Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned.
I’ll be shining a light in two directions — I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s entry comes to us from the early 80s and the great white north of Canada. It was the glory days of Canuxploitation with genre films like Terror Train, The Changeling, and Scanners making waves, but not every Canadian chiller found their audience. Smaller gems took time to be noticed including the oddly appealing The Pit, the underappreciated slasher Humongous, and this week’s Missed Connection… Murder By Phone.
A woman answers a ringing pay phone (these were public phones typically attached to walls or placed in booths that people could use to make calls after inserting the proper change) in a nearly deserted subway station, and what sounds like a busy signal instead sends a very different tone into her brain. Her eyes start bleeding, she begins to shake, and as small lightning strikes lash out from the receiver she’s thrown several feet through the air. The coroner rules it a heart attack.
Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlain) isn’t buying it. He’s an environmentalist now but was her science teacher, and he’s understandably concerned by the nature of her demise. Well, maybe more interested as a man of science than as a concerned teacher, but either way he’s not going to rest until he finds the truth. More deaths follow, some hearing only the tone while others include a brief exchange with a tonally-flat speaker, but the end result is always the same. Those on the receiving end of the call are blown across a room after bleeding from their head holes.
1982’s Murder By Phone (aka Bells, aka The Calling) is an odd little film that’s one part serial killer thriller, one part conspiracy thriller, and one part environmental tirade. The pieces don’t wholly come together, but at under ninety minutes it’s never dull.
That’s especially true when the phone’s ringing, and luckily for us the phone’s ringing through roughly half the film. Director Michael Anderson (Logan’s Run, Orca) builds some suspenseful beats around phones ringing, phones being answered, and phones exploding, and there’s no doubt that these sequences are the film’s best and most entertaining. It’s bloody without really being gory, but the fun of the scenes is found in the fireworks and rag doll shenanigans of tossing people through the air. One guy gets the call while sitting on a chair, and when the signal is triggered he goes flying — still seated in the chair — out the window of a high-rise building.
The in-between scenes aren’t nearly as exciting, but there’s a charm to the film’s endless disrespect for the phone company. A disgruntled company employee may be behind the murders, but the company itself is most definitely working overtime to cover it up. Bridger finds he’s being followed, and an illegal excursion into the company’s bowels turns up even more reasons to be suspicious of Ma Bell.
Chamberlain is a classy guy not typically found in such fare, and he’s joined in his endeavors by the even more sophisticated John Houseman. Supporting cast members meanwhile offer something of a who’s who of Canandian genre fare talents with faces recognizable from films like Cathy’s Curse, Rituals, and Happy Birthday to Me. Everyone’s doing good, sincere work with the silly premise they’ve been handed, and that serious tone — that goes out the window in the final minute — keeps viewers engaged throughout.
Murder By Phone ends with something of a whimper, but as mentioned above its brevity and fast pace make it easy to forgive such sins. There’s fun to be had with the phone murders in particular, and while the big corporate conspiracy angle doesn’t quite come to fruition it adds an unusual angle into the already odd serial killer setup. There are better phone-related thrillers out there, but there are also far worse and far less creative ones too.
Check out some of our previous Missed Connections.