Total Recall: Stay on the Line for Phoney Movies
Operator, can you connect me to Sorry, Wrong Number, Dial M for Murder, and Scream?
It's fascinating how many horror films hinge on a phone call -- and not singly calls from hit men, ghosts or psycho killers either. The whole "knock-knock-boo!" horror convention has left the ranks of gimmick and moved full-blown into sub-genre. Like I wrote, there are plenty of these films out there (we'll only discuss three influential ones here), boasting tendencies to boot. You'll usually find a girl at the receiving end of the call. Tackily suggesting a need to get the last word, the girl in question will sometimes return the call (I mean if you're stupid enough...that's what you get), and the killer is generally close at hand. Predictable, right?
The fun of these films often comes from clever direction. These older phone films were commonly chamber plays, featuring characters tied to rooms and phones with cords. So, the more film literate audiences go to see how a director could suck suspense from four walls. Obviously cordless phones and even mobile phones alter the dynamics of suspense: I once heard a mystery writer bemoan cell phones saying he could never pull suspense from an "out of office alert" again.
Within the "scary phone" sub-genre, the origin spot, the fontanel of the genre would have to be 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number (90 percent on the Tomatometer). Time has been kind to Anatole Litvak's noir about a pushy princess with a weak constitution. Star Barbara Stanwyk spends literally the entire film chain-smoking in bed, compulsively making calls on a rotary phone. Her husband (Burt Lancaster), is the weak sort of WWII vet that populates these noirs with their bossy women and easy scores. When Stanwyk hears, by way of crossed phone wires, a murder plot and is completely disregarded by the police, she takes things into her own hands. Up until, of course, she finds out she's the mark for the murder and then her self-righteous vigilance devolves into hysteria. Stanwyk is brilliant as always and Lancaster is sort of incredible himself, playing a resigned and beat down husband who married up and hates every moment. Oh, all the tricks up all those fabulously tailored sleeves.
Critics like it now ("The film's basic premise is just too compelling to resist," wrote Doug Pratt of DVDLaser), but it was less kindly received when it came out. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, for example, said "the narrative structure of the story and the involuted way in which it is told, with flashbacks occurring within flashbacks and extraneities popping here and there, cause it to be quite bewildering and therefore tedious in the lengthy middle phase." We don't often recall that noir was not universally liked before the French gave it its affectionate moniker. Also, this chamber play accomplishes plenty outside of the room, employing flashbacks and Pac Bell almost simultaneously.
The award for "glossiest" phone horror has to go to Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954, 78 percent). Picking up a bit where Sorry, Wrong Number left off, the murder in Dial M can again be traced to marital discord and upward mobility. Boy, those wimpy men love their comeuppance.
Grace Kelly plays glamorous and resourceful wife Margot to Ray Milland's conniving and money hungry husband Tony. Tony discovers Margot's infidelity and hires a college classmate to do her in. The cue for murderous action is a phone call. Because of what happens after the phone call, the film takes a direction that's darker than is generally expected from a Technicolor spectacle slash 3-D eye popper." Dial M For Murder includes one of the most intricate plots of any murder mystery as well as maximum amounts of Hitchcock's trademark suspense," wrote David Bezanson of Filmcritic.com.
Dial M for Murder: Trailer.
Popcorn is commonplace in film culture and it's an accessory well at home in Wes Craven's uber-referential horror masterwork, Scream (84 percent) Okay, so maybe "masterwork" is a big word here, but I remember when this film came out and the buzz reached past critical ballyhoo and ventured well into the territory of genre-defining cultural reference. Like Billy Wilder's association with the rise and fall of noir, Craven had an association with the slasher film and in the height of self-reference, Scream provided a perfect balance of teen sex appeal and genre study.
The teenagers in Scream have seen all the horror films they need to get the rules. And sophisticated as they are, those thrill seekers don't take anything seriously, playfully chatting with the killer, masked as the existentially agonized screamer from Edward Munch's "The Scream," waits quietly behind the plate glass door. The opening scene famously featured the return of long absent Drew Barrymore, some Jiffy Pop, and a chat about horror films with the prank caller/cineaste/killer and was widely praised. Mike Bracken of Toxicuniverse.com wrote, "The film opens with one of the best, most intense, most unexpected opening sequences I've ever seen then rips on for another ninety minutes or so, rarely flagging in terms of pace." See...girls don't always need the last word.