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Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas (1974)

Phone Freaks: 10 Freaky Phone Moments in Film and TV (1974-2012)

Hold the phone!  As long as we’ve had the telephone, we’ve had them appearing in films and TV scenes.  That makes it hard to narrow down a list of memorable, freaky phone moments.  Still, this list is pretty worthwhile, with all 10 of these entries being unique and interesting to watch.  Check ’em out!

1. Black Christmas (1974)

Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” is an influential slasher film, and features a mysterious killer with a scrambled back story. What we know about him — often called “Billy”— is that he’s hellbent on antagonizing a sorority house. This includes murders (or else it wouldn’t be a “slasher” film), but “Black Christmas” would be freaky enough had it just featured his crazy prank phone calls. They start off like rather straightforward gross talking points, but eventually evolve into a complex narrative involving unknown characters named “Agnes and Billy.” Also, he somehow knows details from conversations between Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey) and her moody boyfriend (Keir Dullea). Whatever the maniac’s identity, we know he’s not just the average crank caller, and we never know quite what to expect him to say next.

2. Halloween (1978)

Halloween
Nick Castle in Halloween (1978) Photo credit: Compass International Pictures, Falcon International Pictures.

Michael Myers has obviously entered the horror villain pantheon, but part of his initial legacy are his prank phone calls. Yes, that’s right: In John Carpenter’s original Halloween, Mr. Myers repeatedly stalks Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), and even gets her on the phone! Most remember him holding the phone to his ear after dispatching Lynda (P.J. Soles). However, he seems to have called Laurie even earlier in the day, breathing heavily into the mouthpiece. Michael Myers therefore isn’t entirely humorless. His — or its — humor just happens to be sick and murder-happy. Oh, and Mr. Myers also manages to drive a car rather effortlessly, despite never having lessons. He’s a quick learner!

3. Creepshow (1982)

Before it was a successful Shudder series, “Creepshow” was a fairly successful horror anthology film franchise. Directed by George A. Romero and written by Stephen King, one of the film’s iconic stories prominently features the telephone. In “They’re Creeping Up on You,” E. G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt. Pratt is a wealthy, germophobic shut-in whose cut-throat business philosophy has made him unpopular. Lenora Castonmeyer (Ann Muffly) calls to inform him that her husband killed himself due to his being fired, which Pratt uses as an excuse to badger her back with his ultra-dark humor. As she seethes with hatred in response, Mr. Pratt compares everyone he’s “squashed” over the years to the bugs now invading his apartment. What he doesn’t know is that those cockroaches are finally closing in on him, quite literally, in the form of actual cockroaches. Gross! As things escalate, Mrs. Castonmeyer calls back again, as if to say, “This time, we’re having the last word!”

4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

In “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” Wes Craven turned a cheap gag into an iconic moment. While stalking poor Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) in her dreams, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) makes a freaky phone call to her. It’s one of those moments that makes the film iconic and has likely been parodied more times than one might think. For example, old episodes of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” often have Joel and the bots saying, “I’m your boyfriend now!,” which is an obvious homage. “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” revisits this phone gag as well, being roughly as memorable as the first time. Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with revisiting an old idea, giving it a new lease on life.

5. Casino (1995)

Much like “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” is a brutal gangster movie, for sure. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny at times, though. Much of the humor comes from brutal mob enforcer, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who riddles the movie with as many funny quotes as he does his victims with bullets. One of the funniest moments is between Nicky and the casino-runner, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro). The heat has been turned up so much for Nicky that he must speak in code when on the phone with Ace, and the language used is actually pretty funny.

With sentences like, “Listen, I gotta meet Clean Face right away, what about the Chez Paris?,” it seems strangely plausible that such methods were actually utilized to confound FBI wiretappers trying to zero in and bust up their scams. It goes hand in hand with Nicky regularly needing to switch cars to avoid tails put on him by the coppers. In many ways, these segments contribute to “Casino” actually being comedic as well as dramatic. It’s all the more fascinating to know it’s based on a true story.

6. Scream (1996)

Scream on the phone
Drew Barrymore on the phone in Scream (1996).  Photo:  Dimension Pictures.

Wes Craven’s “Scream” basically starts off with a phone conversation, and never puts the phone down for very long. Voiced by Roger L. Jackson, Ghostface asks Drew Barrymore’s character, “What’s your favorite scary movie?” From there things quickly escalate, culminating in a number of brutal murders. Sure, there are a few lulls here and there, but the film is so steeped in horror elements. One never forgets the guy on the phone is a real threat.

“Scream” stars Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott, who ends up wondering if her boyfriend, Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) is the killer. The film may not be everyone’s favorite slasher story, but it did a lot to revitalize the genre, with its self-awareness ushering in a new era of masked killers. We also see David Arquette as Officer Dewey Riley, Courteney Cox as news reporter Gale Weathers, Matthew Lillard as Stu and Rose McGowan as Tatum Riley.

7. The Corndog Man (1999)

Andrew Shea’s “The Corndog Man” spends a lot of time on the phone. By all appearances, Ace Barker (Noble Willingham) is a moderately successful boat salesman when the movie begins. There’s no indication he’s super-rich, but he appears to know how to make sales. However, when he starts getting harassed endlessly over the phone by a strange caller (Jim Holmes), his life, health and salesmanship start to suffer dramatically. While we learn that Ace Barker isn’t a good guy (hint: the boat dealership is called “Triple K Marine”), one easily starts to feel bad for the character.

The end result is (or should be) a definite moral quandary for the viewer. At what point does a crank call become harassment, if not something worse? Interestingly, while this film seems far-fetched due to the relentless harassment, it’s actually inspired partly by a true story. Sometime in the 1980s, a man working at Al White Motors in Manchester, Tennessee, was regularly harassed over the phone. These moments live on as the so-called “Binny Tapes,” and can even be heard on Youtube (Note: the video has some language which some viewers might find offensive…or weird, or disturbingly funny).

8. Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s “Zodiac” looks at the perplexing case of the ever-elusive killer who haunted and taunted Californians in the 1960s–1970s. Often (though not exclusively) targeting couples in isolated areas, the as-yet-unsolved case leaves behind a lot of theories and doubts as to the killer’s true identity. While many of his taunts to authorities and the media happened through letters, the self-proclaimed “Zodiac” also occasionally harassed people by phone. “Zodiac” shows creepy calls (supposedly from the killer) to cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Interestingly, a man calling himself  The Zodiac set up phone calls with famous lawyer Melvin Belli on the show A.M. San Francisco. These are also depicted in the film, with Belli played by “Succession’s” Brian Cox. Snippets of the real phone call can be found on Youtube.
Zodiac also stars Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Elias Koteas, John Carroll Lynch, Chloë Sevigny, Lee Norris and Jimmi Simpson

9. Breaking Bad (2008–2013): “Ozymandias”

“Breaking Bad” is one of the most critically acclaimed shows ever, and why not? By the time season 5 occurred, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) already had one of the best character arcs ever constructed. As his world utterly crumbles around him, Walt decides he must sever ties with his family. To assure his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), will not be implicated in his manifold crimes, he calls her on her wire-tapped phone, menacing her and regularly noting that he operated alone. He also eventually leaves their kidnapped daughter at a nearby fire station and sets out to create a new identity for himself. The best line: “You’re never gonna see Hank [Dean Norris] again. He crossed me. You think about that. Family or no. You let that sink in.”

10. Compliance (2012)

Written and directed by Craig Zobel, “Compliance” seems like a very far-fetched movie. In it, a man (Pat Healy) calls a fast food restaurant claiming to be “Officer Daniels,” saying he’s investigating a thieving employee. The manager, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is given a description matching one of her workers, Becky (Dreama Walker). Things escalate as Daniels starts demanding strip searches, which numerous people comply with. The question is, why is this Officer Daniels? As crazy as all this sounds, it’s based on true events often called the “Strip search phone call scam.” It’s hard to believe this could happen more than once, but it apparently did! In many ways, “Compliance” manages to be as creepy as any horror movie. It should be seen by all who assume they have to trust anyone claiming authority.

About Wade Wainio

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