wouldn’t otherwise get a grand 25th Anniversary Celebration. These films may be overlooked, obscure, or downright invisible, and while only a few are undiscovered would-be classics, together they form a look at the psychotronic cinema landscape of a quarter-century ago.
It may be tough for you young folk of today to imagine, what with your smart phones and your twerking and your easily accessible pornography, but in the late ‘80s, toll phone numbers were huge. You couldn’t watch television for more than twenty minutes (especially after 10 P.M.) without being sold a variety of different phone numbers that would grant you sexy chat, psychic advice, video game tips or stories from Coreys for the low, low price of two bucks a minute. Heck, even the purveyors of genre flicks got into the act, as we saw in our list of Psychotronic 1-900 Ads.
And where there was a trend, especially a potentially lurid one, there would be movies cashing in on said trend. As the popularity of the 900 numbers rose, so rose a variety of thrillers centered around lurid hotlines, like CALL ME, PARTY LINE, 976-EVIL, THE PHONE CALL and Michael Schroeder’s OUT OF THE DARK. The latter has received a bit of a boost out of obscurity recently thanks to a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse (via Bleeding Skull’s Joseph Ziemba) a couple of weeks ago, and it’s not tough to figure out why – it’s certainly one of the more interesting flicks of the era, one that almost feels like an American Giallo film with one of the strangest casts ever assembled for an “erotic thriller.”
The ladies of “Suite Nothings” charge $2 for a recording of sultry ramblings, but talking to a live girl is a bit pricier – granted, you get a much better selection of voices. There’s blonde actress Kristi (Lynn Danielson), the seductive brunette Barbara (the late Karen Mayo-Chandler, whose appearances in this, 976-EVIL 2 and PARTY LINE make for a frightening phone bill triple feature), new girl Camille (‘90s horror regular Starr Andreeff, whose wide-eyed charms graced the likes of SYNGENOR, THE TERROR WITHIN, GHOULIES II and DANCE OF THE DAMNED) and the sporty Jo Ann (Karen Witter, previously seen in this series causing issues to Lynn Redgrave in MIDNIGHT). (There’s also the token black character, Vanessa, played by Angela Robinson, but she’s not given much to do.) They’re all under the charge of Ruth, a Jolt soda-drinking master of ‘bation played beautifully by Karen Black.
The group gets along well and they’ve all got a fine sense of humor about their clients and the seemingly absurd work they do, but the peaceful workplace environment comes to a screeching halt when Jo Ann turns up dead. A pair of detectives in the form of the snarky, dismissive Lt. Meyers (Tracey Walter) and the more realistic McDonald (Silvana Gallardo, best known to genre fans as DEATH WISH 2’s doomed Rosasio) investigate the case, as it’s distinct from a series of prostitute murders that also seem to be happening. As the body count increases, suspicion begins pointing to one of their regulars, a fellow who calls himself “Bobo,” and whom the audience knows has been offing the girls while dressed in a clown mask.
There are suspects and red herrings galore, with the prime focus being on an accountant on the same floor as the phone sex office, played by Bud Cort, and Ruth’s ex-husband/peeping tom and the former boss of Kristi’s boyfriend Kevin (Cameron Dye), played by Geoffrey Lewis. We also get Paul Bartel (also an executive producer) in a bizarre hairpiece, Lanie Kazan as a prostitute, Divine (!) out of drag as a fellow police detective and Tab Hunter in an incredibly brief role as the driver of a car. (Sadly for fans of LUST IN THE DUST, on which Schroeder served as an assistant director, none of them share any scenes together. Schroeder’s previous film MORTUARY ACADEMY, also with Bartel, appears on a theater marquee.)
Much of the first two-thirds of the film are surprisingly well-lensed, with Schroeder taking a very artistic approach to the look of the film while still maintaining a sense of humor that keeps things from getting too dark. Making excellent use of colors, shadows and close-ups, the film feels influenced by the previous decade’s giallo titles, especially with photographer Kevin shooting the girls in his studio. It could easily have been a BLOOD AND BLACK LACE for the ‘80s. Even more notably, despite the sex-based occupation, OUT OF THE DARK is a fairly chaste film, and while there’s a fair share of nudity on display, the solitary sex scene is shot with great regard for look over mindless flesh, as the intertwined bodies are nicely shadowed by the patterns on the curtains.
OUT OF THE DARK even has a compellingly giallo-esque killer in the form of Bobo, or at least it would If he would just shut the hell up. Creepy clowns are basically a “free space” on the Bingo card of horror monsters, one that will never get old, and during most of the stalking sequences, the eerie visage of Bobo is scary as hell, with Schroeder and cinematographer Julio Macat (who jumped from this to the big-budget likes of HOME ALONE and ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE) making great use of the shadows that may have been lost on the cropped VHS transfer. The problem is that, in the age of Freddy Krueger, the killer had to be witty, so after the murders, he says things like “No, YOU’RE OUT!” after hitting them with a baseball bat. It’s… pretty dumb, and it moves Bobo from being a frightening, mysterious figure to being a juvenile hooligan with a psychotic streak.
The film falters a bit more in the final reels, as the focus leaves the phone sex company and moves to Kristi and Kevin, who leave out of fear and because Kevin is one of the lead suspects in the case. There are still nice moments, like the tongue-in-cheek cameos and a particularly nonchalant widow, but the phone sex office and employees make for such an interesting and well-crafted bunch that you wish the film had just stayed with them rather than being distracted by following a sub-plot, as necessary as that sub-plot turns out to be.
“You have to think of this as an adventure in sleaze,” one character states, and that’s a good way to approach OUT OF THE DARK. For the most part a well-crafted thriller with some deftly comic touches, a great batch of notable performers and sleazy moments like the slow shifting of a hunting knife across a hairy male torso as the killer coos “nobody can handle nipples like Bobo,” OUT OF THE DARK honestly feels like one of the more Italian-influenced “erotic thrillers” of the era, and even if it stumbles a bit in some of the execution, it’s still a unique footnote in a genre that only occasionally branched out beyond the cliché.
Like 1-900 numbers themselves, OUT OF THE DARK fell off the cultural radar in the ‘90s, and where the sketchy underbelly of telecommunication services has been relegated to the back pages of alternative weeklies, DARK remained stuck in the deepest depths of the declining VHS inventory of video stores. Thankfully, Columbia has issued the film in a very nice widescreen format on DVD-R, and while there aren’t any extras to be seen (Hint, Scream Factory), you can finally see the film in the ratio it was meant to be seen, with Schroeder’s stylistic flourishes intact. The same can’t be said for the hotline where you can talk to Al Lewis about becoming a Junior Vampire, an experience you kids of today will never have, which is for the best as you’d just wonder why you’re not sparkling or Instagramming or whatever. No buy it and get the hell off of my lawn!
Previously on the 25th Anniversary Project:
Rebecca De Mornay and Paul McGann in DEALERS
Richard A. Haines’ pulpy sci-fi flick ALIEN SPACE AVENGER
Paul Bartel’s all-star sex farce SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS
Robert Forster takes on a crossbow-wielding prostitute hunter in THE BANKER
Paul Benedict peers through things in THE CHAIR
Lynn Redgrave tries on some amazing outfits at horror hostess MIDNIGHT
Shannon Tweed plays the Most Dangerous Game in LETHAL WOMAN
A lady cop takes her revenge in David DeCoteau’s AMERICAN RAMPAGE
A cyberpunk-influenced piece of lo-fi sci-fi in Chris Shaw’s SPLIT
Linda Blair teaches you HOW TO GET REVENGE
Paul L. Smith, David Carradine and Brad Dourif star in the wild SONNY BOY
Paul L. Smith, Frank Stallone, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasance and Brenda Vaccaro get tents in TEN LITTLE INDIANS
Joe Estevez deals with a mad mommy in MURDER IN LAW
Zoe Lund helps an Oklahoma boy in the big city in the arty EXQUISITE CORPSES
James Hong and Arte Johnson in the zany tax accountant comedy TAX SEASON
Suburbanites fend off against Chicago gangs in CHAINS
Ned Beatty helps out some time travelers with some very odd sexual tastes in the Corman-produced TIME TRACKERS
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