Directed by Robert Englund.
Starring Stephen Geoffreys, Patrick O’Bryan, Jim Metzler, J.J. Cohen, Robert Picardo, and Lezlie Dean.
A bullied teenager finds the Devil’s phone number and gets some help in sorting out his problems.
It’s that time of year again when Eureka Entertainment delve deep into the vault of 1980s cult classics to dig up a forgotten(ish) gem for a bit of a polish job, and for this year’s choice cut they have unearthed 1988s 976-EVIL, a movie probably more noteworthy for who was directing it rather than for what it was actually like.
Back in 1988 Robert Englund was at the peak of his Freddy Krueger fame, with that year’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master proving to be the (then) most profitable Elm Street movie and the launch of the Freddy’s Nightmares TV show proving that you can’t keep a good child killer down, even at prime time (bitch!). In amongst all of this madness he was approached by producer Lisa M. Hansen to direct 976-EVIL for release through New Line Cinema, and apparently he loved the script and took on directing duties, as well as getting involved in a lot of behind-the-scenes decisions.
The result was – and still is – a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to an overall look at the film. Englund clearly knows what he is doing behind a camera and, having been put through his paces in his regular acting gig, he has a grasp on what works when it comes to lighting, framing and action, as nothing screams ‘LATE ‘80S LOW BUDGET HORROR’ than neon lights (perhaps left over from The Dream Master? The look is very similar), rubbery prosthetics and ‘50s throwback cool guys who are clearly at least 10 years older than they are supposed to be.
The main cool guy in this film is Spike (Patrick O’Bryan), who lives with his domineering religious aunt Lucy (Sandy Dennis – Parents) and his wimpy cousin Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys – Fright Night), who worships his older cousin as Spike tends to sort out the bullies that harass Hoax every day. The cousins stumble across a phone line that offers to tell their fortunes when they call it, and although Spike doesn’t take it seriously Hoax becomes infatuated with it, especially as the more he uses it the stronger and more confident he seems to get.
This is because the phone line is actually a way for Satan to corrupt those who ring it into doing his devilry upon the Earth, and as Hoax begins to sort out the bullies who have made his life a misery his attentions turn to his abusive mother and his more confident cousin. Perhaps he should think about changing his service provider before it is too late…
So on the surface it is a bit of a dumb idea, and 976-EVIL is a very much dumb slab of late ‘80s cheese, but in reality it is just a reworked version of the classic Monkey’s Paw tale, with nerdy Hoax getting what he wants but finding out there is a price to pay. However, the strength of the film is, along with Robert Englund guiding it, in the casting, with Stephen Geoffreys in particular being a standout. Seeing as his only other major role from this period was as ‘Evil’ Ed in Fright Night – also an awkward, bullied teenager – you could say that he was hardly stretching himself but it is a part that he does play exceptionally well and he is never less than engaging whenever he is on the screen, be it as the wimpy Hoax or as his demon-possessed alter-ego.
Sandy Dennis also knocks it out of the park as Aunt Lucy, another in a line of over-the-top domineering middle aged women that horror movies of the ‘80s tended to specialise in. With Elm Street alumni Lezlie Dean giving a solid performance as Spike’s girlfriend Suzie and the ever-dependable Robert Picardo (The Howling) also making an appearance you almost forget that Patrick O’Bryan is supposed to be the lead , such is his wooden and uninspiring turn as Spike, a character written as blankly as he is performed.
As is the case with a great many low budget horror movies from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, 976-EVIL never really benefits from dazzling visuals, even when given an HD polish. Whether it is the original film materials used or just how the effects were done, 976-EVIL has a very flat look to it, despite having some excellent practical effects work thanks to Elm Street effects wizard Kevin Yagher. It all looks well done, especially when put in the context of the time it originally came out, but when paired with the less-than-inspiring optical effects the film never quite becomes the special effects showcase you feel it ought to have been.
Nevertheless, 976-EVIL manages to overcome its acting and effects shortcomings to still be an entertaining and energetic horror romp that gets where it needs to be fairly efficiently after a slightly bizarre opening few scenes. The limited edition Blu-ray comes with a fetching slipcase featuring suitably lurid artwork, interviews with effects technician Kevin Yagher, make-up artist Howard Berger and producer Lisa M. Hansen, a collector’s booklet and the extended VHS version of the movie, which contains a few extra character moments but nothing worth getting too excited about. 976-EVIL is a good, fun horror movie but not a great one and, looking back, is probably one of the last throes of a type of movie that was fast becoming out of style at the time. With that in mind, Eureka have produced a package that befits the movie’s middle-of-the-road status – not bad but not outstanding either.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★