[review by JA Kerswell]
You could say that I have a complicated relationship with DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE. Way back when, I was duped into thinking that it was ‘just’ another slasher movie. Presumably much like many of the patrons who handed over their dollar bills at the box office in early 1980 only to be visually assaulted by what one reviewer at the time remarked was: “[…] a paunchy pervert who prowls the streets in his jungle jacket picking up nubiles like loose change.” It even shared the double bill at times with Fred Walton’s more classically scary WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) - incidentally the financial success of which caused Crown International Pictures to retitle Robert Hammer’s film from HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER to DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE to capitalise on the then burgeoning slasher movie boom. Still this misdirection - phones barely feature and there’s precious little stalking let alone slashing - didn’t stop it from becoming the 105th biggest grossing domestic hit of that year (incidentally, it grossed more than Lucio Fulci’s ZOMBIE).
I was far too young to see its highly truncated British cinema release in 1980 and DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was long gone from video stores when I got around to renting tapes around the 1982-1983 mark (it was released in October 1981 on the Jaguar label in the UK). Although not prosecuted for obscenity (bar the finale there’s hardly a drop of blood on show throughout), the film was seized and confiscated in the UK under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act during the ‘video nasties’ hysteria. So, I must have seen it much later, when I was trying to track down those subsequently infamous titles. As I was a fan of the early 80s slashers that had survived the great purge, this was high on my must-view list. To say I was disappointed - not to mention creeped out (and not in a good way) - is something of an understatement. Despite being sold as such - through its very effective trailer - DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE barely qualifies as a slasher movie at all. However, after avoiding a repeat viewing, I was curious as to what I would think so many years later. Especially, as my thoughts on many of the movies from the time have mellowed - and, in some cases, done a complete 180 - since I started this site over 20 years ago. Was it really as grimy, as objectionable - and just flat out bad - as I remembered?
I think it’s fair to say that the film has a plot you could write on a post-it note. A deeply disturbed Vietnam veteran named Kirk Smith (Nicholas Worth) stalks the streets of a Hollywood down on its luck. A veritable vice party of strip shows, porno theatres and drug dealers on every corner. A kind of sun bleached mirror image of New York’s 42nd Street as seen through the fuzz of a VHS tape. Worth’s sweaty, swivel-eyed character hunts for young women under the unforgiving glare of a sweltering noon; posing as a photographer and promising them their big break in Tinseltown. Only to strangle them and defile their bodies post-mortem (the act of murder is shown in detail but the aftermath is largely left the imagination in a rare moment of restraint by the director). Smith has a lot of issues. Daddy issues. Religion issues. Army issues. And not least of all women issues (although how much this was ever meant to be a serious exploration of a mind in turmoil is hardly up for debate). Smith has found a release for his demons by killing young women (which the film tastelessly suggests has cured his crippling headaches). He phones a radio psychiatrist, Dr Lindsay Gale (Flo Lawrence (credited here as Flo Gerrish)), to hint that he has gone off the deep end (for some reason adopting a broad Mexican accent and calling himself Ramon). The radio news provides an abridged exposition by detailing how Los Angles is gripped by a wave of rape/murders. It doesn’t take long for Dr Gale to put the two together - and if she missed the point, Smith murders a woman who is on the phone during her call in.
Unsurprisingly, much of the film is made up with the police’s slapstick approach to catching the killer. Lead by detectives McCabe (James Westmoreland) and Hatcher (Ben Frank) they provide a double act in more ways than one. DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE is almost clinical in its approach. Director/writer/producer Robert Hammer offers up a recipe of a sensationalised murder every 20 minutes or so, with a curious mixture of grime and misplaced comedy providing the filling. Hammer maintained that Crown International Pictures insisted he ramped up the exploitation in the film (he even said he tried to tone down the nudity somewhat), but it’s a little hard to take seriously. Hammer was a one shot director (he never made anything else). The film’s tone is unique, but all over the place. A woman stalked or seduced by lies and then strangled with pantyhose and her blouse ripped off to expose her breasts after she is dead. No variation. Rinse and repeat. It is lethal in its predictability. Despite the lack of blood, the murder sequences are still disturbing to this day. One of the victims grasps a teddy bear to her chest as she pleads for her life. It is still squirm inducing. I can safely say that DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE is still not a party movie - unless your guests are some sick, sick puppies.
Most of Hammer’s ideas are half-baked. In the hands of a more seasoned director perhaps the tone wouldn’t be so epileptic. A side plot where McCabe berates Dr Gale’s liberal approach - and essentially suggests she would see the killer go free whereas he would support a more vigilante approach to justice despite being a cop - is abandoned as quickly as it appears (and seems to be little more that lip-service to the right wing knee-jerk that Charles Bronson movies were peddling in the 1970s and would repeat ad nauseum for the next decade at least). But, perhaps what side-slams the viewer most is Hammer’s veering from shock to farce. Following yet another repugnant, voyeuristic murder scene the cops follow a lead to a brothel which culminates in a hooker snorting coke off a pimp’s bald head during and a rambunctious scattering of eccentric clientele that wouldn’t be out of place in a Benny Hill skit.
You would be hard-pushed to defend DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE against charges of misogny (although I will argue to my death that the slasher subgenre as a whole is not fundamentally misogynistic). None of the women have any chance of fighting back against Smith’s murderous rage. If any female character is expanded beyond a cipher by expressing her fears or problems to Dr Gale she is soon snuffed out by Smith. Dr Gale herself, despite trying to reason with the killer, is captured and bound and is ultimately rescued only by the intervention of the male lead. Although the murders themselves are delivered straight, the manhunt is often played for laughs. A police briefing on the serial killer leaves one cop snoring. Whilst McCabe and Hatcher share jokes with each other throughout and are literally falling over laughing after the brothel bust. Still, bad taste is not illegal - and nor should it be. However, one can only imagine what a ‘woke’ millennial audience would make of Hammer’s film after finding a series such as FRIENDS to be so problematic viewed through the prism of 2019!
Arguably the film’s only real saving grace is Worth’s gonzo performance as the killer. Although broadly played to the point of absurdity at times, he is a formidable force on the screen and takes his portrayal to places few other actors might have dared go. Marylynn Uricchio in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette praised his performance whilst otherwise panning the movie. She stated, “Worth is a commanding figure, mostly because his bulk dominates each frame, and because he gets to deliver some wonder soliloquies that touch lightly on religion, his daddy and his physical prowess.”
Nicholas Worth was often typecast as the hulking villain. His main hobby was powerlifting, but was apparently in reality a gentle man who had graduated with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. A Vietnam veteran, Green Beret and military instructor in hand-to-hand combat he started his career with small roles in early 70s horror movies such as SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM (1973) and THE TERMINAL MAN (1974) before moving to TV appearances for much of the 1970s. Curiously, many of the promotional adverts and posters for DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE from Crown International Pictures exclaimed: “…and introducing Nicholas Worth as the Killer.” Worth was subsequently dismissive of the film calling it just a “tits and ass movie”. However, it was his commitment to the role of the sweaty psycho that gave it an edge. He wrote his own dialogue to flesh out the character and reputedly consulted a criminal psychologist to research his role (although that may have just been promo fluff by Crown International Pictures). He went on to have a varied film career - doing everything from providing the voice to The Reaper in Wes Craven’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES PART II (1984) to working with Sam Raimi on DARKMAN (1990) and appearing in David DeCoteau’s gay comedy romance LEATHER JACKET LOVE STORY (1997). Although dismissive of DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE he was proud of his genre work and said: “I'm not tired of playing villains. They could cast me for the rest of my life in horror films and I wouldn't mind.” Worth became a born again Christian, which led some to question his roles - especially his one in DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE. He defended it by saying it was his duty’s an actor, to present to world as it is. He passed away from heart failure age 69 in 2007.
The rest of the cast was mostly made up of recognisable small screen faces, including James Westmoreland as the grizzly cop McCabe. He was married to Kim Darby, who was in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995), before his death in 2016. Flo Lawrence also appeared in the same year’s SCHIZOID and Rob Zombie paid credit to her horror past by casting her in his LORDS OF SALEM (2012). Apparently, during filming, Westmoreland and Lawrence didn’t get along. So much so that, reputedly, she ate onions and he didn’t shave on the day they filmed their love scene. Ben Frank as Sgt. Hatcher’s debut role was in 1963 proto-slasher TERRIFIED (also put out by Crown International Pictures), which has a masked killer offing teens at a haunted house. Denise Galik was also in the little remembered quasi-slasher DEADLY GAMES (1982). Gary Allen had appeared in Alfred Sole’s proto-slasher ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1976) and the same director’s slasher spoof PANDEMONIUM (1982). Chris Wallace was also in the same year’s NEW YEAR’S EVIL. Gail Jensen, who played one of the victims, was married to David Carradine until she died from complications from alcoholism the year after his death in 2010.
DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was shot over 18 days starting on May 14 1979. It was shot in and around Los Angeles, including Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard. The budget was so low that no permits were obtained for filming. Many of the film’s extras were completely unaware of their involvement - including the two cops who talk to Nicholas Worth’s character on the street corner in one scene!
It was released to US screens in February 1980. Little more than three months after Fred Walton’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS. As I’ve mentioned, DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was originally titled HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER (or simply THE STRANGLER). It was partially inspired by two series of brutal murders that plagued California in the 1970s. One was Rodney James Alcala who killed five women between 1977 and 1979 after posing as a professional photographer. He was dubbed the Dating Game Killer after he notoriously appeared on the television show The Dating Game in 1978. Secondary was the killer (or, in actual fact killers plural) - dubbed The Hillside Strangler. It was likely that DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE was in development before Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono were arrested. The killer-is-still-out-there allure ended when they were finally apprehended in January 1979 (although Alcala wasn’t apprehended until later that year). This - as well as - the box office draw of Walton’s film prompted the title change. It certainly wasn’t the first time that true crime had inspired slasher cinema. The scene in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), where Laurie Strode’s cries of help in the closing scenes of the movie are ignored by neighbours, was based on the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. Arguably, PJ Soles death scene in HALLOWEEN - where she is strangled to death topless by Michael Myers with a telephone cord - was influential, also. Although, director Robert Hammer claims that the script for DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE existed before the release of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and was originally called NIGHTLINE. However, due to budgetary reasons, the action-heavy script was retooled and - like most slasher flicks - incorporated whatever was popular at the time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the critics weren’t kind on its release. Patrick Taggart in Austin American-Statesman called DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE a “… wrenchingly, wretchedly violent film” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gene Siskel in the Chicago Tribune, didn’t have kind things to say either. He called it “… an evil little thriller that panders to the sickies in the audience.” Siskel didn’t even make it to the end of the movie and said it was a “tragedy” that it was playing 36 theatres in the Chicago area, whereas Italian drama THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS was just playing only one. Burl Burlingame, in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, commented on the film’s uneven tone: “It can’t decide if it’s a psychological study of a nut - the strangler likes to burn candles while he’s busy strangling - or a parody, as an unintentionally funny policed bust of a massage parlour would have us believe.” The Philadelphia Daily News criticised the film for what it accused of exploiting real life victims saying “”Don’t Answer the Phone” does a job on those who died during the recent Hollywood Strangler crime wave in Los Angeles.” The reviewer admitted the actual violence on screen was “rather timid” and that, “In fact, the most violent aspect about “Don’t Answer the Phone” is the rapid personality changes that the Worth character undergoes.” Robert Alan Ross, in The St Petersburg Times, called it a “… so-bad-it’s-funny movie.” And concluded, “Unless one is thrilled by violence and bad acting, Don’t Answer the phone really means Don’t Mess with This Movie.” Michael Blowen, in The Boston Globe, lamented that: “Robert Hammer’s direction seems hell bent on revealing the actors’ incompetence. His camera dwells on their wooden faces and monotonous dialogue without once cutting away to something interesting like a shot of Malibu Beach at low tide.” He continued: “Finally, the title is misleading. It leads you to believe the killer makes phone calls and then assaults the victims. Not true. The title was designed to attract viewers that saw “When a Stranger Calls” a few months back. But the incompetent “Answer” makes the superficial “Call” seem like a masterpiece of suspense.” Owen Hardy, in The Courier-Journal, commented on how Flo Gerrish cheerily tells her tormented clients to regularly “Have a good day!”. He stated: “”Phone” is about a tubby, crazed Vietnam veteran who rapes and murders pretty women. Why one should not answer the phone is not explained.” He continued: “”Phone” tries so hard to be lurid it becomes ludicrous” and that Worth’s performance was overblown: “How this round, lumbering dinosaur of a man ever climbs through his victim’s windows to perform his dastardly deeds is not shown. Perhaps he explodes a hole through the wall and just rolls in.” Marla Jones commented in the Herald and Review, “While this film oozes forth it somehow manages to incorporate child molestation, prostitution, pimps, massage parlours (with an assortment of kinky customers), pornographic photography, drugs, suicide and a convenient (if superficial) love affair.” Perhaps the most rabid review of the film came from Bill von Maurer in the Miami News on April 7 1980. The review’s title screamed: “Don’t answer the phone!: it’s trash that’ll turn your stomach”. It continued: “”Don’t Answer the Phone” is a film no decent person can watch without a growing sense of outrage. … This kinky movie, without one single redeeming feature, insults its audience on every level. Its appeal is to the most basic instincts, its perverted excesses are unexcelled as an example of bad taste and its potential to trigger dangerous deviants is shockingly apparent. … If ever a movie deserved an X-rating - no, make that XXX - it is this one. … “Don’t Answer the Phone” is a porno-perversion magazine brought to the screen.” Von Maurer was especially outraged at the number of children at the screening he saw; although he did admit: “On the other hand, bless’ em, these youngsters had the good sense to laugh loudly at some of the more bizarre scenes in the movie.” He also admitted that he had no idea of proof that violent movies beget violence in real life. Lou Cedrone risked some outraging of his own in his review of the film for The Evening Sun: “This is what you might call a sex and violence movie, one that mixes jiggle with strangulation. All the victims go topless at death, save for one who is a heroin and coke user, and in this instance, the strangler may be doing the community a service.” Ed Blank, in The Pittsburg Press, complained about a couple with their seven year old son sitting behind him at a screening. The film had just opened in 16 theatres and drive-ins across the city. He dismissed it as “low-brow exploitation”. Jeanne Miller, in her review for The San Francisco Examiner, said: “One would have thought a comedy was playing yesterday afternoon at the St. Francis to hear the crowd laughing uproariously at “Don’t Answer the Phone.”
One of the things I love about movies released at this time is the way that they were promoted. DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE is no exception. What was termed an exploitation manual, and sent to theatres, was full of fun, playful ideas to promote what was paradoxically a sleazy low budget shocker. Crown International Pictures ’exploitation manual’ listed the following possible theatre tie-ins:
Buy your radio time from stations that like telephone promos. Phone-ins with passes or albums as prizes are natural tie-ins playing upon “DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE”!
Set up a telephone rotary on your theatre code-a-phone (tapes available from your Crown distributor). The message may keep callers from answering the phone and straight to your theatre!
Contact a telephone answering service who advertises for business and ask about including “DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE” in their ads if we include their logo and a liner in our teasers.
Don’t forget the power of press! Take out classified ads daily for a week prior to beginning your ad campaign with copy reading: “Are you alone? Don’t answer the phone!” Alternating with “Don’t answer the phone … he’ll know you’re alone!” If you list a phone number, callers can dial your telephone rotary message.
Set up a lobby display with a phone on a table draped in black. Place a small cassette recorder below the table with the taped teaser message playing continuously. For added impact, have your staff take turns dialling the number to ring the phone … but, if they’re wise they won’t answer it!
Crown International Pictures’ promotional push for the film made sure audiences thought they would be getting a thriller along the lines of Walton’s WHEN A STRANGER CALLS - albeit a sexed up one. One variation emphasised the phone above everything else; with a small image of a woman with her back to the camera unhooking her bra inside the ‘O’ of the word ‘Don’t’. Arguably, the tagline “He’ll Know You’re Alone” influenced Armand Mastroianni to change the name of his upcoming slasher film THE UNINVITED to HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE - which was released to US screens on 29 August 1980. Perhaps surprisingly, the poster for the film’s truncated UK cinema release (it was cut by about a minute) was even more sensationalised. It showed a painted image of Worth apprehending a woman on the phone as her blouse pops open with the tagline: “RUN - if you must … HIDE - if you can … SCREAM - but … DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE … He’ll Know You’re Alone!” It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that this influenced the playfully similar tagline to Wes Craven’s slasher renaissance-via-satire film SCREAM (1996).
Crown International Pictures took out a full page advert in Variety boasting the film’s financial success: “BOXOFFICE GROSS First 90 Days of United States and Canada Release: $2,837,624”. However, ultimately, Variety listed DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE as grossing $2 million. Box office tallies can be complicated, but Variety stated that this figure was “[…] determined by subtracting the flat theater rental fee from the total box office take.”
Ultimately, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE is saved by Nicholas Worth's remarkably gonzo performance, but overall as a wannabe slasher thriller it's mostly a wrong number.
female: 5 / male: 1