Dial:Help (1988)

Sunday 1 November 2015

Also Known As: Minaccia d'amore
Directed By: Ruggero Deodato
Starring: Charlotte Lewis, Marcello Modugno, Mattia Sbragia, Carola Stagnaro
Running Time: 94 mins
Release Date: 1988
Country of Origin: Italy

Ok, I admit it, I have a terrible soft spot for Ruggero Deodato's 1988 supernatural horror Dial Help. It's a film that's heavily criticised by Italian horror fans and rightly so, yet somehow, I can't help but find this one hell of a compelling, entertaining and albeit, absolutely fucking ridiculous film. Starring actress/model Charlotte Lewis, Dial Help is notorious for showing the English actress's assets in a rather steamy bathroom scene that's probably the only reason the film managed to secure funding . Yet, if you look past the film's ridiculous premise of a model haunted by telephones, you're sure to find a film that surprisingly, has something to offer to Italian horror fans with its interesting set pieces, stylish interiors and awesome music courtesy of Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame. 

Charlotte Lewis stars as Jenny, a young fashion model from London who has moved to Italy to find fame and fortune in the glamorous city of Rome. Jenny seems to have a pretty awesome life - she's got a kickass apartment, a best friend who doubles as her photographer, a glamorous job and a fabulous head of hair. Only things aren't so great for Jenny - her architect boyfriend's dumped her and in a desperate attempt to get back in contact with him, Jenny accidentally phones an old lonely hearts helpline, inadvertently setting the ghosts of the phone operators who used to work there after her. Cue ridiculous phone related deaths, ominous shots of telephones and Charlotte Lewis screaming in phone booths. Can I take a moment to remind you all that this film was brought to you by the director who made the ground breaking found footage horror film Cannibal Holocaust. The eighties really were a rough time for the trailblazers of Italian horror!

Despite its ridiculous premise, when the film manages to avoid descending into out and out silliness it has a few scattered moments of genuine brilliance. The stand out scene of the film takes place in the Rome metro where a mysterious man played by Giorgio Tirabassi stalks Jenny through the labyrinth like underground system. Tirabassi has the perfect face for a horror villain with his deep set eyes, prominent nose and hollowed out cheeks. The minute Tirabassi appears on screen he commands your attention. He genuinely petrified me in this scene and when he's first introduced silently gliding across a travelator, I was both transfixed and terrified. Deodato's decision to have him appear several times in the background as Jenny runs around the underground tunnels, escalators and platforms was a stroke of genius and gave the film an almost supernatural feel that worked far better than all the silliness with killer phone cords. Sadly, once again, Deodato uses a phone related death sequence for our would be rapist killing him with coins out of a pay phone in a scene which really has to be seen to be believed. Don't get me wrong, it's absolutely hilarious but ruins the wonderfully sinister atmosphere that Deodato had been building to.

Please no.

Despite the absurdity of the aforementioned loose change death scene, the film manages to rattle on and gain momentum once again as Jenny flees onto the metro platform and into an awaiting carriage. Barreling down the underground tunnels in a fluorescent lit train that spookily has no other passengers, Jenny lets her guard down thinking she's safe from harm. It's only when Jenny attempts to alight from the train as it pulls into her familiar station that she realises the doors have fused shut - the evil telephone voices clearly have other plans for her as their voices whisper and crackle over the train's speakers. Understandably terrified, Jenny runs the length of the train jumping from carriage to carriage hoping to find someone to help her. Only when Jenny finally makes it to the front carriage, she finds that there's no driver operating the train and has to break for freedom when the train pulls into another station by jumping down between the carriages only to find herself head on with a speeding train. Of course, Jenny survives and makes it out of the dark and dismal underground and onto the familiar Roman streets but her ordeal is far from over. 

I found the much celebrated scene of Charlotte Lewis writhing around in her underwear surprisingly enjoyable (I promise I'm not a perv!) and thought it was a thoroughly memorable albeit bonkers set piece. The scene also managed to get the film and Charlotte Lewis a fair bit of attention and allowed the distributors to dubiously advertise this as an erotic thriller. The sequence has an almost surreal like quality which seems to be magnified by the strange black and white grid like decor of Jenny's bathroom and the oddly coloured bath water. As Jenny dons lingerie, stockings and err... boots, she cavorts around the bathroom seductively before submerging herself in her dubiously coloured bath possessed by the voices on the phone. The scene culminates in a phone flying through the window and into the bath, bizarrely setting the whole bathroom ablaze. 

I heard the water in Rome was suspect but this is fucking ridiculous

The problem with Dial Help is that the premise of haunted telephones terrorising a young model quickly loses traction. Deodato seems far too concerned with creating inventive death sequences that somehow involve telephones and what we're left with are awkward set pieces that seem to be clumsily shoe horned in. On one hand I want to applause Deodato for managing to fill Dial Help with so many inventive phone deaths and on the other I want to smack him about for wasting all that creativity on a sub standard story that needed several rewrites to make even a lick of sense. The premise of the film doesn't really work and we're left wondering why the ghosts of telephone operators wanted to kill Jenny's fish one minute, send her into a state of arousal the next and then help kill her would be rapist before trying to kill her with a pair of scissors. There's never really a decent enough explanation for why they're terrorising Jenny and the bizarre ending where Jenny and Riccardo laugh the whole thing off despite all the murder and mayhem they've endured is truly baffling. 

Other horror films that utilise technology in a sinister fashion do so in a far less obvious way than what's displayed throughout Dial:Help, often acting as a conduit for evil rather than the tech itself being the evil do'er. Despite the explanation of the deceased phone operators ghosts possessing the phones it never really feels like we have an explanation for why they're targeting Jenny or why they want revenge/redemption. We get these strange shots throughout the film of phones sitting ominously at the edge of the shot, moving towards Jenny like evil has possessed a telephone and somehow made it into a moving object that's going to somehow choke her with a phone cord. I would have preferred Deodato to be a little bit more subtle with the phone idea but then again this is Italian horror, subtle isn't exactly a word associated with the genre. 

Hanging by.. err from? the telephone

Charlotte Lewis is a striking actress and her captivating beauty makes some of the film's more lacklustre scenes bearable. There's certainly a charm to her and a certain amount of screen presence that makes the film engaging despite its obvious limitations.  Don't get me wrong, Lewis' acting in Dial:Help is pretty awful, but in fairness, the script was working against her (to put it mildly). In one excruciating scene, Jenny begs a police officer to help her and starts rattling off about phones killing her best friend and the terrible ordeal she's been through at the hands of her Giorgio Armani telephone. The scene is so terribly written/performed that it made me want to stick needles in my eyes to alleviate the second hand embarrassment. I think the most hilarious aspect of this scene is when the police officer begins to chastise her for walking about dressed in such a provocative fashion - bare in mind that she's wearing a pair of oh so flattering black nineties straight leg jeans and a black long sleeve top that has a few rips in it. The way the police officer is carrying on, you'd think she was walking around in high heels and a cleavage bearing mini dress. Got to love those oh so progressive Italian men! Although Charlotte Lewis' plummy English accent quickly got on my last nerve, when she's not speaking in that stilted upper crust voice of hers, she manages to play the terrified model role pretty convincingly which is quite a feat when you're having to act petrified by a house phone. In another scene, our heroine Jenny has to act sexually aroused by a handset and again, Charlotte Lewis manages to act this painful scene convincingly enough for all of its absurdity. Our leading man Riccardo, played by Marcello Modugno (who appeared in Demons and Midnight Killer), also manages to do his best with the limited script and although he comes across as rather wet and a bit of a personality vacuum he does add a bit of humour to his scenes - his reactions at the breakfast table whilst Jenny is cavorting in the bath were pretty hilarious and his efforts to rescue her in the climax were dare I say it, rather thrilling?! The other key players in the film are pretty bland and not really worth mentioning. Jenny's best friend and photographer, Carmen played by Carola Stagnaro, is a bit of a non entity and adds little to the action - even her death scene is lackluster and doesn't seem to bother or motivate Jenny in the slightest. I enjoyed Cyrus Elias as the pissed off cafe owner who wants Jenny and Riccardo to stop using his telephone and get the hell out of his cafe and the scene between the three brought some much needed intentional humour to the film as it reached its climax. 

Cinematography wise, Dial Help is rather dull but it does have the occasional flash of brilliance. The previously mentioned underground scenes are particularly memorable and look fairly stylish for the time. Admittedly many of the scenes in Dial Help look rather flat with a low budget feel but there's still some great camera work on display particularly in the aforementioned underground scene and the climax where we see some glorious shots of an old fashioned lift. A few scenes in Dial Help are bathed in stark red lighting which helps to create a atmospheric feel that screams danger imminent during key scenes. Blue lighting is also used throughout the film primarily in the scenes that take place in the abandoned lonely hearts hotline and these are also effective in helping to give the film an injection of cinematic style. Typical of films from this period dry ice is heavily used in various scenes which comes across as fairly dated and evokes the feel of a bad eighties pop video. We're far away from the wonderful inventive cinematography of the Italian horror of the 1970s but compared to other late eighties/early nineties offerings, Dial Help isn't all bad. 

The interiors and costumes are fairly contemporary for the time period and it would be easy to mistake Dial Help for a film from the early nineties. Strangely, Dial Help looks far more contemporary than Deodato's follow up film The Washing Machine which was made 5 years later. Jenny's apartment is a wonderful example of interior design of the time with its glass brick partitions, stark black and white tiling, neon lighting and prominent use of the colour yellow. Overblown canvases of Jenny adorn the walls and look suitably eighties in their style. Jenny's Union Jack duvet set is probably a not so subtle nod to her nationality but it does help to create an association with the Cool Britannia scene of the mid nineties again, making the film feel more modern than it actually is. Telephones are of course, heavily featured and we see two phones in Jenny's apartment - a glorious pink neon clear phone and a particularly striking Giorgio Armani phone which flashes when rung. Deodato's film is a fantastic example of late eighties interior design and I personally found it worth a watch for the distinctive interior designs and fashions alone that aren't atypical of Italian horror. For more on the fashions of the film, check out my post here.

Dial Help is scored by Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame who manages to create a pretty great score for a film of such questionable quality. The music fits the film nicely and feels suitably ominous and hopelessly catchy with its synthesised melodies. In some ways it reminded me of Simonetti's score for Argento's Sleepless (as part of Goblin) which is no bad thing in my book. Although the score is admittedly somewhat dated, it fits the tone of the film perfectly and has a creepy almost childlike quality in places. Sadly, the film's main theme "Baby Don't Answer" is all kinds of horrible, featuring stellar lyrics like "danger lurking everywhere even on your telephone" but I'll admit, once again, it's rather catchy even though it feels rather unfitting as the film's main theme. 

I don't drive but if I did I wouldn't settle for anything less than this

It's hard to really recommend a film like Dial Help as it's sure to infuriate and elate in equal measures. I would say if you're going to give this one a try then watch it with a couple of beers and a few friends with an open mind and your bar set low. It should give you a few laughs, a bit of titillation and maybe even a few moments where you'll edge that little bit closer to the edge of your seat. Most of all it's worth a watch if you want to see Charlotte Lewis writhing around in her underwear in a bath filled with a piss like substance. Strangely, despite being truly ridiculous, you could never really accuse Dial Help of being boring and its 97 minute running time ticks along quite nicely so your sure to be kept entertained even if it's for all the wrong reasons. So if you're looking for some mindless entertainment with a pinch of silliness and a few moments of  genuine brilliance than Dial Help is definitely the film for you. Even my fiance who isn't a fan of Italian horror seemed to enjoy the absurdity of this one. I picked my copy up from Revok.com but it's also available in parts on YouTube. Let me know what you think and remember, don't answer that phone!

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