Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980)

It’s a new B-Movie Enema and, this time, Don’t Answer the Phone!

By 1980, there was a weird feeling in the country.  The 70s were pretty tumultuous with the Vietnam War and President Nixon leading to many feeling they can’t trust the federal government.  The entire decade felt as though the counter culture was putting their stamp on the new Hollywood, but that was about to come crashing down.  Indie exploitation was about to be scrubbed away by the religiously-charged, great white hope of the Reagan era.

One of the things that would play out for the next 20-25 years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War would be the psychological damage of the vets that returned home.  Whether it was by way of dramatic films like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, or action films like the Rambo series, Vietnam vets played a huge part in many films.  But there was also a darker side to it as well…

Because of the psychological tumult many felt while fighting an unpopular war, how they were treated upon returning from service, and how it felt that even the government had not really supported them with proper care for the various physical and mental disabilities they returned with.  Plus, the vets were taking the blame for being drafted and going off to war where they may have committed acts that were difficult for the public to reconcile with.

All this was to say that servicemen and women from that era were not treated with the same respect that their fathers who went to World War II and those who went to war in the 2000s received.  They were a frustrated and angry group of men.  Therefore, they were kind of easy pickings for movies to use them in horror films as either the red herring or the actual killer.  If nothing else, they would generally be some sort of addled loon of the town or what have you.

That’s exactly what you have here.  Don’t Answer the Phone! uses the idea of a Vietnam vet who has become a crazed killer.  I think director and co-writer Robert Hammer wanted this to be a deep dive of various psychological breaks that will lead to a man becoming a stalking killer a la Michael Myers or what have you, but… Well…  The movie wasn’t received all that well at all.  Upon release, critics bashed it as a cheap sickie.  Naturally, it became a video nasty in the UK.  However, many films from the era usually get a re-evaluation and find new fans and a new appreciation.  Don’t Answer the Phone! did not.

In fact, it might have gotten even MORE negative reviews from the contemporary re-evaluation.  Well, lucky you, that’s why I’m here.  Let’s peel back the outer layer and take a look at the psycho-sexual thriller within!

Alright so right out of the gate, I feel like this is a perfect opportunity to give you a peak behind the scenes here at how the sausage is made at B-Movie Enema Industries.  I am writing this article on April 12, 2020.  That’s a date that generally wouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?  Well, in 2020, April 12th was Easter Sunday.

Perfect.

This is Kirk Smith.  He’s played by Nicholas Worth who was a character actor in the 70s and 80s, but also a bodybuilder and spent several years as in the army as a paratrooper.  He’s our crazy Vietnam vet who stalks women and kills them.  After he gets a little turned on over his usual ritual before going out and doing a murder, he has found a young, sexy nurse to stalk.  She comes home from work, and he’s already inside her apartment watching her.

After she answers the phone and talks to her mom, he punches her and lays her on the table.  There, he proceeds to strangle her.  He then busts open her bra and giggles at her breasts.  Come on, guy…  I know she doesn’t have the biggest of boobs, but they were pretty nice.  No sense laughing at them.  How would you like me laughing at your bald spot?

Anyway, the next day, the radio says the fifth rape and murder victim has been discovered and the police are issuing a warning that there may be a serial rapist on the loose and women should be careful.  We then meet Dr. Lindsay Gale.  She’s a radio show host who will talk someone through a temporary issue.  The first person who calls on her show this morning, is a mom who has a son who ties his toys around the neck with a chain and whips them against the wall.  He also used scissors to cut up his goldfish and threatens to do the same to his sister.  Yikes.

Smith calls into the show with a fake accent and a fake name – Ramone.  He called in the week before saying he has terrible headaches.  He says he’s feeling better because he found himself a nurse to date.  Dr. Gale doesn’t think he sounds all that better.  He hangs up on her.  Meanwhile, at the dead nurse’s apartment, the detectives are noting that the woman has a breast nearly bitten off and she’s been sexually penetrated in every orifice.

Based on the knot he uses on the stockings he uses to strangle the girls, the detective discern that it is a common Southeast Asian style of knot and they must be looking for a vet.

For the most part, we are seeing three sides of this story intercutting between each other.  First, we have Kirk Smith who is doing his normal every day trying to pick up victims by either trying to convince them he is a photographer looking for new models or just grabbing them off the street.  Next, we have the cops who want to nail this asshole sicko for the rape and murder of the women.  Finally, we have Dr. Gale who isn’t yet aware that she has been talking to the killer on her radio show.  We also see she is kind and seems to really get to her patients’ problems and are able to help them.

The circles are going to start overlapping as a woman leaves the free clinic where Dr. Gale councils people only to be followed by Smith.  While he looks for a way into her house, she decides to rub her boobs.   While one of the weirdo cops who liked taking pictures of the nurse’s mutilated tits says the ladies of Los Angeles will be safe for the next three, four days, Smith breaks into Gale’s patient’s house.  She begs for him not to hurt her, so he talks to her about how daddy is here to protect her and everything is going to be okay while he ties her up.  He ends up torturing the poor girl to death.

Here’s the the thing about this movie.  It’s a difficult watch in these first 20 minutes or so.  I’m actually relatively conflicted about the movie.  Horror is one thing, right?  When you see a girl running away from a masked killer with her tits all the way out for, really, no reason at all, it’s so over the top that you almost laugh at it.  You might have some kills happen while a girl is in various states of undress.  Sure.  This is all tantalizing and what have you.  The sexual excitement and then the start of a scary thing happening releases lots of chemicals in your brain and it’s a little thrilling.

Here, though…  Something else is being released.  We’re seeing girls get tortured and we learn they are being raped in basically every hole.  They are crying, pleading, they have issues of their own.  The killer is troubled too.  It’s a little too real.  This is almost pornographic in how the nudity is revealed, and it just feels icky.  This isn’t tantalizing, it’s gross.  I can believe why this movie is still looked down on to this day.  It’s a little too gritty.  Plus, you have jokey cops that seem to tilt the mood and tone too much.  It’s a jarring experience to watch this movie.

The police psychologist says that the killer likely has a confused sense of reality and seems to also have some deep religious connections.  He seems to carry out rituals and does things in almost an obsessive compulsive way.  His brutality toward women in particular points to what he thinks is indication of him having a dominant female presence in his upbringing.

But again, the tone is ruined when our supposed hero, Lt. McCabe, walks up and tells the scientist, “Look, dork, we don’t have time for this mumbo jumbo bullshit.  Beat cheeks.”  I mean he didn’t say it just like that, but here’s the police forensic psychologist giving the cops what they need to catch the killer and the hero disregards it like it is nonsense and throws the guy out of the meeting.  We then get more time with McCabe telling guys what they should do as cops to try to get all the names of the girls, study stuff about the victims, where, etc. than we got with the psychologist telling them EXACTLY what they need to know and be aware of in terms of the killer’s M.O. and thought process.  This movie is bad.

McCabe goes to Dr. Gale and antagonizes her to give him her files.  Again, he bitches out a licensed professional over what he thinks is preventing justice from being served when these pencil dick shrinks want to try to solve mental issues of those who commit crimes.  McCabe is intensely unlikable.

That night, Smith picks up a hitchhiker from Indiana who has been living in Los Angeles for a very short time.  He tells her he’s a photographer and she goes back to his place with him.  This girl, Sue Ellen, is played by Pamela Jean Bryant.  She was a Playmate in the late 70s, and eventually ended up in the movie Road to Revenge, which is also known as Get Even.  She was born in Indianapolis, but sadly died from an asthma attack at the age of 51.

Sue Ellen poses for Smith and he ends up killing her and dumping her body.  We actually don’t see this beyond him overpowering her while she’s cuffed for what he says is a part of the photo shoot that is like she captive and being transported to the prison.  He reveals his little religious altar and she’s no longer all that interested in posing to become a famous model.  That’s when he knocks her out and does his thing.

You wanna know some fuck about this movie?  McCabe is all for bashing psychologists and shrinks who understand the thought processes of killers.  You know, something that will be REALLY helpful in knowing where he’ll strike and how?  Anyway, balls to those guys.  They instead bring in a fucking psychic to try to conjure up something about how the killer thinks and where he might strike next and how.

“I’m sensing a strong amount of bullfuck in this movie.”

Now…  This works.  This actually fucking works.  But, the joke’s on all of us…  McCabe has his partner arrest him because “he knows too much.”  What the fucking fuck poop?  They bring him in so they can use him because the police captain’s wife uses this guy and McCabe, this prick, has him busted?  When the arrest is thrown out for sheer incompetence, McCabe and his partner just laugh it off.  They should be fucking fired.

Meanwhile, Smith is selling pictures he’s taken to a fatso grosso prono guy.  On his way back to his car, he sees a dealer and buys some pretty heavy shit from him.  He picks up a hooker, gets her high, and has sex with her.  He asks her to call Dr. Gale’s show.  While she’s on the air, he strangles her so Gale can hear it.  The girl’s pimp comes up to her room thinking something is off about the guy she went with.  Smith quickly messes him up and knocks him out before leaving.

Dr. Gale goes to speak with McCabe to tell him about Smith calling him.  Again, he antagonizes her by sarcastically quipping to his partner that they will soon have everything they need to catch the killer because she’s such a good shrink.  She tells him to either shut the fuck up or listen to what she has.  She then gives them to recorded calls from Ramone and the hooker.  She explains that if he is really having the headaches like he says, it’s likely due to scar tissue on the brain.  This can potentially be triggered to cause the person to commit violent acts.  McCabe stations a couple uniformed cops at her clinic as well as the radio station.

McCabe and his partner, Hatcher, go looking for the hooker’s pimp thinking that he might have been a witness since there was a third sample of DNA on the scene.  They go on the streets asking to find the guy, and they ask someone who has the most glorious Afro I’ve ever seen…

I mean look at that thing!  What’s more, it’s also attached to an awesome beard as well!  If I die, I want to be reborn as that guy from the late 70s.  That thing looks like the guy is where a shag-carpeted box on his head.  This movie is a pill to swallow, but holy damn, that split second the guy was on screen is one of the greatest split seconds of any movie ever.

The pimp is at a whorehouse selling cocaine to a guy and when the girl at the front desk tells them the cops are there, it creates utter chaos.  This turns into some sort of goofy sitcom thing.  Like the people who pour out of the rooms are all dressed in silly costumes and stuff.  Like I almost expect to hear a song from The Monkees play while everyone runs away.  Just speed up the film and drop a song in and you’ve got something I actually would like more than that guy’s Afro.

Because of how insane everything went, McCabe and Hatcher are forced to kill the pimp when he fires at them.

I’ll say this for the second act of this movie…  The first act was icky and gross and McCabe is a total prick to our leading lady Dr. Gale.  However, this second act is mostly spinning its wheels to get to a 90 minute runtime.  It’s a lot of Nicholas Worth who plays Kirk Smith doing lots of monologues and stuff to show just how nuts he is.  It makes the movie a little more interesting than it started.  It goes away from the viciousness of the rape scenes and cuts away like better movies would.  The scene at the whorehouse is funny and almost acceptable because the second act is more engaging.

It’s still weird and a lot of horse dick, but it comes during a better portion of the film, so I’ll allow it.

After McCabe has a save-the-cat moment and helps bring a girl off a ledge of a building with Dr. Gale, they go on a date and have a romance because… sure.  The next morning, Smith goes to a girl’s house to shoot a photo session with her.  She looks through his portfolio and is disgusted by the sexual photos he has.  So he attacks her.  She screams and tries to fight him off but he’s interrupted first by the girl’s roommate, and then by the landlady.  He leaves, but doesn’t grab his portfolio.

McCabe and Hatcher go to see the fatso grosso porno man who gives them the name Kirk Smith.  The grosso gives them Smith’s address which was written on the back of one of his photos.  They go to Smith’s house, but he isn’t home.  In fact, it’s not even his place.  They don’t even think it is a photography studio.  When the real owner of the place comes back, they learn he’s a toy salesman.  McCabe and Hatcher realize they are at the wrong place.  Smith’s studio is the next one over.

Smith, though, is at Dr. Gale’s place watching her as she gets ready for a night in.  Soon, it becomes apparent to her that she’s not alone.  Smith attacks her and ties her to a chair.  She tries to analyze him a little bit.  At his studio, Hatcher finds a bunch of photos of Gale with McCabe.  He rushes to her place while she is able to psycho-analyze him enough to buy time.  McCabe gets to her place and is jumped by Smith.  McCabe is able to grab the gun and shoot Smith in the crotch.  This incapacitates the killer enough to get cuffed.

While McCabe unties Gale, Smith breaks the chain on the handcuffs.  I’m thinking McCabe, the jokesters that he and Hatcher are, probably had a funny pair of cuffs from the dollar store with him while Hatcher’s gun is just a squirt gun or something.  Smith jumps McCabe one more time, but McCabe shoots him multiple times and Smith dies in the pool.  The movie freeze frames on the image of Smith face down in the pool with multiple gunshot wounds, and the credits role over black with no music or any other sounds.  The end.

Man…  This is tough nut to crack for me.  While I more or less like the second and third acts because the movie kind of earns Kirk Smith’s violent attacks and so forth, that first half hour is rough.  Like I said, it feels kind of dirty in the beginning because of how brutal the attacks are and how much he rips at clothing just to give the audience a look at the various actresses’ titties.  Now, I like a little bit of cheesecake with my horror entree, but when I’m about to sit down with a big bowl of rapist murderer serial killings, I’m not so sure I want it to be too real and I’m really maybe not in the mood for those titties.

I will give accommodations to both Nicholas Worth and Flo (Gerrish) Lawrence as Smith and Gale respectively.  Worth really goes for it and I feel like Lawrence was suitable as a psychologist and someone who cares to help those in need.  Worth probably gets most of the accolades, though.  There are times in which he’s yelling at his victims and he’s practically foaming at the mouth.  He wasn’t sleepwalking through this movie at all.  I can’t fault a guy for taking this movie really seriously.

So I can’t say how other exploitation fans will take to this movie.  Some will likely like it quite a bit.  Others, maybe not so much.  I was fully on the “not enjoying this movie” side  of things in the first act.  I slowly went into the “maybe not so much” territory about halfway through.  Then, when looking back on the hour after the first act concluded, I was okay with the movie in general.  Not really my cup of tea, but not the worst thing I’ve watched for this site at all.

I kick it over to you folks…  How do you feel about this movie?  I will say I do like that the movie does try to have a psychologist “fix” the murderer, or at least try to talk him down from the ledge of committing another crime, but I also feel like the cop blowing the bad guy away at the end also justifies his position that psychology, even in a forensic sense, is gobbledygook that is a waste of everyone’s time because you should just blow the motherfucker away.

Next week, I’m going back to one of my favorite wells – Norman J. Warren!  I’ll be talking about his 1976 supernatural horror debut, Satan’s Slave!

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