Don't Go in the Lightning Bug's Lair #9: Don't Answer the Phone (1980)
Welcome back to the Don't Go in the Lightning Bug's Lair Halloween countdown. Today I'm talking about a "don't" that everyone is familiar with, Don't Answer the Phone. There's a myriad of reasons not to answer your phone, and nowadays in the cellular era, it's easier than ever to ignore calls from unwanted dialers, but when today's film was made , it was difficult to surmise who was on the other end of the landline. There are so many reasons one would want to skip on answering a call; bill collectors, ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, parents, work, telemarketers, and political parties all belong on the list. However, there's one reason I didn't mention, if your caller is a crazy psycho who likes to call and tell you about his crimes. That's not something that plagues most people, but for the main character in today's film, it is a concern that is foremost in her mind as she ignores the titular advice to Don't Answer the Phone.
Doctor Lindsay Gale (Flo Lawrence) hosts a call I'm radio show where she dispenses advice to the usual batch of lovelorn or depressed callers who typically place calls to radio show doctors, but then she starts to receive other calls, calls from a killer who taunts her with his crimes and even makes her listen in as he perpetrates them. Unknown to Dr. Gale, her first time caller, longtime killer, is Kirk Smith (Nicolas Worth), a Vietnam vet and photographer with a penchant for killing women. As the killer begins to close in on the doctor, offing some of her patients in the process, Lt. McCabe and Sgt. Hatcher (James Westmorland and Ben Frank) cast a wide net to catch the killer before Dr. Gale becomes a physician that is beyond healing herself.
Don't Answer the Phone is something of a time capsule all around. From the rotary dials on the phones clicking away to the existence of a doctor one the airwaves (now dominated by political talk), Don't Answer the Phone feels very much a product of its decade and a bit of the last. The film is a mix of things that will be seen over and over throughout the 80s, serial killers, radio personalities as the lead character in films, and inept detectives stumbling their way through a case, and leftovers from the 70s, notably a really grimy sleazy feeling that brings to mind William Lustig's seminal film Maniac. Watching the film, it is easy to see how it would be drive in or grindhouse fare, and it is also easy to see how a watered down version could have became a Lifetime original film. First time (and only time) director Robert Hammer executed the film in a clumsy way, but it still has a low down grittiness that gives the film an uncomfortable verity at times in the same kind of way that a film like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer could work its way under your skin.
Unfortunately, Don't Answer the Phone is rife with uneven to downright horrible performances, but let me talk about who was good first. Nicolas Worth, a journeyman character actor who appeared in everything from Darkman and Swamp Thing to The Naked Gun and The Glove, turns in a lead worthy performance as the killer, Kirk. While I recognized him from dozens of films, Don't Answer the Phone is the first which really impressed me to the point to where I wished he had played the heavy, especially a psycho, in more films. Sadly, the same can't be said of the rest of the cast. Westmorland and Frank had terribly written parts to overcome, and sadly, they didn't do it leaving their policeman characters looking even more ineffectual than they were penned. Lead actress Flo Lawrence didn't fare much better, and every time she was on the radio mic, I couldn't help but think about Adrienne Barbeau as DJ Stevie Wayne in The Fog which didn't help Ms. Lawrence's case.
Don't Answer the Phone make a good case for keeping off the handset and keeping your cell on silent, just in case. It also makes a good case for films where the baddie, albeit it a really bad one, is the glue that keeps the film interesting. It also is why I would make the case for Don't Answer the Phone to rank at number nine on this countdown. It is a movie that works not because you care about the investigation or the safety of the main character. It gains it greatest strength when the murders are being set up and carried out. While the conceit of the radio program keeps the action rolling, Nicolas Worth keeps the action flowing and the audience unsettled by it. When a movie can do that, then you know it's got something right, and while it may only earn an average rating, it's certainly no wrong number.