Monday, August 13, 2018

"My Two Best Friends Have Been Killed, I Think By a Telephone" - Dial: Help (1988)

Ruggero Deodato is celebrated for many of the films he has directed, not to mention his cameo in Hostel: Part II, but one of his finest achievements is the stylish supernatural giallo Dial: Help (1988), also known by its Italian title Minaccia d'amore ("Threat of Love").

Some reviewers in your universe disagree that Dial: Help is one of Deodato's greatest works. For example, HumanoidOfFlesh writes, "The script by Franco Ferrini is ridiculous and it makes no sense,the acting is bad and there is absolutely no suspense." Michael A. Martinez writes, "It is truly saddening to see a once-great director such as Deodato delivering such a second-rate giallo such as this. This movie was so terrible it effectively put an end to his movie career." Reviewer davelawrence666 writes, "This film is embarassing....Definitely the lowest point in Ruggero's career."

The film begins suspensefully with a young woman, Jenny Cooper, a successful British model in Italy, walking through a city who tries unsuccessfully to make a call in several phone booths while the opening song on the soundtrack sings “Baby, don’t answer the telephone!”

Here are just some of the lyrics of the song:

“Leave a message with me, my dear
You’re never gonna feel alone.
Don’t you worry and have a fear
Just pick up your telephone

Baby, don’t answer
Baby, don’t answer the telephone
Baby, don’t answer
Baby, you don’t answer the telephone.

No one’s safe in their solitude.
You can’t even stay at home.
Danger lurking everywhere.
Even on your telephone.”

The song is both suspenseful and dramatic, as it tells us both to pick up our telephone and not to answer our telephone. Perhaps the only solution is to solely make outgoing phone calls.

Jenny continues trying to place calls to someone named Marco, but she is startled by a rat in a bar, which somehow causes her to hang up. She dials again and, in a gorgeous shot, the camera pulls away from the building she is in to the big castle next door, inside of which a phone rings.

The phone continues to ring as we watch an elderly cleaning woman, dressed exactly like Carol Burnett’s character, unlocks a door and eventually answers the phone.

Unfortunately for the woman, she is immediately strangled by the phone cord. She dies in the dusty, pigeon-filled room while supernatural events occur, such as the ceiling fan spinning slightly more quickly than expected and a sink filling with blood and falling off the wall.

Of course, Jenny is not witness to what happens on the other side of the telephone line, so she returns to her apartment, where a handsome new neighbor, Riccardo, is moving in next door. She lets the neighbor into her apartment to drink champagne, showing him her vast collection of perfectly normal photographs of eyes (though she does not show him the enormous fish tank and mannequin in her bedroom).

Her black, square Giorgio Armani phone rings and she answers it. The voice on the other end mumbles and breathes deeply. She hangs up and plays back her messages, one of which is wordlessly confusing and chaotic, possibly the result of what would now be called a “butt-dial.”

At a party with funky live music, Jenny tells her friend/agent that Marco is playing hard-to-get. Her friend wants her to ignore Marco. She tells Jenny to imagine Marco is “wearing a Donald Duck life belt in a pool.”

Her friend also convinces Jenny to attract the attention of a powerful publisher by standing on the stage and dancing extremely awkwardly, but the ploy is not immediately successful. Jenny decides to go home, but coincidentally there is a phone call for her at the coat check booth; she answers it and hears an electronic sound, then a mirror next to her shatters suddenly.

Another of Jenny’s friends, the keyboard player for the live band as well as, coincidentally, a telephone company worker, tells Jenny, “Everything’s possible in this world we live in.” He adds, “You’ve got to be a philosopher working underground all day for the telephone company and all night with the band at the keyboards. It’s the same underground culture, the same energy!”

Back home, Jenny gets another phone call. The man on the other end says, “It’s me, my love,” but it is not her Marco. But the next time the phone rings, the rings somehow kill all the fish in her enormous fish tank.

Of course, in response to the dead fish, Jenny rings her neighbor Riccardo’s doorbell. “I feel kind of frightened,” she says. “Would you mind coming and having a drink with me for just a little while.” In her apartment, he tells her he is a graduate student specializing in angels in Renaissance paintings.

“What about bad angels? Do they exist?” Jenny asks.

“I have never come across any,” replies her neighbor.

Of course, Jenny trusts the neighbor she just met enough to ask him to spend the night while she sleeps. As soon as she falls asleep, he picks up her phone and is immediately hypnotized by its blinking yellow light. In a trance, he walks out on Jenny’s balcony a la Cesare the somnambulist, after having taken off his shirt for unknown reasons. This is intercut with shots of the mysterious room from earlier, where the fan is spinning out of control.

Just as Riccardo is about to step off the balcony to his death, Jenny grabs his pants, pulls him back onto the balcony, and slaps him repeatedly about the face. “Why? Are you crazy?” she shouts.

The next day, Jenny’s philosophical phone company friend investigates the switchboard in her building, not noticing the pulsing red light hidden inside. He brings a new phone to her apartment, telling her that unlike her rectangular Giorgio Armani model, “This phone is about as square as you can get. Totally unthrilling. Boring. Guaranteed one hundred percent harmless.”

A photo shoot where Jenny models provides a tense suspense sequence as, unbeknownst to Jenny and the photographer, the telephone in the room levitates and hovers to a new position, all of which is shown, brilliantly, by a shot from the phone’s point of view.

During a break, Jenny asks, “Where’s the phone?” She finds it underneath a table. She decides not to make her phone call.

Later, her phone company friend is still on the case. He calls her from another switchboard. “I’ve got a report that there’s an energy that cannot be explained in any way. And to top it all, there’s a million voices on the line.”

In the mysterious room, the fan spins again, and dozens of answering machines play back dozens of conversations.

For some reason, Jenny hails a cab to rush to the switchboard. Claudio Simonetti’s music kicks in and we see the mysterious room going crazy, with smoke blasting from the fan. Jenny runs through the subway station to find her friend. She is also chased by somebody that looks like Zombie Bronson Pinchot.

She finds the spacious switchboard, where electrical sparks are shooting everywhere. Her friend has been electrocuted. Worse, Zombie Bronson Pinchot attacks her with a used hypodermic from a trash can. She is rescued by a friendly pay phone, which shoots coins from its coin slot at such velocity that they slice through Zombie Bronson Pinchot’s body.

Jenny reaches a subway car but it traps her. The speakers on the empty subway train say, “Come back to us, Jenny.”

She manages to escape and tell her story to a policeman in a box in a plaza. She says, “My two best friends have been killed, I think by a telephone.” She adds, “I think the telephone wants to kill me.”

The policeman retorts, quite intelligently, “And what about the toaster? And the vacuum cleaner?”

Back at her apartment, Jenny realizes that a mysterious force is protecting her by moving from phone to phone. “It wants to possess me,” she says.

In her friend the photographer’s spectacular photo studio/loft, we watch from the phone’s point of view as it stalks the photographer. The phone only approaches her, waiting to strangle her offscreen.

The next day, Jenny, alone in her apartment, has an erotic interlude with her telephone—a common occurrence, of course, but one rarely depicted in films.

The phone-related coincidences continue. When Jenny goes to the photographer’s studio/loft, she finds that her friend has been murdered by a phone cord, and Jenny herself is attacked by yet another telephone. Then she goes to a park, where she is startled where a small boy shoves a telephone into her face for no reason. Of course, she gives the little boy a kiss on the cheek.

Riccardo finds a professor who understands mysterious energy. “He’s been studying this kind of phenomena for twenty years. I read about a case where a couple were always fighting and he managed to determine the amount of negative energy accumulated. Now, it caused their houseplants to die. He says that these dormant energies are stored up in a kind of a dam, and when it breaks, it destroys everything in its path.”

“Then I’m probably under one of these dams,” Jenny reasons.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” Riccardo says.

Though Riccardo’s understanding of the scientific principles is flawless, he and Jenny chase the professor to the airport, stopping him at the security checkpoint. Riccardo explains the problem and the professor replies, “The energies of love and hate circulate throughout the universe. Under the right conditions, they condense and concentrate themselves, sometimes in a given room, and these deposits of energy seek a way out. They can be so powerful as to magnetize, seduce the person who’s liberated them, and sow death.”

Despite the professor’s odd uses of the words “given” and “sow,” he is clearly correct. Jenny is summoned to a telephone by a loudspeaker saying she has an urgent message, and when she picks up the phone, the professor falls to the ground. His heart explodes out of his chest.

Back in her apartment, which features a Union Jack comforter, Jenny plugs in a purple phone to listen to an answering machine message from Carlo. She slowly puts on black lingerie.

Then, of course, she climbs into a bathtub full of green water and caresses herself, her eyes closed. Fortunately, Riccardo interrupts her reverie by knocking on the door, breaking her out of her trance just before the purple telephone flies across two rooms and into the tub, which causes the full bathtub to catch on fire. Riccardo takes her out to the balcony, then returns to the apartment to rescue a dog, which we have never seen before, from the fire.

Riccardo’s absence gives the telephone in another room the chance to string Jenny up from the ceiling, but Riccardo easily pulls her down.

The entire building burns down. A fireman says, “That was a big fire up there” before he propositions Jenny.

For relaxation, Jenny and Riccardo visit a flute bar (not a euphemism) with the newly introduced (but never seen again) dog.

The bartender gets a phone call and relays the message to Jenny: You have to start at the beginning, where you first met. She drags Riccardo out of the bar and they drive through the rain to an alley. She gets out of the car and walks through the rain while, for some reason, Riccardo follows her in the car. She hears a phone ringing and goes back to the bar where she was startled by a rat at the beginning of the film. She picks up the phone.

“Jenny,” the voice on the other end says, “I’m waiting for you. We’re all waiting for you.”

“Where should I go?”

“My heart’s right outside, across the square from where you are.”

She goes outside and finds out what he’s talking about on a poster pasted to a door. “Lonely? Suicidal? Trust your heart to us,” she reads. There is a phone number but the last number is missing. She and Riccardo return to the bar to dial the number, adding 0 to 9 for the last number.

While Riccardo dials, Jenny goes into another building and finds the mysterious room. A phone rings and the receiver picks itself up. Tape reels begin playing. She is startled by a body in a cabinet.

She is tied down by audiotape while the spinning ceiling fan drops down near her. Riccardo finds her and rescues her as she is about to be cut by a pair of scissors.

Of course, as soon as they escape, Jenny finds a phone booth and tries to dial the number, but coincidentally the phone booth sinks down into the ground, landing in the sewer.

“Everything’s okay,” she says to Riccardo. She dials the number. She says into the phone, “It’s me. Jenny. I love you. I love you all. I want you to be free. Goodbye.”

“Thank you, Jenny,” is the response.

They climb back up to the street, where they see all the pigeons from the mysterious room flying out the window, finally free.

In the coda, Marco finally calls Jenny but she says she’s busy, as she has started a relationship with Riccardo. She gives him her new number, which, comedically and frighteningly, is the number of the mysterious room.

Out of all the movies where the protagonist's main goal is to let pigeons go free, Dial: Help is the most thrilling and stylish. On top of all the thrills and chills, it is highly educational about Italy. For example, from this film one learns that policemen live in boxes in the centers of piazzas, that phone booths are much less stable than they appear (similar to those in San Dimas, California), and that negative energy from domestic disputes builds up until it causes telephones to both murder and seduce innocent people.

It must be said that there are few movies that feature as many supernatural events as Dial: Help, and this is the primary achievement of director Ruggero Deodato and particularly Franco Ferrini, who receives story credit on this film. The prolific Ferrini wrote classic screenplays for Dario Argento (Phenomena, Opera, Trauma, The Stendhal Syndrome) as well as Lamberto Bava (Demons, Demons 2) and Michele Soavi (The Church). His collaboration with Deodata is no less effective than his collaborations with these other masters, but Dial: Help is perhaps his most supernatural story. Nearly every scene includes a frightening supernatural event, from the shots of telephones levitating through the air or the murder sequences in which victims are killed by phone cords, coins, or pacemakers.

Although the best films need no rational explanations, of course, I will attempt to give my interpretation of the story of Dial: Help. Sometime in the past, an Italian dating service built on telephone answering machine technology recorded messages from interested romantic partners. Unfortunately, somebody, perhaps the cleaning lady from the beginning of the film, intercepted the messages and killed all the lonely hearts company's clients, the result being, of course, that the clients' souls were trapped in the bodies of the pigeons that frequented the office. Later, when Jenny was trying to call her boyfriend Marco, she inadvertently dialed the number of the lonely hearts service, which unleashed both the wrath and the lust of the telephone answering machines, which had gained a kind of sentience due to being placed so close together. The consciousness of the answering machines waited for Jenny to acknowledge it/them and tell it/them she loved it/them, thus providing closure and allowing the consciousness to release the pigeons back into the world.

I might not have the story completely correct, but I'm certain I am close. In any case, understanding of the details and nuances of the story is not necessary to enjoy the delights of Dial: Help. One needs only to sit back, relax, and watch the jealous telephones kill everyone in sight.