2 star   

directed by: Alberto De Martino
starring: Telly Savalas, Anne Heywood, Osvaldo Ruggieri, Giorgio Piazza, Willeke van Ammelrooy, Rossella Falk, Antonio Guidi, Roger Van Hool, Ada Pometti, Alessandro Perrellax

choice dialogue:

"I'll make your life hell. That will be your punishment."

- Eleanor gets revenge

slash with panache?

[review by JA Kerswell ]

Alberto De Martino's 1972 giallo THE KILLER IS ON THE PHONE is less a whodunnit and more a whydunnit. Another question that resides is why the film's title is as it is, as the killer is barely on the phone at all.

  Despite a few flourishes THE KILLER IS ON THE PHONE is not your typical giallo

Eleanor Loraine (Anne Heywood) is a theatre star busy rehearsing for her role as Lady Godiva in a Belgian production. However, a chance meeting with a sardonic hit man Ranko Drasovic (Telly Savalas) – as he makes moves on his next victim – causes her to have a funny turn. All it takes is watching him drink from a water fountain and him eyeballing her at Ostend port and she drops into a dead faint.

On waking, Eleanor has developed amnesia and can remember nothing about the past five years. Indeed, she believes that her late lover Peter (Roger Van Hool) is still alive. After trying to phone him at the theatre that she's rehearsing in she is shocked when her sister Dorothy (Willeke van Ammelrooy) tells her he is dead.

Seemingly concerned for her safety, Dorothy and the man who says he is Eleanor's husband, George (Giorgio Piazzi) are joined by her handsome co-star Thomas (Osvaldo Ruggieri) at her hospital bed side as the psychiatrist gives her truth serum to try and kickstart her memory. However, Eleanor is convinced that Peter is really still alive and they are all trying to conspire against her. What's worse is that the drugs make her memories become a jumbled mess where Drasovic becomes a fixture. In what could be a flashback or a hallucination he ties her to a doorframe and rips her top off; caressing her naked breasts with a knife.

Why has Eleanor lost her memory? Why is Rank Drasovic stalking her? Is Peter still alive? Are her friends and family trying to drive her mad? How much did the makers of J&B whiskey pay to have their admittedly delicious tipple shoehorned into almost every single shot of this movie?

  Ahead of his career-defining turn as KOJAK, Telly Savalasplays on the other side of the law here

If you're expecting THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970) or – given its title – a kind of proto-WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979) then you are likely to be disappointed with THE KILLER IS ON THE PHONE. As I've already mentioned, the film is not a whodunnit. It is clear that Telly Savalas is the killer from the off, but the intriguing question is why has he delayed the hit he has been paid to carry out (a wealthy business man travelling to London) to stalk and attempt to murder Eleanor after spotting her at the port? The first half of the movie semi-successfully plays on a surreal, dreamlike ambience where Eleanor flits between fearing for her sanity and reverting to her flirtatious and assertive self. I say semi-successfully because the first 45 minutes are surprisingly languid for a supposed thriller. The film flits to the past and back again, with Eleanor invariably running around in slow motion with chiffon artfully trailing her – and pouting at Peter (who disconcertingly looks like a cross between Peter Sutcliffe and Oddbod from CARRY ON SCREAMING (1966).) Drasovic spends a lot of time stalking her and making bungled attempts on her life.

When De Martino finally allows Drasovic to don the black leather gloves and brandish a flick-knife you can only suppose that he was playing lip-service to the popular giallo genre of the time, rather than embracing it with both hands. The scene where Eleanor is menaced and attacked by a knife-wielding assailant at the top of a set of stairs is the most obvious giallo set piece, but even that turns out to be a cheat (as it is actually part of a flashback to a play she was in). Having said that, THE KILLER IS ON THE PHONE does come alive in its second half and Heywood does a serviceable impression of Edwige Fenech as the woman battling to regain her memory and dodging the flashing blade at the same time. The film also makes good use of the theatre setting during the climactic cat-and-mouse scenes between Eleanor and Drasovic; bringing to mind similar settings in Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971), Giuseppe Bennati's super trashy later giallo THE KILLER RESERVED NINE SEATS (1974) – as well as Michele Soavi's excellent love letter to the giallo and the American slasher STAGEFRIGHT (1987). The film also makes good – and deadly – use of the final curtain.

  Eleanor (Anne Heywood) meets a vaguely sinister dwarf on a bridge. As you do

Heywood was an interesting choice as a giallo heroine. An ageing English beauty (who was born under the name Violet Pretty), she was popular in Italy at the time (perhaps because of her passing similarity to Sophia Loren). However, Heywood was perhaps a little long-in-the-tooth to be playing the damsel in distress. On the other hand, whilst still displaying the lithe body of a teenager (which she flaunts throughout the film) her face remains beautiful, but is tinged with a hardness that suits her character well. She is a better actress than Fenech, as evidenced by her rousing speech from Macbeth during rehearsals – although she is meant to be doing Lady Godiva! In later years Heywood seemed to have been attracted to extreme roles – either by desire or necessity – including GOOD LUCK, MISS WYCKOFF where she falls in love with her own rapist and RING OF DARKNESS where she nude wrestles with her on-screen daughter (both 1979).

Savalas is a blast in this, as the wry hit man who always seems to be quietly amused by the proceedings (just on the verge of embarking on his career defining turn as KOJAK). However, given the nature of his job his character is not especially skilled at bumping off Eleanor – and in perhaps the best scene of the film he kills her stand-in by mistake; kissing her through a curtain as he stabs her in the stomach. He only realises his mistake when her Lady Godiva wig comes off in his hand.

The film also features giallo veteran Rossella Falk as Peter's sister in what is little more than an extended cameo. However, she holds the key to the mystery – and whilst the plot twist of why she seemingly hates Eleanor is a doozy it is very possibly a nod to Heywood's turn as a lesbian in THE FOX (1967).

  A little off the sides please

THE KILLER IS ON THE PHONE was filmed in Brugge and Ostend in Belgium. Perhaps an odd choice for Latin bloodust, but this film certainly wasn't the only giallo to play away in colder climes and joins such other examples as THE CRIMES OF THE BACK CAT (also 1972) (Copenhagen) and THE IGUANA WITH THE TONGUE OF FIRE (1971) (Dublin). The setting also allows for an unforgettable scene where Eleanor has a hallucinatory stand off with a Belgian dwarf dressed as a jester!

Like many Italian directors of the time, Alberto De Martino (presumably no relation to Sergio Martino) had jumped between genres with ease. He made the similarly atypical giallo THE MAN WITH ICY EYES (1971) the year before with another giallo regular Barbara Bouchet. Amongst other films, De Martino went on to make EXORCIST and OMEN rip-offs (THE ANTICHRIST (1974) and HOLOCAUST 2000 (1977) respectively) before signing off with another giallo FORMULA FOR A MURDER in 1985. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot the name Aristide Massaccesi in the titles, who provides the film's crisp cinematography. Of course, Massaccesi will be better know to horror and trash fans as Joe D'Amato (the man who gave the world gut-munching slashers ANTROPOPHAGUS (1980) and its quasi-sequel ABSURD (1981)). Finally, whilst Stelvio Cipriani's score isn't among his best it is still a lovely accompaniment to the proceedings.


BODYCOUNT 7  bodycount!   female:2 / male:5

       1) Female stabbed in the stomach
       2) Male hit over the head and drowned
       3) Female stabbed in the stomach
       4) Male shot in the head
       5) Male stabbed in stomach
       6) Male stabbed in stomach
       7) Male crushed to death by curtain