When the 1988 horror film 976-EVIL was first released in December of that year, its promotional poster bore the legend “Revenge Is On The Line.” However, I believe the picture might have improved on its $3 million U.S. gross at the box office if, instead, that poster had rightfully proclaimed “The Film So Shocking, It Could Only Have Been Directed By Freddy Krueger!” And indeed, 1988 WAS a big year for Freddy portrayer Robert Englund. Besides appearing as Krueger for the fourth time, in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (and Englund would go on to portray his most famous screen persona four more times afterward!), the beloved actor, after dozens of film and TV appearances, directed his first film. And, as it turns out, 976-EVIL does have much in common with the lesser Freddy films: It features some nice-looking FX, violent set pieces and a barely comprehensible story line, all tied together by some corny but undeniably amusing one-liners.
In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of two very different first cousins. The older, Spike (Patrick O’Bryan), is a prototypically cool and handsome dude who cruises around town on a Harley and has no problem at all scoring with the babes. Spike is idolized by his younger cousin, Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), who is the prototypical … how shall I put it? Nerd? Dweeb? Putz? Schlemiel? The two live together with Hoax’ mom, Lucy (two-time Tony winner/Oscar winner Sandy Dennis), a crackpot Bible-thumper and all-around harridan, and their young lives are soon thrown into turmoil when Spike finds a card with the titular phone number emblazoned on it. Once dialed, this number gives callers their so-called “horrorscope,” which is unfailingly apropos to their life situation at the moment, be it money problems, girl problems, etc. Spike has no use for this gimmick, which he deems “bullsh_t,” but poor Hoax rapidly gets sucked in, and before long, has been vested — long distance, as it were — with supernatural powers and the hands and visage of a hellish demon. (Hoax kinda sorta looks like the Michael Jackson zombie in that “Thriller” video, toward the film’s end, more than anything else!) All the better, to finally take vengeance on all the high school bullies who have long been harassing him. Unfortunately for Hoax, however, his “telephone bill” soon comes due…
I should perhaps mention here that my only reason for renting out 976-EVIL in the first place was because it does feature Sandy Dennis — who I have been enamored with since the mid-’60s — here in her penultimate role. Sadly, the role is one that’s hardly fitting for this wonderful actress, and the result is practically an on-screen embarrassment. Decked out in a fright wig and housecoat, Sandy looks fairly ghastly here, and her performance is a mannered, wildly over the top, caricatured mess. She almost seems to be channeling Piper Laurie’s performance as the crazy evangelist mother from hell in 1976’s Carrie, but to much less effect. Indeed, I have to wonder WHY Sandy decided to participate in this film at all, and can only conclude that she wanted to either (a) do another horror film, following 1977’s truly freaky God Told Me To, or (b) play a character who is just as much a lover of cats as she was. (Dennis purportedly had dozens and dozens of cats living with her in her Westport, CT home.) Whatever the reason, 976-EVIL is assuredly the worst film I have ever seen Dennis in, and it marks the only time that she has portrayed a thoroughly unlikable character. What a disappointment for me!
I mentioned Carrie a moment ago, and it strikes me that the Dennis character is not the only point of similarity between the two films. Both feature a teenager who is very much an outsider, who lives with a religious wackadoodle of a mom, who is in possession of extraordinary powers, and who uses those powers to wreak violent vengeance on his/her high school oppressors. But whereas Carrie is a class act, with many now-iconic images, 976-EVIL just barely makes the grade. Its story line is both confused and confusing (says Michael J. Weldon in one of MY Bibles, The Psychotronic Video Guide: “too confusing”), with sketchy characters, a sketchy plot and the sketchiest of explanations at the tail end. Still, it remains a passable entertainment, thanks to those violent set pieces (the film dishes out several electrocutions, explosions, poisonous spiders, a face slashing, eviscerations, a dismemberment and other nasty tidbits) and some memorable one-liners. In perhaps the funniest scene, the demon Hoax walks into a poker game being played by his bullying enemies. In his hands rest the bloody cardiac muscles that he has just ripped from two of their chests. His line: “Would it be possible to enter the game with a pair of hearts?” Funny stuff, and a line that ol’ Freddy himself might have leered at with approbation.
And speaking of Freddy, I must add here that Englund’s direction is surprisingly capable and fine; he is not the problem here. Rather, screenwriters Rhet Topham and Brian Helgeland are the ones to blame, I feel, for their poorly developed plot and unfleshed-out characters. Without a solid script and story, a film has nothing, and I have a hunch that by this picture’s conclusion, many 976-EVIL viewers will be muttering a line that Barbara Stanwyck kept hearing in a famous 1948 film noir: “Sorry, wrong number…”