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The Antiquated Terror of 976-EVIL (1988)

976-EVIL is a movie about a premium-rate horoscope hotline that either kills or corrupts its callers. Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), the nerdy hero-villain, uses the hotline to escape his reality of not-having-sex and getting beaten in the graffiti-covered bathroom by high school ruffians. The hotline starts giving him advice, but soon it gives him claws, long, stringy hair, and a desire to kill his busty Spanish teacher.

A lot of movies simply do not profit from the passage of time. Quite the opposite, their relevance seems to evaporate as they're left in the wake of the "whirlwind of progress." These are movies that have capitalized on fleeting fads and unfulfilled promises. One might expect 976-EVIL to be amongst those. But, the strangest thing, this movie seems immensely enhanced by the otherwordliness of its obsolescence. It now evokes hidden, disconnected pockets of virtual space only accessed through antique rituals. Allow me to explain.

In 1971 the 976/1-900 number was first created. Nobody used it for six years, until good ol' Jimmy Carter came along and created the "Ask Uncle Jimmy" hotline. I'm not kidding. Of course, you couldn't have phone sex with Jimmy Carter--that was coming later. Not with Jimmy Carter, but with fat women with seductive voices. The 976 number had the unique property of being monitored and screened at local levels, which gave it a lot of versatility when it came to use as a premium, pay-per-call number. And since we live in America, that's exactly what happened.

In the '80s, the popularity of the 976 number, and later the 1-900 number, surged. All sorts of stupid shit was out there for you to call and waste money on. You could call the Two Coreys if you'd finally worn out that Lost Boys (1987) VHS tape. You could call the Warrant hotline and found out if she really is his cherry pie. You could call a joke hotline and get a cheap, vaudeville joke for $0.99/minute. There was an insult hotline that would, yes, just insult you. Another one would try to make you cry. Video game hints, various types of phone sex, KISS, Bill and Ted, Freddy Kreuger, He-Man--you name it, and there was a premium-rate number for it.

Here are some links to genuine ads for 1-900 numbers, for your historical enjoyment.
Freak Phone
Creep Phone
Spooky Stories Line

What's really interesting about these lines is that they were such an analog means of networking. The internet generation has grown up with a form of databasing virtual space that is easily accessible with a click. The 1-900 number craze was an attempt to carve out that virtual space, but when there was nothing but phone lines, tape reels, radio waves, and paper. The closest thing to databasing the space was a local TV ad you'd see once after an episode of SNL and never see again, or simply cheap, paper ads distributed by an old man in a greasy coat.

The idea that there could be lots of strange, obscure niches of this virtual space that you'd never know anything about was a really high probability. You'd just have to stumble upon the ad to know it's there. And so it wasn't implausible that something like the 976-EVIL number could exist. A goofy, occult horoscope number for whatever small audience would be interested. (Most of these numbers that were not aimed at children were, after all, aimed at lonely nerds with odd tastes.) That there could be sinister, rather than capitalistic purposes to such a line is not so difficult to imagine.

Something about that old, analog technology seems more feasibly malign. A mysterious website seems like a very twee sort of notion, as does a mysterious HDMI signal. A mysterious phone line or radio signal, perhaps because they have a more elemental nature than their human-coded digital cousins, just feel more genuinely frightening. Or perhaps because, on the internet, you can "navigate away". It's a distant, nebulous connection. A "cold connection," to steal one of McLuhan's notions. A phone line or radio wave seems to be a physical connection, present in your home, your ear, near your body: it's a "hot connection." You call someone and you're bringing them into proximity with you. You don't always know who or what you're calling, what you're letting in.

When I first watched 976-EVIL, I was perhaps ten years old. There was no internet--not as it is today, anyway. 1-900 numbers were still advertised on late-night TV and the scariest thing about them was the phone bill. Game tip hotlines were part of my world. The notion of a mysterious phone line like the one depicted in the movie was still evocative, I suppose, because stumbling upon that ad could actually happen. Really, what I identified with was the beaten-down protagonist. The narrative was current for me.

Watching it today, when 1-900 numbers, while extant in some countries, are very archaic, it is much more evocative. These mysterious, old virtual spaces are like sorcery; dialing in is a dark art not to be tangled with. Like slumbering gods, these spaces could still be out there, no longer advertised, far from any database, but waiting to be awakened. These lines were housed in physical locations and, as in this movie, could be automated by very clunky, analog machines with magnetic tape. These machines could still be out there. While most were not just innocuous, but even downright silly, there could, just maybe, be some with sinister purposes. Waiting.

As a narrative on its own, 976-EVIL is decent. The real tension in the movie is between Hoax and his studly, popular cousin Spike. They have a close relationship, despite being so different. Hoax turns to the phone line instead of his cousin when he's feeling particularly resentful and abandoned. He shoulda went with the sex line. If there's any major flaw in this movie, it's in how quickly Hoax turns to the darkside. It's not like he gradually gets addicted to the number. One or two calls, and he's already a-murderin'. A quirky detective is on the trail and actually visits the hotline's headquarters in a scene I particularly enjoyed. It's in this scene that we meet the machine behind the eponymous number.

976-EVIL is not such an amazing movie in itself, but it latched onto this strange artifact in such an evocative way. In 1988, the premium-rate hotline was a novelty, like internet cafes in 1998. Perhaps the farther we get from the reality of such analog hotlines, the more strange and mysterious 976-EVIL will seem. And the more strange and mysterious it seems, the better it will come off. At least this movie, and its Wynorski-directed sequel, stand as the only 1-900-themed horror movies out there.

Some Lair of the Boyg News

For any readers wondering where I've been for the last few months, I was busy writing and marketing my first novel, Nazi Sharks! A novel of big boobs and asshole sharks. Visit the website to learn more and, if you got the brass cajones, to buy a copy.

Notes from the Turkeyground: All the Turkey's a Stage

For the first time since I started writing these Notes from the Turkeyground four years ago, we're doing something different. The Turkey Challenge, to inform those not in-the-know, is an annual competition in which visitors of the IMDb Horror Board can watch horror movies rated below 5.0 and gain points based on their score. In previous years, additional points were earned by watching multiple 'turkeys' by a single director, five points for every three, or "trifecta." This was very successful and led to a lot of fantastic discoveries. This year, we've opened the doors to earning points from watching multiple turkeys, trifectas again, with a single actor. And I am very pleased with the results.

There are two kinds of actors who appear in multiple 'turkeys,' generally. Those that do b-movies as a rule. Actors like Tony Todd, Jeffrey Combs, Michael Ironside, Tiffany Shepis, Debbie Rochon, Linnea Quigley--they're all committed to the b-movie industry. Maybe they have or had dreams of making it big, but they seem content to stay in the world of horror conventions, gratuitous nudity, artificial blood and guts, and monsters. And we love them for it. The others are the actors who had already made it into the upper echelons and, for whatever reason, ended up with little A-list work. They took to b-movies to ply their trade and pay their bills.

My wife and I decided to start our challenge with some of the latter, Corin Nemec and Eric Roberts (no relation). Y'know, we often take our less successful actors for granted. We find it funny or ridiculous to see C. Thomas Howell in cheap b-movie after cheap b-movie, Eric Roberts in made-for-SyFy movies, and the same for Corin Nemec, Michael Madsen, Casper van Dien, Sean Patrick Flannery, amongst others. I'm sure these actors are not where they wanted or expected to be in their careers. They've either made bad choices in life or in agents and have found it harder to grasp roles in A-list movies. Or it may simply have happened with no particular reason standing out.

The thing we forget is that these actors really are professionals. The screenplays they're given are not always fantastic, the dialogue often foolish, their screen partners are bimbos and CGI monsters--but they're pros and they're often really good at what they do. They try to make these silly lines and roles work, and they often succeed. They take the time to put in an actual performance. They don't just draw in a crowd from name recognition. They actually do elevate these movies with their talents and professionalism.

First up was Endangered Species (2003), a fantastic blend of cop action, sci-fi, comedy, and horror. Of course, it's written and directed by one of the greatest b-movie directors of all time, Kevin Tenney. That helps. It also stars Eric Roberts in a role where he can shine--the kind of role with lots of snide remarks and glib comraderie. Arnold Vosloo and John Rhys Davies only add to the entertainment. A movie of sweet tatas, lots of alien killin', explosions, car chases, and tons of Tenney's jokes. This is how the Turkey Challenge is meant to start and what it's all about. Finding movies like this.

The Eric Roberts trifecta took us through Self-Storage (2013), another highly-enjoyable independent movie, starring and directed by Tom DeNucci. This one is about a stoner loser who lives and works at a self-storage facility. On his last day, he throws a party and stumbles upon his boss's more nefarious activities. Roberts is always a great, sleazy villain, because he's just so glib. He's the cold, always bemused villain. This is one of those b-movies that offers the sex, tits, and blood, but tries to have heart and romance. Sean of the Dead influenced, I guess. Then came Camp Dread (2014), an even more independent and lower-budgeted movie. Eric Roberts plays the director of some thinly disguised Sleepaway Camp movies and decides to resurrect it for a new generation using an actual camp for juvenile delinquents. Soon the kids are really getting murdered. The plotting and pacing of this movie is dead-on, showing a lot of control. I was impressed. Eric Roberts makes his wacky character work very well, putting real conviction behind some lines that just shouldn't be convince at all. It was fun just to see him at work, not just putting in a five minute cameo, like Danielle Harris does in this movie.

Corin Nemec's movies were a little more sedate. We'd enjoyed Nemec's Sand Sharks (2011) last year. Jurassic Attack (2013) was a phoned-in five-minute role with little real connection with the rest of the plot. The movie itself, however, wasn't too bad. A more exploitative approach to The Lost World involving submachine guns, CGI, and gore. Sea Beast (2008) and RoboCroc (2013) had a lot more Nemec, but he wasn't up to his goofy self. He was the responsible, hero dad in Sea Beast, fighting off amphibious monsters intent on killing his slutty daughter. RoboCroc was the best of the three, giving Nemec room to be more of a weirdo. It's what he's good at. Dee Wallace also shows up as the evil scientist. Scientists are always bad news in these movies. Her nanoprobes make a good croc go real bad. No tits or outstanding gore to remark upon, just some good monster movie fun.

We then moved onto a b-movie master, one Mr. Tony Todd. We started with Jack the Reaper (2011), because it was on Netflix. I wasn't expecting much from this. A bunch of misfit teens go into the desert and find a mysterious amusement park. Anyone with half a brain already knows this is a Reeker (2005) rip-off. But so what? I kinda like the character interactions. While nothing original, it is handled well enough to be quite fun. Tony Todd wasn't in it enough, but he was his usual, intimidating self for the four minutes he's there.

The next Todd movie was a much better hit. Dark Reel (2008), an underrated picture by Josh Eisenstadt, starring Edward Furlong and Tiffany Shepis. Just an average horror fan and nice guy, Furlong wins a competition for a non-speaking part in his favorite scream queen, Shepis, latest epic. As he arrives, someone decides to start killing everyone involved in the cheap pirate movie. Tony Todd gets one of my favorite Todd roles ever as the neurotic detective who suspects Furlong. I'd never thought of Todd as a comedy actor, but I haven't enjoyed him this much since Night of the Living Dead (1990). Very well written and shot better than most Hollywood movies, Dark Reel should be seen.

The Todd trifecta ended on a lame, British note, the found footage movie Dead of Nite [sic] (2013). Todd plays the proprietor of a supposedly haunted house. Some loser ghost hunters go in with their cameras and die. A waste of time and Todd.

On my own, I decided to indulge in the gift that keeps on giving that is Michelle Bauer. Of all the Big Three scream queens from the '80s, Bauer was probably the most talented overall. Linnea was the cutest, Brinke had the best body and that raven hair, but Bauer could act--and do comedy! She was also the wildest, having done hardcore. I watched my favorite Bauer films: Beverly Hills Vamp (1989), which has become one of my all time favorite movies and probably my top cheer-up movie; The Phantom Empire (1984), where she's the always nearly-naked 'cave bunny'; Evil Toons (1992), where she gets a brief cameo as Dick Miller's dildo-loving wife; Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama (1988), Witch Academy (1994), oh my! I also got some new Bauer movies under my belt, namely the zonked-out bigfoot epic, Demonwarp (1988). Vampire Vixens from Venus (1995), a movie with all of the right content and somehow just falls short of the mark--the tits, monsters, and comedy is there, but it feels wrong. And Gingerdead Man 2 (2008), a worthy entry in the annals of really weird sequels--right up there with Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and Return to Salem's Lot (1994). Bauer appears to have had some implants in Gingerdead Man 2, but she never popped 'em out, so who can say? (If you're reading, Michelle, help me out here.)

A few more memorable experiences came from our late-in-the-month Karen Black trifecta. She was her busty, seductive self as the vampiress in the unique vampire movie, Children of the Night (1991), an unjustly forgotten movie from Fangoria back when Fangoria was still relevant. She was the TV-obsessed old lady in Ooga Booga (2013), a Full Moon killer puppet movie (it's about all Full Moon does anymore) we liked enough to rewatch. I forgot there was a huge-hootered skank in this movie, apparently played by porn star Siri. Worth watching for them melons alone. But the movie that made me miss Karen Black most was Auntie Lee's Meat Pies (1992), a crazy backwoods cannibal movie in the vein of TCM and Spider Baby, except this one has tons of sexy, big-titted girls in skimpy clothing. Auntie Lee's nieces may be worth getting cannibalized over. Also stars Mr. Miyagi.

We spent some time with our pal, Sid Haig. Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006) was nowhere near as bad as we were lead to believe. Not a remake at all, but a case of life imitating art, with a flair of modernization, humor, and some zombie titties, I thought this movie was a lot of fun. Haig was also in the NotLD-themed Mimesis (2011), another, more logical, case of life imitating art, that was another good time. Never accept a random slut's invitation at a horror convention--moral of that story. Finally, Haig's most expansive role was as the amicable shopkeeper in the Louisianan monster movie, Creature (2011), a perverse tale of incest, backwoods rituals, bunch-of-douchebags-in-the-woods, and horny monsters. I loved it. Far from flawless, but it's everything a movie called Creature should be.

We also followed Rutger Hauer through Argento's Dracula (2012), which was sexier and better than I expected, thanks to Miriam Giovanelli. And Kretschman actually makes a pretty good Dracula. But what was with the giant insect? I don't get it. Then through Dead Tone (2007), half fun slasher-movie, half anti-prank call public service announcement. The more you know. Finally, the British ripoff of graphic novel Preacher, The Reverend (2011). The best way to clean up a sleazy town filled with thugs and prostitutes? Anglican vampires. This was a surprisingly fun movie, like Walking Tall with more vampires and busty prostitutes.

We decided to end the challenge with a series, going through the Killjoy trilogy from Fullmoon. Like a turkey itself, we began with the dark meat of the first Killjoy (2000) and ended with the white meat of the third. Because the first Killjoy has an all-Black cast. A cheap film with limited inventiveness, it still manages to have some moments, as the evil clown takes revenge for a nerd's demise. The second and worst of the series, inventively titled Killjoy 2 (2002), has mostly Black teens in the woods with Debbie Rochon and a blond, hillbilly racist. Killjoy is elaborated as a revenge demon in this movie. They run with it in Killjoy 3 (2010), where Killjoy's mythology is described at length. This is probably the best movie in the series, just because it's the most inventive with the kills and has some decent writing. Strangely, there's only one Black cast member.

So that was our Turkey Challenge for 2014. We got to spend time with some old friends, like Tony Todd and Karen Black, meet some new friends like Tifany Shepis and Tom DeNucci. I learned a little more about some of them, got to appreciate them more for what they do. Best of all, I found a lot of great movies I'd never seen and rewatched some old favorites. The lowest point, Marina Monster (2008), at least was worth laughing at. A successful challenge, but we're full for now. We gorged ourselves on turkey again, and can't wait to do it again next year.

Paranormal Activity 5: The Marked Ones (2013) - 3/4

I never enjoy the Paranormal Activity movies that much. Yet I find myself watching every time a new one comes out. I don’t know why I haven’t given up on the series yet. Probably for the few moments in each movie that’s actually quite good. At any rate, I’m glad I kept watching. Paranormal Activity 5 is the best of the series, mitigating some, though not all, of the series’ flaws. It’s actually a pretty good horror movie.

There are some issues with the Paranormal Activity films that vex me every time. The main issue is that, for the most part, nothing happens. I understand the intention. The films repeat banal, mundane non-events so often—when we know there’s more going on—that we’re supposed to be writhing with suspense during every pointless shot of the backyard pool. I was writhing, alright. And moaning, “Another shot of the pool!” And then, when you least expect it, you get an eruption of the supernatural. It’s a legitimate technique that’s just belabored to an extreme. Most of the movie isn’t movie at all.

The other issue that irritates me is that the protagonists really don’t ‘protag.’ This is worse than the boring non-events. The characters of the Paranormal Activity movies spend most of the time ensuring that something sinister is indeed afoot. Once they receive confirmation, they wait around until they die, tossed like ragdolls by forces they’re powerless against. Whether it’s the demonic entities or the coven that serves them, evil always triumphs over good. Because good doesn’t do jack shit.

I suppose it’s just the Paranormal Activity philosophy that passivity generates more fright for the viewer. The moment the hero or heroine starts fighting back, it’s more adrenaline than fear, more action than terror. I don’t think that’s true—High Tension and Dog Soldiers, amongst others, seem to prove otherwise—but Oren Peli seems to believe it.

Each film in the series does tend to betray Peli more and more, developing plots and vague attempts at action. Paranormal Activity 5 finally escapes the stifling atmosphere before going back into freefall. In this one, some Hispanic teens at an apartment complex get a video camera and decide to record the creepy, old lady downstairs. They find her prancing around a naked girl with big tits. Not long after this, the old lady is murdered and they think their class valedictorian was responsible. Before they can crack the case, one of the teenagers is suddenly gifted with supernatural powers and supernatural roid rage.

The style is a lot more dynamic than the previous Paranormal Activity movies. These kids move around instead of just setting up the camera for still shots of something that may or may not happen around the pool/closet/Playstation. With that comes the most obvious response of, “Why the hell don’t they put down the camera?” It may not make sense, but at least it makes a movie. They try to fight against their supernatural foes. And while it ultimately ends as every Paranormal Activity movie ends, at least one semi-automatic weapon has been fired before it gets there. Moreover, there’s a girl with big tits.

I also enjoyed the fact that the kids are Hispanic apartment dwellers instead of White yuppies with more money and picket fences than common sense. If I had to see another White guy thrown around a tastefully furnished middle class room by an invisible presence, I might’ve been done with the series. I don't think there's any real 'subtext' about apartment life or Hispanic American culture; it just revives the series with more energy and a fresh perspective.

What’s also kinda neat is how every Paranormal Activity movie builds on this mythos they have going on. It’s building at a snail’s pace, but a little more is invented with each movie. This one somehow ties into the previous movies. Rather than sticking in the same ‘family drama,’ the connection is a lot more creative. I actually enjoyed this one as a movie in its own right and as a Paranormal Activity movie.

Road Games (1981) - 2.5/4

For all of us who’ve ever thought Rear Window (1954) would’ve been better as an Australian trucker movie with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, well, there’s Road Games. Written by the great Everett De Roche for Richard Franklin (who went on to do Psycho II (1983)), Road Games is a very fun movie that’s probably a lot more light than it ought to be.

Stacy Keach is Pat Quid, the over-educated, wisecracking, American trucker who reads Chaucer to his pet dingo for fun and hauls pig carcasses across Australia for work. My kinda guy. When Quid notices some suspicious activities surrounding a mysterious van (is there any other kind?), like the sexy hitchhiker it picked up just kinda disappearing, he begins to wonder if that guy isn’t the Ripper he keeps hearing about on the radio.

Like Rear Window, we’re supposed to wonder all along if the guy in the van is really a killer or just a guy who likes screwing hitchhikers—not a crime in Australia at that point. But I don’t think there’s any real doubt about who the killer is or whether Quid is over-imaginative. Keach is so damned likeable in the part, there’s no doubting him. The real question is whether he’ll be able to convince the other loonies he meets on the road.

But Quid doubts himself. And as he does so, various oddballs from the Australian roads come his way, much to our amusement. There’s a lot of good comedy here, like in many of Hitchcock's quirkier films. And it serves a purpose. The suspicions begin to fall on Quid, as his efforts to thwart that van he keeps stumbling upon get him in deeper and deeper trouble.

Jamie Lee Curtis shows up as a helpful hitchhiker, ‘Hitch,’ interested in solving crimes and a little slice of Keach. Fresh off Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Prom Night (1980), and Terror Train (1980), she comes with the promise of getting a good slasher movie. But that never really happens. More Rear Window than Dressed to Kill (1980), the killer remains at a distance, observed and, since we’re in a truck, stalked, but never really confronted or fled from. In fact, the killer’s identity is ultimately quite a let-down. There’s little real carnage or thrills, just classical suspense. 

That’s where the Hitchcockian style tends to hurt the movie, as it seems to really need a more vicious slasher element to it. Instead, we stick close to our protagonist and the final confrontation can only go one way. It’s rather quaint. But the playfulness of Road Games goes a long way to mitigate these disappointments. Quid and Hitch are fun to hang out with.