The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It #5 - 976-EVIL (1988)

Before the Internet with it's African Princes, Penis Enlargement Pills, and pop-ups extolling weight loss, credit repair, and ever lasting love, those who sought to relieve the American public of their unwanted monies had to depend on their customers coming to them. The backs of magazines were filled with toll numbers with prefixes like 1-900 and 976 offering psychic readings, local dating, phone sex, and horoscopes. In the case of tonight's film, it turns out that it's a real horror-scope. Today on The Halloween Top 13: The Devil Made Me Do It, Satan will take your call at $4.95 a minute and $9.95 for each additional minute. Coming in at #5, Robert Englund's 1988 directorial debut, the rotary dial deviltry of 976-EVIL.

Spike (Patrick O'Bryan) is a bad boy. You can tell by his slicked back hair, brown leather bomber jacket, and chromed out '48 Harley. He gets the girls and he fights his fights. Which makes him the exact opposite of his cousin Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), an introverted nerd who constantly gets picked on. They both live with Hoax's ultra religious mother (Sandy Dennis), and when the sky rains fish one evening, she takes it as a sign from God. Its origin probably has more to do with the eerily prophetic "Horrorscopes" he's been listening to by dialing 666-976-EVIL. Spike loses interest in the phone line, but when Hoax tries it out, he soon discovers its demonic power. Using it to get revenge on his enemies, Hoax is soon totally consumed by The Devil, and it's up to Spike to defeat the cousin he used to have to defend.

In some ways, 976-EVIL resembles #11 on the countdown, Evilspeak. In both cases, the put-upon nerd turns to Satan to change his life, bu unlike Stanley Coopersmith's revenge fantasy, Hoax's story actually has some depth. Every time I watch 976-Evil, it's one of the things that surprises me most. (The other is Robert Picardo as the coked up Mark Dark.) Screenwriters Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Man on Fire, Green Zone) and Rhet Topham (Trick or Treat) took a risk incorporating a cultural trend into a horror movie. Ask feardotcom if you don't believe me. However. much like Trick of Treat did with metal, 976-EVIL cleverly incorporated its conceit by building a quality, original horror film around it. There is also a fair amount of humor throughout, but it's judiciously applied. Sandy Dennis (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) is the only actor who could be accused of playing too broadly, but her holy roller really needed to be a larger than life presence. The only other place  the humor stumbles is in the last third of the film which gets a bit too reminiscent of Freddy Kruger's Henny Youngman period.

 Many people overlook this under-watched gem. I think this is partially because 976 numbers became so synonymous with sex lines, and people expect the worst based off that premise. It's too bad because there are some really entertaining performances. Running away with the show in a big way is Stephen Geoffreys. While many people know and love him as Evil Ed from Fright Night,   Geoffreys does a great job giving his character a slow, natural believable decent into demonic possession. Just as he did in Fright Night, he plays the dweeb and the baddie, but he excelled at it so that it's a shame he couldn't sustain his movie career. Patrick O'Bryan would be the only cast member to return four years later for 976-EVIL II, and I can see why they would have him back. While it's Geoffrey's show, O'Bryan makes for an excellent counterpoint. The film also benefits from performances by Jim Metzler as a reporter investigating the "Horrorscopes", the beautiful Lezlie Deane as Spike's gal pal who was taking notes from Madonna's fashion catalog a number of years too late, and J.J. Cohen as card sharp Marcus who looks like the missing New Kid on the Block.

I was hoping to consult Robert Englund's book Hollywood Monster hoping to find an interesting fact or juicy piece of trivia to pass on about 976-EVIL. Sadly, as scandalous as it gets is that Englund met his wife, Nancy Booth, when she worked as set decorator for the film. He also recalls calling in a favor from special effect's artist Kevin Yeager and his crew. Englund recalls blandly, "Kevin and his crew went above and beyond." Thank you for that thrilling insight, Bob. I can see why you usually stick to other people's words. While 976-EVIL was never in any danger of winning an Oscar, it does remain pacey and utterly fun throughout. By this point in his career, Englund has been in and around enough horror films to know what would and wouldn't fly with the audience. Except for a very few forced one-liners, the movie never panders to the audience. It delivers on its premise, has some fun along the way, and throws in enough effects and splatter to satisfy.

A combination of things brought 976-EVIL this far up The Halloween Top 13 list. Combining an original story, inspired actors, great effects, and a director who knew how to respect the genre, 976-EVIL turned out to be a lot of fun. No matter if you want to sit down by yourself and watch a movie or have people over and throw something on in the background, 976-EVIL will fit the bill. It also fits in tsquite nicely at #5 on The Devil Made Me Do It. With four days to go, have you guessed what Satanic surprises I might have hiding up the billowy sleeves of my ritual robes? Well, you'll have to wait and see, but I bet a few of them appear on today's Reader list submitted by my Internet Cousin, Christine Hadden of Fascination with Fear. Check out her picks down below the trailer.

Bugg Rating

There's a billion great things I could say about my Internet cousin Christine Hadden, but I'll narrow it down to just a couple. She's always insightful filling Fascination with Fear with unmissable articles. She's likes Psycho more than any person should, just like I do. And finally, she's made a hell of a great list to share with you folks. 

1) Angel Heart - 1987 - My absolute favorite film with the devil in it. Mickey Rourke? Yes please! I love all that voodoo hoopla, and DeNiro was kind of a surprise as Mr. Louis Cyphre.  Get it? 

2) The Exorcist - 1973 - Everybody's favorite devil film is one of mine too.  It still stands the test of time and for me, could never be duplicated! 

3) Rosemary's Baby - 1968 - As old as me, and though stuck in its time period it is still such an effective film with great performances. 

4) The House of the Devil - 2009 - Though made just a few years ago it really holds an 80's feel to it. I'm not totally sold on this one, but the atmosphere more than makes up for some of the plot faults. 

5) The Ninth Gate - 1999 - Johnny Depp is my homeboy, so if I can get him and Frank Langella in the same movie, there's no way I'm not loving it.  And two Polanski films on the same list?  How the hell did that happen? 

6) Hellraiser - A puzzle box opens the doors to a world rife with horrifying demons.  Nasty shit.  What could be better than that? 

7) The Evil Dead - 1981 - My love for this film and its sequel know no bounds.  The demonic chanting from the woods "Join Us!" gets me every time, as does the recording of the chants to bring Kandarian demons forth from beyond.  Awesome. 

8) (Dario Argento's) Demons - 1985 - Argento and (Lamberto) Bava team up to give us a theater full of demons.  Totally over the top, exactly what 80's films should be. 

9) The Sentinel - 1977 - The Catholic Church owns a house that is the gateway to hell and has to appoint someone to keep the demons at bay.  Yeah, that sounds reasonable.  It's a great film that is underrated and deserves to be seen. 

10) The Omen - 1976 - Because most kids are demons to me anyway, a film with a five year old who is the son of the devil himself pretty much scared the shit out of me. 

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