Before scientists discovered the Internet, the easiest way to get a stranger to talk dirty to you was to dial a special phone number that started with 1-900 or 976. Your phone bill would be charged $2.99 a minute, and you would listen to the bored lady pretend to have sexy chat with you until you got embarrassed or heard your parents coming home and quickly hung up. There were similar premium phone lines for getting your horoscope, talking to a psychic, and accessing the powers of the dark lord Satan.
Apparently, anyway. That is the subject of “976-EVIL,” a film from 1988 directed by Robert Englund, who is best known for playing Freddy Krueger at horror conventions and also in some movies. “976-EVIL” is a pretty good name for a cheesy horror flick. You can tell the writers thought of the title first and figured they’d come up with the rest of the story later, and then forgot. Then everyone showed up on the set, and the writers were like, “Crap, we totally spaced on the screenplay!,” and they had to make it up as they went along.
Given the rushed nature of the film, it’s no surprise that it seems to have two different protagonists, and that neither of them is likable. First there’s Spike (Patrick O’Bryan), a meathead biker dude who’s still in high school and has his hair pulled back into a ponytail knot, like a factory-irregular version of Steven Seagal. Spike lives with his religious-fanatic Aunt Lucy (Sandy Dennis) and his wimpy, dimwitted cousin, who for some reason is named Hoax (Stephen Geoffreys), probably as an inside joke. (“Do you think we can fool anyone into thinking this is a real movie??”)
To repay a poker debt to some of his fellow teen hoodlums, Spike steals money from Aunt Lucy, who catches him in the act and berates him, whereupon they go outside and it starts raining fish. And you think: “Raining fish! Huh! I am intrigued now!” How sad this is for you. No explanation is ever given for this piscine deluge, nor does it serve any purpose in the story. The story, you may recall, is supposed to be about someone calling Satan on the telephone.
This turns out to be Spike, our protagonist (for the time being). He sees a flier for 976-EVIL — “Get your horrorscope!” — and calls the number. At first the messages of these “horrorscopes” are not horrible at all, wasting a perfectly good pun. Like most horoscopes, they’re simply vague aphorisms that could apply to anyone and are only truly believed by the most gullible and stupid among us, including Spike. But then they start to get more specific. While waiting at a motorcycle repair shop, Spike gets bored and calls 976-EVIL on the pay phone — omitted is the part where he’d have to deposit about 30 quarters — and hears: “A real man has the nerves to take what he deserves.” Assuming this to be a reference to the leather gloves he was just admiring, Spike decides to shoplift them, on account of he deserves them and is a real man who has the nerves, and who is this stupid evil phone number to say otherwise??
He changes his mind, though, because stealing is wrong now, I guess? (Swiping cash from your aunt is one thing, but Spike draws the line at stealing $20 gloves from a small-businessman.) In retaliation for this disobedience, the evil phone number makes a car almost run Spike over. This reminds us of the film’s prologue, an otherwise nonsensical sequence in which a nameless man runs frantically through back alleys, answers a ringing pay phone, and immediately catches on fire. Now it all comes together: If you don’t do what 976-EVIL hints that you should do, 976-EVIL will get angry and punish you. 976-EVIL does not abide insubordination! It is one of the meanest phone numbers you will ever meet.
Fed up with his unfulfilling relationship with the phone number, Spike turns to the loving embrace of his girlfriend, Suzie (Lezlie Deane), who is obligated by the laws governing 1980s horror films to be skanky. They have sex in Spike’s room while Hoax watches through the window, because if Hoax is to take over as the main character in this film, he’ll need to be made as unappealing as possible. Hoax, a sort of generic-brand Mark Hamill, calls 976-EVIL and is instructed to take what he wants, so he sneaks into Spike’s room after the two are gone and absconds with Suzie’s underpants, which she left behind as a keepsake for Spike, in accordance with the aforementioned skankiness statutes. As with most of his underpants-related decisions, this choice will come back to haunt Hoax.
Spike and Suzie have gone to the local movie theater, where Spike abandons Suzie so he can play poker in the projection booth with his dirtbag friends. Accustomed to Spike’s neglect yet somehow still surprised by it, Suzie is emotionally vulnerable when Hoax comes walking by, acting sweet and naive and simple-minded, the very opposite of Spike, who is crude and cynical and simple-minded. They go to a pizza parlor and enjoy some laughs, whereupon some of the poker-playing bullies come in and harass Hoax, and they find Suzie’s panties in his back pocket, and Suzie is very, very disappointed to discover that the moron with whom she was starting to have a connection is as much of a pervert as the current boyfriend in whose face she flung those very lady-britches not two hours earlier.
Well, now Hoax is really steamed. Egged on by further consultation with 976-EVIL, he uses salt to draw a pentagram on his bedroom floor (as one does), then summons demonic powers to make spiders come out of Suzie’s microwave dinner and bite her. Then he goes to the movie theater and starts killing bullies, asking if he can join the poker game with a “pair of hearts” as he hands over the still-beating hearts of two of his victims. Poor Hoax doesn’t even know that a pair of hearts doesn’t count for anything in poker! Nothing sadder than when you kill two guys for the sake of a joke and then the joke doesn’t work.
Oh! But I forgot to tell you something! The day after it rained fish, a reporter for Modern Miracle Magazine came to talk to Aunt Lucy, who was delighted to tell him about how the Lord had blessed her with the miracle of dead sea creatures plummeting into her yard. Now the reporter, whose name is Marty (Jim Metzler), is also investigating the 976-EVIL thing. He seems to know something about it. Was the “Modern Miracle Magazine” story just a cover? Is he actually a detective or a cop or something? These are the kinds of questions that would have been addressed in a movie that had a screenplay rather than just a title.
So now Marty is teamed up with, why not, the assistant principal from Hoax and Spike’s high school, Miss Martinez (Maria Rubell), to examine what’s been going on. The movie takes care to assert that Miss Martinez is “hot,” in case Marty becomes the next main character and requires a love interest. This doesn’t wind up happening, but it’s good to be prepared. Spike, upset to learn that his now-evil cousin killed Suzie with spiders, joins Marty and Miss Martinez in trying to stop Hoax, who is now turning into a demon, with large rubber demon hands and everything, as is customary. Then a hellmouth opens in Aunt Lucy’s front yard and Hoax is dragged down to Satanland, leaving Spike to pay the humongous phone bill, which is only fair since he’s the one who started all this in the first place. But despite being slapped together at the last minute and not making any sense and having two loathsome protagonists and featuring unexplained fish-rain, “976-EVIL” is one of the better phone-number-based horror films I’ve seen. It beats the pants off “555-KILL”, “Call 867-5309 to Murder Jenny”, “1-800-DRACULA”, and most of the others that I made up.