Don't Answer The Phone (1980)

MAY 2, 2011


Considering that it’s not known by any other title, it’s surprising how little the phone actually factors into Don’t Answer The Phone, which is sort of like Maniac crossed with Play Misty For Me for a while, but ultimately the phone call part of the story is just sort of phased out, with most of the film focused on either our nameless killer wandering around Los Angeles killing/raping random women, and two cops trying to catch him.

The cop scenes are far more interesting than the killer scenes, sadly. Since we don’t know any of the women, it’s one of those cases where you know they’re dead as soon as he interacts with them, and the unpleasant/unnecessary rape angle removes whatever sort of “fun” you could have watching them, the way you might enjoy seeing Jason or Freddy take down another dumb teen. But Nicholas Worth’s performance as the killer is borderline comical, so his murder scenes don’t work as grim violence either, because it’s impossible to take them seriously.

But the cop scenes are just a total delight. The two actors have a fun chemistry, and the cheesiness of the low budget production (there’s an amazing montage of the whole force “working around the clock” to solve the case, which includes a shot of one cop randomly pointing to Silverlake, a locale that doesn’t appear in the film) just adds to the fun. There’s also an extended sequence where they track a lead to a massage parlor that seemingly houses a little bit of everything; when word of a raid breaks out, we see guys in submissive wear, drug dealers, cross-dressers, a nun (?), and god knows what else bursting out of their rooms and out of 1st floor windows. Plus the drug dealing types, in a panic, get cocaine all over the place, so one guy’s trying to flush it, another’s trying to salvage what he can, and one of the random hookers begins sort of snorting it out of thin air and off of the guy’s head. It’s just insanity, and the fact that it doesn’t have a goddamn thing to do with the movie just makes it more fun.

Because really, the actual movie kind of sucks. There’s no suspense whatsoever, the killer’s motive is seemingly “he is messed up from Vietnam”, and it’s repetitive to a major fault; I know I’ve said this before, but if you can re-arrange or remove entire chunks of the movie and not affect the story in any meaningful way, then it’s just not the type of movie I care for. I’d probably have a good time watching it half-drunk at a Grindhouse screening, but I’d just as likely get kind of bored there too. I’m sure there’s an audience for these kind of movies, but I just don’t see the point. At least with something like Maniac (which was similarly shot without permits and “starring” a bunch of people who didn’t know they were in a movie, albeit in NY instead of LA), the killer had a real back story and (eventually) had a relationship with another character to give the movie some sense of weight, but this doesn’t even offer that much. There’s a bit where he kills a girl that has some daddy issues, while referring to himself as “Daddy” (and she even calls him “Dad” at one point during the attack), but they never even explain if this was actually his daughter or if she was just playing along for whatever reason.

The movie’s soundtrack is fairly memorable though. The moody electronic score is actually pretty good at times, but they use enough musical stings to make Carpenter blush. In the aforementioned “Dad” scene, they play a sting for his car driving past (twice), and then another for him walking up to the house, another for trying the door, and yet another for peering through a window – all in under about 80 seconds. Some of the sound FX are pretty wonky too, and clearly recorded elsewhere on several occasions; a gunshot in a house sounds suspiciously like it was taken from a Western TV show. Ordinarily I wouldn’t care, but it just adds to the general sense that the movie was literally slapped together by folks who were trying to make a buck by cashing in on the killer craze of 1980.

And to the credit of the moderator from Video Watchdog (it's not Tim Lucas, but some other guy who has the same annoying/detached voice), he actually tries to get director Robert Hammer to admit as much, several times in fact. At one point Hammer discusses a different ending in which the hero would look and see that the killer's body was gone, and the VW guy says "Well that's a ripoff of Halloween", but Hammer claims he hadn't seen it. Yet the guy has the balls to say that the later Halloween sequels, plus the Friday the 13ths and even Scream (!) were all influenced by this film, a comment that almost caused me to throw the disc across the room. The rest of the track is pretty much a chore; Hammer isn't much of a talker, which means the moderator has to keep talking, trying to get stuff out of him in between painful efforts at jokes and tossing in random movie references either to prove how smart he was or just (hopefully) wishing to talk about any movie besides this one. And it's the rare track that actually made me like the movie LESS, because apart from their ballsy approach to shooting (even getting a couple of LAPD officers in a few shots without their knowledge), there is nothing admirable about their efforts here. This wasn't a deep, thoughtful movie that got mangled by intervening producers or anything; it's pretty much the exact movie they wanted to make. When Lucas 2.0 asks what sort of stuff they had to cut because of the budget, Hammer says "some stuff in a church". So that, plus the always annoying "We influenced these other movies" type comments, just left me even colder on the film. However, just to clarify, I should point out that this film came along BEFORE Maniac, so they weren't drawing from it. I don't buy that he didn't see Halloween, though; not for a second.

The only other extra is an interview with Worth, who admits that he thought the script was garbage, but eventually came around and was surprised to discover the film had its fans (as am I!). And it's probably the last filmed interview he did, as he died less than a year after it was conducted, so it's a shame he doesn't spend more time discussing his career in general (he's probably best known as Pauly in Darkman). Oh well. It's not a wholly terrible film, but there's just no substance to it whatsoever; it's only been a few hours and I'm already forgetting half of what happened in it.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Regarding your comment about Nicolas Worth discussing his career in general on the DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE DVD - from the review at

    "An Easter Egg will reveal an additional and welcomed eight minutes of interview footage with Worth talking about other films he was in, including what seems to be his favorite, Wes Craven’s SWAMP THING."

    Good luck finding it!


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