Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Murder By Phone aka Bells (1982)

The central idea behind Murder By Phone is a pretty cool one - a disgruntled phone company employee develops a system that allows him to kill people who have wronged him over the phonelines. Sounds great, right? Alas, MBP had a few too many problems to win me over.

I'd never heard of MBP until I came it across on IMDB, and I was pretty excited to check it out. The movie opens strongly - a girl is killed in a subway while on a payphone in a fairly tense scene, and only a few minutes later a bigshot executive is flung out of his office window in a similar attack. I was digging the movie 100% at this point, but unfortunately it slowly fell out of my favour over the next 90 minutes. The key word here, by the way, is slowly. Rather than follow the mood of the opening scenes, MBP settles into a kind of thriller/drama, whereby lead bearded guy Nat Bridger embarks on a quest to figure out the identity of the murderer by quizzing phone company execs and sneaking into the phone company offices to look at circuit diagrams. Which is about as exciting as it sounds, I'm afraid.

The thing is, this still could have worked very well if the movie had been paced properly, but for me there's just too much talking about nothing in this movie. None of the characters are all that believable, and their relationships with eachother just don't seem at all credible. Nat and his supposed longtime friend Markowitz seem as if they've only met for the first time, and there's virtually no chemistry between Nat and his love interest Ridley, their romance appearing to come out of nowhere halfway through the film. There's also a weird attempt to create some kind of "buddy" dynamic between Nat and a local cop towards the end of movie, which feels totally unnatural. I know this all seems a bit harsh, but if a movie chooses to go for a more dramatic approach, it has to have well-developed characters and decent performances to back it up. And what's even weirder is that the movie seems to constantly shift between a straight dramatic thriller and schlocky horror movie - the shift occcuring any time the murderer strikes, basically. Speaking of which, more or less every death scene is identical, which gets old very fast.

I was really surprised to find that MBP was directed by Michael Anderson of Logan's Run fame - LR being one of my favourite sci-fi movies - as the whole thing is pretty flat and unexciting, and feels very much like a cheap TV movie. The performances are mostly stiff and lazy; Richard Chamberlain adopts William Shatner approach as Nat for most of the movie, furrowing his brow and pausing for effect every chance he can get. The only actor that shows any interest whatsoever is Sara Botsford as Ridley, but the stale dialogue doesn't really give her many chances to show what she's made of.

MBP isn't totally awful I guess, as it does create a fairly tense atmosphere at times, and there are some decent ideas in there. I like the "feel" of the movie too - I saw it being compared to Scanners somewhere and I can definitely see some similarities. It's just a pity that it doesn't deliver on the promise of the opening scenes. There is one thing that saves the movie - an unbelievably cheesy closing shot that actually totally caught me off guard and genuinely made me laugh out loud. I don't want to spoil it for anyone, but if you do see this movie, just make sure to hang around for that final shot - it'll make up for the boredom of the previous 90 minutes.

On the other hand, if you don't mind spoilers, have a go of this video.

MURDER BY PHONE by everythingisterrible


  1. The uncut version titled BELLS (only released uncut in Japan, parts of Asia & Eastern Europe) is a lot better. The Canadian, US and UK Murder by phone prints fall a little flat.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Do you know if the Spanish release title Bells is Uncut?. Thanks


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