Don’t Answer the Phone!
aka The Hollywood Strangler
Director: Robert Hammer
Starring: James Westmoreland, Ben Frank, Nicolas Worth, Flo Lawrence, and Pamela Jean Bryant
Running time: 94 minutes
Genre: horror, thriller
Smooth operator: A tubby Buffalo Bill-wannabe (think The Silence of the Lambs, not cowboys) stands shirtless in the dark, staring at himself in the mirror. He ties some panty hose around his neck and makes stupid faces while breathing heavy and sweating like, a lot. An equally shirtless Jesus (think The Bible, not The Big Lebowski) observes from his vantage point on the cross hanging in the center of the mirror. Get used to seeing this kind of crap, because Don’t Answer the Phone! is full of it.
A pretty young nurse pulls into her driveway and the title comes up warning her what NOT to do. We see her from the killer’s POV as she takes off her hat and shoes and … panties?! Why did she …? Is that standard disrobing behavior after a day of work, to take off your panties before you take off any actual clothes? The phone rings! She completely ignores the giant red letters that appeared over her car (with an exclamation point!!!) and answers it. It’s her mother or possibly some gentleman that she engages in very strange role play with, as it sounds an awful lot like a man. They talk about “Aunt Sophie” and being lonely and “Mom” wants to come over, but the nurse isn’t in the mood. As she talks, The Strangler creeps up behind her. She hangs up and spins around right into his hands, right round, like a record, baby. Now wearing the hosiery over his head, he grabs her throat and smacks her, carries her into the bedroom and strangles her with another stocking. After she’s lost consciousness, he tears open her shirt, exposing her breasts, and giggles as he sets to work on her.
The next morning The Strangler, Kirk Smith, is cruising LA and looking for other women to attack or possibly take pictures of, as he’s a pornographic photographer. KVLA’s radio news informs us that last night’s nurse was his fifth victim. In the KVLA station, psychologist Dr. Lindsay Gale is about to begin her call-in talk radio program. Kirk calls in and pretends to be a headache-plagued Messican named Ramone. He’s a regular caller and obsessed with Dr. Gale, always calling to leave clues about his murders and targeting her patients, though she seems to be totally unaware of it. Back at the scene of the nurse’s murder Lt. McCabe and Sgt. Hatcher chitchat with the dickly forensics man and a crime scene photographer as they search for clues to the killer’s identity. These two head up The Strangler Task Force and they will do everything in their power to look like utter tools as they attempt to stop Kirk’s rape and murder spree before he kills his way up to his ultimate victim, Dr. Lindsay Gale herself!
Please hang up and try your call again: Originally called The Hollywood Strangler, but misleadingly renamed to cash in on the Don’t-title craze, Don’t Answer the Phone! is a perverted, mean, sleazy ’80s thriller from a one-time director/writer whose only other writing credits are a handful of episodes of Hawkins, Mannix and Renegade. Yes, THAT Renegade, the Lorenzo Lamas show.
Fisty: When I was in second grade, I was eating dinner (spaghetti and meatballs), and simultaneously teasing my dog Jesse (a golden cocker spaniel, named for Jesse the Body Ventura), never a good combination. I took it a wee bit too far, and he lunged and bit me on the face, took my jaw in his mouth and just chomped down. I screamed, he devoured my dinner, and I got a trip to the ER. No scarring, just a fat bloody lip (which was the subject of a Show & Tell in homeroom), a lesson learned about teasing dogs, and a feeling of mingled guilt and betrayal that lingers to this very day. Not unlike the aftermath of viewing Don’t Answer the Phone!.
I wanted to like Don’t Answer the Phone!, I really did. I thought I would love it. I should have loved it–I mean, it was chock full o’ elements dear to my heart: titties, terrible acting, imbecilic dialog, naked ladies, ludicrous situations, non-existent plot, titties, sleaze, rad Seventies ambiance, boobs, you know, all the good stuff. But I fucking hated it. WHY?
Bill: One word: Presentation. Imagine you’re standing on your porch one morning and I walk up to you with a angry expression, grab your hand and shove a bloody bird carcass into it, then grunt and walk away. You’re going to be disgusted and you’re likely not going to call me back and offer me a glass of milk. However, if, while standing on your porch, an adorable fluffy kitty runs up with a bloody bird in its mouth and drops it on your foot before twining around your legs, rubbing on you and purring, you’re going to love him and be flattered by his gift and think he’s the cutest little savage ever and snuggle him and feed him and make silly cooing sounds as you do. We both offered the exact same gift, just presented to you differently. … and Don’t Answer the Phone! is no cute fluffy kitty.
Since you mentioned it, let’s look at the nudity in the film. Now, normally, that would be a joke (Haha, he wants to look at the nudity, big surprise!) and my segue into talking about all the sexy boobs ‘n’ butts (a very popular search phrase,) but I don’t really want to look at the boobs and butts in DAtP!. They aren’t sexy. Now, I don’t mean the actresses aren’t attractive, because they are, but their nudity wasn’t filmed sexily. It’s blunt. They felt they needed to show some tits, so they ripped open some shirts on camera. There’s no sense of innocent flashing like you’d get in a Friday the 13th movie or the relishing of a woman’s body you’d get from something like Strip Nude for Your Killer. Even in a movie like The Toolbox Murders, which is every bit as sleazy as DAtP!, or Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I have the Key, which is possibly just as misogynistic as DAtP!, they present the nudity … lovingly. The camera slides and dips and lingers like your eyes would on the form of a lover. It’s filmed as a visual caress, even if the scene itself is violent or humiliating (or on its way to being either.) It revels in the sexuality, the voyeurism. However, in DAtP!, it’s just filling a quota. No fun, no love, no innocence, no voyeurism. There’s nothing to enjoy about it.
But it’s more than the unlovely presentation of the nudity, it’s also the overall tone of the movie: How it shows the women as troubled and sad before brutalizing them, the flippant attitude of the cops, and the juxtaposition of the no-nonsense attacks with the goofiness of the police procedural aspects. The movie, as much as The Strangler, treats the women like something less than human. It makes you pity them more than desire them.I mean, why, after showing one soon to be victim crying and upset over the abuse she suffered as a child would you THEN show her rubbing her breasts? I don’t want to see that NOW! I want to see someone giving the woman a fucking hug!
Fisty: The whole bit with Carol, from her interaction with Dr Gale to her death, was a travesty. She’s just the most pitiful little thing, completely ashamed and bewildered. Watching her die is virtually like watching The Strangler rape and murder a child, as she regresses into the trauma of her father’s abuse. I’m not often disturbed by a murder scene in a movie, but that did it for me.
Dr Gale’s treatment of Carol is another moment where DAtP!‘s appalling treatment of women transcends simple misogyny and enters the realm of the truly absurd. As Carol confesses how her father came in at night, and forced her to undress before him , then fondled her, Dr Gale responds with, “And you let him? Did you always let your father have his way even though you knew it was wrong?.” Really? Insinuating that a child not only allowed herself to be abused, but that she should have “known better?” That she ought to have stopped her father, and is therefore not a good person because she couldn’t–excuse me, chose not to? Dear sweet baby Jesus.
Probably one of the worst failings of the movie is that the characters–with the exception of the victims–are so contemptible. Nicholas Worth munches scenery like it’s going out of style, turning in an over the top performance that almost saves the only convincing main character. But his motives and behaviors are so muddled that you just can’t care about him enough to even root for him–especially in light of the pathetic victims. The cops, particularly our ostensible “hero” McCabe, are thoroughly vile, too busy being dicks to care that women are being raped and murdered. But Dr Lindsay Gale is the worst, a real piece of work, depicted as the most wishy-washy weak liberal type, despised by the (somewhat) hardnosed and conservative cops, completely ineffectual and likely a menace to the safety and well-being of her patients. (Witness the above exchange with Carol.) Even when it comes time to talk a suicidal patient off a rooftop, McCabe has to step in and do it for her. Though director Hammer implies The Strangler is somehow stalking Dr. Gale, and he does target at least one of her patients, other victims are chosen apparently at random. She seems to exist in large part to hang the Don’t Answer the Phone! title on and to function as the simian-faced female half of the unconvincing love story with cocky jerkoff McCabe. Talk about self-defeating relationships. Bah.
Bill: I thought she was pretty. Awful, but pretty. The love match of her and McCabe totally didn’t work, maybe because they were both so completely unlikeable that I just couldn’t imagine either of them finding the other worth talking to.
I think you actually give DAtP! more credit than it deserves. Carol’s death didn’t disturb me so much as it generated contempt for the movie. “Disturbing” can be a compliment, but this flick doesn’t deserve any of those. And I wasn’t impressed with Worth either. Kirk ‘The Strangler’ Smith was the single most uncharismatic cine-maniac that I can remember. Ugh. Kirk Smith? Really? That’s the best name they could come up with? They tried to make him into a sort of rape happy Travis Bickle with the stupid scenes of him lifting weights and talking in the mirror, but Worth lacks the looks, ability or intensity to pull it off. The Strangler is a flabby, fat, charmless, misogynistic nut with a receding hairline, an extensive porn collection, a dubious workout routine and delusions of superhuman strength. If I wanted to watch a movie about me killing people, I’d make one myself.
Stranglers are a pretty shitty killer for a horror movie anyway. No grue to revel in, no creativity to the kills. DAtP! could’ve been saved by some really great, gore gags, but the most you get is some blood on The Strangler at the end. At least Maniac offered some really great scalpings and exploding heads to go with the wimmin-hating and sleaze. For a movie so devoid of class with a slashery title like Don’t Answer the Phone! the lack of insides on the outside is unforgivable. They should’ve stayed with the original, less misleading Hollywood Strangler title.
Fisty: I don’t feel I’m giving it any credit; you know why that scene would particularly disturb me, Bill. (Readers, I won’t go into it and be a Debbie Downer, but use your imagination and think about statistics on those crimes in America. There you go.) I know it’s exploitation, but DAMN, that was ugly and cheap.
What I found most problematic about DAtP!, and what ultimately sinks it, it that Hammer can’t figure out what kind of movie he’s making. He vacillates wildly between a poor man’s Taxi Driver cum serial killer thriller and a schizo police procedural that can’t figure out whether it’s hardboiled or comedic. Mixing genres requires a certain aptitude that Hammer totally lacks (notice how he never directed again?), and the comedy is so inept that it’s not only disconcerting when contrasted with scenes of brutality, but totally unfunny to boot. (With the exception of the coke blowout in the brothel, and that’s funny for like, two seconds.) It’s also often boring, with pointless scenes of police procedure (like the superdull Strangler Task Force montage) occasionally interspersed with more forced humor. Lab Guy is a repeat offender, appearing at the police station only to argue with some police woman or social worker over just how inept the cops ought to be, in a TOTALLY UNINTERESTING scene that’s meant to be ironical and ends up just irritating. Worse yet is Lab Guy’s first appearance, at the nurse’s murder scene, where we’re treated to this cold exchange:
Did you get a shot of that breast?
Which one? She’s got two, you know.
The one that was nearly bitten off, goddamnit! Get me a mold of that breast, ’cause I wanna take some tooth impressions.
Hey! I already have … [leers] Very healthy lady …
You’re a very funny man, but the last thing I need in my life right now is a comedian, okay? Now, was she sexually assualted?
[whistles] … Every orifice she’s got.
This is right over the nurse’s corpse, too. These guys are too busy jabbing at each other and mocking the deceased to afford any semblance of dignity to the citizens they work for. It’s also interesting how The Strangler’s murder scenes are, as Bill mentioned, pretty colorless. Other than a little humiliation and psychological torment, the actual kills are accomplished pretty quickly and with minimal effect, murdering half the fun these movies are watched for. Lines like the above exchange, and McCabe’s “[T]he girl’s response is probably simulated sexual excitement. So he just twists the stocking, on and off, back and forth, like a water faucet. He must have kept her squirming for several minutes” serve to add color to otherwise indifferent murders. Are Hammer and Castle trying to convince us that we’ve seen that depravity? Had Hammer gone for it, and shown us instead of telling us, and had the final act not been so lackluster, DAtP! might have been saved.
And what is up with the psychic?
Bill: The psychic! Everything he said was spot on accurate, yet McCabe and Hatcher completely dismissed him and laughed about it, just like they initially did with Gale whe n she came to them with The Strangler’s phone calls. And what was with the overly long scene of them breaking into the wrong apartment and harassing a toy salesman?! Riggs and Murtaugh these guys are not. You’re right about the montage, too. Dullest montage ever. It was just officer extras sitting at their desks on the phone. Some of that should have at least been kooky enough to be comically WTF-worthy (and would’ve been in a less contemptible film,) but here it’s not. It’s just, like everything else in DAtP! … boring. The best thing about this movie, the only thing that I enjoyed about watching it, is that I can now check another flick off the list of Don’t! titles.
Fisty: Other than the aforementioned dumbass coke blow up in the brothel, which provided one laugh, and some nicely seedy footage of a Hollywood Boulevard that only exists in my dreams, Don’t Answer the Phone! is so bad it’s bad: Boring and hateful, and really with nary a redeeming quality. The performances are lackluster, direction maladroit, and the story banal and painfully contrived. Any one of its bad qualities could have been salvaged, had director Hammer any panache, but alas. I would choose The New York Ripper, The Toolbox Murders, or even Maniac over this dreck anytime. Only for absolute completists of sleaze and exploitation. Or Don’t movies.
living0dead0punk: [the] screen caps make the movie seem better than it was. haha