The late 70s and early 80’s were a boom time for exploitation films for both the US and our genteel neighbors to the north, for very similar reasons. Grindhouses and other theaters with extended showtimes needed more content that the mainstream was producing. Hefty credits for film productions made them ideal tax shelters for the well off, or for those wanting a bit of reflected lemonlight from being a “movie producer”.
With all of that extra cash flowing around, a whole host of first time and indie film makers stepped up to fill
their noses with cocaine the programming gap.
Over 300 films were made in Canada between 1975 and 1982, most of them low budget genre fare. One of the last films of that tax evasion fueled boom was this forgotten bit of Canuxploitation, originally titled Bells. When it was released in the US, the film was sliced down from 95 minutes to a scant 80 minute runtime. It was also christened with the tabloid title Murder By Phone. Proving that even 38 years ago, the average American viewer had still not mastered the obvious.
College professor and environmentalist Nat Bridger (Richard Chamberlin) takes it upon himself to investigate the mysterious death of his favorite student. With the help of his teaching mentor Stanley Markowitz(John Houseman) and mural artist Lisa (Sara Botsford), he discovers the deadly weapon was a high pitched frequency sent over the phone line.
As Nat tries to find the culprit before they can kill again, it looks more and more likely that the calls are coming from inside the house…..or at least the phone company.
It’s the sort of one turn too complicated plotting that is half as clever as it thinks it is. This basic template glutted TV movies of the week and the better episodes of police procedurals of the period. There’s a double cross, and a love affair and the usual slight shimmies masquerading as twists you find in scripts of this ilk.
A far classier than average cast uses their talent to make sure the formulaic medicine goes down. How often are an Oscar winner (Houseman) and a Golden Globe winner (Chamberlin) heading up a formerly timely, now carbon dated older than dinosaurs fear of technology cheapie? If you guessed “Neveruary 32nd”, you win the Kewpie doll. Gary Reineke is also amusingly gruff as Lieutenant Meara, the stereotypical cop sick of all of these God damn meddling hippie kids.
The true joy of Murder By Phone is its gleeful commitment to its titular concept, rather than any real concerns of acting or plot. Truer to advertising than many exercises in exploitation, the films’ kills are indeed all accomplished with the goofy telephone conceit.
The victim picks up the phone, and we get a brief shot of blinking lights, levers and sliders straight out of 50’s sci fi spaceship. A high pitched whirr and some beep boop beeping grow loud on the soundtrack. The victims’ heads shake, their eyes bleed, and then they shoot off into the distance like a champagne cork, accompanied by fireworks from a municipal parade or a third tier metal show. To add indignity to illogic, victims fly across train stations, out of windows and into bookcases, all accented with doubly goofy thunder and lightning sound effects and unceremonious thuds. It’s absolutely delightful in its essential silliness.
Most of the high propulsion victims, and all of the the eye candy in this movie has been condensed into a tight 1:35 trailer. Here’s a gif of one of the few death scenes not present. Tag yourselves, I’m the French doors:
Let the sunshine that is the cheerful ridiculousness of that GIF play for a little while, and try not to giggle. Feel free to then skip over what is essentially a very special guest star filled episode of Mannix. For an R rated horror thriller about murderous plastic, it’s all very tame and tasteful. The only real fun to be had is when Murder By Phone lets go a little bit in the campy death scenes. Even in their cheapie exploitation movies, Canadians live up to their reputation for politeness.