Nicholas Worth grunts, froths, and sweats in HD in Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo of the Crown International's DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE.
Deeply disturbed by childhood trauma and his experiences in Vietnam, Kirk Smith (Worth) photographs fetish models for porno mags by day but rapes Los Angeles women at night in a series of ritualistic murders. Lt. Chris McCabe (James Westmoreland, STACEY) and Sgt. Hatcher (Ben Frank, DEATH WISH II) head up the "Hollywood Strangler Task Force" but are hard-pressed to find any links between the victims – apart from the M.O. of strangling them with stockings containing a Vietnamese coin – until radio psychologist Dr. Lindsay Gale (Flo Gerrish, OVER THE TOP) realizes that the man who strangled a prostitute (Suzanne Severeid, HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE) on the air is the same man who has been calling into her show and has also murdered one of her patients. McCabe and Gale butt heads over the case but quickly fall into bed, unaware that Gale is in the killer's sights as his ultimate victim.
Featuring a truly disturbing tour-de-force performance from Worth as a character with a palpable hatred of his victims, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE is gritty and ugly but uneven in its application of humor. McCabe's and Hatcher's wise cracks and their interactions with a pornographer (Chuck Mitchell, PORKY'S) seem positively restrained next to the over-the-top medical examiner (producer Michael Castle, BEACH GIRLS), Freudian police psychologist (Tom Lasswell, FREE WILLY), and a raid on a massage parlor that has JOHNNY FIRECLOUD's Victor Mohica trying to flush cocaine down a malfunctioning toilet, a hooker trying to snort spilled coke off a pimp's (Stan Haze, ALLIGATOR) bald head, and an exodus of prostitutes and johns in ridiculous costumes (including a bespectacled woman in a graduation cap and gown) as McCabe and Hatcher blow away their only witness. Never explained is the accuracy of a psychic (Chris Wallace, who would track down another serial killer the same year in NEW YEAR'S EVIL) brought in to give his impressions on the murderer. Westmoreland's detective is as underwritten and Gerrish's psychologist is surprisingly ineffectual, but it is not hard to root for them when the film has Worth's most drawn out killing inflicted on a pathetic young woman who has trouble asserting herself because of molestation at the hands of her father (his "Adios, creep" is well-earned). However flawed, this piece of bad taste cinema is certainly effective and sometimes quite chilling.
First released on home video by Media Home Entertainment, DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE came to DVD first through Rhino who had the rights to the Crown library at the dawn of the DVD age. Unfortunately, the transfer on their 1999 solo DVD and 2004 HORRIBLE HORRORS set of Crown titles was an old master of the edited TV version. The uncut version first showed up on DVD through BCI with an anamorphic transfer, commentary by director Robert Hammer, and interview with Worth in 2006 (BCI reissued the film barebones the following year in a double bill with Roberta Findlay's PRIME EVIL). Scorpion Releasing did a new transfer and added an interview with Westmoreland for their 2012 "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" DVD and 2014 limited Blu-ray. Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray is derived from a new 4K scan and restoration of the original camera negative is a tad brighter than the Scorpion with more neutral colors but the framing appears to be the same. The guerilla footage of the Los Angeles streets looks a bit grittier than the interiors, and some shots of Worth driving at night look softer presumably because of the minimal focusing distance of the camera lens. The clean DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is derived from the original 3-strip magnetic tracks which also allowed for the inclusion of the score by Byron Allred isolated on a separate Dolby Digital 1.0 track. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
Carried over from the earlier editions is the audio commentary by soft-spoken Hammer, moderated by Shane Dallman, who reveals that the film was originally titled THE HOLLYWOOD STRANGLER and that the source titled "Nightline" was not a novel but a screenplay he purchased and extensively rewrote for budgetary reasons. They speak warmly of Worth and other cast members (Hammer was not aware of Westmoreland's earlier pre-TV career as "Rad Fulton" in films like HELL BENT FOR LEATHER and THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS). Composer Byron Allread played a Moog synthesizer for the Steve Miller Band and Hammer met him while making documentary films on the band and others (Dallman points out that he is not the same Robert Hammer credited on IMDb as a writer of 1960s and 1970s episodic television). Dallman solicits Hammer's response to the negative critical reactions to the film (including excoriating from Siskel & Ebert as part of their wholesale trashing of the slasher genre), charges of misogyny against the film and the director (whose "reputation" preceded him into subsequent failed development deals), as well as his portrayal of Vietnam veterans.
Also carried over is "Answering the Phone" (13:40), an interview with the late Worth recalls his desire to be an actor as a child, taking drama at Carnegie Institute of Technology before moving to Hollywood, interrupting his career early on to become a paratrooper, returning to Hollywood and making the rounds in episodic television in the seventies (along with roles in SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM and THE GLOVE) before being approached to do DON'T ANSWER THE PHONE. His initial impressions of the script were negative but Hammer and Castle allowed him to improvise and build upon the character. "For What it’s Worth" (8:52) is a career retrospective featurette with Worth in which he briefly touches upon his other notable roles in films like THE LADIES CLUB, SWAMP THING (on which he spends the most time with particular admiration for Adrienne Barbeau), DARK ANGEL: THE ASCENT for Full Moon, and THE GLOVE. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (1:36), two TV Spots (0:30 + 0:30), and a promotional gallery (1:19). Packaged with the combo is a sixteen-page booklet with an essay on the film by Michael Gingold and reproductions of some pressbook pages. The cover is reversible. (Eric Cotenas)
BACK TO REVIEWS