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.
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.