"Beautiful Brianne O'Neal (Lynda Carter) is a bartender at Kyle's, a Malibu restaurant. She's witty and smooth at handling the often obnoxious crowd at the bar. Her adept manner catches the eye of Justin Price (Granville Van Dusen), the chief psychiatrist at a local crisis centre. Justin convinces Bri to bring her rare ability for helping people to the Westside Hotline, a place where people with emotional problems can telephone for help. Her second day there, Bri begins receiving bizarre phone calls from a man who claims to be a murderer. He gives her clues in riddles and rhymes about his past murders. Bri begins to unravel the clues - and finds that she is about to become his next victim!"
If you've seen any Lynda Carter TV movie - or, indeed, any of her appearances in WONDERWOMAN, you'll know that she doesn't really become a character, as such, rather all her characters happen to be just variations of Lynda Carter. That's not to say she's a bad actress, she isn't, but it always feels that what you see is what you get. A case in point is her appearance in HOTLINE. On the surface her character has some quirky attributes: Brianne O'Neal ("I know it's a guy's name, but it's spelt different."), is a young widow; an art student working her way through college at a remote bar outside of Los Angeles, but you never really believe you are watching anyone but Lynda Carter.
One night at the bar, after the other waitress and her boss, Kyle (Monte Markham), leave for the night she tries to get a hanger-on, who has been calling her "sweet meat" all evening, to finish up his drink and head on home. However, the drunk has other ideas - especially as he'd already tipped her $20, and wants a return on his investment. As the situation is brewing another man enters and asks if he can use the phone. The drunk grabs Brianne's arm, and things look like they are about to turn nasty, but before they do she sweet talks him around and gets him to realise that it really would be a better idea if he went on home and slept it off. As the drunk leaves the stranger comes up and introduces himself as Justin Price (Granville Van Dusen), a psychiatrist (which we kinda guess when he foghorns into the phone, "What are the voices accusing her of this time?"). He flatters Brianne by telling her that she " .. handled that like a pro." (either that or he was insinuating that she was a hooker!). I think it was the latter, as he tells her he runs a place called the Westside Hotline centre "... where people with emotional problems can call for help." He suggests she'd make the perfect samaritan.
They part for the night and Brianne goes home to a rather swanky beach side residence (particularly swanky considering she's a struggling art student who had to take a bar job to get her through college!). No sooner has the top button of her blouse popped open we hear the sound of someone heavy breathing, and see a very dark shot from outside the window. It sounds like whoever is out there is doing something unmentionable in her rhododendrons, but, of course we don't see it - nor do we see any more of Brianne disrobing (this was a TV movie after all, although it may well have had a theatrical release overseas). As she takes a shower we are treated to the classic POV shot, as an unglimpsed someone with advanced but controllable asthma (they certainly don't make that much noise when they are out of the stalking mode) advances through her darkened house. As Brianne steps out of the shower she hears a heavy rapping at the front door, when she gets to it she asks who's there, and Justin answers. Understandably wary of letting him in she asks what he wants and he just asks her if she's OK, and then goes silent. Brianne gets a start, however, when he steps into her living room through an opened side door. He explains that it was already open and says he followed the drunk up to the house. Brianne phones the police, still not convinced about Justin. He, however, remains where he is and tells what he saw to the police when they arrive.
Relieved that Justin isn't her stalker (or is he?) she agrees to go on a date with him. As they have dinner her boss Kyle walks in with his friend Tom Hunter (Steve Forrest), a famous movie star who Justin is in great awe of when Brianne introduces them. Justin then shows Brianne around Westside, and again tries to convince her that she would be perfect at the job of talking people down from high ledges. She says she doesn't think so, but changes her mind and says she'll give it a go. Luckily for her, the first person she talks to is a teen runaway who sees the errors of her ways in about 10 seconds flat due to Mother Teresa Carter's silver tongue (I guess it was just lucky she wasn't trying to talk round an epileptic with a shotgun in their mouth and a finger on the trigger!). Convinced that Justin might have seen something in her after all (apart from her Miss World looks), she signs on to work there. However, within two days she's attracted the unwanted attention of a mystery caller (who the audience knows has already killed once when we saw a figure throw a body of a cliff just after the opening moments); he adopts the usual rantings and rasps into the phone stuff about "poisonous whores ... they must be hurt ... and I enjoyed it!". Her co-worker, Rick (Harry Waters Jr.), tries to convince her that crank calls are an "occupational hazard", and, in an unintentionally hilarious moment passes the phone over to Brianne, saying "It's for you", when the killer phones up and asks for her in his highly distinctive raspy voice. It is soon clear that the caller has set his sights on Brianne, and mysteriously tells her, "I'm ready to start the game". The game in question is him quoting lines from old nursery rhymes to her, like "Barber, barber, shave a pig. Lovely hairs will make a wig!". At first she has no idea what these actually mean until the body of a woman is found at the bottom of a cliff by two gormless looking teens with hairstyles that look like they were dared to sport, and Brianne is able to make the connection.
No one really believes that the caller is dangerous. Justin scoffs, "So far we have a couple of Son of Sam's, a Jack the Ripper - even a werewolf. And those are just the regulars!". However, Brianne is determined to prove the link between the caller and a series of murders from the past twelve years, before the caller - who calls himself the 'Barber' (as account of the fact that he cuts off his victim's hair - and in one case their head!) - decides that he's had enough of games and moves in to claim his ultimate prize: Brianne!
I'd be hard pushed to call HOTLINE an out and out slasher flick. Apart from the stalking scenes in Brianne's house and one where she thinks the killer is after her in a multi-story car park, it doesn't really kick into subgenre mode until the final reel (or, er, after the final commercial break). If anything, the film reminded me much more of a giallo, where the story is propelled forward by the killer giving Brianne clues and her rushing around and sleuthing, trying to make sense of the riddles. However, as opposed to a giallo, where there are usually a series of murders happening concurrently with the amateur detective work, here all the clues lead Brianne to link the Barber to a series of killings that have already happened (which is obviously very convenient seeing as it has to work within the confines of TV). However, the influence of the subgenre is unmistakable (even down to the central character's masculine sounding name), and it is obviously the TV industry's attempt to 'do' a slasher movie type of film, and wrap it up (and make it more respectable) by giving it more standard thriller trappings.
For what it is, HOTLINE is pretty good fun. The cast is made up of a slew of faces you'll recognise, but won't be able to place. Carter is amiable and sympathetic as the 'final girl', who has to wade through a sea of red herrings before getting to the truth. The pace may be a little languid at times, but the film never lost my interest and is fairly suspenseful throughout. Unfortunately, the phone calls from the killer - a device which worked with such chilling effect in films like WHEN MICHAEL CALLS (1972), BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974), WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979), and, of course, later with the SCREAM movies - fail to deliver many thrills. The Barber sounds like a rather arch cad (think Dick Dastardly with bronchitis), and only occasionally sounds anything like as threatening as he should.
However, the movie does step up a level as the killer's identity is revealed, and even hits a few creepy notes. The final showdown between Brianne and her secret caller, at the deserted bar, finally lets the director indulge his slasher movie, cat 'n' mouse leanings, as doors are kicked off their hinges, there's much screaming and chasing and a harpoon gun comes in mighty handy - and there's no red tights in sight!
BODYCOUNT 2 female:1 / male:11) Female body seen thrown over cliff