October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the best horror movies featuring spooky phones is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
When I was about three or four, I was obsessed with phones. Pay phones, specifically. I’d rush up to them, shouting in the natural accent of a child, “Pay pone! Pay pone!”, before my parents ushered me away from whatever phone booth I had locked my eyes on.
To curb my obsession, I was given a toy phone that I could make calls on, even if those calls only went to the companion phone the toy was attached to. But strangely enough, none of this has stopped me from being nervous about answering a random phone call today. Chances are, a lot of you reading this right now feel the exact same way too.
That’s because anxieties about picking up the phone is textbook millennial angst. Seeing an unknown number appear on our screens forces our hearts into our throats. Billions of possibilities present themselves in front of our anxious eyes, ranging from the glorious (“I just won something!”) to the horrifying (“Your insurance doesn’t cover your procedure!”)
But in the case of these ten phone horror films, as voted on by Brad Gullickson, Chris Coffel, Meg Shields, Rob Hunter, and yours truly, sometimes what’s on the other end of the line is something altogether worse than medical debts.
Ok, well, almost worse.
10. One Missed Call (2003)
There’s a deliciously sinister new urban legend at the center of Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call. Frankly, it’s so creative I can’t help but smile at its spooky inventiveness. Here’s the general set-up. Someone receives, as the title implies, “one missed call” from a number that appears to be their own. Upon listening to the subsequent voice message — which appears to have been sent days in the future — they hear themselves scream. This leaves them on pins and needles, painfully waiting for the day of their death to arrive. And what happens after they die? A vengeful ghost scrolls through their contact list, types in a new number, and the cycle repeats again. It’s an imaginative setup for a horror story that debuted at a time when cell phones were becoming even more ubiquitous. But it’s made better through Miike’s decision to make the vengeful ghost at the center of the story not just incredibly powerful, but impressively evil. It’s a devilish backstory that gives The Haunting of Julia a real run for its money in the “kids are inherently evil” department. (Jacob Trussell)
9. Lost Highway (1997)
There’s an undercurrent of horror flowing through much of David Lynch’s work, but none more direct than in Lost Highway. The horror comes to the surface with the Mystery Man, played by Robert Blake, in his final film role. Five years later, Blake was charged with the murder of his wife. He was eventually acquitted, despite later being found liable for her death in a civil suit. While this happened years after the making of this film, his appearance gives Lynch’s film — and this particular moment of telephone horror — added creepy depths that wouldn’t have been apparent in its original theatrical run.
Even without this true-crime element, Blake delivers a skin-crawling performance that leaves the audience with more questions than answers. How can the Mysterious Man seemingly be in two places at once, as he demonstrates to Fred (Bill Pullman) when he commands him to call his own house? Has he been the one sending mystery tapes to Fred? Why, after speaking with him, does Pullman’s character seem almost overcome by some feeling he can’t quite express? And why does all of this happen again to another person later in the film? These are questions that Lynch isn’t wont to answer, which allows the horror of this scary phone call to reach almost cosmic proportions. (Jacob Trussell)
8. Dial M for Murder (1964)
Swann hides in the shadows. He awaits a signal. The phone will ring. Margot will answer. He will strike and strangle her. It’s all in the title – Dial M for Murder. Of course, this is an Alfred Hitchcock endeavor. Things never go according to plan. Swann just doesn’t want Tony to rat him out as a blackmailer, so he’ll kill Tony’s wife to save his hide. His ill intent is rewarded with a set of shears plunged into his person and his life drained from him. The title delivers its deadly phone call, but that’s merely the beginning of so many bad things. Sins stack upon sins as folks scramble to pull themselves from their predicaments. When an easy answer rings, a deadly lesson is delivered. (Brad Gullickson)
7. Halloween (1978)
Among its many superlatives, the original Halloween is easily one of the earliest (and best) examples of suburban horror; a subgenre keen to contrast terror and vulnerability with the ostensibly “safe” promise of a gated community. But what do the suburbs have to do with telephones, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever had the displeasure of living in the ‘burbs, you’ll know that phones are a lifeline in a community where no one can (or wants to) hear you scream. Calling neighbors to let them know that a shadowy figure is looming ominously around your azalea bushes? Sobbing into the receiver while you whisper to the police that you’re being stalked by a rubber-faced lunatic? What about breathing heavily into a landline after shoving your kitchen knife into a teenager’s stomach lining? It’s a great dramatic device that makes a sleepy neighborhood feel that much more isolated. Unfortunately, for most of Halloween’s teenage victims, the only line of defense against the hulking brute is a dial tone. (Meg Shields)
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
When Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) picks up her bedroom phone and hears the voice of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) intoning “I’m your boyfriend now”, we shudder. But when he transforms the mouthpiece into a literal mouth that licks Nancy’s face? We get a full-body cringe. It’s one of the most skin-crawling but iconic images in the entire A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. It was even remixed for the meta-sequel Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. I believe this moment of phone horror has left a lasting impression because it foreshadows the zanier antics we’d see from our favorite dream demon in later Elm Street installments. It’s well-known that Freddy becomes more funny than menacing as the series unfolds, but it’s in over-the-top moments like this that prove his comedic stylings have always been on display from the very beginning. (Jacob Trussell)
5. 976-EVIL (1988)
There are too many good things to say about the cheese-ball classic, 976-EVIL. Not only is it well-written camp from future Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland, it’s creatively shot, features great effects, and houses a ridiculously charismatic performance from Sandy Dennis. But for the sake of this list, let’s focus on the most metal moment of phone horror the 1980s ever produced. As the credits roll, we see a man haunted by the sounds of ringing phones. Voices seem to erupt from the ether, beckoning him to answer the call, “It’s for you. Come to us. Join us.”
As he’s presented with various phones, he flees, before coming face to face with a ringing phone booth down a dark alley. He cautiously approaches the booth and, in spite of his better judgment, grasps the receiver. His hand suddenly constricts and the glass phone booth shatters. Then, inexplicably, he explodes in an inferno of flames, his body launching into the air, and straight at the screen. This moment of mayhem is only made better by the revelation of why these phone calls are so evil. They are coming from Satan himself, who runs a premium-rate phone service offering up spooky horoscopes. As we all know, the Devil loves staying abreast of what’s hip with teens in Ronald Reagan’s America. (Jacob Trussell)
4. Ring (1998)
Yes, the real scary object in every adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s Ring is the cursed VHS tape. Once someone watches the psychically recorded images, they receive a phone call informing them that they will die in seven days. Without the tape, the phone call wouldn’t be scary. But without the call, the scary tape wouldn’t have the button it needs to drive chills down our collective spines. That’s because director Hideo Nakata uses anticipation, not the caller on the other end of the line, to surface the creeps.
As the tape switches to static after our heroine first views the video, the phone rings. She doesn’t answer it right away. Instead, she stares at it in surprised perplexity. It slowly dawns on her that she has walked into a trap that will alter the course of her life. The dread that’s built into those spaces between is what makes this moment of phone call horror so effective and nerve-wracking. (Jacob Trussell)
3. When a Stranger Calls (1979)
“Have you checked the children?” This is a creepy line, but it’s made infinitely more so when it’s being spoken over the phone to a young babysitter in a stranger’s house. The film’s first act is a masterclass in building both terror and tension as a fantastic Carol Kane grows increasingly unsettled by harassing phone calls inquiring about the children upstairs… children that she hasn’t yet checked in on. This is already terrifying, but when the police call back telling her not to panic, that they’re on their way, and that the calls are coming from inside the house? Absolutely fucking chilling. The rest of the movie can’t quite recapture the highs of this horrifyingly scary opening, but it’s a guarantee you’ll remember those phone calls long after the movie ends. (Rob Hunter)
2. Scream (1995)
“What’s your favorite scary movie?” With all due respect to the other entries on this list, Scream should be the clear-cut winner for killer phone calls. Name a more iconic scene involving a phone than that opening. Can’t be done! Drew Barrymore gets a seemingly innocent, slightly flirtatious call while popping some Jiffy Pop before settling in with a VHS. After some playful back and forth, poor Drew is forced to watch her boyfriend gutted right before her eyes before she eventually suffers a similar fate. That one phone call sparked an entire franchise that centers on creepy phone calls. There is one thing about that opening that has always bugged me, however. Did Kevin Williamson forget that Jason is in the first Friday the 13th film, or was that an intentional goof to prove his killers weren’t as clever as they think? Hmmm. (Chris Coffel)
1. Black Christmas (1974)
Five years before When a Stranger Calls made the line “the call is coming from inside the house” a pop culture touchstone, Bob Clark leveraged the “babysitter and the man upstairs” urban legend to full effect for his proto-slasher Black Christmas. As the holidays roll around, and a group of sorority sisters bunker down for the break, they receive mysterious calls from a man they dub The Moaner, who screams obscenities and death threats before inevitably picking them off one by one. The phone calls are central to the growing horrors that enshroud the sorority house, making Black Christmas one of the finest films in the “phone calls are scary” subgenre. (Jacob Trussell)
Remember when you had to answer the phone without any way to know who was on the other end beforehand? Crazy. Anyway, read more 31 Days of Horror Lists!