With parents panicking over excessive screen time, the damaging effects of social media, cyber bullying and exploding devices you would think that a fear of phones is a modern dilemma. Unexpectedly you would be wrong.
Flash back to the 1980’s and premium-rate telephone number’s were all the rage with a whole host of naughty 976 numbers serving up a variety of services including psychic readings, sex lines, betting tips, chat lines and advice on almost everything for the caller to access with the touch of a dial.
Everyone from Hulk Hogan to New Kids on the Block to Dionne Warwick had a phone line offering their fans an opportunity to talk to them (or at least a recording of them) for a hefty price. Throughout the decade it was common to see ads promoting 1-900 numbers featuring famous characters from Saturday morning cartoons and even Santa Claus all aimed at children and causing families to receive unexpectedly huge phone bills.
Off the back of all this came 976-Evil which alongside Evilspeak (1981) dealt with the increasing anxiety of adults on the effects of telephones and computers coming into the home. Viewed as a hidden insidious evil masquerading as a positive tool, as detailed in the fantastic Satanic Panic edited by Kier-La Janisse and Paul Corupe, parents considered the teenagers of the times to be particularly susceptible to ‘techno devilry’ brought into their lives through the phone lines.
The movie sees a outbreak of supernatural murders taking place all linked to a hotline for “horrorscopes” accessible though dialling 976-Evil from any phone. Bad boy Spike (Patrick O’Bryan) starts using the number for advice when he hits a patch of bad luck after loosing at cards to the local gang and finds it to be almost uncannily accurate.
Prompted to steal from his Aunt Lucy (Sandy Dennis in a sensational turn) to pay his debts Spike inspires his cousin Hoax (Fright Night’s Stephen Geoffreys) to contact the mysterious phone line in a bid to escape both his overbearing mother and looser status at school.
Dreaming of a date with Spike’s girl Suzie (Lezlie Deane seen in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare) and a way of getting revenge on the local bullies Hoax becomes more and more obsessed with calling 976-Evil and receiving its increasingly more devilish advice. The more he calls the more Hoax transforms and the people around him pay and its not with cash but with their blood.
With a solid cast it is Stephen Geoffreys who really shines as Hoax, a character whose name not only betrays the filmmakers true feelings on the parental panic over premium-rate telephone numbers but also the concept that anything can push an already psychologically damaged person to the edge and beyond.
Ignoring the very real supernatural forces at work Hoax’s progression from introverted outsider to extroverted psychopath is wonderfully well realised by Geoffreys and after watching how he is treated by his religious zealot of a mother and the punk wannabe gang the audience can’t help but feel a slight bit of sympathy for the damaged looser even when he is dismembering his tormentors.
Written by Rhet Topham and Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) and featuring incredibly practical effects work from Robert Kurtzman and Howard Berger, 976-Evil is directed by Freddy himself Robert Englund who does a fine job helming his first horror feature.
Building the tension and terror throughout various characters plot lines converge until Hoax and his descent through demonic forces takes centre stage and we are rewarded with a gloriously gory final act full of nasty slayings and quick wise cracks that Krueger would definitely approve of.
A product of its time 976-Evil is most definitely dated however thats not necessarily a bad thing and lovers of 80’s horror will be overjoyed at Eureka Classics beautiful Blu-ray, available for the first time ever in the UK, which is packed as ever with amazing extras including an extended version of the film from its original home video release on VHS and audio commentary with Robert Englund and set decorate Nancy Booth Englund.