As a self-described lover of grindhouse and exploitation films, I have seen my share of truly icky films. But Don’t Answer The Phone, a 1980 mix of police procedural and serial killer horror, is in a class all by itself. It is not only exceptionally icky but it’s distressingly effective as well.
After I watched Don’t Answer The Phone, I actually checked to make sure all the doors were locked. Before I got into bed, I searched all the closets to make sure there wasn’t anyone hiding in there. And, as I fell asleep, I found myself thinking that maybe I should follow the advise of both Arleigh and my sister. Maybe it was time for me to finally get a gun of my own and learn how to use it.
Seriously, Bowman, I thought as I waited for sleep to come, you live in Texas. It’s totally legal to carry a gun down here so you need to take advantage of the law and make you’re ready to blow any pervert losers away! Even if you shot the wrong person, you’re cute. The jury would never convict…
That’s the type of effect that Don’t Answer The Phone had on me. It’s not necessarily a good film. With one notable (and important) exception, most of the acting is terrible. The film’s few attempts at intentional humor largely fall flat. Even with a running time of only 94 minutes, Don’t Answer The Phone feels overlong and full of unneeded padding. And yet, this is a very effective film. It did freak me out, largely because it was so crude and heartless. It strikes at the most primal fears of the viewer, that feeling that — even within the security of our own home — we may not truly be safe.
As Don’t Answer The Phone opens, Los Angeles is a city being stalked by a madman. That, in itself, is not surprising. Just taking a quick look at Wikipedia will reveal that Los Angeles has been home to a large number of serial killers. In fact, if there is anything shocking about Don’t Answer The Phone, it’s the suggestion that Kirk Smith (played by Nicholas Worth) is the only serial killer in town.
Who is Kirk Smith? He’s an overweight, bald photographer who always wears an army jacket and is obsessed with candles, body building, and strangulation. He also enjoys calling up a local talk show host, Dr. Linsday Gale (Flo Gerrish). (One wonders if Dr. Gale’s name was specifically meant to make the viewer think of The Wizard of Oz.) “Hello,” he says in an outrageously fake accent, “this Ramon!” He tells Dr. Gale that he has frequent headaches and bad urges. When he’s not pretending to be Ramon, Kirk can usually be found staring at himself in a mirror and yelling, “Do I measure up, Dad!?”
Kirk is killing women across Los Angeles and it looks like he might never be caught because Don’t Answer The Phone features some of the most incompetent cops ever! These are the type of cops who smirk at the victims and shoot anyone who doesn’t get on the ground fast enough. These are the type of cops who open fire and then say, “Adios, creep.” Civil liberties!? BLEH, THESE COPS DON’T HAVE TIME FOR YOUR RIGHTS! Of course, they do end up shooting and killing the only witness who can identify Kirk Smith as the murderer. Whoops!
If there’s anything that sets Don’t Answer The Phone apart from all the other serial killer films, it’s the performance of Nicholas Worth. Far more than the slick and erudite serial killers who dominate contemporary thrillers, Nicholas Worth is a frighteningly believable lunatic. He’s scary because we’ve all seen his type wandering the streets. We’ve all felt his stare linger for a few seconds too long and we’ve all had the same feeling of dread when we saw him approaching us. Reportedly, Worth did a lot of research on actual serial killers before taking on the role of Kirk Smith and his performance is terrifying because it is so real.
It’s icky to watch but, at the same time, it do serve to remind us that there are real life Kirk Smiths out there.
Agck! Seriously, it makes me shake just thinking about it.
I’m getting a gun…