Posted by Susan Doll on October 29, 2012
Not only do I still have a landline, but my primary phone is a bright red Western Electric desk phone, Model 2500, made between 1968 and 1983. That makes my red phone 20 to 35 years old, and the sound is still clear and true. I paid five dollars for it in a second-hand store. It is part of the décor of my office—an item with weight and presence. I wouldn’t take the next five generations of iPhones for it. My Western Electric 2500 doesn’t twitter, beep, laugh, play the latest tune, or make baby noises. When I get a call, my phone rings loudly with authority, forcefulness, and sometimes alarm. My phone is the type used in horror films by unseen evil-doers, violent psychopaths, and even ordinary murderous husbands who want to menace innocent characters.
The telephone profoundly changed society, connecting human beings together in a way Alexander Graham Bell could not have anticipated when he asked his assistant Watson to “come here” during the first successful phone call. The phone collapsed time and distance to make instant contact and communication possible. The ability to “reach out and touch someone” anywhere at any time was perfected over the decades until it was taken for granted. But, that line of communication is two-way, and it is just as easy for someone—or, something—to reach in to your home and touch you in ways that are definitely not warm and fuzzy as suggested by old AT&T commercials. And, many a thriller and horror flick exploited the dark side of instant communication by depicting the telephone as an instrument of terror.
Movies with menacing phone calls and unwanted communications from beyond the pale worked best in the age before cellphones. Somehow a tiny cellphone with all the bells and whistles just doesn’t seem ominous. No shot of a cell phone can compare with the iconic view of a telephone in the foreground in a low angle as a potential victim hovers nearby, waiting for it to ring but hoping it won’t. In these films, the telephone makes for an interesting contradiction: It is the only lifeline to the outside and possible safety, and yet, it never works that way because the lines will be cut, or—worse—the phone allows something evil inside.
BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). A psychopath menaces a group of college girls from inside their sorority house in this precursor to the slasher genre. Black Christmas made extensive use of subjective camera to represent the killer’s point of view and offered a twisted psychopath scarred by some unknown childhood tragedy. But the most frightening part of the film was its use of sound, because the killer’s presence is accompanied by his moans, groans, and creepy childlike babbling, which the victims—and the viewers—hear over the phone when the killer calls. The detectives who are tracking the killer try to trace the calls with the help of the phone company, leading to a scene that depicts tracing a call, circa 1970. A phone man follows the signal around a room full of lines, wires, and equipment—a relic of a bygone era. My favorite fact about Black Christmas is that it was directed by Bob Clark, who is best known for the family holiday classic A Christmas Story.
WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (1979). The story of a maniac taunting his victim with phone calls from inside the house was familiar as an urban legend during the 1950s and 1960s. And, at the beginning and end of When a Stranger Calls, babysitter Carol Kane is stalked via the telephone by a psychotic merchant marine. The storyline was tailor-made for teenagers, many of whom earned disposable income through babysitting and who also spent countless hours tying up their families’ phone lines. However, Kane appears for only 20 minutes, because the bulk of the film is devoted to the tracking of the killer by a detective. Though more of a tightly structure police thriller than a slasher film, Stranger nonetheless had a major influence on modern-day horror films.
SCREAM (1996). Wes Craven’s self-reflexive reworking of the slasher film, a genre that had been beaten down by repetition by the 1990s, revitalized the subgenre. The film’s memorable opening sequence in which Drew Barrymore spars over the phone with a killer updates the familiar trope of When a Stranger Calls, while paying homage to other horror films through the guessing game the killer plays with Barrymore. It also references Psycho in that the star of the cast is killed off early in the story. The premise is updated partly by the use of mobile phones, giving the killer more freedom to move inside and outside the house.
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948).Though not a horror film, this mystery thriller creates more than enough suspense to put the viewer on edge. Barbara Stanwyck plays a wealthy invalid who is home alone in her New York apartment. She inadvertently overhears two men planning a murder after the lines get crossed during a phone call. She spends the remainder of the film on the phone, trying to avert the murder. The film offers a cold view of the urban world in which people are not only alienated from each other but powerless to stop tragedy despite wealth and technology (in this case, phones).
THE SECRET NIGHT CALLER (1975). While I don’t recall a lot about this thriller, I do remember that Robert Reed, who was eager to escape his image as the father on The Brady Bunch, stars as a foul-mouthed caller who can’t control his compulsion to contact strangers and fill their ears with profanities. Most films centered around obscene or threatening phone-calls focus on the reactions of the victims, but this one follows Reed, a family man who desperately wants to stop his despicable behavior. Perhaps he should have started by quitting his job: He works as an agent of the Internal Revenue Service!
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: “Long Distance Call” and “Night Call.” Two episodes of The Twilight Zone used phones as the motif to connect this world to the afterlife, exploiting the telephone’s capabilities for long-distance communication. In “Long Distance Call,” Billy talks to his dead grandmother using a toy telephone she had given him on his birthday. It seems Grandma wants Billy to join her. After his mother takes the phone away, Billy attempts to drown himself. An attending paramedic does not think the boy will survive. Billy’s father picks up the toy phone and successful convinces his mother to give Billy back so he can experience his life fully and completely.
Written by Richard Mathieson and directed by Jacques Tourneur, “Night Call” has a solid pedigree, though the episode definitely exhibits a male point of view. Elderly spinster Elva Keene is receiving strange anonymous phone calls from a man. Finally, he groans, “Hello? Where are you? I want to talk to you.” Elva screams at the man to leave her alone. The phone company traces the problem to a downed telephone line in a cemetery where the line has fallen on the grave of her long-dead fiancé Brian. Years ago, Elva had caused his death in a car accident when she insisted on driving, confessing to her nurse, “He always did what I asked.” Now that she knows it’s Brian, Elva is eager to communicate with him again. When she picks up the phone, he replies that she told him to leave her alone and that he always does what she says. The line goes dead and Elva is left alone, crying in her bed.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1985). The telephone is not actually a motif in Wes Craven’s most famous film, but the appliance does have a memorable scene. When Freddy Krueger taunts the heroine over the phone, he literally “reaches out to touch someone,” because he sticks his tongue in her ear through the handset.
DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954). Based on a popular play of the time, Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery tale about a dysfunctional marriage depends on a well-timed phone call from duplicitous husband Tony Wendice. Tony has hired a killer to murder his wife, Margot, while she is at home, and he is out. The plan is for Margot to chat on the phone with Tony, giving the killer the opportunity to strangle her. Through luck and wits, Margot manages to stab the killer to death with her scissors. Tony then has to reformulate his plan.
Hitchcock did not have a positive outlook on contemporary urban life, and he painted modern conveniences such as telephones as unhelpful, even harmful. It’s a threat, not a lifeline, or a form of miscommunication rather than communication. In Strangers on a Train, psychotic Bruno stalks Guy over the phone, pushing him to kill his father in his crazy murder-exchange idea. In Rear Window, L.B. Jeffries, who is housebound with a broken leg, depends on his telephone as a lifeline to the outside world and to relieve his boredom. However, he inadvertently blurts out to the killer that he is home alone and helpless when he thinks a phone call is from someone else. The phone also rings during a rape/strangulation in Frenzy, providing hope that the victim can somehow save herself. But, she cannot, and each unanswered ring diminishes her chances for rescue. In Shadow of a Doubt, the heroine makes frantic phone calls to a detective when she realizes her uncle is a serial killer. She is shot through a banister emphasizing her feeling of entrapment in her own house.
I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965). When I was kid, a popular prank was to call random numbers on the telephone until someone answered. My friends and I played this game on occasion; our standard line when an unsuspecting person answered was something like, “Is your refrigerator running.” We anticipated the anonymous person on the other end would say, “Yes,” so we could retort, “Gee, you better catch it.” Well, we thought we were just hilarious. However, we stopped playing this game after we watched I Saw What You Did on television. The premise involves two teenage girls who play the same telephone game we did, except they would say, “I saw what you did. I know what you’ve done.” When they call John Ireland just after he has killed his wife, he believes that they did see him and sets out to find them. Directed by the one and only William Castle, the film also starred Joan Crawford during her scream queen era.
I am sure that in the future, new tropes and motifs suited to the characteristics of the cellphone will be developed in horror and suspense films. In the meantime, these films remind us that telephones could be as much a channel for terror as a means of communication. Happy Halloween!
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Films Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond James Cagney Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies mystery Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns