The apocalypse is imminent…
We’ll all be living in bunkers any day now. All that will be left to watch is whatever media has been made available to the world before the moment of the blast. There are tens of thousands of movies that never saw life beyond VHS and thus we will all have to scour the rubble for VCR’s. These precious artifacts will be protected religiously as they will be the only way to witness the remnants of our former society. In preparation for the dark days ahead, Brian and Josh are going to meet once a month and watch a triple feature of films that are not available on disc in the United States. The end is nigh……Videogeddon is upon us!!!
Brian: A madman is stalking the switchboards of Toronto, sending a lightning-strength jolt of terror straight into the ears of unsuspecting victims. Taking up the case is environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) who, as it always goes in these types of films, is met with resistance from the police when he tries to explain that the the first victim, a woman killed via payphone on a subway platform, probably didn’t die of a heart attack as reported. The professional crime investigators seem to think nothing of the fact that blood poured from each of her head holes prior to the cardiac event. So it’s really up to the randomly interested Captain Planet-lite Bridger to poke around the evil phone corporation looking for clues to what is quickly become a serial murder outbreak.
MURDER BY PHONE breaks up a moderately paced conspiracy thriller type plot with two things: wicked kills and biting sarcasm. One of the greatest pleasures of the film outside of watching people being blasted through windows and other various shatterable objects by their phones is watching every character be a dick to every other character in the film. Director Michael Anderson (LOGAN’S RUN, AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS) treats the material seriously which works to the film’s advantage. Nevermind that when the truth behind the killings is revealed it’s a bit of a odd letdown (the 5 individuals involved with the story and screenplay settle for the Occam’s razor route instead of providing a juicy, complex answer to the whodunnit mystery), there’s so much fun in each individual scene of MURDER BY PHONE that the sum matters little. I’d buy 22 VCRs a hundred times over just to be able to watch the last 10 seconds of MURDER BY PHONE repeatedly.
Josh: Horror movies have long revelled in the opportunity to use household objects as sources of terror. Over the years we’ve seen refrigerators, microwaves, various power tools, even beds turn against their owners in a frenzy of blood lust. Here we see the greatest of all threats in action…..the telephone. Seemingly random individuals are getting extra orifices added to their heads all over the place by merely answering an incoming call. Richard Chamberlain takes a break from moistening pantaloons in romantic Hollywood fare to chase down the mastermind behind this citizen-eradicating wave of telephonic cranium scorchery. As a college professor he is the only man for the job since he……well……let’s not worry about that.
The dial-a-death scenes are few and far between but MURDER BY PHONE holds you in its grip during all the intervening moments. The cinematography is quite excellent and the imposing compositions create tension even when nothing appears to be happening. The architecture of the downtown buildings and the fashions on the street call to mind the same Canadian cultural landscape depicted in the early Cronenberg films. The overall tone is not dissimilar to those works although the horror here comes from without whereas the venereal-terror maestro has always been more concerned with the horror within. The same sense of inexplicable dread is found here though, like a cold hand slowly gripping your throat. As intense as things might get there is also black comedy to be found in key scenes which serves to provide a much needed release from the oppressive, downbeat vibe that guides the majority of the piece. The cutting humor that emerges is actually a major strength but care is given to avoid overuse. It is also worth noting that this film is very critical of corporate corruption and the immoral agenda that governs big business. It’s message is clear: allowing a large corporation to have influence over you is inviting the devil into your home. Released by Warner Bros. Home Video.
Brian: This made-for-HBO gem starts with a disturbing pan across a murder scene: a mother and her two children brutally murdered (mid-birthday party!) and posed carefully. Absent from the scene, the husband/father, Ed Vincent, becomes the immediate suspect. Meanwhile and elsewhere, a horrible car accident claims the life of one man and horribly disfigures another. The surviving man’s face is rebuilt and, using charred credit cards and a driver’s license found in the wreckage, authorities deduce that he is Allen Devlin (Keith Carradine). He falls in love with his nurse, marries her (pissing off her boyfriend in the process), and begins a new life. However, the new balance is about to be upset by an anonymous tip that shows up on the desk of the now-retired lead investigator in the Vincent case, Detective Joe Steiner (Richard Widmark).
BLACKOUT is quite an effective thriller that carries a strong De Palma vibe well into act two. The mystery of the men in the car wonderfully sets up enough intrigue to carry the entire film. Add to that great performances from both Widmark as the obsessed detective come to shake things up to finally get his man and Carradine as a suave and gentle family man who constantly walks a line that both exonerates him from and implicates in him audiences’ suspicions. When the sub-plot of a series of violent rapes comes into play, things settle comfortably into a more exploitation-focused thrill ride and act three is full of twist, turns, and revelations that feel earned. On my completely non-standardized rating scale, I give BLACKOUT 4 black zipper-face S&M masks.
Josh: One of the most interesting aspects of this production is the way it serves as a time capsule for where HBO Original Programming was at this point in time. There is one curse word uttered and the subject matter itself is fairly grisly but the film still feels like it is made from the same mold as other TV movies for major networks. You get the sense that the creative team is figuring out the advantages of this new outlet in front of your eyes. The film is presented in the efficient, workmanlike manner of a prime-time movie special but ventures into territory far darker than one might expect from such a relaxed, low-key mode of delivery. It calls to mind the experience of watching subversive films made during wartime which are forced to bury larger ideas beneath the expected conventions of popular entertainment. The script of BLACKOUT is festering with sick ideas but they remain beneath the calm surface of a typical suspense yarn.
Veteran British director Douglas Hickox(SITTING TARGET, THEATER OF BLOOD) shows a sure hand throughout the piece and has the courage to open the film with the time-honoured and glorious tradition of child murder. The brutality of this act is followed by a car accident of equal destructive force before the film calms down to start introducing us to our characters. What follows is a solid exploration of identity and obsession set against the backdrop of a small, picturesque coastal town. The cast is genuinely impressive, comprised of man’s men like Keith Carradine, Michael Beck, and Richard Widmark. This is interesting casting in that they are all leading men at various points in their careers which makes their attempts at seizing screen-time from one another seem urgent and sincere. Kathleen Quinlan does her best to make something believable out of the lovestruck, trusting nurse who falls for Carradine but there is little for her to do besides act afraid and/or smitten. The plot resolves itself neatly enough but the lasting impact of the film stems from its unusually penetrating gaze at what makes human beings behave in inhuman ways.
Brian: As a follow up to the celebrated DEADLY PREY, David A. Prior’s MANKILLERS (aka 12 WILD WOMEN) is, unfortunately, a disappointment. The setup is there: a tough-as-Lee Press-On Nails female CIA agent named Rachel McKenna is tasked with assembling a team to take down Mickland, a renegade peer working with the drug cartels in Colombia and dealing in kidnapped women. In what could prove to be a mistake of ROBOCOP 2 (or, you know, THE DIRTY DOZEN, whatever) proportions she chooses prisoners (all female) for her mission. She trains them, though, and they take down the bad guys.
That certain spark of indefinable something that makes many of Prior’s efforts as fun as they are is missing here. It may have gotten lost in the hairdos of the women in this movie, each and every one is a single-handedly a perfect example of ‘80s coiffure excess. Aside from a few enjoyable scenes such as a torture session involving a chainsaw, the movie is pretty much as limp as the audience is. In a film celebrating both the beauty and power of the female species, there’s not a single shower montage to be found, nary a nip on display at any point. Shame, too, as something so simple as side-boob could have boosted this easily from 5 to 8 out of 12 wild women.
Josh: What will history make of the late 80’s hairstyles found among Californian women? Will the highly sculpted and voluminous helmets of hair be seen as a moment when women took charge of personal fashion in a bold new way? These are the thoughts that ran through my mind while watching MANKILLERS, the women-on-a-mission action assault from Action International Pictures honcho David A. Prior. The use of the word action as a descriptor for this film is a bit misleading as the heavily laquered manes of the actresses is by far the most exciting thing on screen. Men do in fact get killed as the title suggests but never with the sort of expected gusto that is usually a staple of these direct-to-video jungle jammers. There is no forward momentum to the story and the many shoot-outs are all lifeless non-starters. Exploitation films of this ilk can occasionally be transcendent but even at their least satisfying they usually manage to offer a certain amount of brutal confrontations and titillating sexual encounters. This film fails on both counts.
I was disappointed by the absence of breasts in this film in the same way a scuba diver would be disappointed by the absence of oxygen. Nudity could have kept me alive and breathing as a viewer but instead I was made to drown in a shallow pool of anti-masturbatory dialogue. I like my DIRTY DOZEN rip-offs to be a little bit dirtier and the chaste attitude at the core of MANKILLERS is as surprising as it is unwelcome. I’m not sure I would have watched this through to the end if had stumbled across it on a premium cable channel in my youth and that is possibly the most damning statement I can make about a movie like this. If there is anything to be learned here(and I suspect there is not) it is that big hair does not equal big entertainment.
BRIAN AND JOSH
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