Total Recall

Total Recall: Stay on the Line for Phoney Movies

Operator, can you connect me to Sorry, Wrong Number, Dial M for Murder, and Scream?

by | January 2, 2008 | Comments

This week,
One Missed Call
brings to US screens the
story of a girl terrorized by her wickedly foreboding cell phone. In honor of
this J-Horror remake, Total Recall takes a look at at film about freaky phones.

It’s fascinating how many horror films hinge on a phone
call — and not singly calls from hit men, ghosts or psycho killers either. The
whole "knock-knock-boo!" horror convention has left the ranks of gimmick and
moved full-blown into sub-genre. Like I wrote, there are plenty of these films
out there (we’ll only discuss three influential ones here), boasting tendencies
to boot. You’ll usually find a girl at the receiving end of the call. Tackily
suggesting a need to get the last word, the girl in question will sometimes
return the call (I mean if you’re stupid enough…that’s what you get), and the
killer is generally close at hand. Predictable, right?

The fun of these films often comes from clever direction.
These older phone films were commonly chamber plays, featuring characters tied
to rooms and phones with cords. So, the more film literate audiences go to see
how a director could suck suspense from four walls. Obviously cordless phones
and even mobile phones alter the dynamics of suspense: I once heard a mystery
writer bemoan cell phones saying he could never pull suspense from an "out of
office alert" again.

Within the "scary phone" sub-genre, the origin spot, the
fontanel of the genre would have to be 1948’s
Sorry, Wrong Number
(90 percent on
the Tomatometer). Time has been kind to
Anatole Litvak‘s noir about a pushy
princess with a weak constitution. Star
Barbara Stanwyk spends literally the
entire film chain-smoking in bed, compulsively making calls on a rotary phone.
Her husband (Burt Lancaster), is the weak sort of WWII vet that populates these
noirs with their bossy women and easy scores. When Stanwyk hears, by way of
crossed phone wires, a murder plot and is completely disregarded by the police,
she takes things into her own hands. Up until, of course, she finds out she’s
the mark for the murder and then her self-righteous vigilance devolves into
hysteria. Stanwyk is brilliant as always and Lancaster is sort of incredible
himself, playing a resigned and beat down husband who married up and hates every
moment. Oh, all the tricks up all those fabulously tailored sleeves.

Critics like it now ("The film’s
basic premise is just too compelling to resist," wrote Doug Pratt of DVDLaser),
but it was less kindly received when it came out. Bosley Crowther of the New
York Times
, for example, said "the narrative structure of the story and the involuted way in which it is told, with flashbacks occurring within flashbacks
and extraneities popping here and there, cause it to be quite bewildering and
therefore tedious in the lengthy middle phase." We don’t often recall that noir
was not universally liked before the French gave it its affectionate moniker.
Also, this chamber play accomplishes plenty outside of the room, employing
flashbacks and Pac Bell almost simultaneously.

The award for "glossiest" phone horror has to go to
Dial M for Murder
(1954, 78 percent). Picking up a bit where Sorry,
Wrong Number
left off, the murder in Dial M can again be traced to
marital discord and upward mobility. Boy, those wimpy men love their

Grace Kelly plays glamorous and resourceful wife Margot to
Ray Milland‘s conniving and money hungry husband Tony. Tony discovers Margot’s
infidelity and hires a college classmate to do her in. The cue for murderous
action is a phone call. Because of what happens after the phone call, the film
takes a direction that’s darker than is generally expected from a Technicolor
spectacle slash 3-D eye popper." Dial M For Murder includes
one of the most intricate plots of any murder mystery as well as maximum amounts
of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense," wrote David Bezanson of

Dial M for Murder: Trailer.

Popcorn is commonplace in film culture and it’s an
accessory well at home in
Wes Craven‘s uber-referential horror masterwork,

(84 percent) Okay, so maybe "masterwork" is a big word here, but I remember when
this film came out and the buzz reached past critical ballyhoo and ventured well
into the territory of genre-defining cultural reference. Like Billy Wilder’s
association with the rise and fall of noir, Craven had an association with the
slasher film and in the height of self-reference, Scream provided a
perfect balance of teen sex appeal and genre study. 

The teenagers in Scream have seen all the horror
films they need to get the rules. And sophisticated as they are, those thrill
seekers don’t take anything seriously, playfully chatting with the killer,
masked as the existentially agonized screamer from Edward Munch’s "The Scream," waits quietly behind the plate glass door. The opening scene famously featured
the return of long absent
Drew Barrymore, some Jiffy Pop, and a chat about
horror films with the prank caller/cineaste/killer and was widely praised. Mike
Bracken of wrote, "The film opens with one of the best, most
intense, most unexpected opening sequences I’ve ever seen then rips on for
another ninety minutes or so, rarely flagging in terms of pace." See…girls don’t
always need the last word.

Scream: Trailer.

If you still need to (cinematically) reach out and touch
someone, check out Phone Booth (72 percent),
percent), or Fred Walton‘s
When a Stranger Calls
circa 1979 (44 percent).