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I thought I'd kick the new year off with another movie marathon. I thought it was time to check out a few old school mystery flicks. Som...

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Murder by Phone (1982)

The movie opens in a subway where after helping a man to his feet a young woman answers a payphone. You know kids before we had cell phones there were public phones hanging on the walls that you would put change in to make calls. When she picks it up there is a weird sound and her eyes bleed until it explodes, and she dies. That is a way to start a movie. 

We are introduced to a professor named Bridger next. He is headed off to a big conference but before he goes a friend asks him to check with the police into his daughter’s death. Sure enough it is the girl from earlier so Bridger tells him he will and does so when he gets to town. The police aren’t very helpful at first telling him that it was a heart attack. But he doesn’t buy that since she was a healthy nineteen year old girl. This gets him to start digging and soon finds out that the phone company is covering something up. 

I suppose I should also explain that before getting broken up in the eighties the phone company was a huge monolithic monopoly that used to operate at their own pace and the customer be damned. Hell, you didn’t even own your phone as it was just a rental that you paid for each month. Don’t like it… then live without a phone. Making them the villain of this story made sense and it was believable that they would just ignore the police. You all are getting a history lesson today. 

More bodies pile up making the police, specifically detective Meara, pay attention. There is also a lady scientist from the phone company, Ridley, who acts as a source of information as well as the love interest of Bridger. Soon the three of them are chasing after the homicidal maniac that is calling folks up just to explode their noggins with his crazy invention that allows him to murder them with their phone! See how they worked the title in? 

I really wanted to like this one, but it just didn’t work for me. The story starts off fun but then bogs down as we watch our main character dig thru papers, talk to witnesses, dig thru more papers, and sneak around the phone company building. Other than brief instances of folks getting deadly calls which all play out the same way, nothing happens for most of the movie. When the authorities do finally pay attention there isn’t even any attempts to connect the killings together. I mean it does eventually sort of make sense, though some of the killings are random. I mean what did the housewife doing dishes have to do with anything? Spoiler I don’t think she did.  

Axel from MBV shows up!
Of course, the above isn’t helped by the fact that this is not only based in technology that is completely foreign to audiences today with the pay phones and giant switches used to track down where the call is coming from. It reminded me of that killer sequence in Black Christmas where they are running around a huge bank of mechanical switches trying to determine where the obscene phone call is coming from. Like that movie this one is also Canadian. Unlike that movie this one is painfully boring. Also, there is the whole bit with the phone company being so powerful that folks just don’t get anymore as that is no longer the shared experience. 

Richard Chamberlain is our lead actor playing Bridger. He is decent enough in the role. There is also a smaller supporting role from the legendary John Houseman as a colleague who is in bed with the phone company and falls afoul of the killer. Another familiar face in that of Barry Morse also makes an appearance. Finally, since this was a Canadian flick it was cool to see a young Neil Affleck aka. Axel from My Bloody Valentine in a blink and you’ll miss it role as a phone technician. 

I don’t know if Murder by Phone played better when it was released forty plus years ago, but it certainly doesn’t work now. The movie is slow, the killer generic, and the story is filled with plot points that don’t translate well. Its just not very good and I can’t recommend it. 

© Copyright 2023 John Shatzer

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