Don’t Answer the Phone!

we could not complete your call

Don’t Answer the Phone!
aka The Hollywood Strangler
Director: Robert Hammer
Released: 1980
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.

you were warned about answering the phone

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?

because it's ugly

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.

nothing to enjoy here

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.

this woman needs a hug!

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.

living0dead0punk: I change my mind. Dr. Gale (goddamn it, why did that come out in offensive stereotype bad mexican accent?!) is not pretty.

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.

this ain't no red dragon

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.

dick doesn't just mean detective

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?

that's called a montage!

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.

adios, crap

living0dead0punk: [the] screen caps make the movie seem better than it was.  haha

The Toolbox Murders

there isn't a single thing wrong with this poster

The Toolbox Murders
aka Der Bohrmaschinenkiller
aka La masacre de toolbox
aka Lo squartatore di Los Angeles
Director:
Dennis Donnelly
Released: 1978
Starring: Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Wesley Eure, Tim Donnelly, Aneta Corsaut, Kelly Nichols (as Marianne Walter)
Running time: 93 minutes
Genre: exploitation, slasher, thriller, psychodrama, video nasty

“If I had a hammer…”: Toolbox Murders shows its giallo roots in an extended opening credit sequence of a black-gloved killer driving though darkened city streets. Only, instead of a pimptastic score by the likes of Riz Ortolani, we hear a more generic thriller/psychodrama piano score, overlaid with the sounds of a hellfire n’ brimstone preacher on the car radio. The vehicle cruises smoothly along, but then FREEZEFRAME! The sound of screeching tires! Illuminated by arc-sodium lights, a car has crashed on the side of the road. A young girl tumbles out of the passenger side door. A crowd gathers as paramedics place her on a stretcher. She’s young, blonde, with a bloodied face and staring eyes. Her hand falls limply off the stretcher as they cover her face. Something Significant has happened. Cruising resumes, and the Mercedes pulls up outside El Patio del Sequoia apartments, and a man with a toolbox gets out and enters the complex. Once inside, he cuts a gruesome swath through the apartment’s female residents, beginning with faded beauty and lush Mrs Andrews. Though surprised by the killer’s appearance, she clearly knows him … . Finishing her off with his powerdrill, our skimasked killer hums a little tune and contemplates his work.

the toolbox murders - killer

ineffective mask wearing 101

Meanwhile young divorcée Debbie arrives home and–in one of the least logical sequences in movie history–prepares to take a shower fully dressed, for the sole reason of creating a wet shirt effect and leading to a lengthy change of clothes. Fortunately, boobage redeems the scene. Debbie evidences poor decision-making skills when she pops into the apartment hallway in her underclothes to pick up some … debris left outside the door? Fortunately, our killer happens upon her and, popping her on the chin in a singularly goony moment, renders her unconscious and bears her off to the firestairs, where she is summarily dispatched with the claw end of a hammer. He then removes her corpse from the stairwell and carries it BACK to her apartment (and we thought only Debbie was crazy!), where he lays her out on the floor only to be interrupted by roommate Maria. Pissed at Debbie for leaving trash in the hallway, Maria is both shocked and saddened by her grisly discovery, then surprised by our killer. The shock renders the poor sap apparently speechless, and when the slayer slaughters her with a screwdriver, it’s all Maria can do to sum up a sorry little scream. (That was excessive, and I am sincerely sorry!) The killer then takes a moment to spy upon the neighboring Camelot Apartments, where a temptress gyrates in her underwear before a wide open window, while one floor below an innocent schoolgirl chats on the phone. His bloodlust not yet sated, the killer ventures back into the hallway, where he opens a door and glimpses a couple discussing the merits of drugstore wine. Discouraged by the presence of a man, the killer leaves and the killing stops … for the evening.

The next morning briefly introduces us to the Ballard family: Matriarch and alcoholic B-girl Joanne, perky teenager Laurie (Pamela Ferdin, also the voice of Charlotte’s Web‘s Fern Arable and Charles Schultz’s Lucy van Pelt!), and older brother Joe.

Evening falls again, and we meet Dee Ann (played by Penthouse Pet and future porn star Kelly Nichols!), the window siren from the previous night. As she all unknowing draws herself a bath, the Toolbox Murderer approaches the Camelot Apartments, eponymous toolbox in tow. What follows is surely one of the most gratuitous nude/masturbation scenes in all slasherdom as Dee Ann soaps up an lets Calgon take her away to her special place to the dulcet tones of George Deaton & Terry Stubbs’ “Pretty Lady.” After she achieves orgasm, Dee Ann comes out of her stupor to the sound of the killer’s humming. As suits her more sexually forthright character, when faced with his nailgun Dee Ann not only actively tries to evade him, but also fights back, scrambling around her apartment naked and wet as a frog and tossing vases. She feigns submission, offering him “anything,” but tries to run again, finally catching a nail to the abdomen. The killer props her up beneath a nude poster of herself, then nails her right through the head. End “Pretty Lady.”

get out of the way, mr bubble!

Finished with the whores of the world–for now–the killer sneaks downstairs to the Ballard apartment, where Laurie is again demonstrating her virtue by refusing to sneak out (presumably with a boy). After all, she doesn’t want to end up like her mother said, “either divorced or with a bunch of kids and a crappy job like [hers].” Who knows how she’ll end up, however, since the killer kidnaps her. At least she isn’t dead yet! When Joe gets home late that night, he finds the security chain cut and Laurie missing. Jo Ann stumbles in moments later, and orders Joe to go looking for his sister–and that’s when we hear the shrieks from the discovery of Dee Ann.

Convinced that Laurie’s disappearance is related to the murders, Joe pleads for help from the police, who are content to dismiss her as a typical runaway teen. Total Dick in Charge of the case Sergeant Cameron scoffs at Joe’s concerns, mocking the poor guy, who departs in a huff, vowing to find his sister himself. Sgt Cameron is no Lt Fuller. Armed with earnestness, Joe goes to El Patio del Sequoia looking for clues, and meets up with the super’s nephew Kent. Kent enlists Joe’s help to clean up the bloodied apartments, and Joe in turn enlists Kent in the search for Laurie. With the murders largely over at thirty minutes in, and the murderer revealed to the audience at fifty minutes (for any halfwits who haven’t yet figured it out), The Toolbox Murders takes a sharp turn into psychodrama as the young men investigate Laurie’s disappearance, and scenes of their search alternate with Laurie’s plight as a captive, leading up to a truly bizarre dénouement.

fern shouldn't have tried to leave wilbur

Banned in the UK as a Video Nasty, The Toolbox Murders is preceded by a reputation for unmitigated sleaze–a reputation that’s not entirely undeserved. But the low budget, competing storylines, and pedestrian direction give it the feel of a made-for-TV movie.

Fisty: Holy shit. TTM exceeded my expectations in so many ways. It’s so very, very sleazy, and so very, very nasty, and so very, very bad. It’s a home run of fucking trashy-ass, exploitative cinema. It’s easy to see how it earned its spot on the Video Nasties list; the first thirty minutes is almost nothing but violent murder and nudity. But then after that bang up start the movie settles into a curious police procedural thriller format that, for all its smuttiness–and yes, it is still very sordid if you’ve got the eyes to see it–it very draggy and uninteresting but for the scenes of Cameron Mitchell’s (Blood and Back Lace) lunacy and Ferdin’s terror. Only in the final fifteen minutes does violence appear once more, and it’s of an entirely different breed. By then, many of even the most dedicated horror fans and gorehounds may have passed out from sheer boredom. It takes a certain amount of patience–and attention span–to appreciate TTM’s tacky charms.

sailing the good ship lollipop to crazyland

Speaking of tacky charms, I did love the look of the movie. I know it’s ugly in that special 70s Saturday Night Special Movie way, but it had a certain nostalgic charm for me. It looked like shitty movies I grew up watching in school (though I grew up in the 80s, it was in Hawai’i, where the 70s had a long reach–especially in the school system). The California setting was probably a big part of it: so sunny, so squalid, so semi-suburban. There are still tacky apartment open-air buildings like the Camelot and El Patio del Sequoia all over the West, and I’ve lived in a few of them.

Bill: It took me three tries to get through the whole movie.  Though, admittedly, I made the first two attempts when it was late and I was tired, so it probably had more to do with my condition than the drag in the middle of the flick.  I was even dozing a bit during the first thirty minutes and there is nothing sleep inducing in that bit of film.  Boner inducing, sure, but sleep? I think, maybe, I could’ve been lulled further into a restful state by that made-for-TV movie quality it has. Kind of like what happens when I watch Matlock, except Matlock is usually less bewildering.  There are whole segments in TTM that make no sense, like the coffee scene. The cop offers Laurie’s brother some coffee, the kid declines, then the cop goes to get some for himself, but the pot is empty, so he puts the glass down and that’s it. What the hell was the purpose of that? Then there’s the odd fruit-throwing bit that I suppose was meant to show the siblings as playfully close, but just seems awkward. And just why do the cops let all the neighbors stand around looking at all the naked corpses?

debbie's dead

Other parts are just painfully obvious and unnecessary. Like trying to establish the innocence of Laurie by having her do the exact opposite of gyrating DeeAnn? But I do appreciate the seminude dancing.

Fisty: Yeah, the director, Dennis Donnelly pretty much just did TV; this was his sole feature film–and it shows. Too much exposition, weird experimental editing, problems with pacing …

Bill: Who the fuck was in the car that wrecked?

Fisty: Oh my god, Bill. It was Cathy. Dude’s daughter/other dude’s lover.

Bill: But it seemed like she died way before then. Didn’t it seem like he started killing the women right after the girl in the car died? Like, the same night?

Fisty: How could there be flashback shots from her funeral interposed with shots of him entering the building to START the killing spree if she died that night?

Bill: I know the funeral shots were flashbacks, but there’s no break between driving and killing, it all looks the same. Donnelly could have made that a lot clearer. But my framerate was stuttering a bit at the start, so …

Fisty: And you’re abominably literal sometimes … but I suppose if one were drunk, it could be confusing. The editing is mostly shit.

Bill: Debbie’s shower scene is the most bizarre that I have ever seen.  She puts on a shower cap while fully dressed, turns on the water, sees her dress hanging in the shower, steps in still fully dressed, presumably to get her little black dress before it’s soaked, but then doesn’t even touch the dress, steps out and takes her shower cap off!  I am fully convinced that this was originally meant to be a normal, typical shower scene, but they rewrote it into absurdity, just for that wet shirt yumminess, after seeing how hott Debbie the braless wonder looked in her sheer white top.

Fisty: That’s one of my favorite parts–teeth-gnashingly aggravating (as I shriek, “Why? Why are you getting in the shower fully dressed? Why aren’t you even bathing and just putting on a succession of shirts and then removing your pants? WHY?!?” at the television screen) and unintentionally hilarious as it is. I also love the way she goes down like a ton of bricks from the most ineffectual right hook I’ve ever seen. Pretty much all the victims except Dee Ann are ineffective wimps.

not the best place to hide from someone with a drill

Purists will declare that TTM isn’t a slasher, and I’m with them on that. Like Don’t Go in the House, it’s a curious blend of genres, teetering as it does on the edge of sleazy 70s psycho-thrillers and gleefully self-aware by-the-numbers 80s slashers, and coming down straight in the exploitation zone. After the gialli-inspired opening and kills that seem to promise an endless parade of titties and blood, TTM downshifts into an amateur detective psychodrama, a confusing change for many viewers. Though one might argue that amateurs investigating crimes in the face of an inept police force is a clear marker of a giallo, it seems just as likely that Joey and Kent’s sleuthing owes as much to Donnelly’s directing credits in TV–including an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries. (And many episodes of Adam-12, Emergency!, Hart to Hart, Charlie’s Angels, The A-Team, Simon & Simon … is a pattern developing? To be fair, most of those were post-TTM, but I think it shows a decided slant.) Knocking any confusion about the killer’s identity out of the way lets the film settle in on the bewilderment of the bereaved on one side, and the suffering of the victim and the lunatic on the other.

Bill: I think the movie may’ve benefited from being more slasher-like.  As much as I’d hate to see a dilution of the concentrated sleaze at the start of the flick, it would’ve been nice to have some tits & murder interludes tossed in somewhere during the Hardy Boys episode in the middle.  That really is the weakest part of the movie.  I mean, you can only get so much entertainment from watching skeevy cops hit on the mother of a missing girl. He really was kind of sleazy. “Look, your daughter is missing and maybe we’ll find her but, in the meantime, can I give you another?”

Fisty: Damn it, I LOVE that singles bar scene! That fucking cop is a real piece of work. And the way Joanne shuts him down? Masterful!

dude, no

Speaking of which, Aneta Corsaut (The Blob) is magnificent as Joanne.  The rest of the casting is pretty spot-on, too: Ferdin evokes pathos as the victimized Laurie, Mitchell–though no longer the hottie of the How to Marry a Millionaire days–chews up the scenery like it’s Red Man.

Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness: The Toolbox Murders makes for a primo exploitation experience because that’s all it was ever meant to be. Tony DiDio reportedly saw a reissue of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre four years after its initial release and said to himself (and his team), “I want to cash in on that.” (My paraphrase.) Don’t go into it looking for subtext on the alienation of the American family in the juxtaposition of an affectionate but struggling family with a highly dysfunctional yet loving one. Don’t look beneath the sleaze for something less sleazy, because it’s sleaze all the way down.

Bill: I think there is one area where it under-sleazes:  The climax of the film.  There’s some real frying pan/fire jumping at the end, but, while you know Laurie goes through a wicked nasty ordeal, they don’t show any of it.  It’s a big change from the beginning of the movie, where everything was very in-your-face.  I guess Donnelly felt he had to be respectful when it comes to letting us know what happened to this sweet, virginal character, but the other victims were just dirty sluts, so their pain doesn’t matter.  Damn it, I want to see the nice girl’s pain and degradation, too!  Eh, it was a true story, according to the bit of text that flashes on the screen at the end, so maybe he was just trying to protect the real Laurie, in case she ever watched the movie.  (My eyes are rolling so hard that I just got dizzy.)

true story, fer sher

Fisty: Can we recommend The Toolbox Murders? Though it at times reminded me of bad 70s afterschool specials in which someone ruined their life by sniffing goofballs in a ditch, I’m going to go ahead and say yes. Though it doesn’t live up to its reputation of relentless blood n’ smut, it has some solid splatter moments, oodles of titties n’ bush, and pure insanity–and all in the first half hour. (Bill: And you really don’t want to be the only one of your friends to have missed seeing that beginning.) Plus, there are tons of familiar TV faces from shows like Emergency!, Land of the Lost, and The Andy Griffith Show–and fucking FERN from CHARLOTTE’S WEB!!! Even the dreck is worth sitting through for Mitchell’s scenery-gnawing performance and Ferdin’s understated terror, a few genuinely chilling moments, as well as an ending that will not only surprise the hell out of most viewers, but will also have them running for the shower. Just remember to take your clothes off before getting in the tub.

Did anyone else notice that the victims in the trailer in no way match up with those in the movie?

PROTIP: Order a pizza just before pressing play.  Your pie will arrive just as the movie slows down, giving you something extra to chew on while you sit through the downtime in the middle of the flick.

The Toolbox Murders is available to Watch Instantly on Netflix!

Don’t Go in the House

don’t … don’t … DON’T!

Don’t Go in the House
aka The Burning
aka Pyromaniac
Director: Joseph Ellison
Released: 1980
Starring: Dan Grimaldi, Robert Osth, Ruth Dardick, Charles Bonet, Bill Ricci
Running time: 82 minutes
Genre: Horror, Don’t-movie, Video Nasty

I’ll Burn the Sin(opsis) Out of You: Donny Kohler (Grimaldi) is a nice enough, if socially awkward mama’s boy, who incinerates trash for a living and occasionally hears creepy whispers, like we all do.  Also, just like the rest of us, Donny is completely obsessed with fire.  Unlike most of us, with Donny, it’s because his crazy-ass mother would hold his arms over a lit stove to punish him when he was being “evil.”  When Donny sees an accident that sets one of his co-workers ablaze, he’s transfixed, watching him burn, rather than helping.  This doesn’t sit well with the boss and nasty words are spoken, blame is assigned and men are accused of homosexual activities.  Good ol’ Bobby (Osth), being a nice guy and feeling sorry for Donny, decides to make friends and try to help the poor misfit out.  When Donny goes home, that night, he discovers that his abusive, overbearing mother has died. Without her to control him, Donny is free to do whatever he wants.  He starts to listen more closely to the whispers telling him that he’s “The master of the flame”  and, while he struggles against his deteriorating sanity, eventually his mind, as well as a few local ladies (A)…go up in flames.  (B)…are lost to an inferno of madness.  (C)…are toast.  Personally, I like C.

Hott Stuff: Don’t Go in the House is a low budget, nasty, Psycho wannabe with a cool house, a (very slightly) sympathetic madman, a room lined with sheet metal, a sitting room full of charred corpses, some creepy goings on, laughable disco goodness, and one hell of an unforgettable murder that got the movie included on the UK’s list of notorious Video Nasties.

Bill: I am on a quest!  In fact, I am on two quests.   Quest #1:  I want to see every horror movie with a title that begins with the word don’t. Quest #2:  I want to see every movie to have made the British Director of Public Prosecutions’ list of Video Nasties.  Since Don’t Go in the House is on both lists, I had to see it.

It’s a better movie than I was expecting it to be.  Having watched a bunch of the movies on my quest lists, many, if not most of them, are complete trash.  That’s not to say that they aren’t entertaining trash.  Night of the Demon, another Video Nasty, may be one of the most entertaining movies I have ever seen, but it’s also, in every possible way, a very, very bad movie.  Driller Killer…  Hell, that one isn’t even that entertaining and it’s also a bad, bad movie.  DGitH, by contrast, could be The Silence of the Lambs. It isn’t really bad in any major ways, with a few clunky line deliveries being the biggest problem.  All of the actors do a decent enough job for the movie they’re in.  The lack of budget does show in some of the effects scenes towards the end of the film, but those scenes still manage to be effective and creepy anyway.

The movie takes awhile to get moving.  If someone is easily bored, this might not be the flick for him.  The pace does quicken later on, but it takes, I believe, 27 minutes just to get to the first kill.  It’s not like nothing had happened by that point.  There was plenty of set up going on, but it was mostly dull set up.  I guess you could call DGitH a slow burn.  The loud disco, chair jumping, though, was awesome.  That shit looked fun.

Fisty: Yeah, DGitH moves along at a leisurely pace compared to say, a slasher, and it takes its time setting up Donny’s story. It’s a way more psychological flick than you’d expect from a Video Nasty, being very character driven. Despite its limitations, DGitH isn’t too ham-fisted about hammering the point home: Donny had a crappy life with an abusive mother, and now he’s screwy. Ellison actually kindles pity for Donny in the audience–something too rarely achieved in other grindhouse flicks–though by the end of the film, after watching his terrible metamorphosis, our pity is extinguished by Donny’s terrible actions. Especially touching for me is the way Bobby keeps trying to reach out to Donny. Though the acting is amateurish, the incidences heighten the contrast between the life Donny chooses to lead and the one he could have had. Even though we know what’s going to happen, we can still hope Donny will be okay. But he isn’t. And he does some terrible shit.

Bill: Oh, yes, he does.  His first kill really sticks with you.  It’s a superbly crafted grindhouse murder.

After selling Donny some flowers for his sick, dead mother, Kathy the flower girl misses her bus home.  There’s a few questionable characters on the street making her nervous, so, even though she may not trust him either, when our man Donny sees his chance and offers her a ride home, she accepts.  With a little insistence and a string of white lies, Donny gets her in his house.  She should not have went in.  I’m not even sure whether he always intended to kill her or if he was just lonely.

Fisty: He was totally going to kill her. He has this nervous energy about him; it’s almost sexual.

Bill: You think?  I thought, when he was running around his house and freaking out, that he had no idea what to say or do now that she was there, that, maybe he was just wondering how to get out of the lies he told to get her inside.  But maybe you’re right and he was just giddy with excitement.

Regardless, when she gets fed up and demands he let her call a cab to take her home, our boy gets a little upset (because he totally just wanted her to hang out and keep him company) and decides she needs to be punished.  After a quick thump on the head, Kathy the flower girl ends up stripped nude and chained to the ceiling in the sheet metal-lined room that Donny decided to put together after getting a little encouragement from the whispers.  She cries and screams and writhes and shakes them titties as Don, now clad in his flame-retardant killer suit, douses her with gasoline and proceeds to set her on fire with a flamethrower, and, oh, the camera lingers!  This is the highlight of the film, right here.  It titillates, then terrorizes, then totally horrifies.  None of the other murders are shown in such detail, but they really don’t need to be.  Once you see Donny’s MO, you’re not going to forget it and you know exactly what his other victims go through.  It is not pleasant.

Fisty: The effects on that death were pretty amazing. You can see some superimposed flames, but overall, it’s very impressive–and quite striking. The later deaths are nothing so impressive, as Ellison’s major concern is to detail Donny’s tempering in his crucible that takes him from a sad schlemiel to an inhuman monster. Unfortunately, he’s a bit heavy on the moments of “terrible psychological torment” as indicated by hallucinations. I’m also leery of explaining everything away with abuse, which was quite the fad for a while. Some people are just evil. However, due to Ellison’s fairly light hand on the reins, it mostly works in DGitH.

Bill: The argument could be made that it doesn’t totally blame his abuse, that maybe there was real evil at work.  I don’t want to spoil the ending too much, but those whispers really made me wonder if his mother was really as crazy as she seemed.  Maybe there was evil to be burnt out of him.  Perhaps  his hallucinations weren’t entirely imaginary and there were some supernatural forces coming into play in this movie.  It seemed more ambiguous to me.

And didn’t I say that exact same thing to you before about Session 9?

Fisty: I don’t listen when you talk, Bill. But yeah, I had almost forgotten that bit at the end, but I’m going to relegate it to the cheap twist pile, an attempt by someone (Montoro?!) to cash in on the demonic fad of the Seventies a la The Exorcist, The Amityville Horror, Abby, Lisa and the Devil, The Devil within Her, et alia. Or it’s just a product of your fevered imagination. Throughout the film, there is no indication of there being anything else afoot, and the bit at the end includes child abuse. I’ll quote RATT when I say, “What goes around comes around.” The cycle of abuse continues, and that’s what I am sticking with.

In the end, it’s kind of a weird movie, far more a Seventies flick than an Eighties one (it was filmed in ’79), but overall an effective one, using psychological horror instead of cheap scares, lurid sexuality, and gory effects (sad face!). Though the disco elements may date it for some, I think they also ground DGitH as representing a particular attitude toward horror, especially in that relentless need to explain away our fears with psychobabble.

Bill: It was EVIL!  Evil whispers!

And evil disco!  Man, that club scene was the shit.  I want to go to there.  Does that date me, too?  If so, I don’t care.  I dug Don’t Go in the House and I totally want to get struck by boogie lightning, baby.

Fisty: Yeah, I was down with the soundtrack of this one. It would definitely go at the dark end of the disco movie spectrum.

One last thing, though. Accusations of misogyny get thrown around willy-nilly, especially about this movie. And god knows I like to suck the fun out of things with extra close readings that discover misogyny in virtually any text. But! Just because a movie depicts violence against women does not make it misogynistic. None of Donny’s victims are depicted as being particularly awful, rather, they seem like ordinary young women. The evil Donny sees in them is strictly a product of his fevered imagination, his psychosis. And with the exception of the first death, there is no gleeful lingering over the sufferings of the victims. Only that first one, to shock viewers into realizing just what Donny is capable of, is so terrible. The movie’s end, which features a male abuser, treats the case as one of power, not gender.

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids

rendezvous in bloodstain

Sette orchidee macchiate di rosso
aka Seven Blood-Stained Orchids
aka Das Rätsel des silbernen Halbmonds
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Released: 1972
Starring: Antonio Sabato, Uschi Glas, Pier Paolo Capponi, Marina Malfati, Rossella Falk
Running Time: 92 minutes
Genre: giallo, krimi

What Happens: The only clue in an apparently random series of brutal murders is a crescent medallion left at the scene of each crime. When one of the intended victims, Giulia (Uschi Glas), survives an attack in a train compartment on her honeymoon, she and her new husband, fashion designer Mario (played with wonderfully cock-swinging arrogance by Antonio Sabato) work first with the police (who put it about that Giulia didn’t survive the attack in order to flush out the killer), then on their own to solve the mystery of who is killing these women and why. The pair soon discover that what the victims and Giulia had in common is their presence at a hotel on the same date several years earlier. They immediately begin trying to track down the other women there on that fateful day, but the killer always seems to be one step ahead. To identify him, Giulia and Mario must discover what happened that day that would drive someone to kill. Features a full complement of incompetent polizia, hippies, and boobs.

And?: Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is an exemplary giallo from the height of the genre’s popularity, and–for some–a surprising turn from Umberto Lenzi, often remembered for classy flicks like Eaten Alive!, Nightmare City, and of course, Video Nasty Cannibal Ferox. It begins very nicely, with Riz Ortolani’s sexy score promising plenty of sleaze and a classic killer POV, black gloves and all, and manages two murders within the first five minutes.

Bill: The first is reminiscent of the killers POV from Black Christmas and Halloween, which I loved seeing in a movie older than either of those.  And the second is deliciously trashy, a lovely prostitute from Hooker Beach whose bare breasts wiggle tantalizingly as she’s clubbed to death.  That’s a great opening.

Most of the other on screen murders are pretty decent, too.  There’s a drill scene that calls to mind Fulci’s style of bloody murder and a very well done, complicated, artful murder of an artist that reminds me of Argento’s brand of pretty violence.

Fisty: Marina Malfati’s murder scene is stylish as all hell–and plenty suspenseful. Okay, I’m fond of cats (I love kitties!), but when she finds her cats poisoned, the fright builds palpably as she searches her studio/apartment, the piteous mewlings of a cat echoing in the dark. It’s incredibly disturbing, but impossible not to watch. Also to watch for are the celebrated drill scene and Rossella Falk’s darkly comic turn as a mental patient, but none of the murders are dissatisfying. More subtle than say, Argento, but with an inevitability that pushes them to horrific heights.

everyone's a critic

everyone’s a critic

Bill: The open eyes of Falk are creepy, though it would’ve been nice to see some nudity in that kill.  Actually, it would’ve been nice to see more nudity all together.  Uschi Glas is gorgeous, but we never even get a tease.  Maybe Edwige Fenech has me spoiled.  More gore would’ve worked, too.  Or more artsy murders.  You really only get a little of any of it.  It ends up being like an assorted giallo sampler.  There’s a little sleaze, a little gore, a little disturbing imagery and a little fancy art, but not enough of any of them to stand out, in any one way, enough to really be great.

Fisty: I don’t quite agree. I’d call it more giallo-by-numbers, maybe. Though it has all the trademarks of the genre post-Argento while retaining style and originality, it’s also a far cry from Lenzi’s early sexy thriller gialli like Orgasmo and Paranoia. You are right in that it seems restrained, never going over the top with any of the elements that make for good trash or sleaze. That’s not a BAD thing, but I can see where it would disappoint total gorehounds. But Lenzi still keeps it just trashy enough for highbrow disdain, and just bloody enough to please all but the most ardent horror buffs (Plus, they can trace the evolution of certain kills–Driller Killer, anyone?). 7B-SO sustains the tension from its promising start, though the middle drags a bit, when it flirts with Eurocrime and gets bogged down by uninteresting policework–I honestly could have gone to wash the dishes, and not really missed anything–but that’s a common misdemeanor for gialli.

I have to say, I loved to look at 7B-SO. Everything looks damn fine, especially our two leads. Sabato is a fine-ass motherfucker, if wooden, and Glas is adorable (despite the stupid hairstyle). And their house was a hyper-cool mod marvel–I would move in to it in a heartbeat. The whole thing looked the way I imagine Jackie Susann’s Once is Not Enough, when January Wayne’s mind gets blown by swinging NYC. Hott women in wildly impractical costumes, beautiful sets, sexy-ass music. I loved it.

The style isn’t just on set or in wardrobe, either. Lenzi, though not with quite the baroque presence of genre masters like Bava or Argento, gives 7B-SO a style all his own, with plenty of wit and verve.

it's murder on the water bill

it’s murder on the water bill

Bill: There are two areas where the movie stands out for me.  Music and story.

Boom-boooom-buh-doo-duhm-boooom.  This main theme of 7B-SO is going to be in my head every time I click-clack my platform shoes down the street in my black and white, tiger-striped leisure suit with the oversized collar, snapping my fingers and bobbing my head, for the rest of my life.  If I were a pimp, it would be my theme music.  It is amazingly funky and smooth.

As for the twisty-turny, red herring-scattered plot, it …  it makes sense.  The motivations, the actions of the killer, even the awesome title of the movie, all come together nicely and make perfect sense, even to me and my hopelessly non-European brain.  It’s a nice little mystery whose pieces all fit together well.  Er…  Mostly fit together well.  The killer does seem able to magically appear anywhere and has magically complete knowledge of where his victims will be at any and all times–unless he already thinks them dead or they have a twin.  He can also make ceilings collapse and doors slam with the power of his mind when he isn’t even anywhere near the area, but, hey, those are the kind of things I’m willing to accept from a movie without question.  I’m easy like that.

Fisty: Yeah, instead of the usual twisting and turning like some kind of twisty-turny thing for which there is no rational excuse, 7B-SO actually is pretty well plotted; you can follow along and even figure out what’s going on without relying simply on genre conventions or random chance–even the red herrings make sense! That is probably the only way it’s really reminiscent of his pre-Argento gialli. Which brings us to my favorite thing about 7B-SO: While Orgasmo and Paranoia (and to a lesser extent, So Sweet, So Perverse) were inspired by Celle qui n’était plus, for 7B-SO, Lenzi was inspired by and (very) loosely based the plot upon a Cornell Woolrich novel, Rendezvous in Black. If you know anything about RiB, then you know that’s a huge spoiler, but unfortunately, Woolrich doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves, so I’m giving it a shout-out. I found it gratifying to watch the post-film interview on the DVD, in which Lenzi explicitly states his inspiration lay in Rendezvous–like I’ve been saying for years, Europe loves Woolrich! (The interview is also worth seeing for Lenzi’s insistence of his own grandeur and superiority to other directors, all but accusing them of ripping off his work. So rad.) Interestingly, 7B-SO was an Italian/German co-production, and the last of the Edgar Wallace krimi–though the screenplay was one of those “inspired by the works of” types. Huh. I don’t know enough about krimi to comment. But from what I do know, the Glas-Sabato husband and wife team as protagonists probably owes its inception to krimi.

Bill: Another thing. Those cops are woefully inept, but infinitely entertaining.  “What do the victims have in common?”  “They were both found half naked?”  Genius.  I can understand why Mario  wouldn’t bother going to the police with half of his discoveries in the case. Is Acropolis the answer to that crossword?  “Can’t be Acropolis.  The second letter has to be a C.”  More geniuser.   Mario calls to inform them of a new lead?  They ignore then hang up on him, “He confessed.”  Click. Of course, they beat a confession out of the poor sap.  Poor Raoul.  Do you remember Raoul?  No, of course not.  You never met him.  It’s easy to believe Inspector Vismara when he says, “I don’t think anything.”  But, at least they don’t kowtow to bureaucracy over in italy.  This may be one of my favorite moments in any film, ever:

Alright, break it down.
Without a search warrant, sir?
Yes, I’ll get one tomorrow. Hurry up.

But in spite of that “Git R Done” initiative, Mario is much better at polizing than the polizia.  He tirelessly tracks down leads and isn’t afraid to get a bit rough.  “I don’t feel like messing around and I haven’t got time to smash your face in, so give it to me straight!”  He’s also, for a fashion designer, one hell of a police sketch artist.  He manages to get a panhandler to recognize a suspect by showing an abstract line drawing of Bob Hoskins to a bunch of artists, hippies and vagabonds.  The world would be better off if there were more fashion designer/amateur detectives, I think.

one of mario's many talents

one of mario’s many talents

Fisty: Well, that police ineptitude is a classic hallmark of the giallo. Better use could have been made of Glas (why does Mario get to have all the fun?), but all in all, a good-looking,  inoffensive flick from Lenzi, who demonstrates a restraint and style largely lacking in the later horror films he’s best known for. That is, if you see little to no redeeming value in films like Cannibal Ferox. Those only familiar with Lenzi’s work in the Italian cannibal sub-genre will undoubtedly be surprised by 7B-SO (and should probably check out his other work, especially 70s crime flicks). As a giallo, it’s a good example without being too … out there. If you want MORE gore, MORE outlandishness, MORE sleaze, you might be better off with another, but Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a happy medium.

Bill: While Seven Blood-Stained Orchids may not be the goriest, or sexiest, or prettiest, and while it does drag at times, it’s still pretty fun.  Mostly because of the cops, a handful of interesting murders and Mario, who taught me that women without scarves look like call girls.  If you aren’t too picky about your gialli, you just might enjoy this, for all its faults.

Important editorial discussion:

living0dead0punk: I wouldn’t call [Sabato] wooden.  Just… chiseled.
Doctor Kitten Yo: sculpted
living0dead0punk: Yes! Whittled. Ok, maybe he is kind of wooden.
Doctor Kitten Yo: yes. but pretty