Sunday, February 08, 2015

Bells aka Murder By Phone aka The Calling

New World Pictures cut about fifteen minutes out of this Canadian horror movie before releasing it in the United States in 1982 as THE CALLING and then MURDER BY PHONE. Shot in Toronto in 1980, BELLS didn’t play theaters in its native country and is one of the rare horror movies of the 1980s to have no cult following, despite its name director and stars.

BELLS relies on a silly gimmick that probably looked less outrageous during the horror boom of the early 1980s. A madman murders people by calling them on the telephone and using an electronic doohickey to send an electrical charge over the phone line. His victim shivers and shakes, blood pours from his eyes and ears, and the receiver explodes, flinging its holder through the air into a conveniently placed wall, window, or glass cabinet. Similar to the deaths in (the also Canadian) SCANNERS, except their heads don’t explore.

The murder scenes as directed by Michael Anderson (LOGAN’S RUN) are pretty cool. Repetitive, certainly, but cool. Richard Chamberlain (KING SOLOMON’S MINES) and John Houseman (THE PAPER CHASE), as well as composer John Barry (THUNDERBALL), provide class to the low-rent premise concocted by five different writers, including the team of Michael Butler and Dennis Shryack, who also wrote THE CAR, THE GAUNTLET, and CODE OF SILENCE. The story is more mystery than horror and mixes an anti-corporate message with the murder scenes, which wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher flick.

What an odd change of pace for Chamberlain, who was just coming off the Emmy-winning hit SHOGUN (he reportedly signed on to BELLS to finance his house’s remodeling). He plays Nat Bridger, an ecology professor who turns gumshoe after a former student becomes the maniac’s first kill. Bridger is in Toronto for an environmentalist symposium — it’s nice to see a Canadian film actually set in that country — and Houseman plays Sidney Markowitz, Bridger’s former mentor, a consultant for the phone company.

Barry Morse (SPACE: 1999) is a “guest star,” as the billing goes, and fans of Canadian cult cinema will recognize Robin Gammill (RITUALS), Sara Botsford (DEADLY EYES), Gary Reineke (THE KIDNAPPING OF THE PRESIDENT), and Lenore Zann (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME). Botsford, playing an artist who becomes romantically involved with Bridger, has nice chemistry with Chamberlain. In a change of pace, her character doesn’t exist solely to be kidnapped or threatened by the killer.

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