Written by: Brian Helgeland, Rhet Topham
Directed by: Robert Englund
Starring: Stephen Geoffreys, Patrick O'Bryan and Sandy Dennis
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďOnce you've been to hell, everything else pales in comparison!"
Iím guessing that 976-Evil is most famous (or moderately well-known) for who was behind the camera more so than for anything that happened in front of it. By 1988, Robert Englundís face was most certainly very famous, at least when it was buried under the ounces of prosthetics required to bring Freddy Krueger to life. He traded in the makeup chair for the directorís chair in this case, though, so 976-Evil will likely always be known as Englundís directorial debut, which is just as well since it doesnít have much else to be remembered for. It canít even claim to be ďthat movie where Stephen Geoffreys is a nerd-turned-demonic creatureĒ since the far superior Fright Night is the most famous example of that.
Geoffreys is indeed a hopeless nerd named Hoax who lives under the thumb of his evangelical mother (Sandy Dennis). His cousin Spike (Patrick OíBryan) also shacks up with them, and Hoax idolizes him since heís a cool biker type thatís much better with the girls. One night, Spike happens across a the strange phone number that gives the film its title, and it promises to deliver callers a ďhorror-scopeĒ that proves to be eerily relevant with each call. The line also happens to double as Satanís most convenient recruiting tool, as you can sell your soul to him and do his bidding directly over the phone.
976-Evil either feels like two mashed-up episodes of Tales from the Crypt or maybe just one thatís laboriously stretched into feature length. Thereís a distinct breaking point about midway that shifts the dynamic of the initial setup; what seemingly begins as Spikeís struggle to resist Satanís overtures ends as a Jekyll/Hyde nerd-gone-evil revenge plot centered around Hoax. The steps that move through these points are a clumsy, but the movie is lined with just enough weirdness and mystery to guide it along, plus itís steeped in that charmingly 80s suburban nightmare aesthetic. Considering what Englund was most familiar with, itís no surprise that he often borrows Elm Streetís dusky dreaminess and even infuses it with a dash of post-apocalyptic fervor. Just about every set seems to have been pilfered from a wasteland, from the junky, graffiti-laden schools to the smoked out, trashy movie theater where Spike gambles with his buddies. Itís actually not all that hard to imagine that Satan is just a phone call away.
The filmís heavy atmospherics often suffocate the characters that end up comprising a mixed bag. Dennis plays things most broadly, as if she were portraying a trashier, more theatrical version of Carrie Whiteís mother. Manically frumpy and decked out in outrageous wigs, she gives a ridiculous turn that has to be one of the most bizarre among former Oscar winners. Her on-screen son tries to match her, and he succeeds so well that you start to wonder if Hoax isnít meant to be mildly retarded or something, particularly when heís decked out in outrageously childish outfits. Youíve seen Geoffreys play a twitchy, spazzy dweeb before, but itís like heís suffering from brain damage here, and he almost borders on being unlikable. This is problematic, but heís at least paired against OíBryanís hood-with-a-heart of gold, and the dynamic mostly works; thereís an early scene where Hoax is being bullied, and Spike coolly strolls in and breaks up the scuffle, a moment that efficiently establishes his good nature.
Spike actually seems kind of genuine, whereas Hoax just feels like a cartoon, which is probably why 976-Evil doesnít really work; sure, the latter is pitiful and pathetic, but when he turns into a demon to wreak some gory havoc in the filmís prolonged climax, itís a bit weightless and undercooked since the film is also splitting time with a reporterís investigation of all of these strange events. Rounding out and further stuffing the proceedings is Spikeís girlfriend, Suzie, portrayed by Lezlie Deane, another strong presence who (like Geoffreys and OíBryan) disappeared a few years later (Deane would of course go toe-to-toe on screen with Englund in Freddyís Dead before blazing a trail into obscurity). Englund perhaps lets his cast have too much free reign, as no one can quite get dialed in on the same wavelength, so 976-Evil is constantly straddling the lines of intentional camp.
Because this uniformly fine cast is stuck in a messy, atonal mish-mash, 976-Evil is one of those 80s curiosities thatís more entertaining and fun than it is genuinely good. Englundís direction is otherwise dutiful enough, as he delegates to the filmís strong visuals and effects (provided by a familiar name in Kevin Yahger). Itís interesting that this film was written by Brian Helgeland, one of the guys who wrote Nightmare 4 because 976-Evil looks an feels a lot like that film, right down to its grungy but candy-colored visual palette. What it doesnít have, however, is Dream Masterís madcap energy or compelling payoff to its premise--at the end of the day, this is just another demonic possession movie. Ironically enough, one might say that Englund doesnít create anything that can remotely rival his own Freddy Krueger in terms of commanding the screen or an audienceís attention. He gets a lot of other things right, particularly during the setup: the palpable sense of dread, a spooky mystery, and an almost hellish urban production design (in fact, Englund must have really liked Nancy Boothís set decoration since he married her soon after this).
That Englund even had time to pull this movie off as moderately well as he did is somewhat remarkable. At this point, he was constantly in and out of Freddy make-up; not only was he coming off of Dream Master, but he was also knee deep in the Freddyís Nightmares series. Truth be told, itís probably more apt to say that 976-Evil feels like it could have actually been an episode of that anthology series. One can easily imagine Freddy picking up the phone at the end and delivering some cheesy line as his maniacal laughter sends us to the credits. If itís any consolation, 976-Evil would have certainly been one of the very best episodes of Freddyís Nightmares. Perhaps unsurprisingly, itís only shown up on DVD once, and that was about ten years ago. The version that Columbia Tri-Star presents here is the theatrical version (whereas the VHS featured some additional footage), and itís full-frame at that, though the transfer is otherwise fine. Similarly, the disc also packs a merely adequate 2.0 surround track and only features a trailer, so it leaves a lot to be desired for whatever enthusiasts this film might have. Thereís probably not a whole lot of those-- 976-Evil is one of those films where the parts are more interesting than the whole (which was just interesting enough to warrant a sequel a few years later). Rent it!
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