976-EVIL (Robert Englund, USA, 1988, 0)
If a movie’s climactic scene takes place over a pit that goes straight down to Hell, is it really necessary to say more about that film than to note (1) a character early in the film orders a deviled egg sandwich, (2) the opening post-credits scene takes place at the Diablo Theater, and (3) a box of chocolate cakes called Devil Twins gets a conspicuous bit of product placement?
Get it? “Deviled” eggs? “Devil’s food”? “Diablo” … that’s Spanish for “Devil”? Hell? Devil? Get it????
I guess it is necessary to say more, otherwise this will be a mighty short essay on a crass, ugly piece of incompetent junk. And I hope whoever made Devil Twins was able to live down the shame and is still in business, unlike Hostess.
976-EVIL is basically BULLY reconfigured as a Satanic horror film. Spike and Hoke are town-mouse and country-mouse like cousins — Spike as a Fonz-like bad-boy antihero who’s really good at heart, Hoke as a nerd who’s picked on by the bullies until, after they ruin a date with his girl, he submits to Satanic possession with the help of a 976 line where Satan Himself is the switchboard responder, and then wreaks havoc on anything and everything, starting with The Girl.
The director is Robert Englund, who played Freddy Krueger in the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET films, and a cynical part of me thinks he made 976-EVIL (which features a character growing long-nailed claws and slashing up a couple of faces) in order to make his signature work look better by comparison. I saw Englund on one of Siskel & Ebert’s specials say his all-time favorite film was Marcel Carne’s 1945 French classic CHILDREN OF PARADISE, so he is obviously a man of some taste and discernment. And while one can’t expect NIGHT OF THE HUNTER from every actor on his first directing gig, how could anyone who was ever on a professional movie set not see the basic craft problems here? Literally nothing in 976-EVIL works — the settings, the pacing, the drama, the ideas, the performances … nothing.
From the streets with no pedestrians and only one car, but which car [spoiler elided … no it’s not a spoiler … it tries to run over Spike], to the only theater in history that runs a horror marathon that seems to have no audience, a completely silent audience and/or an audience who can’t hear a mass murder with living mutilations and a fire in the projection booth.
From the clumsily edited stunts such as a man falling off a second-floor facade in three close-up cuts, to such obvious signifiers as an argyle sweater vest being worn by the only teen in the film who doesn’t smoke, who tells a joke about milking a cow and who uses the word “durn” (that’s Hoke, if there was any suspense).
From a character having his hand sliced off (the set up for one of the two or three would-be funny lines) but then continuing to fight Satan’s Minion without going into shock, to “Miss Martinez” walking through an obviously possessed spooky house while opening every door and turning back every bedsheet, proving that Eddie Murphy was insufficiently inclusive — Hispanics in horror movies can be as dumb as white people.
From a hyper-religious boy learning exactly how to do a proper Satanic soul-selling rite with a perfect pentagram in less time than it takes to cook a TV dinner, to the way Englund underlines that timeline by intercutting the two events, so there’s absolutely no doubt about how fast he learns.
From the would-be naturalism of Patrick O’Bryan as Spike, to the darkly charismatic presence of Robert Picardo as the 976 operator and the scenery-chewing performance by Sandy Dennis as … wait for it … the Fonz’s hyper-religious aunt … the performances are all over the map in terms of what tone 976-EVIL is striving for.
From Dennis being the only addict of Pentecostal-flavored holy roller TV shows who has idolatrous statues of Popery’s goddess Mary on her lawn, to how her son becomes Satan’s minion because the cool kids were mean to him in one of those teacher-less schools that are ubiquitous in bad horrormovies and unknown in the rest of the universe.
There were only two things I was asking myself after this movie was over. First, on the logic of this movie, I ought to hunt down whoever handed me this assignment and rip out their still-beating hearts, in revenge for an experience far worse than getting toilet dunked or dropped into the garbage can. And second … Sandy Dennis?
Dennis took this role 22 years after winning an Oscar for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Who won the acting Oscars 22 years back from today? Kathy Bates, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg and Joe Pesci. And while none of those (all deserving, BTW) actors are on today’s A-list and three have since done more work for TV, none have humiliated themselves the way Dennis does here, in an overdone costume and projecting to the back row like bad dinner theater. Piper Laurie in CARRIE showed how to play this kind of role; what possessed Dennis … a question with profounder implications for the nature and wiles of demons than anything that happens in 976-EVIL
I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.
And RIP, Roger.