Monday, June 21, 2010

Queer Cinema: 976-EVIL

Pride Month, gay movies, blah blah blah. Today: What's that P.I. doing in the boy's locker room?

Part-time gay porn star Stephen Geoffreys plays teenage Hoax Wilmoth: a good Christian, lover of spiders, and all around mama's boy. Besides appearing completely, totally socially inept, he's seriously in the running for stupidest character name in any movie ever.

Hoax lives with his single mother, played by Sandy Dennis with giant hair, too many cats to count, and furniture covered in plastic. The house is covered in religious icons, and televangelists constantly blare from the TV. At first, I thought she was supposed to be a caricature, but I came to realize they were playing this straight. Surely, this makes her appear more buffoonish than she already seems, and the old "religion is bad" cliché was long since worn out by 1989. Next door is cousin Spike, a bad boy with a motorcycle and a gambling problem.

Spike is due to inherit some money when he comes of age, but in the meantime, his Aunt Lucy refuses to give him any cash. After all, his momma did a horrible job raising him, what with his affection for bad girls and rockabilly music. But Spike is not above breaking in and stealing the occasional wad of cash from Aunt Lucy and Hoax. One night when Lucy catches Spike in the act, her sermon on the Eighth Commandment is interrupted when it starts raining fish.

Now, it's pretty clear Hoax has something of a crush on Spike, who's a Peter Berg look-alike in a world that has no need for a Peter Berg look-alike. Hoax follows him around at school, spies on him having sex, and sends him notes through the vacuum tube system they've installed between the houses (don't ask me to explain that one because I just don’t know). When Spike isn't around, Hoax sneaks into his place and steals his girlfriend's underwear. Otherwise Hoax spends his free time crashing his scooter or being assaulted in the boy's room by Spike's gambling buddies.

When word gets out about the rain of fish, Marty Palmer (Jim Metzler) shows up to interview Lucy. Palmer is either a reporter posing as a private eye, or a private eye posing as a reporter. It doesn’t make sense that a reporter would pose as a P.I. anymore than a P.I. would investigate fish falling from the sky, or why either would be hanging around the boy's locker room. What purpose he does serve is to provide some expository moments (i.e. padding) later in the film. Also, near the end he abruptly acquires a girlfriend, for the sole purpose that she can be put in peril. Of course, there is no emotional investment in that character, so you really don’t care when she stumbles into danger. Not to mention, despite appearances to the contrary, she's not very smart. I mean, if you walk into a house and it's snowing inside, just stop, turn around and go home. Assume that some freaky shit is going on and you don't want any part of it.

But I am getting ahead of myself...

Spike finds a flyer for a horoscope 976 number mysteriously tucked into his pocket. (Remember that, the whole evil phone number plot of the title? Yeah, it actually plays only a small part in the film.) He begins calling the number regularly and is offered up kindly advice in a voice that sounds vaguely like Mr. Burns, mostly suggesting he steal. When Spike chickens out of shoplifting a pair of motorcycle gloves, the 976 number starts calling him, sort of like a satanic telemarketer. (Yes, I know that's redundant.) When the voice can't coax him to steal, it warns him against crossing the street without looking both ways. Moments later Spike is nearly run down by a black car with tinted windows. Luckily Palmer tackles him and knocks him out of harm's way. Palmer seems more stalker than reporter/P.I. but he does save a couple lives, so he earns his keep, I guess.

While snooping at Spike's place, Hoax discovers the flyer and calls 976-EVIL for his horoscope (or "horrorscope" as it reads). "Your problem's not nearly as bad as it seems, just take in a late show and meet the girl of your dreams." And off Hoax heads to El Diablo Theatre where he meets up with Spike's girlfriend Suzie. Spike has ditched her to play poker, and she's none too happy about it. But Hoax and her hit it off immediately; it seems the horoscope was right. But their little date is interrupted by the poker gang who rough up Hoax, as is the custom. During the ruckus, Suzie's underwear falls from Hoax's pocket and she realizes he's a jerk like every other guy she knows.

Heartbroken and dejected, Hoax calls the 976 number looking for more advice. What's he get? Detailed plans on getting his revenge: Specifically how to make hundreds of venomous spiders pop out of her TV dinner. Actually, what Hoax is told is "small circle of salt and star within, adding an insect will punish her sin." Hoax is intuitive enough to figure out how this poem translates into a black magic curse, which I guess makes him some sort of idiot savant of the dark arts.

Hoax immediately regrets his actions as the spiders overwhelm Suzie and bite her to death. He only wanted to scare her, but you know what? Everyone says that when they accidentally kill a young girl, and it's rarely true. This pisses off Spike, and Palmer gets a little curious about the 976 number, but otherwise, no one seems to notice she's dead.

Palmer heads down to After Dark Enterprises, proprietor of the 976 line, and meets with manager Mark Dark. He finds nothing out of the ordinary, thus proving he's worthless as both a P.I. and a reporter. Dark shows Palmer the automated horoscope machine and tells him it's been shut off for months. Cue ominous music. I'm not sure why everyone in this movie is willing to show Palmer just about anything he asks, but it sure is helpful.

Later that night when Hoax returns home his mother is waiting there, phone bill in hand with more than a few stern words for him. Now, mind you, this is the day after Hoax first called the 976 number, meaning the phone company here has the most efficient and speedy billing you'll ever see. Lucy confiscates his phone, though she places the blame squarely on Spike's head for leading her poor son astray.

Phone bill notwithstanding, Hoax’' deal with the devil isn't without its price. No, Hoax is starting to turn, to mutate, into a demon of some sort. That is, his hair starts to fall out, his skin gets leathery and he grows some very useful claws. The next time he's harried in the john, Hoax slashes one of the hood's faces and warns him worse will happen if they ever touch him again.

Back at home, Hoax reclaims his phone, telling his mother if she values her life she'll leave him alone. Mom is shocked, clearly. What the devil has got into her son? Hoax dials up 976-EVIL where he is urged to "Take it... [not the last time Geoffreys would hear those words, by the way] Take the power!" And so he does, thereby flashing blue and completing his transformation into what looks like a hellish cross between Michael Jackson and Gollum.

Meanwhile, across town, Palmer has broken into After Dark Enterprises for some reason. He's even brought along his new girlfriend. Apparently when she's not busy with her work as principal of the high school, she likes to go on burglaries with her P.I./reporter boyfriend. Palmer discovers that Mark Dark has lied, and the 976-EVIL service is still in business. Overhearing Hoax's voice on the machine, Palmer somehow recognizes him, despite having never actually spoken to him. Palmer and Girlfriend rush to find him.

Hoax himself has gone out, deciding to settle the score with the bullies who've tormented him. He finds them all playing strip poker. Having taken it, and turned into the Jackson/Gollum beast, Hoax is able to yank two of the boys' hearts out and fling them at the others. Another boy is impaled on a neon pitchfork, while the leader of the gang has his hand chopped off. And despite this being an R rated film, none of this is actually shown on screen. I'm not a fan of gore, but it’s just a shame when a modern horror film wimps out.

After running through the standard kicking-in-the-door-of-every-stall-in-the-restroom-til-I-find-you-hiding-in-the-last-one routine, Hoax kills the last of his tormentors (again, off screen) before heading home to mother. None too pleased with his insolence she threatens to go after him with a strap. Not a wise thing to say to a demon, as Hoax kills her and her parrot. He leaves the cats alone for some reason.

Palmer and Girlfriend arrive at Hoax’s, and Palmer manages to immediately knock himself out. Like most everything he does, it serves only to move the plot forward in the necessary direction. In this case, it allows Girlfriend the opportunity to stroll into the house alone. As I mentioned earlier, the interior of the house is now covered in blasphemous graffiti and blanketed in snow. And unlike an intelligent person, who'd likely say something along the lines of "fuck this" before turning right around and fleeing, she walks in as if it’s nothing but a little chilly.

This all leads to a final fight between Hoax and Spike, as the floor of the house caves in to reveal a bottomless pit, as if hell itself has frozen over and is reaching up through their basement. Hoax mumbles something about the apocalypse before Spike tries the old I-know-there's-still-some-good-in-you business, giving him the much needed edge to knock Hoax to his doom.

There follows one final twist after this featuring Mark Dark that leaves you scratching your head more than anything. It's a sort of "Huh?" moment that attempts to be spooky and ends up being rather dumb.

Not long after this, Geoffreys's career in Hollywood stalled. he then spent the better part of a decade working in gay porn. I've not actually seen of his adult oeuvre, and can't tell you what type of roles he played, if you know what I mean. It seems of late, he's been appearing in the occasional mainstream horror flick. It's nice to know he's found his place, once again, in the horror genre playing the quirky, offbeat characters he was known for.

Directed by Robert Englund • R • 1989 • 92 minutes

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