Single serving film director Robert Hammer left the military and began making his living as a backstage and tour photographer for musicians. Like countless other L.A. cliches, he found himself bitten by the film bug, buying the rights to a novel by an author named Michael Curtis for a mere $2500.
The book was likely unpublished, as I can’t find any printing records or surviving examples. Entitled Nightline, the story was a loose riff on the crimes of the Hillside Strangler, the trials of which were still ongoing at the time of the film’s production.
As the source material would have been too expensive to shoot as is, Hammer and producer Michael D. Curtis gave it a rewrite under the working title The Hollywood Strangler. Short on cash and not wanting to lose their timely hook, the film was shot on the fly in and around Hollywood. Start to finish, the entire production wrapped in just 18 days.
Distributor Crown International Pictures found the title to be too generic and mandated a switch, to both capitalize on the recent success of When A Stranger Calls and the flotilla of genre fare with titles advising against all manner of ordinary actions.
Keeping in mind that the likes of Don’t Open The Door and Don’t Go Near The Park were considered aspirational in this case, prepare yourselves for 1980’s Don’t Answer The Phone!:
After a brief shot of the shirtless killer (Nicholas Worth) giggling maniacally in front of a massive crucifix, the bulk of the credits roll is devoted to some slasher POV style stalking shamelessly ripped off from Halloween. This sequence, with an unsuspecting nurse having a chat with her
whatever male PA had nothing to do mother is also one of the few instances anyone in the film is near a phone.
Not answering it doesn’t save her from being brutally strangled with a stocking. My money is on this opener being a concession to the retitle, given neither the visual style nor the phone has much to do with anything else that happens.
Cut to the following day, where the camo jacketed killer is cruising the streets for new victims, his car radio tuned to the ever so popular station that provides the finest of exposition. There have already been 5 rape/murders in the local area, and as the news fades out, we cut to Dr. Lindsey Gale (Flo Gerrish), who apparently likes to live dangerously in regard to workplace harassment of the news anchor before starting her pop psychology show.
The killer, having tried and failed to entice a new victim with the offer of a modeling job, decides to call in and taunt Dr. Gale. Adopting a manic grin and his best Señor Wences accent, “Ramon” calls in complaining of headaches and blackouts, and the nurse that made him feel EVER so much better.
This is apparently a regular ritual, as Dr. Gale recognizes the voice immediately, but not the signs of severe head trauma or psychological disturbance. The latest victim of the mystery killer was a nurse, but apparently Dr. Gale was a bit too busy playing footsie with the anchorman to perhaps also note that as a cause for concern.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Chris McCabe (James Westmoreland) is across town investigating the crime scene, and proving people from all walks of life can be throughly terrible at their jobs. He bickers with his partner regarding the standard number of breasts a woman has, and decides that the heavy coin inside a nylon stocking strangulation method is a hallmark of the Viet Cong (?!). The killer must be a military veteran, and given the scrap of a film box found at the scene, must own a camera.
Not to be outdone in the incompetence Olympics, Dr. Gale is having a therapy session where she blames a child molestation victim’s trauma on her lack of assertiveness.
The cops are having a laugh at the station, putting their feet up secure in their assumption that their necrophiliac serial killer couldn’t POSSIBLY strike again so soon.
Except the synthesizer noodling has already kicked in on the soundtrack and the killer has already broken into the house of Dr. Gale’s patient. Craving some wax play with a side of homicide, he begins cooing gently that “daddy would never hurt his little baby”. Randomly switching gears, he dedicates his upcoming mortal sin to the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. Compounding the tragedy, he also destroys the actress’ lovely vintage slip in the process.
Six victims and a third of the film’s runtime later, the police finally start to attempt to find their “paranoid obsessive compulsive psychotic schizophrenic”. Done with all of the “mumbo jumbo psycho crap” McCabe takes over the meeting and makes it a decidedly macho task force. There’s a long montage of exasperated extras looking at files, best summed up by the expression in the still above.
Just in case this movie’s stance on women, feelings, and women who dare display feelings wasn’t abundantly clear, McCabe goes to question Dr. Gale about her murdered patient. Within 30 seconds he smugly mocks her for her adherence to patient privacy laws and general reluctance to cosign either vigilante justice or capital punishment. Without the firm guiding hand of the law, some silly lady psychologist will let the killer run free, so its best she cooperate and accept his heroic man protection.
Anyone who has ever watched a police procedural knows that this plot thread will lead to an eventual romance, no matter how nonsensical. Off screen, Flo Gerrish and James Westmoreland loathed each other, which may be why this still is Gerrish’s only genuine moment of emotion in the entire film. When tasked with acting like she thought her co star was an arrogant sexist prick, she didn’t have to do any acting at all.
Meanwhile, the killer goes for another synth warble accented cruise down Hollywood Boulevard, using his human skin of Kirk Smith, mild mannered fashion photographer. He ends luring a young hitchhiker named Sue Ellen (Playboy centerfold Pamela Jean Bryant) into his studio for a photo session.
Soon she’s just as naked and dead as pretty much every other woman in this movie. As he stares at her corpse in the mirror of his odd corner altar of candles and crucifixes, he pants “I love it….ohhhh….I love it” in the exact manner you would expect from a deranged necrophiliac that just killed a Playboy centerfold.
Having parceled out a morsel of plot, we get some awkward attempts at workplace comedy. A lounge lizard looking psychic correctly describes the most recent murder, and mumbo jumbo hating McCabe has him unjustly arrested. Dr. Gale makes a patient scream “THE DRUGS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU!” until she cries, and calls it a breakthrough. As for our killer, he receives praise for the porn photographs he provides to his boss, until a candle D.P. from one of the death scenes pops up in the pile, which is only upon reflection dismissed as too kinky.
Kirk is pleased with his paycheck and a job well done, and lures a hooker with the promise of both cash and drugs. He asks that she call in to Dr. Gale’s radio show, and ask for advice on getting out of prostitution. Unfortunately, the call girl almost reveals that Mr. Tough Guy can’t get it up. He strangles her, her final cries live on air. This tidily proves the radio staff is just as inept at their job as every other character in this film.
When Dr. Gale brings the tape of the call to the police (in addition to taped calls from “Ramon”) they interrogate her as to WHY she is so convinced the woman is dead. Despite having an audio recording of the prostitute’s last moments in their hands. Perhaps tape recorders are also useless “psycho mumbo jumbo”.
In any case, we’ve got a rising body count, more DNA than a genome mapping project, audio tapes of the killer’s voice and two thirds of the runtime gone. Yet….instead of any remotely logical or plot relevant action, the film idles away some more time with a vice bust played for comedy and casual racism. The screenwriters must’ve followed the old adage of “write what you know”, which explains the general air of incompetence.
Nicholas Worth had a long career as a character actor, and I have to appreciate his going through all of the SERIOUS ACTOR 101 motions in the course of this film, one of his few leading roles. The constant cartoonish mugging, the over the top accents, the pseudo Shakespearean lilt of the “tis a dream” chat with the doomed Sue Ellen. All of it goes way past chewing scenery and into manic chomping on the theater floor. However, in a film where the procedural elements and performances are pretty listless, exaggerated overacting is actually a refreshing change.
This insane, mostly improvised speech is the apex of an already loud performance. The Deuce does downmarket DeNiro for a few short minutes, as Worth pounds a beer, beats his beefy chest and snarls into a mirror “What do you think of me now Dad? Do I MEASURE UP?”. This is followed by a grunting ramble full of toxic macho bullshit and standard persecution complex dollops of paranoid racism. This “tough motherfucking honky” wishes his dad could see what he was capable of, because “I’m the best there is”.
…..and right on schedule, the romance hits to pad the runtime. Love (or at least lust) blooms when Dr. Gale and McCabe prevent one of her patients from committing suicide. It’s poorly lit. It’s overly long. Moving on.
Meanwhile, Kirk Smith the serial killer wastes no time in getting in some powerlifting accompanied by dying animal yowls, and dusting off his best imitation of a sane man to gain entry to a home and murder another pair of models. The only real question is how anyone could buy this refrigerator box in an ill fitting sport coat and your granddad’s chinos as a real, totally not lying, fashion photographer.
Kirk can’t even handle one girl, hence his penchant for killing them. Having to resort to double murder has made him a rather sloppy maniac. The cops trace the camera and photos left at the scene to the pornographer he’s been working for. To avoid an obscenity rap, the smut peddler hands over Kirk’s home address. The cops rush to the scene…..and break in to the wrong house, terrifying an innocent toymaker who can barely lift his briefcase, much less strangle anyone. At this rate, McCabe and partner are making the Mutt and Jeff duo from Nail Gun Massacre look like paragons of law enforcement.
The cops do locate the correct address eventually, but Kirk has already slipped out to do his standard home invasion and homicide routine over at Dr. Gale’s place. Apparently, she was always the “big prize” he had his eye on. Connecting that Kirk is the mysterious “Ramon” surprisingly quickly, Dr. Gale tries to buy herself time by engaging the killer, asking if he ever had something he cared about. Like maybe a puppy?
Given that the movie is nearly over, this would be the place for the film to give us the slightest insight into what exactly drives Kirk to kill. His obvious daddy issues? PTSD from his military service? Psychosis? The religious mania that has been alluded to (but never explained) the entire film?
As far as Kirk murdering his childhood pet, the poor creature shat on the rug. Animal abuse often being an early hallmark of serial killers, it makes sense for the character. But what’s the deal with the violent rage toward people, women in particular?
He wet the bed until he was 18, had trouble with his ass and his “crazy-otic” head, and whoever his guardians were they dared send him to the doctor for all of that. That’s the best explanation we get. That’s all, folks.
The American health care system is certainly frustrating, but I’m willing to bet good solid money that this is the only slasher in history that has ever attributed its plot driving killing spree to the lack of an adequate proctologist.
Some of the photos in Kirk’s studio tipped off the cops that he was coming for Lindsey Gale. Having managed to at least get her address right, it’s FINALLY time for the Lawful Good vs Chaotic Evil versions of festering macho bullshit to face off.
Having saved Hollywood from both a serial killer and a serious heap of that God damned touchy feely psycho mumbo jumbo once and for all, James Westmoreland got to ad lib McCabe’s final line victory lap.
…. at least until this film popped up again as a Section 3 offender in the UK’s “Video Nasties” moral panic, anyway.