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Phone Phreak: 976-EVIL on Blu-ray

  "But what I really want to do is direct!" We've all heard that one before, and it seems every big star from Sir Laurence Olivier to Madonna has wanted to try their hand at the helm of their own movie, always with wildly different results, but usually coming across as if self-indulgence was the name of the game. Robert Englund was a big star back in the nineteen-eighties, but largely with a very specific type of film buff: the horror fan, thanks to his role in the multi-instalment A Nightmare on Elm Street series from New Line. It would seem they wanted to keep him sweet, so agreed to allow him to direct something too.

Englund's filmography as far as direction goes stretches to a grand total of two movies, 976-EVIL from 1988 and Killer Pad from 2008, which should give you some idea of how successful he was at the job - though his debut did manage to muster up a sequel in 1991 which he had nothing to do with, indicating his name held enough cachet to give horror aficionados a reason to check out what he produced when he wasn't in front of the camera. He did not even appear in a cameo for 976-EVIL, staying offscreen throughout; even Sylvester Stallone could not resist appearing for a few seconds when he directed Staying Alive.

Not so Mr Englund, and there were rumours his efforts ran into problems and had to be completed with additional scenes shot by different people to try and make some sense out of it. It was accurate to observe 976-EVIL did not hold together very well, taking ages to get to the point in the theatrical release, never mind the extended cut, and when it did, using the excuse of a nightmare dreamscape world the characters were now inhabiting as its answer to why they seemed to be throwing just about anything at the wall to see if it stuck. Yet for all those misgivings, while it wasn't exactly David Lynch, it did work up a fever dream mood.

Maybe that was down to its behind the scenes issues, but sometimes a movie that barely coheres can pull off a nightmare authenticity: look at Edward D. Wood Jr's Glen or Glenda, which may be utter nonsense as a story, but does convey enough of the sheer bizarre to justify itself as something from its creator's subconscious. Not that 976-EVIL quite generated that kind of fascination, it was too mired in eighties shocker cliches to really be enough of its own thing in that style, with its nightmare as reality sequences, the girl who takes her top off as a prime victim (tip: don't take your clothes off in horror movies), and would-be cut-up humour.

Actually, you could watch this from start to finish and not be aware it was meant to be a horror comedy, and even after being told you may be sceptical, but whereas the Freddy Krueger franchise Englund had starred in injected a dose of laughs by increasingly having the villain evidently seeking the services of a Satanic Bob Hope's team as his writer, here the wisecracks were thinner on the ground. At least until the last half hour, where the lack of a Freddy-type character was made up for with the put-upon nerd lead, Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), transformed into the bad guy after phoning up the titular phone line a few too many times and paying the price.

Precisely how telephoning that number, which is revealed as more or less an answering machine when detective Jim Metzler investigates it, results in the darkest forces of Hell amassing to demand sacrifices by offering the callers magic powers, is unclear. But then, a lot was unclear about the storyline, and not merely because Englund chose to set his plot almost permanently in the hours of the night, with a few interludes when Hoax attends school, where he is bullied so he can exact terrible vengeance on those who have victimised him. It was as if Englund had seen Brian De Palma's film of Stephen King's debut hit Carrie and wanted to replicate it.

So Hoax got his own overbearingly religious mother (Sandy Dennis) to contend with, who causes... well, not as much trouble as you would think, presumably thanks to someone saying, wait, you know you're ripping off Carrie, don’t you? But Dennis was there, as was Robert Picardo from the Joe Dante films as someone called Mark Dark (a name deserving of more), who runs the phoneline business and is none the wiser as to what is going on than anyone else. It was a strange, all over the place item, managing a genuine tone of the bizarre without ever grasping a strong storyline that could have capitalised on that. Englund also directed two episodes of the Freddy's Nightmares television anthology spin-off straight after this, and 976-EVIL was about that level, kind of amusing junk, but easy to watch as at least a cash-in. Just don't expect any great revelations while watching it. Incidentally, the topless lady was Lezlie Deane, a musician who went on to form lesbian techno pop band Fem2Fem. The more you know...

[Eureka release this on Special Edition Blu-ray with these features:

Limited Edition O-Card slipcase [First Print Run of 2000 copies ONLY]
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
DTS-HD MA 5.1 and LPCM 2.0 audio options
English subtitles (SDH)
Audio commentary with director Robert Englund and set decorate Nancy Booth Englund
976-EVIL: home video version [105 mins, SD]: An extended version of the film from its original home video release on VHS
New interview with producer Lisa M. Hansen
New interview with special make-up effects artist Howard Berger (The Walking Dead)
New interview with special effects technician Kevin Yagher (Nightmare on Elm Street)
Limited Edition Collector's Booklet [2000 copies ONLY] featuring new writing by Craig Ian Mann.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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