With Rings, the new entry in The Ring franchise that began with the original Japanese Ringu back in 1998, we are once again reminded of how much horror can be wrung from a common household technology.
No, not the VHS tape, though it has wreaked its fair share of horror as well. It’s the phone! Ever since Barbara Stanwyck overheard plans for murder on a crossed phone line in 1948’s Sorry Wrong Number, filmmakers have been utilizing the technology in creative and frightening ways. Here are some of the worst phone calls in horror movie history:
Black Christmas (1974)/When a Stranger Calls (1979)
Released five years apart, Black Christmas was influential on John Carpenter’s Halloween while When a Stranger Calls was one of the glut of films fast-tracked in Halloween’s successful wake. That’s not the only thing they have in common, though.
Creepy, recurring phone calls plague the main characters in both of them. Moaning, silence, obscene phrases, and taunts (“Have you checked the children?”) are the weapons these crazies use, and the urban legend-inspired twist (SPOILER ALERT) of the calls coming from inside the house was used to chilling effect in both. Unlike Sorry Wrong Number, the murder plans weren’t accidentally overheard; here, the killer wanted them to know he was coming.
Speaking of Halloween, it had a frightening phone conversation of its own. When Michael Myers disguises himself as Lynda’s boyfriend Bob by dressing up like a ghost, Lynda tires of what she perceives as a dumb joke and calls her babysitting friend Laurie. When Laurie answers, Michael makes his move and strangles Lynda with the phone cord. All Laurie can do is listen helplessly as her friend dies on the other end.
While Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls created fear by having a looming threat on the other end of the phone, Halloween’s fear came from the lead character’s inability to do anything to help.
Horror movie aficionado Kevin Williamson breathed new life into the horror genre with Scream by having his characters self-referentially aware of the tropes of horror films. The characters weren’t the only ones with love for horror films; Williamson and director Wes Craven crafted an homage to many great horror films from Psycho to A Nightmare on Elm Street.
The opening twelve minutes of Drew Barrymore’s Casey being taunted on the phone is a clear homage to the first twenty minutes of When a Stranger Calls. Craven and Williamson made it their own by going beyond simple taunting to create a horror movie quiz that Casey must ace in order to save herself and her boyfriend Steve. The phone is no longer simply a harbinger of coming trouble; it is a tool used to create it.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Long before he teamed with Williamson to create the intense opening of Scream, Craven already had a disturbing phone conversation in his body of work. It should come as no surprise to fans of Freddy Krueger that the most talkative slasher in existence would have to make use of a phone at some point.
The scene in Craven’s original begins in similar fashion to ones in previous horror films: main character Nancy answers the phone to a classically creepy line, “I’m your boyfriend now, Nancy.” Then, in a shocking one-up on the traditional obscene call, the bottom half of the phone becomes Freddy’s mouth, complete with a flagellating tongue to lick unsuspecting Nancy. Rather than the danger being on the other end of the phone, the phone ITSELF was dangerous.
Robert Englund, the man who brought phone molester Freddy Krueger to life, also brought 976-EVIL to the screen in his directorial debut. In the film, two cousins call a creepy pay-per-minute phone line, only to discover that it is a direct line to Hell.
Though it was poorly received on its release, the film cleverly juxtaposes mass communication with demon possession and asks if what we’re transmitting and receiving is really as great as we believe. Phones are a two-way conduit into people’s homes… and they may be conduits into our soul as well.
Pulse (2001)/Phone (2002)/One Missed Call (2003)
These three Asian horror films came out in rapid succession after the success of the original Ringu; like Ringu, Pulse and One Missed Call were also remade for American audiences.
Aside from benefiting from the obvious influence of Ringu, the three films also shared similar plot elements with each other. All three films dealt with the spirits of the dead using phones to communicate, to warn, or to attack the owners. Part of a larger technology-meets-spirituality subgenre of Asian films that also included The Eye and Shutter, these movies tapped into the fear not only that the phone might be dangerous, but that the technology is so ubiquitous that escape might be impossible.
Session 9 (2001)
Brad Anderson’s debut in horror, this story about asbestos cleaners in an abandoned asylum might not seem a likely candidate for worst horror phone calls. But this film, with its creeping dread and deceptively simple series of two-person conversations, uses phone to creepy effect.
From the half-overheard conversations explaining where their co-workers have disappeared to the chats between asbestos company owner Gordo and his wife, the film uses the mundane in eerily effective ways. And the final scene, in which (SPOILER ALERT) Gordo, after having killed all his co-workers, sits with a broken cell phone, continuing his imagined conversation with his dead wife, is heartbreaking and horrible: “Wendy, it’s me, please don’t hang up, please. I just wanted to say that I’m so sorry for what’s happened. I’m so lonely here, I want to go home. I just want to hold you; I want to hold my baby. Can you forgive me? Can you forgive me?”
In this final case, the phone wasn’t a harbinger of doom, or doom itself; it was merely a tool, a crutch that a disturbed man used to allow himself to continue a delusion.
And finally, though they may not truly be horror, there are a few phone conversations just bad enough to deserve honorable mentions on this list:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you; I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”
The minute Marko heard those words, his life was effectively over.
“I need one million dollars by nine o’clock tonight or I’ll be left to die in this coffin!”
Just a taste of the harrowing conversations Ryan Reynolds’ Paul has from inside a box buried under the ground.
Phone Booth (2002)
“Stu, if you hang up, I will kill you.”
The line that psychologically tethers Colin Farrell to a phone booth to keep himself and many others from being killed by an unseen sniper.
So next time you casually dismiss an annoying telemarketer, keep in mind that he already has your phone number…