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Murder by Phone
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by Jack Sommersby

"Richard Chamberlain vs. Killer Telephones"
4 stars

Some will prefer answering their phone with a 10-foot pole after viewing this film.

The only thing more outlandish than Murder by Phone's storyline -- that of a dastardly fiend killing off people by sending an ultra-high electrical frequency through their phones -- is the pedigree of three of the film's participants: actors Richard Chamberlain of The Thorn Birds and John Houseman of The Paper Chase; and director Michael Anderson of Around the World in 80 Days. (I'm not suggesting they're geniuses in their fields: Chamberlain can be one-note and uncharismatic; and Houseman reached his peak far back in 1973 with his Oscar-winning performance in Chase, but they've never been nauseatingly negligible and worthy of a citizen's arrest.) Yet, all in all, what audiences wind up getting is a rather enjoyable time, one that keeps you entertained and fascinated for just about the entirety of its appropriately-brief eighty-minute running time. Chamberlain, looking rather handsome with a full beard, stars as Nat Bridger, a university ecology professor looking into the mysterious death of one of his former students at the request of the victim's father. Unlike Bridger, we've been made privy to the young woman's death: during the pre-credit section, we see her answer a telephone on a deserted subway platform, where her eyes and ears proceed to bleed profusely, and something akin to a lightening bolt violently propels her off her feet and onto a moving escalator. Yet the police report states her death having been brought on by natural causes -- a heart attack, to be exact. Soon, Bridger finds himself "bucking the system" as he goes head to head with the telephone company, who, understandably enough, wishes to keep the matter under wraps from the media and public.

The screenplay actually isn't half-bad, the pacing is tight, the cinematography robust, and the fantastic music score by Oscar-winner John Barry deliciously gothic in the Night Gallery vein. Unfortunately, the acting isn't as praiseworthy. Chamberlain, an actor who's never been outgoing, loosens up a bit this time around but still holds the performance too close in; you just can't imagine a director having to tell him he's giving too much and needs to tone it down. As for Houseman, he's his usual drawn-out-line-reading self, like a drunk-on-molasses tortoise reading off its last will and testament. The only thespian who makes much of an impression is Sara Botsford as Bridger's love interest; as she proved in the horror entries Deadly Eyes and Still of the Night, her stellar supporting-actress self can rise above substandard material. One could probably rip Murder by Phone six ways from Sunday if so desired (though it's oodles better than Michael Savino's subpar Attack of the Killer Refrigerator), but that'd be the rather priggish thing to do, because the movie, while not exactly the greatest thing in the whole wide world, has been carried off with both flair and imagination, two crucial ingredients that have sadly become more and more scarce in the mostly-sorry world of cinema in this day and age.

C'mon, if we can have "Beach Babes 2: Cavegirl Island" on DVD, why not this neat flick?

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originally posted: 04/13/06 07:50:06
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User Comments

11/23/16 danR Actors and direction do their straight-faced best w. (tongue-in-cheek?)silly premise/scrip 4 stars
5/02/11 mr.mike Chamberlain is fine and the director keeps things moving nicely. 4 stars
12/29/02 Jack Sommersby Wonderfully entertaining horror trash. The acting is horrendous! 4 stars
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  03-Dec-1982 (R)



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